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Class Notes

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 Thursday, 29 September 2007

Thayer Award 2007

It was a beautiful, almost fall day at West Point last Thursday, 20 September 2007.  The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the light falling on The Plain during the brigade review had the golden hue typical of late summer afternoons at our rockbound highland home. The heat of the previous few days had relented, along with the high humidity, producing a near-perfect day.  The schedule for the presentation of the 50th West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award had unfolded as planned, with the 2007 awardee, GEN Frederick Kroesen, and his wife Rowene enjoying various visits and briefings, culminating in the now-traditional pre-parade reception in the ballroom of the West Point Club.

The first Thayer Award was presented on 21 March 1958 to Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence.  Because the presentation was scheduled to coincide with the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the MilitaryAcademy, a major blizzard prevented President Eisenhower ‘15 from attending, although he had planned to do so.  Awards to John Foster Dulles, Henry Cabot Lodge, Dwight David Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur ‘03 in the following years, and all subsequent awards, now are made during the more clement weather, in the spring or fall. Over the course of almost a half century, recipients have included Francis Cardinal Spellman, Bob Hope, Neil A. Armstrong, Billy Graham, Omar N. Bradley ‘15, Clare Boothe Luce, James H. Doolittle, Edward Teller, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Barbara Jordan, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Sandra Day O’Connor, Daniel K. Inouye and The American Soldier (during our Bicentennial in 2002).

The genesis of the West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award was a recommendation made by the Class of 1931 at their 25th Reunion in 1956.  The Class, accepting a suggestion from their Washington, DC, contingent, recommended the establishment of an annual award to a prominent citizen who embodied the principles of Duty, Honor, Country.  LTG Willis D. Crittenberger ’13, Association president at the time, appointed a committee to review the recommendation, and the award became a reality.  The Class of 1931 contributed $500 to defray the cost of the first medal, and Mrs. Laura Gardin Fraser, a distinguished sculptor and medalist, was chosen to design it.  Earlier, she had won the design contest for the West Point Sesquicentennial Medal and had assisted her late sculptor husband, James Earle Fraser, with the Patton statue. General of the Army Omar N. Bradley was on the first nominating committee for the Thayer Award, along with GEN Lucius D. Clay, June ’18, and GEN Alfred M. Gruenther ’19, among others.

The 2007 recipient, GEN Kroesen, is an excellent choice.  Unable to obtain an appointment to West Point in the years preceding World War II, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps at RutgersUniversity.  When that program was terminated due to wartime requirements, he was called to active duty as an enlisted man and subsequently attended OfficerCandidateSchool, receiving a commission as a second lieutenant of Infantry.  He proudly wears the Combat Infantryman Badge with two stars, signifying awards for combat service as a platoon leader in the 63rd Division in World War II, a battalion commander in the 187th Regimental Combat Team in Korea, and a brigade commander of the Americal Division in Viet Nam.  He later commanded the Americal Division in during his second tour in Southeast Asia.  More significantly, he also wears the Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters, testimony to his having been wounded in each of those combat assignments as well.  In fact, he should have a third cluster to his Purple Heart for injuries received in the Cold War, when terrorists of The Red Army Faction attempted to assassinate him and his wife of 61 years in Heidelberg, Germany, in September of 1981.

A soldiers’ general who has commanded at all levels from platoon upwards, GEN Kroesen spoke to the Corps of Cadets about the American Soldiers they soon will lead.  Calling to task those who question the quality of today’s American Soldiers, he opined that in struggles of mortal combat, Americans are more likely to survive to gain the upper hand, especially when initiative, ingenuity, quick reaction and low-level decision making is required. America’s leaders, however, must be confident that our Soldiers will continue to perform as well in the future as they have so many times in the past. He also commended the non-commissioned officer corps of the United States Army for creating self-confidence in the soldiers and small units that they train and recommended that all new lieutenants use the expertise of their sergeants. These professionals recognize that it is their job to make certain that their lieutenants succeed.  He related the story about the visit of a high-ranking former Soviet general officer to the United States after the Iron Curtain came down.  Given free access to many of our training sites and tours and demonstrations of some of our most sophisticated weapons systems, the Soviet general was asked what impressed him the most.  It was not our weapons or our high tech training simulations.  It was the NCOs who briefed him, conducted training and answered questions—even though he was convinced that they were officers wearing NCO uniforms.

After calling attention to the vast size and diversity of the Army in terms of weapons systems, equipment and training and educational opportunities, however, GEN Kroesen reminded the cadets that the Army is, unlike the Navy or the Air Force, first and foremost people, and these people require leadership to accomplish their missions.  This leadership can be summed up in one word: Confidence.  Soldiers must have confidence in themselves, because of the training they have received; confidence in their units as competent, effective teams; and confidence in their leaders.  He then ended his presentation by advising the cadets to find the right partner to share their life and asking his wife of over 60 years to stand and be recognized.

As a soldiers’ general, he gave our young cadets, many of whom soon will be in harm’s way, some excellent advice, both professional and personal.

Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire

Please forward guest articles, comments and suggestions for future topics to mailto:JPhoenix@wpaog.org