12/06/2012 11:20 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Religion Among the Ranks of the Long Gray Line

This week a former West Point Cadet named Blake Page wrote this piece detailing his contempt for the policies, procedures, and what he regarded as overall criminal behavior and treatment during his time at the Academy. Ultimately, Page decided that his experiences and what he considered to be a harsh and unconstitutional bias against him was too great. He opted to leave the Academy mere months prior to graduation. As he had already signed the official final commitment to join the Army, his future now resides in the hands of leadership. I submit, however, that while Page's feelings and perceived experiences may be very real, they do not produce a truly accurate portrait of the Academy or the reality of the typical cadet lifestyle for the religious and nonreligious alike.

I am a son, a brother, an African-American man, a Veteran, a Christian, a liberal and a proud graduate of West Point. Those titles aren't boxed away neatly in separate corners of the room for me. I live with each piece in my heart in some capacity on a daily basis. No one item defines me, and no single word or phrase can truly encapsulate who I have fought long and hard to become. With the same strength of emotion that I feel in my family's love or my own pride in my country, I feel the reverent spirit in the hallowed words of "Beat Navy." To an outsider, I know that probably seems ridiculous, but I still remember the first time in the fall of 1997 when I went on a recruitment trip of West Point and Cadet Area. I watched a formation of the 3rd Cadet Regiment on the Apron and instantly fell in love with the place. I could discuss West Point's history of forging leaders or its commitments to the principles of "Duty, Honor, Country," but at the end of the day it was a myriad of things much beyond simple stories and lecture that won me over. I was a scrawny 17-year-old kid from South Carolina with few military ties looking to change the world and be a part of something great. I truly believed that the Academy could be my path to that end. And just as important to the younger version of me, I could give back to my country as I found my way. I wasn't a military zealot, nor was I indoctrinated into some form of groupthink.

I'm not going to say that every experience is perfect and right and just up there near Bear Mountain off the shores of the Hudson. We often called it "Castle Grayskull" for more than the shade of the granite it is carved out of. Then again, I don't believe things there should always go according to plan. It's the premiere military academy in the world, and it's the last place in this country and on this earth that should be easy. My memories are filled with everything from the camaraderie of "Plebe Birthday Parties" -- that's when freshmen hold an Upperclassmen hostage on his or her birthday and douse them with everything from cake to shaving cream -- to the sheer lunacy of being afraid to deliver someone a year older than you his laundry in fear of being yelled at for not remember some piece of innocuous knowledge about the school. When you compound that with the fact that its students may be no older than 23 by graduation, you find that many stories of growth, frustration, constant change and evolution emanate from the very soul of its hallways. Such change has manifested itself in recent days through the first same sex wedding held at the Cadet Chapel. A school, that not less than a decade ago could not allow its student body to express their true sexuality in fear of professional alienation and retaliation, was now hosting its first same sex marriage. That's nothing short of remarkable. Further still, I vividly remember days in the field during Beast Barracks (Cadet Basic Training) and Camp Buckner (Cadet Advance Training) filled with discussions on gender, race and religion because these were topics that would hit all of us "square in the mouth when we became leaders in the 'Real Army.'"

Did religion often make its way into the discussions? Of course; how could it not. We all knew that we might have to one day make our way onto a battlefield, fight an enemy dedicated in seeing our demise, and bring those under our charge home safely. Mission First, Troops Always. So it definitely wasn't out of the ordinary to see Cadets who found their more religious tendencies coming to pass during their time at West Point. What I find troubling, however, is the thought that some might say certain religious ideals were continuously forced upon them during their time at the Academy.

Many faiths and denominations are openly welcomed at the Academy. For Cadets and officers alike, there is a Catholic chapel, a synagogue, and an interfaith center for Muslim and other religious services. But more to the point here, no one is forced to attend anything. This fact may seem surprising from a place that makes you eat no less than six meals a week in a family-style mess hall with people you make or may not like. This is not the hand of a draconian hierarchy at work. Believe it or not, USMA leadership often chooses the least abrasive method in dealing with Cadets because they understand that these individuals are young thinkers who must be allowed to grow and expand their understanding of their surroundings so that they might become better leaders for our nation's military. No one is going to say that the military will be, can be, or even should be a non-religious entity; but, at the same time, military officers respect the privacy and religious choices of individual Cadets and Soldiers daily. Religion is everywhere in our society. Just look around at this time of year, and you see it on a multitude of levels. It just happens that in the military -- a place where you may very well meet your end far away from your home and loved ones -- religion becomes more prevalent and personal for many. To believe that you can somehow make the military less religious is to believe you may be able spontaneously grow gills and live under the sea.

My words are not to make light of the issue, but to call a commissioned officer or an NCO a criminal because they have a strong fear of their creator or asks Cadets to take into account their own religious beliefs when discussing morality isn't shameful or even repugnant. It's downright immature and as ridiculous as my joke about growing gills. Challenging Cadets, officers and NCOs to have meaningful discussions on all facets of Army life is one of the many reasons why the Academy exists. Rather than running away from the thought, we stress the need for critical thinking. Is that hard to do in an atmosphere like West Point? Absolutely. But we revel in the difficult and solve the impossible. We members of the Long Gray Line have been taught to run to the problems and do what we can to help set things straight, and not run away cursing the ground of those who don't hold similar views as we retreat. Anyone who would look to engage in the latter should indeed look for opportunities elsewhere. For me personally, I will continue to, among and perhaps above many other things, aspire to Beat Navy in all that I do.