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WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The U.S. Military Academy's Department of Military Instruction hosted its first Branch Week, Sept. 10-15, bringing in several hundred tons of military equipment, vehicles and weapons for the academy's spin on a college career fair.
While the tanks, attack helicopters and armored vehicles attracted crowds, the week-long event was really an opportunity for the Corps of Cadets to learn about the various career fields they will either enter after graduation or work with in joint operations.
To that end, dozens of uniformed officers and noncommissioned officers representing the 16 branches provided cadets with insight into their professions.
Capt. Eric Tolska, 1-150th Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey National Guard out of Joint Base McGuire, came to West Point on the same UH-60L Black Hawk he flew over MetLife Stadium for the N.Y. Giants home opener, Sept. 5. After a few hours at the academy he was becoming familiar with cadet rank and how close they were to making their branch selections. Parked next to his helicopter on The Plain was an AH-64 Apache with Capt. Steven Lancianese from Task Force Night Hawk, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, Fort Drum, N.Y., who was also answering cadet questions.
Lancianese said most cadets are focused on a 50-meter target, meaning their questions center on the most immediate objectives ahead, like flight school or being a platoon leader. Lancianese knows this all too well, as a member of the Class of 2006. He said the academy's effort to expose the entire Corps to all the branches at once is a good idea as indicated by the type of questions he's fielded throughout the week.
"These are all questions they can find out on their own and information they can get from their instructors," Lancianese said. "But they want to hear it from a pilot; they want to get the information from people in the field right now and I think it's good for us to come down here this week."
Class of 2014 Cadet Kyle Cardillo, Company I-4, made a beeline toward the aviation displays early Tuesday morning. Like Lancianese, his desire to become a pilot developed at an early age.
"I knew when I came to West Point that I wanted to be a pilot, so that's obviously my top choice," said Cardillo, from Bellingham, Wash. "Now it's just a matter of cycling out my B and C plans, and those constantly change. All the branches do cool stuff and they all have unique missions. So it may come down to that night before Branch Night when you think, 'What do I really want to do?' and then submit the top three choices."
Lancianese said more than 100 members of his class were selected to become aviation officers, and it's more competitive than some would think.
Cardillo said he needs to work harder to improve his class standing to ensure he makes the cut for aviation. Last year, he completed the required aptitude test and will schedule the flight physical shortly, as he checks off all the requirements toward his goal.
"Then I just need to demonstrate to the branch that this is where I want to be," Cardillo said.
There were more than a few West Point graduates participating in Branch Week. Second Lt. Nargis Kabiri, Class of 2010, is a field artillery platoon leader, and introduced cadets to the Soldiers she brought from 1-321 Army Field Artillery Regiment from Fort Bragg, N.C. They demonstrated teamwork in operating the light artillery weapon called a "Triple 7," or more properly known as the M777A2 medium towed howitzer.
Three graduates joined forces during a branch panel discussion to represent the Engineer Corps. Capt. John Chambers, a 2006 graduate, serves as the chief of training for the Sapper Leader Course. He spoke to cadets alongside 1st Lt. Rachel Neasham, Class of 2009, and 2nd Lt. Michael Eckland, Class of 2011, both of whom are serving as platoon leaders in the 57th Sapper Company at Fort Bragg, N.C. Maj. Anna Maria Slemp, a Class of 1995 graduate, joined her husband Maj. Timothy Slemp from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to represent the Military Police.
In years past, branch education has largely been presented to upper-class cadets with a Branch Day organized each summer for rising yearlings during Cadet Field Training and subsequent junior leader panels to allow cadets to gain perspective from various branch proponent officers.
Branch Week serves to consolidate those events and organize activities to educate the entire Corps. It involved an integrated effort with faculty encouraged to discuss branches in the classroom, lead tours of branch equipment and review mission capabilities. Cadets in the Military Science, or MS200, course are required to write a paper listing their top three branch choices and explain why they are suited to those branches.
Cadets in the Class of 2013 and 2014 rotated through three branch panel discussions at Eisenhower Hall. These also allow squad and team leaders to pass on their knowledge about branch missions to the members of the Class of 2016 and lead them on display tours.
Maj. Dallas Cheatham, DMI's infantry and armor branch representative, said by shifting the focus away from just the upper-class cadets, it has become a stronger four-year program to benefit the entire Corps. Previous events mostly centered on combat arms, whereas Branch Week is all-inclusive.
Cheatham said this will help cadets to think about their choices early on and avoid making any misguided or uninformed decisions.
"We are revitalizing the way cadets learn about these branches and Branch Week allows us to bring in all the branches at once so we can focus on cadet education," he said. "Now all four classes are involved."
Cheatham said most senior cadets have narrowed down their branch preferences into a top three list and have had opportunities to hone their decisions while conducting Cadet Summer Training and Cadet Troop Leader Training programs. In addition to Branch Week, the junior cadets will have one more summer of military training to assist in making their branch choice.
"A lot of times we assume the cadets, being who they are and where they are, already know this stuff but that's not the case," Cheatham said. "So we have to put in the extra effort to get them smart about what they want to do for the rest of their careers."
Staff Sgt. Danella Coleman wanted to share the ever-expanding role of the Chemical Corps in the Army with cadets. She said they were surprised to learn about all the equipment used by the Chemical Corps to accomplish its jobs.
"I tried to tell them why they need to be a part of the Chemical Corps and what they can get out of it," she said. "We're the best of the best. We travel here, there and everywhere and you can use these skills when you leave the Army."
She thinks her message got through to more than a few cadets.
"I honestly do, because I saw cadets coming back here who wanted to see more of what we do and ask a few more questions," she said. "They wanted more in-depth information and to learn more about what opportunities they would have if they came to the same unit I'm in (the 22nd Chemical Battalion, Technical Escort Unit, Aberdeen, Md.)."
Class of 2016 Cadet Pablo Zuniga, Company D-1, took advantage of the vast array of Army knowledge spread out in Central Area.
"I really like this opportunity because, for me, the whole idea of planning ahead and being ready to follow through on a goal and a mission to accomplish -- it's nice to get started so early," said Zuniga, from Chicago, Ill. "Getting this now, we have four years to adjust our schedules and adjust what we are aiming for so we can focus toward a goal of what we want to do and how to get there."
Class of 2014 Cadet Emily Monk, Company H-2, said Branch Week was a great opportunity to explore Army careers, and because it is a week-long event, what she didn't get to visit one day will still be available the next.
"For me, it's a great chance to learn more about what each branch is all about, so I can make a more informed decision about what I want to do," Monk, from Rochester, Minn., said.
She said because not every class previously had this amount of branch orientation before, Branch Week was a unique event she hopes will be available every year.
Though his focus is on aviation, Branch Week allowed Cardillo to learn about other branches that interest him, and those he didn't know much about. Branch Week aside, cadets can get the information they need from their tactical officers, noncommissioned officers and military instructors, he said.
"They are really open to talking about their experiences," Cardillo said. "The branch reps here are easy to find too. It's really a matter of how much you, as a cadet, want to go learn about the branches. The opportunities are there and West Point makes them available, but you have to make the effort to talk to people and ask questions."
The week of branch orientation ends Sept. 15, following the Army-North Illinois football game with a Combined Arms Tailgate where cadets can speak with branch leaders in a social atmosphere.