USMA Class of 2021 celebrates 500 days until graduation

By Michelle Schneider PV Photojournalist

January 30th, 2020 | In Focus, News
 Retired Gen. Lloyd James Austin III speaks to cadets about character development and building teams of trust during the 500th Night banquet Saturday at the Cadet Mess Hall.
 Retired Gen. Lloyd James Austin III receives a gift from Class of 2021 Cadet and Class President Katarina Christianson after his speech during the 500th Night banquet Saturday at the Cadet Mess Hall.    Photos by John Pellino/USMA PAO

For over a century, 500th Night at the U.S. Military Academy has remained a traditional banquet symbolizing the amount of days the cow (junior) class of cadets have left before graduation.
The Cadet Mess Hall transformed from a room full of bustling energy of fast-footed cadets eating in haste to a dimly lit atmosphere filled with celebration and military tradition Saturday.
During the evening celebration, Class of 2021 Cadet and Class President Katarina Christianson shared her thoughts to the attendees on the significance of the event from a leadership perspective.
“You have 500 days left and it’s that perfect even number and lets you know that your graduation is fast approaching,” Christianson said. “You’re hitting all these milestones and you need to start thinking about do I have my branch set up? Do I know where I want to go?
“As we approach these 500 days, we don’t know what the world is going to look like or what the global environment will be upon our graduation,” she added. “This is a chance to reflect and say, ‘Am I ready to graduate and lead these men and women in the U.S. Army?’ Five Hundredth Night gives us the chance to check in and see where we are as far as building good character and becoming second lieutenants.”
After Christianson finished her speech, she introduced the guest speaker, retired Gen. Lloyd James Austin III.
Austin served in the Army for more than 41 years. During his military career, he was the last commanding general of the U.S. Forces in Iraq and served as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army. He is a USMA Class of 1975 graduate and holds a Master of Arts in counselor education and business management.
His speech was described as motivational and inspirational by attendees. He shared his experiences and the wisdom he learned from over four decades as an Army officer.
“The defense of our nation will continue to require your dedication. I ensure you that you will be prepared and capable and you will be ready. I am certain of it and you should feel confident as well,” Austin said. “No matter what the responsibility you find that you will face, if you rely on the training you learn here, you will be successful in whatever circumstances.
“Absolutely nothing is more important than the strength of your character. We are expected to make tough decisions and, sometimes, it involves the lives of young men and women in a moment of great adversity,” he added. “When you’re called upon to make tough choices, especially when you’re operating in gray areas, you must rely on the strength of character to always do what’s right. So, one piece of advice, never compromise your values. Stay true to them and you will be successful in your career, personal life and successful in all magnitudes.”
Austin shared a memory of his first duty station and how one of his squad leaders had given him excellent advice. His sergeant major said, “I want you to focus on one thing and one thing only. If you take care of your people and get out on the front line and show them the way, they will do whatever you ask of them and they will follow you anywhere and together you will do great things for our nation. If you take care of your people and you earn their respect, they will move mountains for you.”
He said he observed these actions numerous times throughout his career.
Austin also mentioned that what makes West Point outstanding is how the institution places a tremendous focus on values and principles, and the expectation is people will hold themselves and each other accountable.
Another fundamental truth Austin shared is to never stop learning. He said remember that leaders who continue to learn are indispensable to everyone. He emphasized the importance of learning from others, to learn from your mistakes, to acknowledge your shortcomings and accept strong criticism.
After the speeches were concluded, an uproar of applause filled the halls. Christianson presented Austin with a gift before they parted ways to enjoy the remainder of the night.