Landscape of parade platoons standing ready in courtyard at Westpoint Military Academy

Yesterday I received a surprise package in the mail. Leaning up against my door was a long, narrow box, addressed from my brother, Trey. I brought it into the house and eagerly unwrapped yards of bubble wrap. Inside was something I thought was lost forever.

Flashback…

I didn’t take a standard route through college. Many of you know I graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, way back in the first decade of women graduates.

Area Bird in Full Dress Gray Under Arms

The author as an Area Bird in Full Dress Gray Under Arms

My path wasn’t easy, and at times I made it even more difficult for myself, testing the boundaries of the rules and regulations and serving commensurate tours “Walking the Area”– a time-wasting punishment spent silently pacing the quad between the barracks. Area tours were only made tolerable with covert activities such as whispering a passcode in a slow Telephone Game, or Area Tag, where would try to knock rifles out of each other’s hands while passing back and forth. (Those who know me will be shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to hear of these shenanigans.)

Despite many hurdles, I, along with my classmates, committed to “the Profession of Arms” on the first day of classes our junior year. This means we accepted the 5+ year service obligation post-graduation, and took on new leadership responsibilities as cadets. I recommitted to my leadership journey and buckled down.

That didn’t erase the challenges:

  • Academic – 18-21 credit hours each semester to earn an Engineering Degree in addition to our majors, plus demanding internships. [Read my Horses & Generals article about my unique internship.]
  • Physical – Mandatory intramurals, P.E. classes such as combatives and survival swimming in uniform, and Army fitness tests with the added challenge of running past the sewage treatment plant.
  • Leadership – Intensive military training during the summers, earning leadership positions in the cadet rank structure, and creating a strong squad/platoon/company/battalion/regiment that excelled at academics, sports, and military discipline such as drill & ceremony—as a team.

As a “bonus” for female cadets, every day meant proving ourselves at the academy while enduring hostility, harassment, a lack of support systems, and, worse, exclusion. Women comprised only 10% of the class back then; today it’s close to 25% due to expanded Army officer slots for women.

Firstie Year

West Point cadets parading on The Plain in tarbuckets with feather plumes, cadet barracks in the background.
Photo by Tommy Gilligan/PV, flickr.com/photos/west_point

For every cadet, getting to “First Class” (senior) year was a big deal. We were finally on top, and the countdown to graduation was in focus. “Firsties” got a uniform upgrade: more stripes on our sleeves, feather plumage for our “tarbucket” parade hats, crimson sashes, and best of all, we traded in our heavy ceremonial wooden stocked M14 rifles for sabers

Technically swords with their straight blades, our nomenclature nonetheless was “sabers,” and we carried them proudly on the parade field. The saber represents an achievement few can claim, as well as each cadet’s future commitment to Army officership and service to the nation.

West Point Firstie at graduation. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Fincham

It’s such an integral part of West Point culture that upon graduation, many cadets buy their sabers and present them to their parents or loved ones.

I did, and the saber was so special to my parents that when they later split up, shared custody of the saber was written into the divorce agreement! They traded possession every other year. 

 

The Missing Piece

Disply box with West Point uniform, sash, and saber, with Tarbuckets and memorabilia

Disply box with West Point uniform, sash, and saber, with Tarbuckets and Plebe knowledge

As a result of the back and forth, as well as purges

from my parents’ home moves, the saber went missing. It hasn’t turned up in years—not even when I cleaned out my mom’s house after her death.

 

My husband has his saber in a display case his father made,

 with my sash and his uniform trousers. Our tarbuckets and plumes sit in front, and our Bugle Notes of Plebe knowledge sit atop the case.

Guests in our home often ask me where my saber is. I’ve had to sadly inform them it was missing in action.

 

Until yesterday.

Shrouded in all the bubble wrap was a shiny scabbard I’d know anywhere.

 

I unsheathed the familiar blade. It gleamed, remarkably tarnish-free! Hmmm, I spied some fresh traces of Brasso on the hilt. 

 

My saber comes home

Homecoming

It turned out that my brother had found the saber while helping my dad move his belongings to storage. Not only did Trey send it to me, he spent a long time polishing the saber before shipping it out. An act of service, a love language.

Me, Dad (a Sergeant Major), and my brother Trey

Trey is a former Army Aviator who had just enlisted when I completed West Point, and he got a pass from Basic Training to attend the graduation.

He later became a Warrant Officer, earned his Air Cav spurs, and served a full career in the Army. I’m pretty sure he never had to Brasso a single thing as a pilot!

 

He never carried a saber, but he knew how much mine meant to me. This surprise was a show of respect for the symbol of my service, as well as a love note for his sister.

 

I am humbled by his thoughtfulness, and I am humbled to have served.

Salute to Service