USMA Class of 2020: ‟With Vision We Lead” in their own words

Compiled by Eric S. Bartelt PV Managing Editor

June 4th, 2020 | In Focus, News

The U.S. Military Academy Class of 2020 will graduate 1,123 cadets on June 13. Those graduating represent 83% of the 1,302 cadets who entered West Point nearly four years ago.
Due to COVID-19 delaying graduation, members of the class commissioned May 23 during an oath of commissioning ceremony from remote locations. It marked another unique venture for the new second lieutenants of the Class of 2020 within their 47-month journey.
Over four weeks, The Pointer View series titled, “With Vision We Lead,” named after the class motto, involves various members of the class telling stories of their West Point experience.
In honor of the members of the 222nd graduating class of West Point, here is the second installament of a four-part series of their journey in their own words …

Pointer View: When it comes to your Class of 2020 motto, “With Vision We Lead,” what do those words mean to you?
Haley Watson: “When my class first voted on the motto, ‘With Vision We Lead’ during beast, I remember everyone sort of picked it as a joke because it was a clever pun about having 20/20 vision and it being our graduating year.
“However, what started as a joke really turned into our mantra. This motto demonstrates my class in two ways: the funny pun demonstrates our sense of humor and ability to capitalize on an opportunity that no other class could use because of the year of our graduation. The second part  is on a more serious note: we are called to be visionaries and innovators for the Army and country. We are entering untrodden territory in the global space that needs people with the vision to see past what is right in front of us, and lead in ways that have never been done before.”

PV: What does service and leadership mean to you as you start your career as an Army officer?
HW: “Service and leadership mean the path I have chosen will not always be the one of least resistance. I think back to our speaker from the Class of 1970 at our affirmation ceremony and he said that we are living in the first stanza of the alma mater: ‘Let Duty be well performed. Honor be e’er untarned. Country be ever armed. West Point, by thee.’ As a leader of character, those words are your call to action. We have our entire careers in front of us, where we must make the conscious decision every day to perform our duties honorable in a way that makes our country proud.
“Whenever I get to end of my life, having fully lived as a leader of character, I can hope the last stanza of the alma mater is true: ‘And when our work is done, Our course on earth is run, May it be said, ‘Well done’ Be thou at peace.’”

PV: What advice would you give to the underclassmen or to your younger self from four years ago with what you know now from your academy experience?
HW: “The best advice I have for underclassmen is probably not traditional on the surface, some might even consider it unsound, but it is one of the things I wish I would have known the most. It is OK to lose an hour of studying for a test or skim the last 20 pages instead of reading the textbook cover to cover if it means you get to spend more time with your classmates and friends.
“I regret turning down invitations to the firstie club after spirit dinner on Thursday nights because I thought I had too much homework to do. I always told myself after spring break  of firstie year, when all branches, posts and scholarships were in the bag, I would take people up on the invitations to go to trivia night or to company Arvin Gym basketball scramble Sunday afternoon.
“But as we know, ‘after spring break of firstie year’ never came for me and my classmates. I regret I didn’t just take a little hit on my academics or physical scores because the times that I did get out of my comfort zone and say ‘yes’ to things like the dance class at Cullum Hall that cut into my homework time, I look back and feel no regret at all. Your grades will survive and buff out and the memories you have from being a part of something bigger than yourself are much more worth it than any percentage in a class, APFT score or military grade.”

PV: What is your favorite memory/top moments in your time at West Point?
HW: “There are so many moments I feel like it is challenging just to pick one. One that sticks out to me is the time during plebe year where me and the other D-2 Dragon plebes all got together and did an American Idol competition. We all planned songs and sang them (jokingly) and voted on who was the best singer.
“My favorite memories have been with my company mates and track teammates. I owe them for every smile they brought to my face. I also really loved my CLDT Sandhurst experience in the United Kingdom and Germany. It was one of the coolest things I have ever been a part of, and it was such an awesome experience to work with people from a foreign military on a field training exercise.”

PV: What is your best achievement at West Point?
HW: “Being a track team captain and a part of one of the best women’s track programs in the history of our school has been the honor of my life.
“When I first joined the program my plebe year, you could just sense from the culture and coaching staff that we were heading in a different direction than we had been going before. We were going up. We began placing middle of the pack at the conference track meets my plebe and yearling year, but by cow and firstie year, we were competing for conference championship titles. The program transformed into a force to be reckoned with. Navy had no answers.
“Army track was sending people to the NCAA meet and breaking every record on the board. To be a part of something like that and watch it grow and continue to flourish is such a humbling honor. Getting to be a leader my senior year of people who are some of the greatest, most hardworking and talented people this world has to offer is my greatest achievement at West Point.”

PV: Any one person you like to mention that helped your success/guided you the most at West Point?
HW: “I am a conglomeration of so many people endlessly supporting me, believing in me and guiding me through the last four years. Col. and Mrs. Julie Spain have provided me with countless advice and mentorship the past four years. Sgt. 1st Class Avihay Schwartz taught me how to lead people and epitomized what it means to be a great NCO. Maj. David Flaherty and his family gave me a home (and three younger siblings) away from home. Head Coach Mike Smith taught me how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because that’s the only way you’ll ever go anywhere in life.
“My TAC officer, Maj. Wiley Grant, taught me how to put the unit first. Dr. Molly Freitas, Maj. Zach Watson and Maj. Renee Sanjuan in the Graduate Scholar Program who believed in me and saw potential even when I didn’t see it in myself.
“There have been so many people along the way at West Point who have helped me get to the end of the road. My parents and sisters have relentlessly supported me through this unfamiliar journey, and I cannot thank them enough. I am very grateful for the support and guidance I have received from all places.”
PV: Through this collective experience everyone has gone through, from your perspective, how has the Class of 2020 united together and motivated each other during the COVID-19 crisis?
HW: “The biggest way we have come together is to just mourn our losses together. COVID-19 took away a lot from our class. It continues to as well. We don’t have the luxury of pushing milestones off or parading across the Plain at a different time. It is over for us. Our final sports seasons were taken from us. Many of us left for spring break and it was unknowingly the last time we would see a lot of our classmates. The biggest way we have united is by reaching out virtually and empathizing with the communal and individual losses.
“There is also an extreme amount of ambiguity with the future for a lot of us and having other people in similar situations provides a sense of comfort. People feel sad and cynical, but whenever you have someone in your exact same shoes to vocalize those feelings to, it becomes a lot easier to manage.”

PV: What was the biggest hurdle you faced during the crisis? What did you find out about yourself and your resilience, whether it was physically or mentally, in overcoming this situation and driving toward graduation?
HW: “The biggest hurdle for me was first dealing with the loss of things I have worked toward and looked forward to for a long time like Projects Day, my final outdoor track season, recognition of the plebes, the Graduation Parade or even the graduation leave celebrations and trips.
“A lot of these milestone events that happen in the spring of firstie year are not going to be able to be replicated online or pushed to a later date or anything like that. They are just over and that has been a hard pill to swallow. I had a hard time with coping with all of those things at the same time, but my family was incredibly supportive and helped me through it. I also talked to a lot of classmates who were feeling the same way and that was helpful as well.
“The second hurdle was looking toward a very ambiguous future. I do not know if my scholarships will be able to continue in the fall. A lot of my classmates have no idea what their BOLC class will look like or how the virus is going to impact their future units. For a lot of people, there is a great deal of anxiety confronting the unknown. For so long, you have a picture of what your time after West Point is going to look like, and most people really are looking forward to it, but for my class, that picture of our future has completely shifted. So dealing with the ambiguity the future now presents has been a great challenge for me during this pandemic.
“The biggest thing I have learned about myself is that there is no sense in comparing losses. Everyone has lost something from this pandemic. Some losses have been very small, and others have lost much greater like a family member to COVID-19. When we get into a headspace where we tell ourselves to not be sad about a loss, no matter the size, we are invalidating our feeling and emotions, and therefore never coming to terms with it. I felt silly at the beginning for being sad about missing out on nights at the First Class Club after spring break when people are dying from this virus, but over time, I realized it’s OK to mourn a loss no matter the size, just maintain a healthy level of perspective on things.”

PV: What do you look forward to the most when returning to West Point?
HW: “I am looking forward to hopefully finding a sense of closure with the place I have spent the last four incredibly formative years of my life. Looking at Trophy Point for last time as a cadet, getting your room checked for TAPS at night for the last time, even eating in the mess hall one last time—it is really nice to know that we will be able to do that all one last time and know it is our final time.
“I am really looking forward to seeing my company mates, hopefully, one last time. I didn’t think it was going to be the last time I saw my teammates for a very long time when we left for spring break, so I am incredibly hopeful that, despite the strict division into cohorts, we will maybe get to see each other one last time.”

PV: Historically, similar to your last two months, this will be a unique graduation that no class previously has experienced, what is your hope and anticipation for your graduation day?
HW: “My hope is that we all go into the day with very reasonable expectations. I know this year will not look like any other graduation we have ever seen or heard about at West Point. I think that we need to manage our expectations as a class to ensure that the comparison to previous ceremonies does not detract from the unique celebration. For example, it will be very easy to look and feel a wave of disappointment knowing your parents and grandparents who have dreamed of seeing you walk across the stage will not have the opportunity to do that. However, I think if we all go into it knowing this is such a unprecedented time and we are grateful for the opportunity, it will capture a sense of closure and celebration.
“As a class we must own that this untraditional commencement is OURS, the Class of 2020’s, to reclaim. It is our unique experience and we have to acknowledge it isn’t going to look or feel like the traditional graduation we have envisioned, so we need to embrace that and own it as our own.”

PV: Describe what tossing your hat in the air will mean to you, completing your journey at West Point?
HW: “Tossing my hat in the air will represent four years of hard work, development and perseverance. It will mark the end of a chapter in my life, and my classmate’s lives, that will forever alter our pathway because of the things we have learned along the way.
“Class of 2020 has been through a lot. We have had extreme highs like beating Navy for the first time in football (in 14 years) and ending the losing streak our plebe year, and extremely devastating lows like losing our classmate CJ Morgan during training this last summer. We have all been forever altered by these highs and lows and tossing our caps will serve as a representation that those lessons and experiences are not forgotten, but rather forever captured in this chapter of our lives that has come to an end.”

PV: As a Schwarzman and Fulbright Netherlands scholar, how important has achieving educational heights meant to you?
HW: “Academia and school have always been incredibly important to me. West Point instructors and classes spurred my intellectual curiosity in such a way I felt compelled to try to continue learning at graduate school.
“My education from West Point captured the critical intersection between Army officers and intellectual thinking. I know that furthering my experiences abroad as a scholarship recipient will make me a better officer in the long run, so it was very important for me to apply and win these scholarships.”

PV: You served as the battalion command sergeant major, talk about how that experience will help you going forward as an Army leader?
HW: “It was an incredible experience working with Murray Johnston, my commander, because he is such a phenomenal leader. I learned how a good team capitalizes on their strengths as individuals and subsidizes each other’s weaknesses.
“As a future Army leader, I know that having strong and compatible command teams is critical to overall mission success. I saw it working with other commanders and CSMs, and then watching company commanders and first sergeants interact. The ones who had the best companies, battalions and regiments were the ones who identified their individual weaknesses, highlighted their strengths and then filled in where necessary.”

PV: What do you feel was your best achievement on the track?
HW: “As cliché as it sounds, my best achievement on the track was not a race or a school record (although those were super special and memorable), it was actually the personal development and lessons learned from Head Coach Mike Smith. He taught me what it means to put the team before yourself. At indoor Army Navy my cow year, we were neck and neck coming down to the final race, the 4×800 meter relay. The winner of the relay would win the entire meet. I remember Coach Smith talking to me days before and saying that it could very well come down to the wire, and although I would have already run two other races that day, I would have to perform and run the fastest race of my life as the anchor leg.
“Well, that very scenario happened. I had to run the anchor leg and win the 4×800 to beat Navy. It was so nerve wracking, but it forced me to have to perform my best under pressure because people were all counting on me. My teammates in the relay ran their fastest races and gave me the baton in a great and competitive position. We broke the Army-Navy meet record and won that day. It built confidence that I could perform in the face of adversity when people needed me to … which will hopefully transfer to other areas for the rest of my life.”

PV: What branch did you choose and why?
HW: “I am going to be an Army Aviator! I chose aviation because I love the versatility of the branch. You get the best of both worlds with aviation—you learn an incredibly unique skill and you also get the diverse personnel management and leadership you get in other branches of the Army.
“I am so excited to fly and be a part of the aviation community. Aviation’s motto is ‘Above the best!’ Meaning we fly above and support the best Soldiers the nation has to offer. I really like the idea of being a part of a greater battlefield picture as an aviator helping to expand the capabilities of the ground force.”