War's grim reality hits West Point
By Greg Bruno
January 07, 2007
West Point ? On the second floor of Cullum Hall, down dimly lit corridors and dark stairs, bronze plaques hang with names of graduates killed in battle.
There are hundreds here, from Civil War warriors to Donaldson Preston Tillar III, the lone alumnus shot down in Desert Storm 16 years ago.
But it's the unfinished memorial in Cullum ? for now, a bare white wall awaiting Iraq's final tally ? that is redefining war at the U.S. Military Academy.
As the war in Iraqi marches into a fourth year, and plans for sending more troops materialize in Washington, West Point graduates are facing a grim phenomenon: They are dying at a faster rate than in any war in recent history.
Since 2003, 40 graduates have been killed in Iraq. And statistics don't reveal a single explanation for the comparative spike in casualties. Reports show that graduates have died in accidents, been killed by snipers and roadside bombs, and even been murdered by their own men.
"It used to be, in linear conflicts like Vietnam, Korea, you had to be in armor, infantry, aviation or field artillery to be exposed," said Maj. Paul Hayes, a former West Point military instructor who served in the Middle East in 2003.
"Now, if you look at the guys who have been killed, they've been a mix of everything. What branch you are doesn't matter."
Of the 58,000 Americans killed in action during a decade and a half in Vietnam, 273 were military academy graduates ? less than half a percent. The four-year Korean War saw similar ratios for graduates.
But in Iraq, a war increasingly fought in the urban confines of a hostile insurgency, roughly 1.3 percent of the more than 3,000 Americans killed were commissioned as second lieutenants at West Point.
That's three times the percentage of Vietnam, six times World War II ? and more than 20 times World War I.
To be sure, death tolls from Iraq are statistically low compared to other wars. Dennis Showalter, a military historian at Colorado College and former West Point professor, said drawing comparisons between conflicts based on samples so small is "apples and oranges." Four graduates have been killed in Afghanistan.
But others say the numbers are a macabre badge of honor for the Long Gray Line.
"Our junior officers are leading by example; they are out front," said Lt. Col. Kevin Farrell, a military academy history professor who commanded an Army battalion in Baghdad last year. "That's why they are at increased risk.
"But that's what we need them to do."
They call it a platoon leader's war.
Unlike past conflicts, with soldiers in large formations directed by commanders off the battlefield, the small units in Iraq have more independence. Targeted by insurgents, platoons led by the Army's youngest officers navigate the constantly evolving battlefield.
In many cases, it's leaders only months removed from West Point who are calling the shots.
"I'm just a guy with boots on the ground trying to keep his platoon alive," says 1st Lt. Cecil Wolberton, a member of the "Class of 9/11" who graduated from West Point in 2005 and is now serving in Iraq.
"I command a tank and am probably the most vulnerable one in my vehicle, because my head is out of the hatch and I am looking for IEDs," or improvised explosive devices.
"The rest of my crew, one sergeant and two privates, are safe down in the turret. I need to be in this position to best protect my tank."
Like other recent graduates, Wolberton, 26, is leading soldiers in a war that looks different from the days of "Shock and Awe" and "Mission Accomplished." There is no passing out candy in Baghdad anymore, no shaking hands in Ramadi.
Today's leaders are ducking sniper fire and avoiding roadside bombs as they try to piece Iraq back together.
On the ground, it's a different strategy from another long, unpopular war. In Vietnam, infantry platoons would typically head out with one lieutenant among dozens of soldiers, and the officer was usually well-protected at the rear or in the middle of the convoy.
The guys in the front took most of the bullets.
Retired Army Col. Seth Hudgins, a Vietnam veteran who heads West Point's graduate association, said risks to officers four decades ago were easier to anticipate.
"In Vietnam, at least you knew what direction you were going in. For the most part, that's where the enemy was," Hudgins says. "But in Iraq, you don't know where the enemy is. It's hard to train for, and certainly difficult to execute."
There are other reasons for West Point's mounting death toll.
For one, the Army has shrunk dramatically from a draft-fueled force to the all-volunteer army it is today. As such, there are proportionately more West Point-trained officers in the combat zone now than there were 30 years ago, experts speculate.
James Hosek, a military analyst at the RAND Corp., said choice is also playing a factor in the rising proportion of graduates' deaths.
"West Point graduates are disproportionately more likely to go into combat occupations," Hosek said. "They, in essence, are selected or choose to select positions that are risky and challenging.
"It could be that West Point officers are willing to enter occupations because they believe this is how they can most effectively serve."
USMA officials say that's true: Graduates do have some say in the fields they enter. Dangerous callings, like infantry, fill up first.
Capt. Timothy Moshier got out front early.
By the eighth grade, the 6-foot-2-inch soccer player from Bethlehem had set his sights on the Army. Good grades and a civic spirit were his ticket to the college of his choice. He chose West Point.
"It was the only place," says his father, Jim Moshier, who still lives in the Albany suburb where his son grew up. "I think Tim always had, at a very early age, a sense of wanting to serve others. There was just something in him that made him want to serve and protect."
But on April 1, Moshier's mission came to a premature end when his attack helicopter fell from the sky near Baghdad. Friends and family say he was at the controls of the Apache Longbow when it was taken down by "possible" enemy fire.
Moshier, 25, a new father and a young husband, died a war hero, less than four years after graduation day. He's buried in Bethlehem Cemetery.
"I wonder still, today, if the cadets get it," Katie Moshier, the captain's widow, said recently. "They are young, 18 and 19 years old, in the thick of it. Do they really understand what they are about to do?"
Most say they do get it: Reminders are constant. One by one, names of the war dead are sounded out during mealtimes in the massive cadet mess, high above the Hudson River.
Forty names, 40 reminders of the true cost of a West Point education.
Capt. James F. Adamouski, a 1995 graduate, was the first West Point casualty in Iraq. He died when the Black Hawk helicopter he was riding in crashed on April 2, 2003. Second Lt. Emily Perez, the first female member of the 9/11 class to die in combat, was No. 32, felled by an IED.
Moshier was No. 28.
War Has Gotten Safer for American ground forces.
New weaponry and overwhelming firepower have changed how the United States engages the enemy. Military medicine also has improved, and the use of body armor is now commonplace.
In World War I, 50,000 American soldiers died during five years of fighting; it would take six decades in Iraq at the current rate to match that toll.
And yet, the current war continues to produce a steady trickle of U.S. deaths ? most often by an elusive, indiscriminate weapon.
Pentagon data show that a third of all deaths in Iraq are linked to improvised explosive devises. Junior officers, who lead many of the patrols, are especially vulnerable, experts and soldiers say. According to the Pentagon, more than half of West Point's casualties were caused by IEDs.
But roadside bombs aren't the only threat. Academy graduates also are dying in helicopter crashes, small arms fire and targeted sniper attacks. One, Capt. Phillip Esposito, 28, of Suffern, was allegedly murdered by his own soldier.
Joe Sharrock, a West Point graduate who served as a company commander in Iraq at the start of the war, said he understands why classmates risk everything to fight.
The 1997 graduate has since left the Army and publicly opposes the war. But he supports his fellow academy graduates.
"I've heard of guys going back for a third time, and they are still going out on every single tour," Sharrock said during a recent telephone interview from Colorado, where he lives. "When they come home they don't go to their families first. They go to the homes of their dead soldiers.
"That's what is bred into us at that institution."
West Point-educated officers aren't the only ones bearing an inordinate share of the death toll.
A recent analysis of American troop deaths by Samuel Preston, a University of Pennsylvania demographer, found that the risk for Marine lance corporals is more than three times that of all troops in Iraq.
Not that anyone's counting.
"I talked to a spokesman, maybe the spokesman, for the Marines," Preston recalled in a recent interview. "I said, 'Are you aware of the high death rates for Marines in Iraq?' He said, 'Yes, but we don't want to publicize it. We don't want to embarrass the other services.'
"For the Marines," Preston said, "it was a badge of honor to have a high death rate."
As for Army officers, the Penn researcher found that first and second lieutenants were 19 percent more likely to be killed in action than all other Army ranks. Evidence suggests West Point graduates are bearing much of that burden.
According to the study, 64 junior Army officers were killed between March 2003 and April 2006. Nearly half ? 28 ? earned their stripes at West Point.
"When I was a cadet, I can only think of one time that it was announced over the loudspeaker in the mess hall that someone on active duty died," said Hayes, the former academy instructor and combat veteran.
Times have changed.
"They knew Emily Perez. They knew these people who graduated (and died in Iraq). That has an effect on cadets," Hayes said.
It's changing mindsets, too. At different times during their four years, students go from kid to cadet, cadet to soldier. Now, the steady drumbeat of Iraq is pushing the shift earlier.
"You're reminded every day that you decide when the real Army starts," Hayes said.
Or when it ends.