Justin Bramlage remembers bouncing a racquetball against a wall while talking to his mother.
“I said if I feel like this Monday morning, I’m ... getting the paperwork to quit,” Justin said. He was in his plebe year at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the year his mother Ruth describes as the pressure cooker year. He told his mother there was a 99.9 percent chance he was quitting.
Several times during that first year, Justin questioned his decision to attend West Point. “You ask why a lot,” he said. “You volunteer, nobody made you go there. (You ask) ‘why am I volunteering to get pounded like this?’”
But he stuck it out, and in May graduated from the historic institution.
The first year was rough. On top of an 18-19 hour class load, Bramlage and the other plebes started their day with breakfast at 7, a break for lunch, then classes until 4 p.m., followed by two hours of athletics, plebe duties for one hour and then homework from 6 to 7 p.m., or “until I was done or too tired to stay awake.”
Not even the weekends were safe, as cadets had mandatory training on the weekends.
Bramlage was exhausted.
“When he would call home, I could hear the weariness in his voice,” Ruth Bramlage said. She joked that “we told him we didn’t really prepare him enough because we didn’t yell at him.”
But by the end of the year, Justin knew he wanted to stay.
Lots of phone calls home got Justin through the rough parts of a year that he and Ruth said is designed to weed out those cadets who aren’t quite West Point material. Roughly 23 percent of Justin’s plebe class would not graduate — only 970 of the class’ original 1,251 members would make it through to the end.
“Once the plebe year is over, all the people that are done developing you ... get that first name,” Justin said. “That means a lot, so you realize it’s not personal, it’s all professional.
Bramlage’s Yuk, or second, year was calmer. “It mellowed out as far as the life in general,” he said, though academics got harder. The second year affords cadets a little more responsibility and more privileges.
“It’s like you’ve made it this far ... you’re in the first stages of actually learning,” Justin said.
In the Cow year, or third year, cadets get even more responsibilities, including some command opportunities. But that’s also when the cadets get into courses in their major. For Justin, that major was geospatial information science, which he said deals with things like Google earth and satellite imaging. “I’ve always been interested in maps and mapping things,” he said
That summer, Justin completed an internship for Geoff Davis in Washington D.C. where he handled military issues, before heading on to cadet troop leader training in Arizona. That, he said, was his best summer.
Assigned to a rescue squad, Justin trained with a unit whose specialty is combat search and rescue. They went into drop zones, watched jumps, did some scuba operations, team hikes and more.
“It’s just like a month of shadowing people that will do what you do,” he said. While there, in addition to meeting more great people, Justin got to hike the Grand Canyon.
And then comes the First year, or senior year.
“They say you finally figure it out when you’re ready to leave,” Justin said. “You know what’s coming, (there’s a) kind of comfortableness.”
Firsties are expected to run the Corps, he said, holding leadership positions. At this point, classes are no larger than 15 students, and Bramlage had the home phone numbers for all his instructors. “I could set up additional instruction time any time I needed to,” he said.
Coming to the end felt really good.
“Instructors were like, you’ve gotten what you need from West Point, let’s focus on what you need to take out of this for your commission,” Justin said.
It was a time to think about the responsibilities that would be handed to the next class, where he would be going next, what the list of orders would be and more.
And, well, there was a little time for naps, Justin joked.
“The schedule is winding down a little, there’s a little more free time to work out more,” Justin said. It’s also the first year for unlimited passes. Where as previous years, particularly the Plebe year, cadets have duties almost every weekend.
Everything at West Point is top notch, Ruth noted. Justin agreed saying that the atmosphere was very competitive, and while there was something for everyone, everyone still had to try out for what they wanted to take part in.
West Point wasn’t all work and no play, there were, of course, many trips. As a member of West Point’s Glee Club, Justin sang at a variety of different events, including the Fiesta Bowl in 2007 and a Yankees game.
“The biggest thing that was exciting about that, everybody was leaning over the stands, thanking us,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to have someone recognize things like that. It wasn’t why we were there, but still nice to have.”
The diversity at West Point was interesting, Justin said, with his class graduating the first Afghani cadet. West Point boasts cadets from every state, and at least 17 foreign countries.
Though the experience was, at times, grueling, Justin looks back on his years at West Point fondly. “I think I learned that true success comes from making other people successful,” he said.
“It’s all about building a team, and building relationships. That lesson was taught so many times over. It’s not where you’re at, it’s who you are with.”
Cadets, he said, are placed in a pressure situation where they have to depend on other people. And he learned that no matter what happens, no matter what homework doesn’t get done, the sun always rises.
“I think mostly you just learn that no matter what comes, it’s never so big that you don’t have the resources,” he said. “It’s never so pressured that you don’t have the time to accomplish it. Then you wake up the next day and realize you got it all done.
“It’s a matter of what you’re willing to put up with ... to get the end result.”
And there simply is no denying the impact the academy’s history has on cadets.
Now that he has graduated, Justin is enjoying a 60-day leave before he reports to Ft. Lee, Virginia for 14 weeks of ordinance specific training. From there, he will be qualified to go to a unit and fill a position as ordinance platoon major. His first assignment will be in Hawaii.
Initially, he thought he wanted to be an infantry officer, or airborne ranger. “Then I realized I don’t like sleeping in the mud, carrying heavy stuff around,” he said with a laugh. Instead, he will manage resources and people. That was a tough adjustment to make. “Just because you’re not an airborne ranger doesn’t mean you’re not a soldier,” he said. “For every guy that’s out there pulling the trigger, there’s seven guys supporting him somewhere.”
West Point, both Ruth and Justin said, isn’t out of anyone’s reach. And despite the strenuousness of that first year, Justin said anyone who is interested in going should give the application process a shot.
Not only did he learn a lot, Justin said West Point set him up. “Everybody else that’s out right now is looking for a job, and I’m not,” he said. “That’s a load off.
“The people you meet and the lessons you learn are worth putting up with a little bit of what you have to go through.”
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