Reunions remind us of both who we were and who we would want to become

I recently returned from my 35th Reunion at West Point. Sadly, I had lost touch with many of my classmates over the intervening years since graduation. Yet, I walked away from the weekend with a renewed sense of connectedness. We have literally spent a lifetime of shared experiences that even time and distance cannot erase.

That journey started with the military. The Army is a strange beast. If functions most efficiently with brilliant innovative leadership, but it demands, and cannot exist without, stringent conformity. Anyone who has gone through basic training has experienced the fundamental process. The military is very good at breaking people. Everyone starts as an individual. The mission is to take those individuals, all of whom want to go in their own direction and have them function as a cohesive unit able to respond rapidly to orders.

At West Point and in most extensive training regimes, the process while extremely sophisticated, is really very simple. They put you under stress, both physical and mental. If you prove capable or remain separate from the group, they simply ratchet up the pressure. At some point everyone breaks down. Sooner or later, the individual falters and must rely on assistance from others. If the group fails to act together, the pressure is increased until it understands that the only strength, the only chance at success, is by becoming one-the whole is stronger than the sum of the parts.

Once everyone is broken, the process is reversed to build leadership back within the group. Through these experiences, I have developed a unique perspective. I have come to define leadership as “the ability to get someone to do something they would not necessarily have done of their own volition.” After all, jumping out of the trench and charging a machine gun is not in one’s own self-interest regardless of how important that may be to the group.

All of us had traded in that deadly serious profession of training soldiers for war. Some had their metal tested in battle. A few that had stayed in for the long haul had truly become our country’s warriors. Most of us had ultimately pursued other endeavors, but the lessons learned were never far from the surface. Such was the nature of our relationships and reuniting with that group brought all of that joy and pain back to life.

Perhaps the most poignant moment came during the Class dinner. A small packet was laid down in front of each member of the Class of ’79. A classmate acting as the Master of Ceremony instructed us not to open it right away. He then launched into a series of hilarious anecdotes about our time together at the Academy, the Army, and beyond.

Along the way, the tone veered away from the light-hearted and ventured into more serious ground. Like the rest of life, the happy and funny are counter posed with the serious and sad. As he spoke, memories came flooding back, different yet somehow the same as the specific stories he related. The gist of each, regardless of whether a time of personal tragedy or great triumph, was that when he reached out, one of his classmates was there to do what had to be done, without question, with excuses, and without need for recompense. Each act was something beyond the expected, but the obligation understood.

As he closed, he asked us to open the class gift. It was a pen with an eagle atop, but inside was a poem by Rudyard Kipling, The Thousandth Man. In his words, “One man in a thousand, Solomon says Will stick more close than a brother…Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend On what the world sees in you, But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend With the whole round world agin you.”

His commentary was that in a world in which integrity and loyalty are rare, the room was full of Thousandth Men or as Shakespeare put it,  a “band of brothers.” I was humbled and honored by the words. Throughout my life, I have served with many and here in Kingsport I have met a few. But in my heart, I wonder if I truly live up to the tribute. We each struggle with our weakness and vanity. Our hope is that when the hour comes, we can prove ourselves to be counted among that honored group.

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