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Thayer Award 2006 Tom Brokaw Article

It was one of those beautiful, pre-autumn afternoons at West Point: sunny, temperature in the seventies, and some slight changing of color in the leaves of the trees along the Hudson River. In just over 24 hours, autumn officially would arrive. At 3:15 on the afternoon of 21 September 2006, however, guests began arriving at the West Point Club for the reception in honor of this year’s West Point Sylvanus Thayer Award recipient, retired journalist and TV anchorman, Tom Brokaw, and his wife. The crowd was larger than usual to meet and greet only the second journalist to receive the Thayer medal, Walter Cronkite having been the first in 1997. Brokaw is a rather big man, a “flanker,” and he stood at least a head taller than most of those milling about him at the reception. Then he was spirited away to a news conference in an upstairs room of the club, where he observed that relations between the military and the media, strained during and after the Viet Nam War, were improving considerably.

After the crowd of guests moved to the Plain, the Corps of Cadets conducted a full brigade review, and Brokaw, accompanied by the Superintendent and the Cadet First Captain, inspected the assembled Corps by jeep. After posing for countless photographs upon the completion of the ceremony, the honoree was then spirited away to Quarters 100 while the Corps and guests assembled in Washington Hall for dinner. This was LTG Hagenbeck’s first Thayer Award ceremony as Superintendent, and he did the honors of introducing the recipient, citing his many accomplishments reporting both domestic politics and international events.

Brokaw began his remarks with some well-received jibes at Navy and Air Force. He said that he had to remember that he was at West Point, not at Annapolis, since if he were speaking to the middies he would have to speak slowly and use smaller words. For the Air Force Academy, he would have to be out of shape. Then he introduced a member of The Greatest Generation who was a guest of honor at the day’s events, attorney Leonard Lomell. As a member of the 2nd Ranger battalion, “Rudder’s Rangers,” and acting platoon leader, Lomell climbed the Pointe du Hoc on D-Day, even though wounded, and then moved inland to find and destroy the artillery pieces that were not in their expected location in the emplacements atop the Pointe. Ironically, the guns had been in their alternate location for a long time, untouched by the pre-invasion bombardment, and were aimed towards Utah Beach rather than Omaha Beach. Lomell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart.

As the author of The Greatest Generation and The Greatest Generation Speaks, Brokaw established one of his major themes: that the Americans who left their families and jobs to serve in World War II made great sacrifices, just as today’s cadets are doing. Thus, the Greatest Generation is, in some ways, part of today’s Long Gray Line, and today’s cadets are a continuation of that greatness. In a war against a misguided and tenacious enemy such as we face today, we cannot rely solely upon America’s volunteer military. All Americans must play a role. “In a way, we are all in the Army now.”

Then he voiced a second theme: the common bonds among soldiers and journalists. “Warriors and journalists come from the same gene pool. We both like to catch the bad guys.” Now that technology allows reporting in real time, reporters and the military must work together to inform the public without interfering with military operations. Common ground rules and a common understanding have to be established. “That almost always happens on the battlefield.” He then emphasized that “They’re boots-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt, living-in-scary-places kind of people. That’s what motivates them. And they’re patriots.” He also noted that 78 journalists have died while covering the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thomas John Brokaw was born in Webster, SD, on 6 February 1940, attended the University of Iowa for a year before transferring to University of South Dakota to study political science and work as a radio reporter. Upon graduation in 1962, he married Meredith Lynn Auld, a former Miss South Dakota. He began his television career in Sioux City, IA, eventually joining NBC News in 1966, reporting from California. In 1973, he became an NBC White House correspondent for three years and covered the Watergate Scandal. In 1976 he began hosting the NBC Today Show, moving to co-anchor, with Roger Mudd, of the NBC Nightly News in 1981. He became the show’s sole anchor in 1983, reporting from locations around the globe. On 1 December 2004, Brokaw retired.

Upon completion of his remarks, the Thayer medallion was presented to Brokaw by LTG (Ret.) Stroup, Chairman of the Association of Graduates, and LTG Hagenbeck. Immediately afterwards, the Cadet First Captain presented a cadet saber on behalf of the Corps of Cadets. Brokaw then returned to the microphone to offer one final exhortation: Beat Baylor! [And we did, 27-20.] The evening concluded with a final benediction, the singing of the Alma Mater by the Cadet Glee Club, and the departure of the official party. While the cadets returned to the barracks to study for their next day’s classes, the guests descended the steps of Washington Hall into a pleasantly chilly evening. Many stopped in small groups to catch up with classmates and old friends, enjoy the serenity of The Plain and the Hudson River in the distance, and comment upon the rapid progress of the construction of the new cadet library, Jefferson Hall. Its infrastructure, in places, now reached to the second storey level. All in all, it was a good night, and a very good night to be at West Point.

Your humble servant,
J. Phoenix, Esquire

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

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