Situated along the Hudson River 50 miles north of New York City sits the oldest of the United States five service academies, the United States Military Academy at West Point, a four-year coeducational federal service academy.
In the fall of 2010, four Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers entered as freshmen or fourth-class cadets. On Reception Day the freshman – plebes – start cadet basic training, also known as Beast Barracks, or simply Beast.
Most cadets consider Beast their most difficult time at the academy because of the strenuous transition from civilian to military life. For the Soldiers from Illinois it was somewhat familiar. As Soldiers entering West Point, one of the requirements is that they have already completed basic training.
"It was very rewarding to be able to assist some of the other cadets who had never experienced military life like this," said Cadet John Jordan Leskera. "In turn, since we have started classes, some of those I helped during Beast have … helped me with the academic side of things."
As members of the Illinois National Guard, these four Soldiers recently sat down with Army Maj. Gen. William Enyart, adjutant general of Illinois, during his visit to West Point on Feb. 16. Enyart fielded question from the four cadets after having lunch with more than 4,000 cadets.
Questions centered on the wellbeing of Illinois National Guard Soldiers, including those serving in Egypt. Enyart said that all of the Soldiers serving on the Sinai Peninsula are accounted for and safe.
Cadets Anthony Mendez and Jeffery Perez told Enyart how they went to high school together, joined the National Guard and are now in the same class at West Point.
"The experience here has taught us all so much in the short amount of time we've been here, but most of all I think it has matured us faster than if we had gone to any other college, " said Cadet Joseph Cotton.
The Illinois National Guard contributed more cadets to the fall 2010 class than any other Army National Guard. West Point reserves slots for National Guard Soldiers.
"Having four Illinois National Guard Soldiers in the same class attending West Point is something I've never seen before," said Enyart. "It's quite an honor and such a great program."
West Point believes Soldiers enhance the corps of cadets, and values the life experiences they have earned as Soldiers, said Army Maj. Brian Easley, Soldiers admissions officer. For a Soldier wanting to be an officer in the U.S. Army, West Point will give an excellent education and the training they need to lead Soldiers, he said.
Soldiers who are serving in an active duty, Reserve or National Guard capacity are encouraged to apply to West Point. West Point is committed to helping qualified Soldiers reach their full potential and secure commissions in the Army, Easley said.
According to Forbes Magazine, West Point has repeatedly been one of the nation's top schools, reaching the number one spot in August 2009.
"West Point is again honored and pleased to be selected as one of America's top five best colleges," said West Point Superintendent, Army Lt. Gen. David Huntoon. "It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our exceptional cadets, faculty and staff operating in world-class facilities.
"This excellence, as recognized by Forbes, is a key element in preparing our cadets for the challenges they will face as future Army officers."
Upon graduation, cadets will be commissioned as second lieutenants and serve for five years on active duty. During their senior year, cadets find out which specialized field, or branch, they will enter. Both the needs of the Army and individual preferences are considered.
The Soldiers from the Illinois National Guard all expressed an interest in eventually returning to Illinois to serve once again in the Illinois National Guard.