Latter-day Saints made history recently at a place that’s synonymous with American military history.
Cadets and civilians from several states and varied backgrounds gathered May 4 for a Young Single Adult conference at the United States Military Academy.
For more than two centuries, the service academy in West Point, New York, has functioned as a rigorous training ground for many of the United States’ most prominent military leaders. Eisenhower, Custer, MacArthur, Schwarzkopf and rival Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant are among the Academy’s alums.
It’s one of the premier places on earth to master the basics of military history, battlefield strategies and leading soldiers.
But for one recent Saturday, West Point’s “training” focused on receiving personal revelation, preparing for marriage and strengthening one’s relationship with God. Dozens of Latter-day Saint cadets and civilians gathered for the daylong, first-of-its-kind YSA gathering at the storied school.
Many participants were in uniform — others wore civilian garb. But the YSA themes proved universal.
“It was great being with so many YSAs at such a historically significant, super beautiful place,” said Nicole Thaxton, an Orem, Utah, native and longtime participant of the West Point institute.
Dubbed “A Day of West Point,” the YSA gathering was initiated and organized primarily by Latter-day Saint cadets at the Academy. The future Army officers have been frequent attendees at YSA conferences in several northeast states. Given the growing number of members simultaneously enrolled at the Academy and the local Latter-day Saint Student Association, West Point was ripe to host a YSA conference of its own.
Successfully pulling it off “really speaks to the cadets — and them wanting to do this,” said Army Capt. Wiley Grant, a TAC officer (trainer, advisor, counselor) at the school who oversees the LDSSA at West Point.
Like all West Point cadets, Latter-day Saints at the Academy balance a crazy load of academics, physical training and military and professional development.
But after attending past regional YSA conferences in New York City and Princeton, New Jersey, Cadet Rebekah Cutler and others began asking “Hey, why not West Point?”
“It was almost like a revelation,” said Cutler, a second-year student and Highland, Utah, native. “West Point is a perfect venue — so why not share it with the YSA civilians in the area?”
Both the local Church leaders and West Point administrators were quick to support “A Day of West Point.” The conference included speaker presentations and cadet-led tours of the Academy, followed by dinner and a dance.
“I was very pleased with how things turned out,” said Cutler.
First, the weather cooperated. Rain soaked the Academy grounds on the day before and the day after the conference — but clear skies allowed for tours of the scenic, history-laden grounds.
“But one result from the conference that I didn’t really expect was the bonding that happened between all the YSAs,” she said. “It was great getting to know the civilian YSAs better.”
The gathering also “allowed the YSAs to connect with other individuals of like-minded faith and values,” said Grant.
Meanwhile, bonds deepened between the YSAs in uniform.
“It reaffirmed that we are all good friends and that we support each other and we’re there for each other,” Cutler added.
Training for the eternities
Elder Lance B. Wickman — an emeritus General Authority Seventy, Vietnam War veteran and the Church’s general counsel — shared the conference keynote remarks at the Eisenhower Hall Ballroom.
The decorated retired Army officer focused his counsel to both the civilian and cadets YSAs on seeking and receiving personal revelation to bless and impact others.
“I wanted to talk with them about ‘paying the price’ to receive personal revelation,” Elder Wickman told the Church News.
Personal worthiness, correctly asking for the Lord’s help and learning “how to recognize the promptings of the Spirit when they come,” anchored his counsel.
Spending a May 4 evening at West Point was unforgettable for the decorated retired Army officer.
“West Point is such a historic place, it just reeks of tradition,” he said. “The cadets are fine young people. … They’re trying their very best to be strong Latter-day Saints while they pursue their professional training.”
Elder Wickman’s words reminded Cutler “that we don’t always get the answers that we think we will get — but we just need to make decisions and God will correct us as we go forward.”
In his seminar presentation, President David H. Bean, a counselor in the Manhattan New York Temple presidency, emphasized being a balanced person following Christ’s example as a person who “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
Sister Ann H. Hess, the wife and mission companion of New Jersey Morristown Mission President Paul W. Hess, focused her seminar presentation on building a “rock solid, gospel-centered” marriage.
Marriage for many of the cadets may be several years off because of future full-time missionary service and military obligations. “But it’s still important to prepare yourself to be the kind of person you want to marry,” said Cutler.
Fellowship found among Latter-day Saint cadets
Grant was not a member when he was a West Point cadet from 2005-2009. He joined the Church after graduating and can’t remember much about the cadre of Latter-day Saint cadets when he was a student.
“Today, the Latter-day Saint cadets are much more ‘out there’ in the community than when I was a cadet,” he said.
Seventy-two members are cadets at the USMA for the 2018-2019 academic year.
“The camaraderie that comes from within the LDSSA is one of the pivotal things that allows our cadets to continue to be successful here,” said Grant. “They have a support group of like-minded individuals that can care for them and help them when they struggle or just have one of those days when you’re in a funk.”
Other USMA cadets are serving missions. Returned missionaries have enjoyed great success gaining readmission to West Point following their full-time service. That “mission friendly” trend is found at the other American service academies, as well.
The West Point Ward, which meets on school property, also offers cadets opportunities to worship in a traditional ward and perform in Church callings. The ward clerk, for example, is typically a cadet. And at least one counselor in the elders quorum presidency is always a West Point student.
“I actually have two callings,” said Cutler, who will soon be leaving West Point for a couple of years to serve a mission in Korea. “I’m a Sunday School teacher for the 17- and 18-year-olds, and I’m also the YSA co-president.”
The ward also offers missionary preparation classes each year.
As an Army officer, Grant said he has seen Latter-day Saint cadets benefit from time away from the Academy for missionary service. Many return with a mission-honed maturity that stands out among their peers.