It’s famously called “The Long Gray Line” — that symbolic continuum binding graduates and cadets of the United States Military Academy.
It both honors and reflects the process of Army officers who have called West Point home.
The many Latter-day Saints who have graduated or are attending the Academy share their own special “line” — one that stretches back over 145 years.
And just as West Point’s long list of notable alums — including Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur — is celebrated, so too are several members who have donned the school’s familiar gray cadet uniforms, embodied its motto: “Duty, Honor, Country” and represented the Church in many ways.
The Church’s legacy at the storied service academy begins with the son of a pioneer prophet and remains dynamic to this day.
Just a few months ago, West Point graduated its first young woman to have served a full-time mission — newly commissioned 2nd Lt. Ashleigh McCabe.
About 350 “known members” are West Point graduates — and 200 of those grads, like McCabe, served full-time missions.
Compared to the tens of thousands who have graduated from West Point, Latter-day Saint numbers “are small — but we’re here,” said Latter-day Saint and USMA command historian Sherman Fleek.
Familiar names arrive at West Point
Established in 1802, West Point’s existence pre-dates the Restoration of the gospel. And, no surprise, Latter-day Saints were not counted among the ranks at the service academy for its first several decades.
Then in 1875, Willard Young made Latter-day Saint history by becoming the first member to graduate from West Point.
Recognize the last name? Young Army 2nd Lt. Young was the son of President Brigham Young.
Prior to arriving at West Point, Willard Young “was set apart as a Seventy by his father,” said Fleek. “We really don’t know if he did any missionary work — but there’s no evidence of any persecution or any religious intolerance.”
Young was an excellent cadet, finishing fourth in his class and studying engineering. He later returned to West Point as an instructor.
Seven years later, in 1882, Brigham Young’s grandson, Richard Young, added his name to the family list of West Point grads. “Both men stayed in the Army for a while and were later militia officers though the Spanish-American War,” said Fleek.
The Young family legacy at the school would continue when Willard Young’s son, Sidney Hooper Young, received an appointment to the Academy.
Fleek is unaware of any, say, political motive or involvement on the part of Church leaders to place the Youngs into the nation’s oldest service academy. Attending West Point was simply viewed as an honorable choice for bright, ambitious young Latter-day Saints.
“I think they were all personal decisions,” he said.
Willard Young left Army service in 1891 and later became president of the Church-owned school now known as Ensign College.
That tiny original cadre of Latter-day Saints at West Point did not have a community of Latter-day Saints to draw upon. “They were on their own,” said Fleek. “In fact, at that time, there were very few career officers in the U.S. Army who were also Latter-day Saints.”
Still, they attended to their studies, distinguished themselves in the ranks and remained devoted to their faith.
Fleek calls the third member to graduate from West Point — Briant H. Wells — “a hero and probably my favorite guy during that era.”
The son of Latter-day Saint Apostle and Nauvoo Legion commander Daniel H. Wells, Briant Wells went on to become the first Church member promoted to general in the regular U.S. Army and enjoyed a long, decorated military career.
“He received a Silver Star, served in World War I, served in the Spanish-American War, took a bullet that lodged near his spine (it was never removed), became a two-star general and was the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army in the 1920s,” said Fleek.
A small yet faithful Latter-day Saint community
The rising, steady presence of Latter-day Saint cadets at West Point was increasingly apparent after World War II. Counted among their numbers were several who realized prominence in military and public service – including two-time United States National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft (Class of ’47).
“Our first ‘First Captain’ — the Academy’s senior ranking cadet — was Amos Jordan from Idaho,” said Fleek.
Since then, three other Latter-day Saints have been West Point’s First Captain — including a female cadet, Stephanie Hightower, in 2006. Many more have competed for the Black Knights on the athletic fields and fulfilled other leadership roles.
In 1912, Latter-day Saint Howard Bennion graduated at the top of his West Point class — an accomplishment matched almost a century later by Latter-day Saint cadet Brady Dearden.
A member of the Class of ’46, Jordan was an All-American boxer who became a Rhodes Scholar and a brigadier general. He also spent more than two decades on the West Point faculty, became a sought-after authority on national security affairs and received the Days of ’47 Pioneer of Progress Award.
He and his wife, MarDeane, and their six children were elemental to the tiny yet devout nucleus of Latter-day Saint families at West Point during the post-World War II years. There was no Church-owned building in the area, so cadets and other members worshipped at various locales at the Academy.
The Jordans and other Latter-day Saint families stationed at West Point proved much-needed spiritual support — and a popular spot to enjoy home cooked meals.
“My parents were absolutely instrumental in keeping a lot of the Latter-day Saint cadets coming to Church,” said Jordan’s daughter, Diana Jordan Paxton. “The cadets would come to our house, and they could take off those big stiff coats. My mom fixed great meals on Sunday and took care of the cadets. … They just needed some semblance of a home life.”
Paxton remembers the unity found within that tiny West Point group.
“We didn’t have Young Men or Young Women or a junior Primary — everyone just gathered in the same room for a half-hour of sacrament meeting and a half-hour of Sunday School, which my dad taught for several years.”
In 1956, the dependent West Point Branch was organized, affiliated with the larger Newburgh Branch. Frank Redd, an Air Force officer and West Point faculty member, was the first branch president.
Diana’s brother, Kent Jordan, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, told the Church News that West Point “was a magical place to grow up.”
The school’s ethos and history, he added, permeated the atmosphere — enriching his Latter-day Saint upbringing “because duty to country is part of our religious heritage.”
Trading dog tags for missionary name tags
Until the late 1970s, full-time missionary service wasn’t an option for Latter-day Saint cadets. The four years of study had to be completed without interruption to graduate from West Point.
But evolving policies ultimately allowed Latter-day Saint cadets in good standing to separate from the Academy and then re-apply for admission upon their return.
The first West Point returned missionary, Robert Pyper, graduated in 1979.
Today, readmission rates for returned missionaries are high. And every year, several cadets stow away their military uniforms to put on the missionary’s badge and begin sharing the gospel around the world.
Second Lt. McCabe, decided to interrupt her military studies and serve a mission while an enrolled cadet. Her growing testimony at West Point was fortified by some “absolutely amazing” people.
“My priorities are God, family and country,” the Michigan native told the Church News. “So why not serve a mission?”
Following her sophomore year, she began serving in the Taiwan Taichung Mission. She recently graduated with a degree in Chinese. Other female cadets are presently serving missions.
Being a missionary in Taiwan made her a better Army officer. “I’ve become a lot more patient with myself and other people and generally more loving.”
Now new chapters of Latter-day Saint history continue to be written at the U.S. Military Academy.
In 2016, the West Point Ward of the Newburgh New York Stake was organized, serving cadets and families stationed at the Academy.
And a meetinghouse is being built about two miles from the base. It’s expected to be dedicated next year.