West Point will never leave me. Ever. It remains in how I walk [march], the fact that I cut my hair only slightly longer than regulation length, the ease with which I slide sirs and ma’ams into conversation, the way I point with my fingers formed into a knife’s edge, the scar on my left knee, the pair of ACU [digitized camouflage] pants I wear to hike South Florida’s mangroves, the straightness of my back when I sit, the manner in which I stare down those who irk me, the dreams I have once a week [more frequently if I am stressed] where I am forced back onto campus to complete my final two years at the Academy, the tones my ears will never again hear, the constant apologies for asking acquaintances to repeat themselves in loud settings, the ability to read topographical maps, the countless chokeholds and arm bars to which I subjected my friends, the sudden, unforgiving wave of suffocating misery that temporarily drowns me when I think of my dead Team Leader [the closest, most understanding mentor I had as a Plebe (freshman)], dead Platoon Leader [a wonderful Firstie (senior) who taught me invaluable leadership lessons], and dead friend [he always smiled], the broken relationships and poor decisions that resulted from my inability to understand the tightly-packed ball of bitterness and frustration I carried out the gate, the involuntary spasms I felt in my cheeks after laughing at a joke [those muscles had atrophied from a lack of smiling], the grandmother I never mourned because leave was cut two days before my flight home for her funeral, the empathy I share for those who are rejected and marginalized, the love I have of physical and mental challenges, the importance I place on true friendship, the degree to which “important” individuals do not intimidate me, and the thought that problems cannot possibly be as difficult as others believe because at least I am not waist-deep in a Catskill Mountain swamp with a broken leg, forty pounds of equipment on my back, and a foot I cannot remove from the mire because the two fragments of bone that compose my shin separate every time I attempt to pull my blasted boot from the godforsaken mud.
I left West Point after two years. That was in 2007.
The day I decided to leave culminated in a three stooges-esque series of blunders and misfortunes. I arrived at a camp in the middle of the woods the summer before my Cow [junior] year to train up the rising Yucks [sophomores]. This was two months before I would sign the papers that gave my next seven years to the U.S. Army. I was directed to a large tent with twenty other Cadets, their cots, and gear. When I placed my own equipment in the only available spot, I soon realized why no one else had claimed it—it was already occupied by a large, muddy puddle into which I had just placed all of my summer’s possessions. Great. I extricated my things from the pool and went in search of a cot. Along the way, I banged my knee into the metal corner of another cot, slicing it open and exposing white bone underneath. Blood cascaded down my leg. When I sought out the medic, I was told that he had already left for home, forcing me to use porta potty toilet paper to clean the blood the best I could, as there was no running water. Having already wasted two hours, I asked where I could acquire dinner, but was unceremoniously informed that the food had been put away and would not be returned until morning. Abandoning my search for sustenance, I grabbed the only cot I could find, dragged it back my muddy puddle, and assembled it only to find that it lacked an end piece—ensuring that my legs would be left dangling in midair when I laid down. And there I lay, unshowered, with a bleeding, exposed kneecap, empty stomach, soaked belongings, and levitating legs.
Just when I thought my situation could not possibly get any worse, it began to rain. I quickly discovered why my cot was an island in a tiny, muddy sea. The tent had a hole situated directly above me. As the droplets steadily, rhythmically tapped my face, I did not move or cover my head. I did not even look away. I just absorbed the magnificent panoply of pure, distilled, unadulterated suck that providence had showered upon me that day. This was terrible. It really, really terrible. Why was I doing this to myself? I could not answer the question. While the water soaked into my pillow and shirt, I thought about the previous couple of years. Jesus, I was unhappy. Why did I put up with two years of misery? Try as I might, I was unable to answer the latter question either. A smile of self-realization crept slowly across my face. I rose from that accursed cot and limped into the rain in search of a phone to tell my family I was coming home.
So why was West Point so difficult? Sure, I was exposed to an exceptionally rigorous academic schedule where I took 23 credits in my first semester. Sleeping four to five hours a night for weeks on end became habitual. The dehumanization and hazing was often pretty bad during Plebe year. The stress and sense of feeling hopelessly overwhelmed crested during my Yuck year. Few people like rucking [the Army’s version of hiking] for days with a heavy pack in the summer heat. But the exhaustion, the physical and psychological rigor, were not why I chose to leave. The reason for that lies in my background.
I am a Cuban-American who did not speak English until he was five years old. I attended a middle and high school that was founded in the Old Country over 160 years ago [Fidel Castro was a not-so-esteemed alumnus]. If you should learn one thing about Cubans, it is that we are loud. Very, very loud. And proud. And loudly proud of how proud we are to be loud about being Cuban. Also, I was born and raised in Miami, the most proudly loudly Cuban municipality to be nominally incorporated into the United States. My second distinguishing characteristic is that I “don’t look Cuban.” My hair is dirty blonde and my skin is white, making me appear nothing like Desi Arnaz, Pitbull, or Ricky Martin [he is Puerto Rican, by the way, but that did not stop many from making the breathless comparison]. Assuming that anyone “looks Cuban,” of course, ignores the fact that the island absorbed waves of immigrants from Lebanon, Ireland, Germany, Spain, England, the Philippines, Haiti, Turkey, Korea, and China, not to mention the forced exodus of millions of African slaves. But this demands historical and ethnographical nuance, which may, of course, be asking for too much.
It would be very easy for me to write that West Point was simply an intolerant environment that forced me out because I failed to conform. But doing so would paint an incomplete portrait. I did not help my situation. Not at all. Indeed, at least initially, I gleefully hampered it. You see, the Army is all about uniformity. Hence the uniforms. And the haircuts, marching in formation, universal affinity for acronyms, etc. Nevertheless, I waltzed into the Academy with my big, loud Cuban mouth, and did not make very many friends as a result. There was instant pushback. Individuals insisted I take off my cross, stop speaking Spanish with the other Hispanic Cadets, and stated that they were unsure if I would remain loyal to the U.S. should war break out with Cuba. So, being trained in the exquisite Cuban art form of not taking crap from anyone, I wore my cross outside my uniform, spoke only Spanish for an entire day, and asked which side my compatriots would choose at the commencement of the upcoming and inevitable confrontation with the United Kingdom.
I realized things were getting ugly when, early in Plebe year, I stated at a meal that immigration reform was moral and necessary. Man, was I unprepared for what happened next. The nine other Cadets at the table—upperclassmen and my own classmates—simultaneously and reflexively commenced berating me. Not to be outdone, individuals from other tables bolted over, surrounded my chair, and joined the cacophony. I yelled back for a while, but eventually, I shut my mouth and just took it. A portent of things to come.
As a good Cuban boy, I made my heritage known with some frequency. This inevitably jump-started the following conversation:
Cadet: “Wait, you’re Cuban? You don’t look Cuban.”
Me: “How many Cubans do you know?”
Cadet: “Ricky Ricardo and Pitbull.”
Cadet: “But you can’t be Cuban because you don’t look like them.”
Me: “Well, you see, Cubans are a community within the larger Hispanic ethnic group. Ethnic groups are not races in themselves, but umbrella terms for individuals who might share a common history, culture, language, and food. Hence why you can have someone who looks like me, someone who looks like Desi Arnaz, and someone who looks like Celia Cruz as members of the same ethnicity.”
Cadet: [After giving me a blank stare for a good three seconds] “I don’t care, man. You can’t be Cuban.”
Me: “Me cago en ti y en la gran puta que te crió.”
Cadet: [I was actually told this multiple times] “Dude, it doesn’t matter if you speak Mexican. That doesn’t make you Cuban.”
And this was how they finally got me to shut up. When I was called a Mexican, janitor, spic, Fidel, drug dealer, Communist, rafter, affirmative action Cadet, Scarface, boat rower, lettuce picker, the lawn service, and spot-stealer of a deserving non-Hispanic White, I simply hurled back what I thought were far more inventive insults. But people quickly learned that the best way to get under the skin of this loud-mouthed Cuban was not to offend his ethnicity, but to deny it altogether. For someone who was so proud of his background, this was torture. Being Cuban American defines so much of who I am. By refusing to acknowledge that fact, it felt like my fellow Cadets erased my very essence. It was terrible. Everyone piled on. The Plebes, Yucks, Cows, and Firsties in my company all joined the game. I got it every single day from dozens of people. And it worked. I eventually shut my mouth. I walked into West Point with a plátano, bistec empanizado, and tostón-fueled grease fire roaring in my belly. When others tried to extinguish it with their weak, watery slights, it simply grew hotter. But they found a lid, placed it over the flame, and pressed down with the collective weight of the entire, centuries-old U.S. Military Academy. The embers still burned, the pressure still built, but the conflagration was out. Though I found companionship among other marginalized groups such as the Hispanic [6% of the population], Black [7%], female [14%], and foreign exchange Cadets [2%], I always had to return to my company. I was always pushed back under that lid.
I was not cognizant of the root of my misery the day I decided to leave the Academy. It took many, many years to dig out the source of the overwhelming sense of resentment, anger, and frustration that I brought back home with me. I just knew that I was miserable, and would certainly remain so if I did not make up my mind to leave on that rainy night.
Try as I might to disentangle it, my experience at West Point persists as a knotted contradiction within my mind. It is my greatest source of strength and weakness. I am very proud of my time on the Hudson River. I was pushed harder and farther than I ever thought possible. I draw upon that whenever I encounter new challenges. I even cheer for the Black Knights [a predictable exercise in futility] once a year when they face down the Navy goat. I made friends for life and gained invaluable skills. Just as importantly, West Point taught me what systemic oppression feels like, giving me great empathy for others who are unable to escape the experience after just two years.
Conversely, I still begrudge the crushing sense of defeat I felt. I still resent that I pushed away friends, family, and lovers because I was an emotional lockbox for years afterward. There is a part of me that wishes I had gone to the University of Florida after high school and been a drunken fool with the rest of my friends. Yet there remains another piece that would never surrender the trials, hardship, and triumphs I went through. Those two years were my crucible. I came out far stronger than when I went in. Would I do it again? I do not know. Am I grateful I did it? Yes.