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‘West Point, Oh yeah. I could have gone there.’

Posted by John Reed on

In response to Ben Carson’s claiming he was offered a scholarship to West Point, I said that people who did not receive an appointment to West Point claiming that they could have gone there is surprisingly common.

I have encountered such people about ten times since I graduated from West Point. It typically goes like this.

I’m at a backyard barbecue with friends and acquaintances. A man I do not know says, “My wife says you went to West Point.”

“Yup. Misspent youth.”

“I could have gone there. Turned it down.”

“Who nominated you?”

“What do you mean?

“The first step in going there is getting a nomination, like from your congressman.”

“Oh, I never got that far. I just said I wasn’t interested.”

I would drop the matter at that point. As I suspected, the guy has no idea whether he would have gotten accepted at West Point had he applied. He does not even know if he would be nominated which is required to even be allowed to apply other than for those who come from the Army.

I am not sure other WP grads feel the same but it has come up in conversation with them and they generally seem to feel similar annoyance.

My road to West Point was fairly typical. I fell in love with it when I visited West Point at age 14. My uncle worked there at the Hotel Thayer. So I researched how you get in. 

I applied to my Congressman, Senators, the vice-President and the President. The Senators, VP and President turned me down. Congressman Cahill sent me forms to fill out. Then I had to take a Civil Service Designation Exam in downtown Camden, NJ with a whole bunch of other high school seniors who also wanted a service academy nomination from Cahill. It was the toughest test I ever took. They did not give out the results—I suspect because the Congressman wanted to be able to ignore it if there was some political advantage in nominating a kid who did not get the top score.

My mom had a friend who had a friend whose son was a cadet. They arranged for me to meet him. He was the only person I ever met who thought I could get admitted. He said he thought I had to get some political pull. I have never been sure if he was right but my mom and I figured that making efforts along those lines could not hurt. But all we could come up with was the local mayor and a former FHA boss. They both wrote “I do not know John but I know his mother” letters, which are supposed to be the worst kind of recommendation.

Months later, my mom got a call from the mayor. He said I was the principal nominee for West Point. It was in the paper the next day, along with the names of the 10 or 15 alternates lined up behind me hoping I’d flunk one of the admissions standards. Cahill had called the mayor to deliver the news. Did I get the principal nomination because I got the best score on the test? I doubt it, but maybe. Was it because of the lame recommendation? Perhaps if my competition offered no political letters at all. Cahill certainly made sure the mayor got the credit by letting him deliver the news.

But I was not yet in. I joined more extracurriculars, studied harder. I had been jogging five mile every morning year round except when it rained to prepare for the physical test. As the spring of my senior year arrived, the die was mostly cast. I got a letter from West Point saying I was admitted academically. 

About all that was left that I could influence were the physical and the physical aptitude test. They removed the details of the PAT from the 1964 catalog, but they were in the 1963 catalog which I also had. I could only hope that the test would be the same. I went to my high school athletic director and showed him the very varied test. He arranged to borrow all the various equipment needed from other schools in the area. 

For the next several months, I practiced every test after school by myself. Some required me to muscle memorize sequences like the hop, skip, and jump and the shuttle run. Others required that I strengthen certain muscles like doing parallel-bar dips. There was a medicine ball shot put which required learning the best technique.

It turned out that the test, which I and hundreds of other candidates took at Fort Dix, was indeed the same as in the old catalog. And I did much better because of the practice. For example, I was able to do 16 dips on the parallel bars. Almost everyone else did 5 to 7. They had a sergeant yelling out the count. When I got up to about 10, all eyes in the field house turned to watch me.

It was overkill. Lots of guys who were there and only did six dips ended up as my West Point classmates. One was my roommate plebe Fall. He flunked out. 

But my concern at that point was that I did not want to make it that far, that close, then miss out because I took the PAT for granted.

Then came the agonizing wait. Finally, the fat envelope arrived. There is a you tube of me talking about that day in a speech I made at

So after all that, you can imagine how fond I and my fellow West Pointers are of people who say that they turned down admission to West Point when all that happened is they got a letter sent to tens of thousands of middle and high school students. Ben Carson didn’t even get a letter—just some verbal encouragement from West Point grads, many of whom are deputized by the Academy to recruit—they get free trips to West Point as part of their “pay” for being informal recruiters. They are often embarrassingly zealous and there is no down side and no limit on how many they can encourage to go there. The more they get to apply, the more West Point can brag about what a low percentage get admitted.

The number of high school students that West Point or its grads encourage to apply—annually—is probably greater than the total number of grads in West Point history—about 70,000. Many are encouraged to apply, few (about 1,000 a year) graduate.

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