Want to know more? Get up to date with the latest stories about service members and how all six branches make a positive impact every day.
Rising high school seniors experience Military Day during second session of SLE
US Army | Jun. 22, 2023
With Reception Day for the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2027 fast approaching next week, generally a good portion of the new cadets will have never experienced West Point prior to stepping foot on the grounds for the first day of their 47-month USMA experience.
However, a group of nearly 1,000 high school students from around the country gather annually to peak behind the curtain similar to the “Wizard of Oz” during a weeklong immersion to understand what is expected of them in the academic, military, physical and social life of West Point cadets.
From June 3-17, during two one-week iterations, the West Point Summer Leaders Experience (SLE) pulled back the curtain to offer 987 rising high school senior cadet candidates a chance to experience West Point through many activities that challenged them mentally and physically while giving them unprecedented insight into whether or not USMA is the right fit for them.
Akin to R-Day, the cadet candidates received a mini-taste on the first day of inprocessing having to experience reporting to the cadet in the red sash, studying from a candidate knowledge sheet – much like the New Cadet Handbook during Cadet Basic Training – and reciting what they ascertained, learning how to march in a formation while receiving a good amount of West Point items such as T-shirts and a book bag.
At SLE, the cadet candidates explored all aspects of the academy, including its high-tech educational facilities and classroom instruction, team-building athletic activities and military training during military day. It allowed the cadet candidates to see what is required of them from the character, determination, commitment to excellence and leadership qualities to be a cadet at West Point.
During SLE, the cadet candidates were led by 55 West Point cadets with 39 squad leaders, five platoon sergeants, five platoon leaders, three cadets on the command team and three on the command staff, which is a part of their leadership detail and growth as leaders.
Class of 2025 Cadet Lucy McDaniels was tasked as the second squad leader for 5th Platoon during both iterations of SLE. Her job was to directly oversee 12 cadet candidates throughout the day and to “mentor them directly.”
“It’s been really nice to see the growth because they started off very timid and quiet at meals and (other activities), but as they’ve been here you can see the leadership values in them coming out,” McDaniels said. “They’ve been able to open up more and work together as a team, which is nice to see in young people.”
While learning about West Point may feel like drinking from a firehose in this environment, the key is for the SLE cadet candidates to make a well-informed decision to see if the academy is for them or not, which is an important job for the SLE cadet cadre to help convey through their knowledge of the academy.
“Being a part of SLE is teaching them all perspectives of the military academy as we teach them the military side, but we also have to teach them the academic side, which we have with the workshops,” said McDaniels, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, native and Army West Point soccer player. “Then we have the physical side and we showed them some of our (Department of Physical Education) classes and stuff like that. We gave them a taste of every single thing that they will be doing here as a cadet.
“We gave them a taste of R-Day, which they’re going to have during Beast,” she added. “We’re out here at the Anzio Obstacle Course (during military day) at Camp Buckner and they’ll be doing that during (Cadet Field Training) after their plebe year. They are just getting a taste of every experience that they will be a part of – I think it’s a good little taste of everything.”
McDaniels said for the cadet candidates to get the full SLE experience and get as much out of as they can, they had to be, “willing to ask questions.”
“Some candidates go through the motions, but to get the most they can out of what they’re doing here, they need to directly talk to cadets and the people who are currently going through it,” McDaniels said. “We have the best perspective of what the academy is like now. Talking to old grads and alumni is great, but we know what the academy has turned into and we have a better perspective of what they will be going through for them to make a more informed decision on their future.”
As for the cadets and working with one another as cadre, McDaniels enjoyed the experience of working with cadets with different majors and from different states and backgrounds from hers.
“They’re just really great people,” McDaniels said. “We have 10 (cadet cadre) in our platoon … they all have different leadership styles, so we’re all learning from each other throughout the process, understand what works and what doesn’t work. We learned how to create a more positive climate and how to build that professional relationship and bearing, which is really nice to see because you get to see other (leadership) perspectives.”
The 19-year-old Chemical Engineer major who hopes to become a combat engineer said this experience was extremely helpful to building her foundation as a leader as well as her cadre mates.
“It was a little challenging because none of the cadets knew each other before we started our (Leadership Training Program), so we all had to get to know each other on the fly,” McDaniels said. “But that was nice because we all came in with very different goals and that just made the team stronger because of its diversity. They’re very knowledgeable, they’re very well driven, they all have high goals for themselves, and I think the Army embodies that and I’ll be able to apply that when I commission.”
McDaniels, who will participate in a Physical Individual Advanced Development detail as a corps squad soccer player and Summer Term Academic Program this summer, was appreciative to her first platoon mentor this summer, Maj. Laura Beebe, a West Point Admissions Military Academy Liaison Officer, for her work with the cadre.
“She was fantastic because she sat down with each of us individually and joined us every night for our nightly meetings,” McDaniels said. “She took the time to work with all of us directly and see what we wanted to get out of this experience to make sure that we were.”
As for McDaniels, this leadership detail is just another building block toward becoming an officer combined with her other experiences through her first two years at the academy, which prepares the cadets well to when they put on their lieutenant bars.
“I think at the academy, you mature so quickly, and you learn so much every day that it doesn’t feel like two years – I feel like a 25-year-old, honestly,” McDaniels explained. “I feel like I’m ready to go (into the Army) and I know I’m not and know I have two more years at the academy but I feel like I’ve been here my whole life, and not in a bad way at all, I just feel like I’ve learned that much from being here.”
Unquestionably, as McDaniels gains traction as a leader through SLE, the other side of the coin is how the experience educates the high school cadet candidates about the academy.
The immersion experience allowed 16-year-old Alex Bond from Stuttgart, Germany, and the other 986 participants to get an accurate portrayal of what West Point is like and get better informed on what it has to offer them if they are accepted by the academy, and they decide to go to West Point.
“I think it’s unlike most college experiences and it’s definitely different from the tours I’ve gone on before,” Bond said. “I’ve been challenged physically, mentally, emotionally and, of course, militarily. This has been a completely unique experience, nothing like anything I’ve ever done before … I have never been told to crawl through mud, go through an obstacle course with a squad of people I hardly know. I’ve never been yelled at and told to do pushups or never had to eat in a massive mess hall or do any of this.”
Nevertheless, Bond isn’t fully a novice to what is offered in a military environment as his dad, Navy Capt. James Bond, has served 28 years in the service.
Bond said the Navy benefited his dad from the discipline learned over the arc of his career, and it definitely has influenced Alex throughout his life living in a military environment – no matter the service.
“I actually live on an Army base right now in Germany, so I have a lot of Army influence,” Bond said. “I do Army JROTC. I have also lived on Air Force and Marine bases, so I have a well-rounded experience with all the forces, and from that point of view, I can definitely say that the Army has the best leadership development opportunity for me, which is why I was most excited to be able to apply to the West Point Summer Leaders Experience as opposed to the Navy or Air Force.”
As for his SLE experience, Bond enjoyed collaborating with other high school students from all parts of the United States while also doing things with which he is not acquainted. During military day, his squad and all the others encountered a firing drill with a M240 Bravo shooting near them, which brought about some stress.
“It really brings you together when you’re in a stressful environment,” Bond said. “You have to take leadership; you have to stand up. I think that military day is the most informative for me. I would say I’ve had the most personal growth today as well as from the whole week because I was being pushed out of my comfort zone.”
The one thing he learned from coming to SLE – which only about 40% of its annual participants end up coming to the academy – is that it is completely different than what he expected. He thought they would be taught and led mostly by military officers, however, to his surprise that was not the case.
“When you get here, you are surrounded exclusively by cadets who are similar in age to you but are very good leaders,” Bond said. “If I’m being honest, this experience has been very helpful for me in deciding my next step. I would say I’ve been pleasantly surprised and I’m ready to go through the application process. I would be very happy if I were accepted to this school.”
He was definitely impressed by the leadership the cadets displayed during his week at the academy, especially those who are only about three-to-four years older than him.
“They are only a few years older than me, but they have much more life experience,” Bond said. “It is interesting to hear from people who really understand you on an emotional basis … and I don’t want to sound cliché, but it almost feels like a family.
“Everyone here is able to work together and work cohesively because we all have faced similar struggles through our times, and I think that’s been really beneficial to experience,” he added. “I’ve developed a great relationship with my sergeant and platoon sergeant and some of the other cadets I’ve met at this SLE experience.”
As the cadets projected their solid leadership throughout the week, Bond imagined himself as a cadet and the progress and growth he could make toward becoming a leader of character.
“When I first came here, I was very overwhelmed the first day, certainly the first hour,” Bond said. “However, I was thinking that these leaders who I look up to were in the same position I am now just two or three years ago, and it really shows how much development you can fit into such a short amount of time. They carried us through, and it’s almost amazing how cohesive they are and how dedicated they are, especially dedicated to the values of this school.”
Even though his dad is in the Navy, Bond is leaning toward an Army career because of not only what it can do developing him professionally, but helping him become the role model he wants to be when he is older, and West Point would be a great launch point toward that from his perspective.
“I believe that West Point will help me develop not just as a leader, but a person who is committed to a set of values,” Bond said. “I think it is crucially important to hold core beliefs to heart and to always try to never break them. I think the Army embodies its values very well, and these are the values that I think every American can agree with and stand behind.”
Bond said that anyone who is thinking about doing SLE in the future should “100% follow through on that ambition.” For him, he considered coming to SLE to be “an amazing experience.”
A couple words of advice that Bond expressed is when someone prepares for the SLE experience that he or she should make sure he or she is physically fit, mentally strong and ready to work with a team.
“I think people come here with a negative mindset or come here unsure of the experience, and I think it negatively affects them,” Bond said. “I would encourage everyone to look into this experience and understand what the Army stands for and what this school stands for and the benefits it provides to its cadets. I would recommend that you are able to do some pushups, do some running, do some obstacle courses because when you’re working with a team, you always want to work together, and you want to make sure you can pull through together.”
And with a strong enthusiastic tone, Bond wanted to leave one lasting message before his SLE graduation and return to Germany until his hopeful return to West Point in June 2024, “I would like to say, ‘Go Army, Beat Navy!’”