Here is an email I got from a 60-year old who read my “Should You Go To, or Stay At, West Point?” article and discussed it with a 16-year-old who may apply to West Point.
I recently met a16-year-old who wants to go to West Point, along with his best friend. He seemed like an intelligent kid. I was sitting next to him at a group breakfast for my local Buddhist church. I had noticed your West Point article but had never read it. I suggested he might find it valuable, as he would get different info than from official West Point sites and brochures.
Since I recommended your article, I decided I had better read it. All 123 (my God !) pages if printed out. It made me even more thankful I decided NOT to attend the Air Force Academy in 1971.
I saw this young man again at the following month's group breakfast. His parents were not present. Here is the essence of the conversation, paraphrased a bit, as I do not remember verbatim the phraseology currently in use by 16-year-olds.
"Did you read Mr. Reed's West Point pages?"
"Some of it....it was really long."
"What was your reaction?"
"He goes on and on and on, the way really old guys do, with about 100 reasons the Army and West Point sucks"
"Any of those 100 reasons make any sense to you?"
"Maybe a couple. I don't remember which ones. Mostly he goes on and on about stuff that me and my friend don't care about."
Huh? I was taken aback. I had just read your pages and found them compelling!
I talked with this potential West Point plebe for a bit more. I hoped to be able to convey to him what I felt were your compelling points.
We talked about why he was excited about West Point and the Army, what was exciting about it, what seemed un-exciting, etc. It was all the standard stuff. Pride. Proving myself to myself. Becoming one of the few the proud. A good education for free. Leadership. Write your own ticket. Duty Honor Country. The glory and excitement of combat. Doing something worthwhile. Joining the elite. Swampcraft. Night vision goggles. Machine guns. Jumping out of airplanes. Etc, etc, etc.
It slowly dawned on me that almost everything in your article is from the perspective of a 60 year old guy (that's you and me) looking back, and not from a perspective that makes any sense to a 16-year-old.
I realized that your writing about the downsides of West Point, the Army, and Vietnam to a current 16 year old would have essentially the same impact as one of my grandfather's buddies criticizing West Point, the Army, and World War I when I was 16. That is, it was SO LONG AGO and from somebody SO OLD from a 16 year old's perspective as to be irrelevant ancient history.
Additionally, the downsides being talked about are so far into the future and require so much more future growing-up that to a 16-year-old they are unimaginable, or irrelevant, or have zero emotional impact, or all three.
I finally said: "Seems like you really want to go to West Point. Good for you. Many people are happy going to West Point and then spending 5 more years in the Army. You may be one of them. But here's the thing. Leave yourself a way out. Go to West Point. Tell yourself you will do whatever it takes to finish the first two years. Congratulations, you will have proven to yourself that you have what it takes. But then look at Mr. Reed's article again BEFORE you make a 7-year commitment of every aspect of your life from which there is no way out."
He nodded. Maybe I made an impact. I hope so. I never saw him again. I heard his family moved back East somewhere just after New Years.
This was the best I could do. That is, hope that this kid would be able to understand SOMETHING of what you are writing about AFTER he had actual West Point experience and 3 more years of growing up, but BEFORE he made a 7-year, all-aspects, irreversible decision.
Like I said, this is a sample of just one 16-year-old potential cadet. But it was a real eye-opener for me. I raised two daughters. I have no experience with how 16-year-old boys see the world and make decisions, other that what I recall about myself and my friends being 16 some 40 years ago. You, on the other hand, are an expert on 16 -year-old boys with huge recent experience. So I defer to your expertise on how to effectively get your points across to the "Should I go to West Point?" teenagers who may be reading your web site.
All the Best,
And here is my answer to the 60-year-old
Copyright John T. Reed
I am an expert on a number of fields, namely, real estate investment, football coaching, baseball coaching, self-publishing, succeeding, and just recently inflation and deflation. I am also an expert on imparting expertise to those who do not have it. One of the recurring phenomena I see is that people do not want to hear some of what I say and reject it. However, they remember. Then, when they start to make the mistake I warned them away from, they remember what I said. But they still reject it and violate my advice. Then they get burned as a result. Maybe twice. Then my advice kicks in. The guy who read it realizes it was correct after one or two first-hand experiences and he then accepts my advice and it becomes crystallized so he never violates it again in the future. In contrast, the guy who never read my book makes the mistake, sees it as a one-time exception to his self-generated, incorrect rule, and keeps on making the mistake, perhaps endlessly.
Most parents have told their kids not to touch a hot stove, but the kids still touch it. If the teaching has a result, it is not instant learning but just reduced number of reps needed because of the combination of the teaching and the pain.
In football coaching, I try to just tell the kid his responsibility and let him work it out for himself how to do it. I watch. If he does it “wrong,” I might offer a “tip” that might work for him (a.k.a. The correct technique I know as a coach).
It’s best if he figures it out for himself, but that often, or usually, takes too long. In some aspects of football (e.g., tackling technique, low defensive line charge, pursuit habits) I know from years of experience I have to brain wash and drill it into them from day one to have any hope of them doing it right by the first game. With regard to my article on West Point, I have no opportunity to drill. Bill Cosby wrote a book called Fatherhood. When asked to sum up fatherhood in onc sentence, he said,
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
In the case of my article, as opposed to fatherhood where you hae some control of the kid, I cannot even lead them to water.
With regard to the phrase that my West Point article is “about stuff that me and my friend don't care about,” I learned what 16-year-olds care about while coaching hundreds of them. Most care desperately about not tucking their shirt tails in. For athletic reasons, I ordered them to tuck their shirts in. The moment you turned your back, they would pull it out. They also care about girls. They are extremely eager to wear sleeveless skin-tight undershirts. They care a great deal about accessorizing their football uniforms with arm loops, horse collars, spats, wrist bands, eye black, eye-catching non-uniform socks, and so on. I prohibited all of that. I told them the word “uniform” was both a noun and an adjective.
With regard to shirt tails and girls, his 16-year-old friend should know that West Point is the “Tuck your shirt tail in” capital of the known universe—indeed we had to tuck it in using a neat freak technique called a “dress off,” which is a two-man operation when done properly.
And West Point is not the great place to meet chicks capital of the universe. On the contrary, it is hidden away in sparsely-populated mountains and there are six boys for every girl. A disproportionate number of the girls are recruited division I athletes hich may mean a body type not often seen in beauty pageants. Because of the ratio, even the less attractive are much sought after. The male cadets sometimes point out to the females that, when you leave West Point, “you go back to being ordinary looking.”
Some 16-year-olds are more mature and serious, but not many. So I’m not going to cry myself to sleep over a 16-year old saying I do not write about subjects that he and his friends care about. I’m not a big leave-the-shirt-tail-out freak and do not plan to become one to attract young teenage readers.
The problem in this case is the indentured servitude that kicks in at the beginning of junior year. And since West Point is pretty squared away, they are not likely to see as many of the things I complain about during those first two years. They will see them starting about a year after graduation, after Army training schools, when they get to their first units. But it will be too late for anything other than not making the Army a career when their five years are up. However, some of them will die in the line of duty before then. Oh, well, I tried.
I get emails from recent graduates. One, whom I quoted, expressed gratitude for the “God’s honest truth” about West Point and the Army coming from my articles and nowhere else. Others urge me to keep up the good work. Others decide not to go to West Point, quit West Point, or get out of the Army ASAP because of my articles in part. That’s about as good as you can expect in the how-to business. You can only coach the coachable and teach the teachable.
Some might advise me to try to write on a 16-year-old level. I coached a lot of high-school kids. You get nowhere trying to prove you are a senior citizen 16-year old. You just try to remember that you cannot use words and phrases that pre-date their lives—like “You guys looked like the Keystone Kops on that play!” “The what?” And you remember they have to make their own mistakes.
I think I speak for all 63-year-olds when I say that we are amazed with each passing year how little things change. Recent West Point graduates who communicate with me often express amazement at how little has changed in the Army from the experiences I describe from 40 years ago. 16-year-olds, on the other hand, think things have changed so much we 63-year olds know nothing relevant to their lives.
It is almost correct to say that we know everything about their future lives, including near future, and they know nothing about them. How would they they know? They have not done it and, as your conversation with one shows, many refuse to do the sort of homework that might educate them about their own futures.
If your 16-year old and I were watching TV footage of the Afghan war, I expect we might have a conversation like this.
16-year-old: See, everything’s different now from when you were in Vietnam.
Me: The shapes of the helmets are different.
16-year old: Did you have drones?
Me: Phantoms, Hueys, Cobras.
16-year-old: Drones have no pilots.
Me: I don’t think the North Vietnamese who were vaporized by Phantom rockets would make a distinction.
16-year-old: But you didn’t have IEDs then.
16-year-old: Those aren’t as deadly as IEDs.
Me: Tell that to the 58,000 guys whose names are on the Vietnam wall. Afghanistan war KIA are precisely as dead as Vietnam war KIA. IEDs are anti vehicle. In Vietnam, we walked.
16-year-old: Yeah, but you guys didn’t even have computers back then. It was a whole different world.
Me: We studied computers every year I was at West Point starting on the first day of school in September, 1964.
16-year-old: But the ones we have now are state of the art.
Me: So were ours.
16-year-old: You guys went on “dates.” We hook up.
Me: When we were in college, the grown-ups laughed at us for thinking we invented sex. Now you’re telling me your generation was actually the one that invented sex?
16-year-old: You guys liked “oldies” music. We listen to the stuf that wins Grammys.
Me: Your generation invented Grammys, too? What we listened to when we were your age was the top 40. They started handing out Grammys for the most popular songs when I was 12.
16-year-old: Well, my generation is gonna be the “can do” generation. How would you characterize yours?
Me: Have done.
I was a kid who generally figured the grown-ups knew better and tried their way first. Some of my readers are like that. Some of my football and baseball players were, too. As a result of your email, I will probably add some discussion suggesting that parents and grandparents read my article and use it to discuss the decision with the teenager.
As to the length, it started out as an exchange of emails between me and a cadet who later quit. From time to time, I think of another point to add or I receive a suggestion like yours or read something pertinent and I add it.
I have thought about turning it into a book called “Should you go to a service academy.” Unfortunately, that’s a rather small market and the market of people who want to be told “probably not” is tiny. The “Should you go to a service academy” book that will sell is the one that say, “Hell yes, it’s great!” in other words, tells them what they want to hear. Maybe I should write “Should you encourage your child or grandchild to go to a service academy?” I suspect all the parents and grandparents are somewhat concerned about such a choice and have very open minds about the info I provide. Many of them know how to communicate with their kids. Although in at least one case, the parents tried to tell the kid what I did but he did not believe it until I told him.
Then there is the part of me that says to your 16-year old, “If you get your advice on whether to go to West Point from teenagers who never went there or served in the Army, and you reject advice from a 63-year old who did, solely because of his age, and you are unwilling to put forth the effort to read 125-pages about this extremely important life decision, I have no interest in trying to help you.”
Ted Williams used to hold a summer baseball camp for kids. He said he would work individually with kids during the camp, but he deliberately scheduled that for when the camp had lots of fun stuff going on. When asked why, he said he only wanted to work with the motivated kids. Only a few ever showed up. So be it, he said. I feel the same toward your not-very-bright, not-very-motivated-to-learn-the-truth prospect. I’m here to help you, maybe save your life, for free, but only if you are interested. If you’re not, good luck. You’ll need it.
Reading my long article ought to be mandatory for WP prospects. Sort of like a disclosure-of-risks agreement in a dangerous sport like sky diving. But it never will be because it is consciously in the interest of the people who run West Point to keep desirable candidates ignorant so they can get more of them.
That’s criminal, but it’s also the way the government and military do things every day.
I am afraid some West Point lieutenant will find himself lying on the ground in Afghanistan, bleeding to death, unable to move, but able to see his whole life pass before him. (That really does happen. It happened to me once.) And part of his whole life that passes by his eyes will be my “Should you go to West Point?” article and one of his final thoughts will be, “Now I see what he was trying to tell us. Why was I so eager not to believe him?”
I may have already happened.
If age only could. If youth only knew.
[Reed note: I forwarded these emails to the 18-year-old who decided not to apply to West Point several years ago after reading this and other articles of mine. Here is his response and my reaction to it.]
I just finished reading the link you sent me and to be honest, I am a little perplexed. I had a totally different reaction [to the “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” article than the 16-year old]. When I was going through my “I have to go to West Point, it looks so awesome!” phase, I devoured any information available about the place, good or bad. In fact, I stumbled upon your website because I googled “information about West Point”. To me, the article you wrote was a gold mine. It was actually a nice change. I had clicked on the link expecting it to be just another, “West Point-Hooah!” type of article but found it to be much more useful. I read the whole thing in one sitting. Why someone, allegedly interested in USMA, would not is beyond me. If not to determine whether or not to go, then at least to prepare and be a step ahead in terms of knowing all the little B.S. stuff. Knowledge is power, right? If I ever met this kid, I’d tell him not to lose sight of the big picture. In the context of 7 years conscription, loss of personal freedom, and the possibility of losing life and/or limb, 125 pages is absolutely nothing. If he does not have the discipline to sit down and read an article that could possibly save his life, why does he think he belongs at a place like West Point anyway? If he is really wants to go to USMA, he should be seeking out advice from as many former cadets as possible….
“Youth is wasted on the young”. I hear older people say this a lot. It’s why I always listen to “old” people. I never want to be in a position when I’m older where I feel that way. I love the idea of taking lessons learned from other people’s mistakes without actually having to live with the consequences myself. Do not change your tone or try to “dumb down” your reading. For the people who will actually sit down and make a real effort to learn, it will not matter.
One last thought. The older gentleman who emailed you mentioned that the boy in question was excited about “Night vision goggles, machine guns, jumping out of airplanes…etc.”. If this kid has his heart set on doing those things, West Point is probably NOT the best place to go. Correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall that you told me you did exactly ONE air assault in your entire career. [Reed note: One simulated attack where we were taken to the mision area by helicopter in summer training at West Point—I was never in an air assault at ranger school or in Vietnam] If he wants to get an adrenaline rush, he should get a SEAL Contract and go to BUD/S. Navy SEAL’s actually do all that stuff on a regular basis. [Reed note: I would be surprised if that were true. I do not know about the day-to-day life of SEALS. But I do know that Army units tend to fiddle with trivia in garrison, not engage in any training let alone realistic training.] It is part of their basic skill set (Sea Air Land). It seems he needs to decide what he really wants in the military (or life for that matter). As you said, age 16 is too young. As someone who has always has an interest in joining the military in some capacity during his life (even if it is only for the minimum 4 years), I know that I won’t sign anything restricting my personal freedom in any way until I’ve completed college. I believe a decision with such serious ramifications requires maximum self knowledge. People who sign away so much of their youth without experiencing something like college are really missing out, and I would recommend this kid keep that in mind. If after university, he is still interested, it may be something to consider. As you pointed out in your article, going to West Point doesn’t exactly give you a significant step up career wise, so it is not like he would be missing the boat.
I’ve always enjoyed your writing style. Content wise, I think it exceptional. You have a lot of wisdom and knowledge regarding West Point, so it is logical that your articles on those subjects will reflect that fact. I think your anecdotal stories add to the legitimacy of your argument. You probably could write an entire book, just on your stories about West Point and Army-SNAFU. The only suggestion with regards to the West Point article is perhaps a linked table of contents at the top to make it a little more digestible, and easier to read in multiple settings. Other than that, it is fine. Do not worry about length. The more information the better. Keep up the good work.
I’m doing very well.
Thanks for asking, I hope the same goes for you.
P.S. As someone who is purportedly interested in military matters, this kid should know that ALL great commanders learn from the past. He should as well, especially if he wants to be a military leader.
[And here is my reaction to the 18-year-old’s comments.]
I’m like you. I remember going to libraries in a nearby big city to read every article ever written on the place. I read every book and watched every TV show and movie about WP.
I like your answer to him better than mine. May I put it on the site?
I agree with your suggestion. We can do that with anchors like I did at my real estate guru rating page. Compared to my books, the long article is somewhat sloppy because it was done piecemeal which, in turn, is because no one pays me for it. They pay for the books.
I do not recall doing an air assault (choppers delivered us to the mission location) except in practice once at West Point in the summer. The stuff on this kid’s list of things he can get at West Point includes a lot of stuff that does not require West Point. He can jump out of planes at a local airport or as a Joe Schmoe Army enlisted man, shoot machine guns in Vegas, and probably get some night vision goggles from a hunting supply company. Or he can agree to a nine-year ordeal in the military, perhaps getting kiled or maimed in the process, and shoot machine guns “for free.” (Actually, I think I shot machines guns—.50 cal, M60, M-14, and AK-47—four times in my four years at West Point. Other than the M-14 rifle, which has a selector switch that can be put on automatic, it probably was a total of about one hour of shooting combined, plus another hour and a half of instruction.)
One of my classmates and I discussed this and he said, “Officers don’t fire machine guns.” That’s true. Except for familiarizations like the ones I described above. Indeed, officers don’t fire any guns at all in firefights. They direct the fire and movement and medical treatment of the men under them. Officers only fire a weapon when they are forgetting what their job is or when a rare close-up enemy encounter requires it. If the 16-year old wants to fire machine guns for a living, he needs to enlist and get the recruiter to promise him a machine gunner military occuational specialty in the infantry. He also needs to refrain from getting promoted to sergeant. They don’t shoot machine guns either. But what do I know compared to a 16-year old? I’m just a “really old guy.”
P.S. I suspect you are a 63-year-old in a 18-year-old’s body, which is a heck of a trick that will serve you well. I was not when I was 18. Actually, I was a plebe at West Point when I was 18. Didn’t have time to think about anything but the next formation or class.
By comparing the account of the 16-year-old’s reaction to my West Point article and the 18-year-old’s (He was 15 when he first read it.), you learn what all high school football coaches know: there are teenage boys and there are teenage boys. Based on admittedly limited information, it would appear that West Point may get the less mature one of the two seen above.
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military