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Thayer Award 2004 Robert Dole Article

Last week, on Wednesday, 29 September 2004, the West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award was presented to an "old soldier," Senator Robert Dole. It was a cool, somewhat overcast, breezy day, unlike many previous Thayer Award days that tended toward the sunny, hot and humid.

The schedule remained the same as in the past: reception at the West Point Club for the recipient and family, movement to The Plain for the Cadet Review, dinner in Washington Hall, and a special reception following at the Superintendent's quarters. There were, however, some major changes in execution. Senator Dole was unable to fly into Stewart Field until late in the afternoon, so he was unable to attend the reception. Nor was his spouse, the other Senator Dole, able to attend at all because of commitments related to her office. In deference to his physical condition, Senator Dole chose to sit in the Superintendent's box during the entire ceremony and was not required to troop the line in a jeep. Nor did his schedule permit him to attend the traditional by-invitation reception at Quarters 100 following the dinner.

Nevertheless, none of these departures from the traditional award ceremonies diminished the occasion in the least. Nor could the fact that merely gaining access to Washington became somewhat of a challenge. The entire newer front half of Washington Hall was cocooned in canvas for renovations that forced all to enter via the sally ports to the "old" half of the mess hall. This portion already had been renovated and sported brilliant reds on the ceiling of the old regimental wings and dark wood beams, except for the blue ceiling with white beams of the center wing where the Corps Squad teams congregated in an earlier day.

One could tell that this would be a memorable evening as soon as the pass in review was completed and Senator Dole joined the reviewing party and brigade staff for photographs. He clearly was in his element, shaking hands, speaking with the young cadets, making jokes and comments. The warmth carried on over to the rest of the evening. To the delight of the cadets, Senator broke off from the official party to visit with many of them at their tables after he entered the mess hall, again shaking hands, making humorous comments, and chatting along the way.

Senator Dole had a prepared speech, but he used very little of it. Instead, his comments digressed on a number of subjects. He joked about appearing in various advertisements on television, and he waxed humorously about raising money for the National World War II Memorial. He said that before calling to thank a donor who had sent in a check for $1 million, he deposited the check first. The Senator said he learned that from being a politician. He even made himself the butt of a joke about how someone from the Clinton campaign changed his bumper sticker that read "Dole in '96" to "Dole IS 96." He noted the irony of a Kansan ("not many Kansans ski") being assigned to the 10th Mountain Division and warned of both the dangers of a lieutenant with a map and bullets marked not with your name but addressed simply "To whom it may concern."

He told of how he was wounded while attacking a hill in Italy as an infantry platoon leader not that long out of Officer Candidate School. He spoke of receiving machine gun fire from the left flank that struck his platoon runner and his efforts to crawl forward to help the wounded soldier. Soon, Dole himself was a casualty, struck in the shoulder and back, and it would be nine hours before he could be evacuated to medical facilities.

He also noted that when he was in college before the war, a professor had suggested he stop wasting time and join the Army instead-so he did. He praised the medical personnel who encouraged him to accept his later physical condition and continue on with his life. And he also noted that, upon his return to school after rehabilitation, he was unable to write and had to use a primitive recording machine during the lectures. As a result, he had the best notes in his class-thus making him very popular around exam time.

He also commented seriously upon his work as the national chairman of the recently dedicated National World War II Monument in Washington, DC. Drawing upon the phrase applied to his wartime generation, he said that the current "greatest generation" is now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Soon the dinner and speeches were over, the Alma Mater was sung, the final benediction given, guests spilled out into the cool, evening air, and the cadets returned to their barracks. As they departed the mess hall, the cadets were not talking about sports, homework or the next big paper due. Instead, they were talking about Senator Dole and his speech. The 2004 West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award recipient may not have been able to attend the various receptions or troop the line, but his words had struck a chord with the Corps. And then the "old soldier," senator, and presidential candidate departed West Point without further ado.

Your humble servant,
J. Phoenix, Esquire

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