WEST POINT, N.Y. (BP)–Many of the officers and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., knew Cadet Sgt. Major Emily Perez well. She attended chapel services regularly and was a member of the cadets’ gospel chorus. She also ran track.
Today, 2nd Lt. Perez is buried not far from notable generals such as George Armstrong Custer and William Westmoreland in the academy’s cemetery overlooking the Hudson River. She died on Sept. 12, 2006, in Iraq, the first female graduate from the West Point to die in combat in that country.
The words of Scripture from 1 Corinthians 2:9 on her tombstone are a testimony to her faith. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have they entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
Southern Baptist chaplains Col. John Cook and Lt. Col. Darrell Thomsen, along with other chaplains at the academy, have lost 51 West Point graduates since the war on terror began. Still, new cadets keep coming with a desire to defend their country and seeking their place in something greater than themselves. Among the cadets are Cook’s twin sons, both “plebes” or first-year students.
A walk into the Cadet Chapel, a massive Gothic structure overlooking the academy and its parade ground, reveals an array of campaign flags from wars long ago. A sign at the front of the chapel reminds all who enter “not to leave without saying one prayer to God for yourself, for those who minister, and for those who worship here.”
At the front of the chapel is the superintendent’s pew, where each of the men who’ve overseen the academy’s cadets has inscribed his name. The signatures of generals such as Douglas MacArthur and Maxwell Taylor can be found there.
On the chapel’s left side, a pew is reserved for American prisoners of war and those missing in action. A candle burns at the end of the pew as a reminder to the cadets that some of their brothers in arms, many missing since before they were born, are with them in spirit.
Both components of the chapel are reminders of the great leaders who’ve gone before and those who have given everything in the line the duty. Today, each cadet, whether male or female, is similarly mindful of the burdens of duty to their nation in wartime, the chaplains said. They are also aware that the path of service they’ve chosen may even cost them their lives.
“The cadets here know that,” Cook, the academy’s senior chaplain and advisor to the superintendent on religious affairs, told Baptist Press in an interview at the chapel. He is a 1987 graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky “In fact, all of our cadets who are currently students here made the decision to come to West Point after Sept. 11, 2001. So they knew when they came here that there is a significant possibility that they will be going into combat.”
“We help them work through the fear that goes along with combat,” said Thomsen, the academy’s Protestant cadet chaplain and a 1985 graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “There is a lot of power in fear, but there’s more power in faith.”
Chaplains at West Point are involved in a “ministry of preparation,” according to Cook, who said the world’s current political climate — expressed in the battle between radical Islam and the West — adds a sense of urgency to their mission. The chaplains work with students who have questions about war, killing and about what will happen to them if they die in combat. They attempt to resolve these issues within the cadets’ first two years at the academy, before they must commit to a term of service as an officer in the Army and face possible deployments overseas.
“They know they need to be prepared,” Cook said. “We don’t want them blindly graduating from here. We have a responsibility to see that they work through this whether they ask about it or not. If they don’t ask, we put it on the table for them. They’ve got to resolve it.”
It helps the cadets at West Point to know that the chaplains themselves have dealt with many of the same issues they will face. Both Cook and Thomsen have been in combat, Thomsen in Panama with the 82nd Airborne Division in 1989 and both men in Desert Storm in 1991.
Cook was a battalion chaplain with the 18th Airborne Corps and lost one soldier during the 100-hour ground war in 1991. He said he saw rocket launchers and helicopters engage Iraqi troops and tanks in his area and came upon the results as his unit moved forward. Thomsen also lost some of his troops in a mine field.
“When you move through the mine field and they see the cross on your uniform, there’s something that says to them, ‘God is with us,'” Thomsen said. “It’s important and it’s powerful for a chaplain to be on the front lines with them.”
From 2004-2005, just prior to his most recent duty station at West Point, Cook was also chaplain to the Coalition Land Forces Component in Kuwait. Being with the soldiers in the theater of combat operations is what he and other chaplains call the “ministry of presence,” an indispensable service to troops under fire.
“We weren’t there with weapons. We weren’t there to take lives. We were there to care for our soldiers on the battlefield,” Cook said.
Caring for the soldiers meant treating them after they had been wounded, writing a letter to family members for them, and even relaying messages to wounded comrades. It certainly meant sharing the Gospel when the opportunity presented itself. Cook led 27 soldiers to Christ during Operation Desert Storm and baptized 15.
But caring for the soldiers also meant helping them deal with taking life, both chaplains said, adding that killing is something that soldiers would rather not do.
“Our soldiers value humanity,” Thomsen said. “They don’t want to take someone else’s life. They see themselves as peacekeepers. They see those who are out there who fight against peace and they want to stop it. That’s the unique thing about our soldiers. Combat is an ugly thing, but I’ve watched in all the ugliness some of the most compassionate people carrying weapons, but at the same time caring for others.”
Cook and Thomsen bring their experiences in combat to bear in preparing cadets for battle today, and the relationships they build carry on long after the cadets graduate and move into their respective military disciplines. In a real sense, their ministry continues as well. Many of the cadets maintain contact through letters and e-mails.
Cook received a letter from a West Point graduate one year ago addressed only to him. The young officer had just married and had a special request. If he didn’t make it home, he wanted Cook to officiate at his funeral.
“I still have the letter,” Cook said, adding that the soldier is now home with his wife.
And shortly after President Bush’s State of the Union address in January in which he said that more troops in Iraq likely would mean more casualties, Cook received another letter. That letter was from a female graduate who was ready to deploy to Baghdad, where most of the U.S. casualties were occurring.
“She asked, ‘What happens if I get killed? How will my husband be notified?’ And then she wrote, ‘My mom wants to know how she will be notified.'” Cook said he made plans to talk with the graduate’s mother, extending the ministry of comfort and counseling beyond the cadets at the academy to the family of the soldier.
“I always offer the cadets and those who are already serving encouragement that their life is in God’s hands,” Cook said. “And that they won’t go home until He calls them.”
When a death does occur, notifying families of the loss of their loved becomes the focus of ministry. The death notification is the most unpleasant of the chaplains’ duties. Both have been called on to be bearers of the grim news when soldiers from the area surrounding West Point have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thomsen said the visits are never easy because every family is unsuspecting.
“I’d rather go to combat than I would make a death notification,” he said. “I know that sounds terrible, but I’d rather be in the middle of a fight. You realize you’re going to change a person’s life forever.”
Despite the risks involved with service, Cook said he is proud that his sons, Jonathan and Joshua, have chosen to attend West Point. “This is the only place they applied,” he said. “It was the only place they wanted to be.”
And Thomsen’s daughter, a student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., is also making her way into Army life. She is in the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC), training to be an Army nurse.
The Cadet Prayer
“O God, Our Father, Thou Searcher of Human hearts, help us to draw near to Thee in sincerity and truth. May our religion be filled with gladness and may our worship of Thee be natural. Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Guard us against flippancy and irreverence in the sacred things of life. Grant us new ties of friendship and new opportunities of service. Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften our hearts with sympathy for those that sorrow and suffer. Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our duty to Thee and our Country. All of which we ask in the name of the Great Friend and Master of All. Amen.”
Originally written by Clayton E. Wheat, Chaplain, U.S. Military Academy, 1919-26.