WEST POINT, N.Y. — With combat in Afghanistan winding down, members of the U.S. Military Academy's Class of 2014 insist they're equally prepared for the alliance-building future outlined by President Barack Obama at their graduation ceremony Wednesday.
But some of their mothers are breathing easier.
"We are relieved, but because they serve in the military I think there's always a cloud of 'What if?' and 'What's next?'" said Lynn Sheree Lesmeister of Anoka, Minnesota, flanked by two of her sons, Michael and Jeffrey, minutes after they graduated from West Point. "But at this point it's nice to think that some things are not an option."
Obama told the 1,064 graduating cadets that they were the first West Point class since the 9/11 attacks that might not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. While stressing that the world was still a dangerous place, the president used the speech at the storied Hudson River academy to call for a higher "threshold for military action." He called for partnering with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.
For the new second lieutenants, that could mean working with diplomats instead of firing artillery. But the graduates — drilled for four years on duty, honor and country— said they were ready for whatever is ahead.
"We always know that something will happen somewhere," Michael Lesmeister said. His older brother Jeffrey Lesmeister said he was simply looking forward to leading soldiers and will follow the commander-in-chief's foreign policy.
"I'm going to go wherever the country needs me to go, so it doesn't really matter to me," said Daniel Heckman of Norcross, Georgia, who is headed into the infantry. "Some people might get the impression that being in the infantry is like being a football player and being in combat's like the Super Bowl and everyone wants to go to the Super Bowl ... but like President Eisenhower said, war is not so great." Obama had quoted a speech Eisenhower delivered to an earlier generation of West Point graduates.
The new officers have graduated at a time the Army is downsizing from 570,000 during the peak war years to 450,000 by 2017, and possibly fewer if automatic budget cuts resume. The reduction to 490,000 by October 2015 will include forcing out about 3,000 officers, cutting careers short well before they would become eligible for retirement benefits.
Graduate Jessica Wagner of Plymouth, Massachusetts, said she believes her class could go to the Pacific or Africa on more humanitarian-oriented missions. She added some of the points in Obama's speech about the military's evolving mission have been known here.
"When we all came here," she said, "we all assumed we were either going to Iraq or Afghanistan, then I think it was my freshman year they announced we weren't going to Iraq and more recently they said Afghanistan."
She said she had been preparing whether or not war was looming.
But her mother, in the stands during Obama's speech, called out "woo hoo!" when the president mentioned Afghanistan being a less likely place for the graduates to end up. Laureen Wagner said it relieved some stress.
"The reality sets in each year," the proud mother said. "You worry about them not getting through, then you worry about them getting through and what's going to happen."