NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In the spring of 2002, President Bush spoke at the graduation at the United States Military Academy, the 200th class to graduate from West Point, which had long since been tagged with a nickname.
President GEORGE W. BUSH (United States of America): West Point is guided by tradition and in honor of the Golden Children of the Corps...
(Soundbite of audience cheering)
President BUSH: I will observe one of traditions you cherish most as the commander-in-chief. I hereby grant amnesty to all cadets who are on restriction from minor conduct offenses.
(Soundbite of audience cheering)
CONAN: The Golden Children, their parents and their families then heard one of the most important speeches of George W. Bush's presidency, where he laid up the policy of pre-emption. Few who listened could doubt that these young men and women would soon go to war.
President BUSH: You graduate from this academy in a time of war, taking your place in an American military that is powerful and is honorable. Our war on terror is only begun.
CONAN: Bill Murphy Jr. tells the story of the West Point Class of 2002 in a new book, "In Time of War." He was Bob Woodridge's research assistant, also covered the war in Iraq for The Washington Post. He joins us in just a moment.
Later this hour, Ariel Levy of The New Yorker and her profile of Cindy McCain, but first, if you are or were in the Armed Forces, how did September the 11th did change your life? Tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Bill Murphy Jr. joins us here in studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. BILL MURPHY JR. (Author, "In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002"): Thank you, Neal. It's pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And I don't think any of us listening today were ready for what happened on September the 11th. Was West Point, the college that trains the Army's leaders, the school that envisions itself as the greatest leadership school in the world, was West Point ready for September the 11th?
Mr. MURPHY: Yeah, that's a good question and I think West Point has been asking itself that question for quite some time. I suppose the answer is that they were as ready as they could have been, given the state of the Army. You know, in 2001, when the cadets that I wrote about went to West Point for that, you know, when they went there as freshmen or plebes, it was the summer of 1998, and at that time a hardship tour in the Army, if you said that phrase to someone, they might think a year in Korea, six or nine months in Bosnia, and obviously, by the time that they graduated it was a radically different story.
CONAN: You tell the story through the very personal lives of some of that graduating class, including Todd Bryant that we heard a bit about him in the introduction of the program, and Drew Sloan, who we'll be talking with in just a moment. But tell us about this graduating class. As they entered West Point, it was suggested, thinking they would be starting careers in a peacetime army.
Mr. MURPHY: I think that's true. I think, actually, we had a generation of soldiers, you know, since the time of Vietnam, who came out of West Point and were prepared sort of coiled-like springs, if you will, to go out in the Army and do what they've been training for four or more years, when you consider their other training as well. And the irony, I suppose, is that for, you know, for going back to the early 1970s, class after class graduated but on that day of graduation, the country was never in conflict. That's not to say we didn't have small wars, the Persian Gulf War at Grenada, et cetera. But - yeah, these were the first ones, and of course, there's a long gray line behind them, as well. You know, this is just the first of many classes that have graduated into this conflict.
But these are the first ones, and I thought it would be really interesting to see if I could follow them for the full five years that they were committed to serve in the army and just find out, exactly like you said, how did 9/11, which happened, of course, at the start of their senior year at West Point, how did it really affect their lives and the lives of the people who loved them?
CONAN: And the lives of the people who loved them. Well, also with us here in studio 3A is Jen Bryant, the widow of Todd Bryant, who, of course, as we mentioned, graduated in that class. It's very good of you to be with us today.
Ms. JEN BRYANT: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And you were there listening to that speech?
Ms. BRYANT: The graduation speech, yes. I was sitting in the stands and I remember those exact words, in a time of war, and thinking to myself, this is going to define not only Todd's career but probably our lives.
CONAN: There was a cocoon that Bill Murphy Jr. describes, that the world of West Point, of marches and formal dinners and dress uniforms. Was there a realization at that moment that this world was about to change substantially?
Ms. BRYANT: Of course there was. We - his brother and sister - my husband's brother and sister were already serving overseas at that time, and you're hearing reports of, you know, that a war was going to be starting, that some kind of - that we were going to take the war to the enemy, as he said, and so that's when I realized that it wouldn't be the glamorous life that he let me to believe of traveling to Germany and Italy and places such as that. But really having to deal with, you know, him serving in a war, in a conflict, and worrying about him and all that.
CONAN: Bill Murphy, there is also the sense that these men were trained for this. They were eager, as you describe it, to find out what it would be like to lead men in battle.
Mr. MURPHY: I think that's true. I don't want to go too far with that. I never really sensed any, you know, blood lust or anything like that.
CONAN: I'm not talking about that.
Mr. MURPHY: I understand. I think it's - imagine someone who went to medical school and graduated and they wanted to get into surgery, or someone who goes to law school and they want to get in the courtroom. I think, you know, people who graduate from West Point by and large are there because they want to serve as officers in the U.S. Army at least for five years. And yeah, they were eager, certainly early on. I think there was some concern that the war might be over before they actually got to join it.
CONAN: Jen, was Todd worried the war would be over before he got there?
Ms. BRYANT: There was definitely a sense of that, especially because his older brother and sister were serving over there, so he didn't want to be left out, so to speak. But at the same time he knew just how huge it could be. So no one ever really wants to go into combat but you do want to fulfill your duty of serving your country, putting to use the skills that he learned to be a leader at West Point.
CONAN: And I have to ask you, was it easy - did you ever have the conversation about what would happen if he got hurt or killed, and was it easy to have that conversation?
Ms. BRYANT: That's never an easy conversation to have. It's not one that he would want to have, of course. He loved life and didn't want to think about that possibility happening and of course, neither did I. And even with the possibility of it happening, he never truly believed that it could happen, but we put the conversation off several times and first just dealt with the practicality of it of, you know, the bills or his will or whatever else. The night before he left was when we finally got into, well, if something does happen to me, here's how I want you to live your life, or here's where I want you to burry me or those kinds of things.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guests again are Bill Murphy Jr, he's the author of the new book, "In Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002," and Jen Bryant, the widow of Todd Bryant, who was a member of that class. And let's begin with James and James is with us from Seattle in Washington.
CONAN: James, are you there? James is - oh, James, are you there?
JAMES (Caller): Yes, I am.
CONAN: Go ahead, please. I'm sorry.
JAMES: I agree totally on the point like she was saying. I totally agree with her on everything. You know, like the West Point grads are waiting to go to war. You know, you just never know when your number is called. We're just a bunch of numbers basically in the military, but that's how (unintelligible). But you know, you're trained and you're ready and some people, unfortunately, when they're on the service, they don't get that time to do battle or do a humanitarian relief mission, you know. And it's like they want to do it. They are eager to do it but never get that chance.
CONAN: What about you?
JAMES: I did a couple of them, yeah. I got the chance to do a couple of humanitarian relief missions like helping evacuees in the Gulf War. I mean, you know, I had a brother who passed away (unintelligible) right before I left. I dedicated my service time to him and God, you know, and I pray to God everyday. That's what our country is about, you know. You know, you're trained and stuff and you want to basically do it right away, you're anxious to do it, but sometimes you don't get the opportunity to ever do it. That's a real downfall for a serviceman or for a lawyer or a doctor. I know exactly what they're talking about and I can relate to them.
CONAN: Well, you said you were in the Gulf War. Were you still in the service on 9/11?
JAMES: No, I was - I was actually in basic service. I went back and joined the National Guard with the '91 Bravo, which is sort of a combat medic. I volunteered, and I don't know if it had anything to do with my age, me being older, but I basically said, I'll go to Iraq. I volunteered myself. I wanted to go so bad, you know, because I had that taste in my mouth, you know, to go help people. You know, I have a big heart and that's what I'm about. I never got to go to Iraq, you know. I went to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War but I never had the chance to actually go and fight. So I lost my opportunity, unfortunately. I wish I would have because I've got - you know, a lot of my friends, they get their (unintelligible). You know, I'm all about serving my country and my people and that's how I look at things, from that perspective.
CONAN: James thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
JAMES: You're welcome.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Tom, and Tom's with us from Baltimore in Maryland.
TOM (Caller): Hi, Neal.
TOM: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
TOM: I was a - I was in the active army for five years and got out right before September 11th and joined the National Guard. And through a couple of deployments that I missed, I finally got called up through the backdoor draft and served a 22-month deployment, 10 months of training and then one year in Iraq as a UAV pilot.
And how it changed my life, well, it was - I got married to my wife four days before I got deployed. And so we spent the first two years of our marriage separated and that was pretty hard. And - but the surprising thing is even though I protested the war and I was against it completely, coming through the crucible of going to fight for my country actually led me to have an increased patriotism, an increased love of my country, to know that I loved it so much that I would still go and do this even for a cause that I didn't think with just.
CONAN: UAV, you were flying drones from where, Bakuba?
TOM: From Bakuba, primarily, but we also moved down into the Sunni Triangle out east, closer to Iran, and we jumped around a lot.
CONAN: And Jen, I'm sure you can identify with that first two years of marriage being pretty much separated.
Ms. BRYANT: Of course. We - Todd shipped out nine days after our real wedding, so it was a complete whirlwind. The day after our wedding I drove him down to the Philadelphia airport and we said good bye, and I saw him two days later when I'm on my way back to Kansas, so being separated so soon afterwards, not even having a honeymoon or even a few nights just to absorb it all was very difficult.
CONAN: Yeah. Tom, how's it been going since you got back?
TOM: Well, it's been going pretty well. I have some - some depression and alcohol abuse issues because, you know, it took a lot out of me. But things are doing a lot better now. I'm actually staying at home with my twin girls and going and finishing up my school right now, so...
CONAN: I guess you got over that separation thing. Congratulations on your children, Tom.
TOM: Thank you.
CONAN: And good luck to you. Stay with us. We're talking about the men and women of the West Point Class of 2002, the first to graduate after 9/11. We'll take more of your calls, as well, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In his new book, "In Time of War", Bill Murphy Jr. tells the story of the 2002 graduating class at West Point. When they started at the academy, the Army's biggest challenge was to identify possible threats. Then came 9/11, and many in the class of 2002 went on to serve on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan as junior officers. We'll talk with a member of that class in just a moment.
If you are or were in the Armed Forces, how did September 11th change your life? Call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Bill Murphy Jr. is with us, and there's an excerpt from his book, "In Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002," on our Web site at npr.org. Also with us, Jen Bryant, her husband Todd Bryant, a member of that class. He was killed in action in October the following year. And let's see if we get another call on the line, and this is Maui(ph). Maui, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.
MAUI (Caller): Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead, calling from Chicago.
MAUI: Yep. My call's for Jen, and I almost apologize for asking this question just because I hope it's not a painful question. But I would imagine in your situation, when you saw some of the reasons for the war question and all those kinds of things, different thoughts might have been going through your head. Can you just - can you explain maybe a little bit what you were thinking, or how it impacted you to have the war questioned, given that your husband gave his life in the struggle?
Ms. JEN BRYANT: Well, of course, it makes you question quite a few things because one of the arguments people bring up was that we're over there for no reason or, you know, for reasons that aren't good, and you want to think to yourself that your husband's life meant something, that he died for a reason, that it wasn't in vain or wasn't for someone else's agenda. And so that definitely bothered me because I didn't want to have his sacrifice lessened by their sometimes ignorant comments or, you know, not well thought out.
And how I deal with that is just by realizing that he signed up to serve his country because he believed in something bigger than himself. And his favorite thing was to quote Voltaire and the, "I may not agree with you, but I will defend with my life your right to say what you're saying." And that was his ideal, so that's what I had to keep in mind.
CONAN: Bill Murphy, you should also explain that he came from a military family, as we mentioned. His two oldest siblings were already in the war.
Mr. MURPHY: Yes, that's absolutely true. Both of Todd's parents were Air Force officers, and his older brother is still a Marine officer and his older sister preceded him by two years at West Point. And she, you know, within - you know, that time period we're talking about, his brother served in Iraq and his sister is in Afghanistan so it's definitely - he definitely came from a military family, a family with a lot of tradition.
CONAN: Maui, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
MAUI: You're welcome. Thanks, Jen.
CONAN: Joining us now is Drew Sloan. He's a graduate of West Point's class of 2002 and a former Army captain. He's one of the men Bill Murphy writes about in his new book, "In Time of War". He's with us from our bureau in New York, and nice to have you with us.
Mr. DREW SLOAN (Former Army Captain): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And you did not come from a military family.
Mr. SLOAN: No, absolutely not. My grandparents were in the army here in World War II, but aside from that, there was really absolutely no military backround. My mom was a high school teacher and my father was a college professor.
CONAN: And not necessarily - when your time came to go to the war, they were not necessarily supportive of your - not supportive, but questioned, to some degree, your decision to go to West Point and then questioned the war afterwards.
Mr. SLOAN: Well, that's partially true. My parents were always completely supportive of me doing what I wanted to do. I think early on, I wanted to go to West Point, starting ninth grade. And early on, they realized this is something I was actually serious about, much to their disbelief. They were worried, I think, about the war, but at that point in time when I was going to West Point - I'm sorry, not about the war, but about West Point. When I was going there, there was really nothing to worry about, as Bill mentioned. You may have been looking at a tour in Bosnia, maybe Kosovo, but really, there was no concern.
CONAN: And of course, that changed just as your senior year was beginning. And as you thought about what you were going to end up doing, did it change your perspective?
Mr. SLOAN: No - yes and no. I found out junior year after some experience at West Point that I was going to be a (unintelligible) officer. And knowing what the imagery does, that when the war in Afghanistan broke out and then subsequently the Iraq war, I knew what I was getting - as much as anyone can know what they're getting into, I knew what I was getting into, and it didn't changed it. I'd say it kind of hardened my resolve and made me very, very proud of what I was doing.
CONAN: We asked Bill earlier whether West Point was ready for what happened after 9/11. Do you think that you were properly trained for what you were going to go into?
Mr. SLOAN: Well, what West Point does is not necessarily train you in technical military skills. They train you in sort of leadership traits in the idea that you'll pick up the rest along the way. And I would say, once I got through four years at West Point and then moved on to (unintelligible) basic course and particularly Ranger School, I felt I had a fairly good idea, that I was trained as a lieutenant in the industry should be.
I would say that on a whole, the Army wasn't necessarily ready for what it was getting into. In Afghanistan, in particular, Afghanistan wasn't Iraq and it was half-humanitarian - it wasn't Iraq and it wasn't Bosnia, it was kind of a hybrid between the two, and as such, the training that we did in my unit in Hawaii was kind of a mixed hybrid between the two, as well.
CONAN: It's still got to be a really scary occasion the first day you take over a platoon, though.
Mr. SLOAN: It is. It is, in fact, I obviously show up to Hawaii, walked in to see my company commander and he said, all right, good. We're going to the - we're going to Macau(ph) training area out in Oahu(ph), and I met my platoon pretty much in the field and had to lead them through a kind of a react-to-contact type drill on the first day. That's a bit - it's a bit intimidating.
CONAN: In a way, they're training you.
Mr. SLOAN: In every way, they're training you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's see if we can go now to Tony, Tony's with us from San Jose in California.
TONY (Caller): Yes, this is Tony. Hello.
TONY: I'd like to first offer my condolences to Mrs. Bryant. Thank you for your service.
Ms. BRYANT: Thank you.
TONY: Many people don't remember that the spouses are the ones, you know, taking care of the family behind, so many thanks to you, ma'am.
Ms. BRYANT: I appreciate that.
CONAN: Tony, go ahead.
TONY: Well, basically, 9/11, I was in boots(ph), as you say, down in Monterey, at the Defense Language Institute, one of the best language learning facilities in the world. I enlisted August of 2000, and I was sent to language school for Korean, of all languages. This is, you know, in 2000, when we thought Bosnia and North Korea were some of the hot spots. And I remember going to formation the morning of September 11th, and my first sergeant saying to me, saying to us, all of us in formation, we're at war. You know, this is - this may not be fully announced, it may not be formalized, but hug your family, take care of your finances, and start training hard because there's something down the road.
CONAN: I guess that Korean didn't come in too handy.
TONY: I'm learning Iraq(ph), which I just came back from in February.
CONAN: And so how long were you there?
TONY: I was there for almost a year.
CONAN: So this has really changed the course of your entire life, these last seven years.
TONY: I would say so.
CONAN: And what was the experience like?
TONY: It wasn't a cakewalk, I can tell you that. I was enlisted, so perhaps I was different from the previous caller, but in all the ways that, you know, war informs your experiences, it's definitely different from the way the media portrayed it. But at the same time, you know, Iraqis are the same as us, and whatever training West Pointers get and whatever training the military gets, it's always a work in progress.
CONAN: And are you still in the service?
TONY: I am, and my unit, based in Walker's Field, actually, just shipped to Iraq for training last week. And because I just came back, I didn't have to go with them. But it's likely that they'll tell me to go somewhere else in the next few years.
CONAN: Tony, I can't tell you how much we wish you the best of luck.
TONY: Good luck to you, too.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Let's go now to Crystal(ph), Crystal's with us from Paducah, Kentucky.
CRYSTAL (Caller): Hi, yes. I guess my comments are that I come from the generation that enlisted in the Army right before 9/11, in 1999 and 2000 and early 2001. I was engaged to a gentleman who was an MP when 9/11 happened. And everything kind of changed that day. Our outlook on life changed, you know. The reason you signed up for the military was suddenly irrelevant. It didn't matter if you signed up for the benefits or the G.I. Bill or anything like that, it didn't matter. What mattered now is that you had to serve your country and chances are, you know, something was coming down the line and you're going to be asked to serve in the combat zone. And it was a very, very scary time for all of us. A lot changed that day.
CONAN: What happened to you?
CRYSTAL: Well, our relationship kind of fell apart after that. Suddenly, it wasn't, you know, our planned life of, you know, being stationed in Texas and starting a family, that all kind of changed and suddenly we didn't know what our plans were or where we would be or what was going to happen, and things kind of fell apart. You know, he went his way and he's still active duty, he's been in Iraq a couple of times. You know, I kind of went my own way, and I was propelled into politics because of it. You know, I wanted to make sure that my voice was heard and I made a difference and that this was not going to happen again.
CONAN: Bill Murphy, a lot of the people you write about went through very similar experiences.
Mr. MURPHY: They did, and you know, it's a humbling experience to have written this book because there's story after story after story like this. And you know, one of the hardest things was to recognize that as a writer with a responsibility to a reader, you can't possibly tell all the stories. It's just - there's a litany of heroism and heartbreak that's just over and over, and you know, I'd like to say thank you to all the callers that have called in that have served and welcome home.
But I also hope that people understand that, you know, the West Point class of '02 was historical and important. But I hope that the larger thing that the book will do is to maybe in a small way kind of bridge the gulf between those of us who are in the military and don't have friends and family in the military, and those who have, you know, devoted everything to the military over the past several years.
I hope people will get to know people like Jen and the others that are - and Drew, of course - and others who are profiled in the book and maybe just come to understand a little more about the rhythms of army life and, you know, the burdens some of these people have borne and how well they have borne them.
CONAN: And Drew, Crystal said that she's inclined to politics now, and I understand you might be, too.
Mr. SLOAN: To one degree or the other. Right now, I've thrown my support behind Barack Obama and doing some work for his campaign and others like Representative Murphy in Philadelphia. We're at that stage at this point.
CONAN: And what are you doing now, just so listeners know?
Mr. SLOAN: I am a JOLE degree at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School, and this summer worked for Dr. Amory Lovins out at Rocky Mountain Institute dealing with some energy security issues, some centered on how the military can actually use energy efficiency to improve their endurance capabilities and their ability to be more resilient against an energy attack.
CONAN: I can't help but think that your education at West Point, your experience in the army, do so much to inform that.
Mr. SLOAN: It does. It's been very - it's funny. The military doesn't necessarily leave you, as I mentioned earlier, with a lot of - a lot of technical skills, the imagery certainly doesn't, there's not a lot of use for being able to set in an ambush in business school, But you ...
CONAN: Oh, you'd be surprised.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SLOAN: But what it does do is it gives you a sense of kind of the vastness of the world and, you know, how cultures interact and how people interact and how important those interactions really are. And I feel that's really what the military gave me, was the sense that, you know, that your initial way of thinking about how to do something might not necessarily be the best way, given the context of the situation.
CONAN: Crystal, thank you very much for your call and good luck to you in your political career, too.
CRYSTAL: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about Bill Murphy Jr.'s new book, "In A Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002." We're talking with a member of that class, also Drew Sloan and with Jen Bryant, the widow of Todd Bryant, who was in that class. You're listening to Talk of The Nation from NPR News.
And Jen, I just wanted to pick up on what Bill was talking about a moment ago. Sacrifice. A lot of people in the military, a lot of military families call and tell us they feel that they have been asked to shoulder this amazing burden without the rest of the country being asked to make the same kinds of sacrifices.
Ms. BRYANT: They're not necessarily asked to make the same kinds of sacrifices but what is important to us is their support, is understanding that like the other caller was saying, you don't necessarily sign up just to serve your country or to serve in a time of war but you serve for some greater purpose, and that's why my husband did it. That's what so many of the West Point class 2002 did, was because they wanted to serve their country.
And as far as me shouldering a burden or any part of that, it's, you know, when I decided to marry him I knew that that was going to be my life and that that was a possibility, and even though they don't make the same kinds of sacrifices, it's just having that support is very important to us.
CONAN: Here's an email we got from Greg in Arizona. "As a young man just graduating from high school, I worked for Karl Koch Construction, making the floors for the World Trade Center, collapse of which may have been the cause of the towers falling. When the towers were hit by the aircraft, I was working with a launch crew on a USAF EC-130. I was totally shocked when the aircraft crew chief told us what had happened. We didn't believe him at first, but when he came back and told us the second tower had been hit, I wanted to cry or yell or something. A month later, I was in West Asia supporting Operation Enduring Freedom."
And let's get one last caller on the line. This is Mike, and Mike is with us from Goldsboro in North Carolina.
MIKE (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
MIKE: Yeah, I'm currently serving in the Air Force and I heard Crystal spoke about the different generations and how she's from the pre-9/11 generation. I'm kind of from the immediately post-9/11 generation. I - when 9/11 happened, I was 19 and, you know, like most 19-year-olds, thought myself to be invulnerable and not really thinking about anything outside my own little world. And when it happened it has made me feel something inside that, you know, I didn't know existed, and so I decided to - I stayed stood over for a little bit and I ended up going to the recruiter and talking to him. ..TEXT: Plus, I was raised by a single mom and had got a lot benefits from the government so I felt I should give something back. And now, speaking of the generations, again, we have a new generation coming in now that I'm seeing in our young troops that were in elementary school when 9/11 happened.
CONAN: Hard to believe, isn't it? Does it make you feel old, Mike?
MIKE: Kind of.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MIKE: And so it's different how - the different generations went. Some people joined for different reasons and I joined as kind of a response to 9/11, and now these new guys don't really - they know about the war but they don't see the connection between 9/11 and the wars going on.
CONAN: Yet they are there to serve their country, too.
CONAN: And they've joined at a time when they know that things are not as - going to be easy.
MIKE: Yes. And it's just interesting how different things are happening, like that these - they just don't have the same kind of like - kind of like they were saying that Americans aren't seeing the same burden that we have. They kind of were not really seeing what was going on and how it has progressed.
CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Mike, thanks very much and good luck to you. Are you still in the Air Force?
CONAN: All right. Good luck to you.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We're going to take a couple of more calls, if you don't mind, after the break. We're with Bill Murphy Jr., he's the author of the new book, "In A Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002." Also with us is Drew Sloan, who was a graduate of that class at the United States Military Academy, and Jen Bryant, the widow of Todd Bryant, who was in that class, as well. You're listening to Talk of The Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us.
(Soundbite of music)
In just a moment we'll talk about Cindy McCain, the woman who would be first lady. But right now, we're continuing our conversation about the graduating class of West Point of 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. Our guests include Bill Murphy Jr., he's the author of "In A Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002." Also with us, Jen Bryant, the widow of Todd Bryant, who's a member of that class, and Drew Sloan, also a member of West Point's class of 2002. If you go to the Web site, inatimeofwar.com, there's a chapter of the book you can read, also a video where you can meet many of the people that you'll read about in the book.
But let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and why don't we go to Darren, Darren with us from Oklahoma City.
DARREN (Caller): Hello, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Darren.
DARREN: Hi. I was calling because I was kind of on the flipside of West Point during this time frame. I enlisted as an enlisted soldier in the military at the 19 Delta Calvary Scout and reported for one station unit training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, August 15, 2001. I was in week three of my basic training. We were actually qualifying with our rifles for Basic Rifle Marksmanship, September 11, 2001. Needless to say, the ensuing about two and a half to three months of training were a little bit different from the beginning of the cycle.
CONAN: I imagine people started shooting a little straighter.
DARREN: Yeah. Well, one of the main differences, Neal, was in the way that our drill sergeants addressed us. We sort of almost essentially went from being, you know, the civilian troops trying to make the transition into soldierhood to being treated a little more seriously and more like soldiers, and our training was ramped up to a more serious level.
I did deploy to Iraq in March of '04 with 17 Cav of first Calvary Division from March '04 to March '05, and the very next year my best friend, who was also 19 Delta, was killed in Iraq. I would say that the greatest impact that it has had on me is a lot like what you've had from some of your previous callers is - it was almost a reassurance of my patriotism. And I got out and immediately enrolled in college. I'm currently a college student with about a year left on my IRR(ph) contract, which is just the timeframe in which you can be called back to service. When I had reenlisted into the reserves, just to kind of take care that last several years that I can stay in school, and as soon as I complete school, I'm planning on returning back to duty.
CONAN: Darren, first of all, I wanted to tell how sorry we all for your loss. I wanted to ask Drew Sloan, you probably never met Darren, but I think you met a lot of people like him.
Mr. SLOAN: I did. And there's always - when you're sitting up in Harvard or anywhere back in the States and you've been over to Afghanistan or Iraq, it's - you have moments where you just remember all the people you served with over there who aren't coming back. I never knew Todd Bryant, but you know, I can picture what his memorial ceremony over there would have been. I was a general's aid for one of the American generals over in Iraq and one of the things that he always does, he attended every single memorial ceremony for every single soldier who was killed over there. So I saw one just about every day, and it's sobering. And it's sobering then and it's still sobering today.
DARREN: Neal, if I could just say one more thing before you let me go to Ms. Bryant. Mrs. Bryant, one thing that I say to anybody I know who has lost a loved one there and the way I feel very strongly about my friend whom I lost the year after my deployment, is whether or not it's a good cause, whether or not we should be in Iraq, the one thing you can always know that your husband did sacrifice his life for was for the soldier to the left and the right of him, and guys like me who got to come home alive. Every day that I get to live a good life here in the States, I'll make the most of it and I'll never forget that gentlemen like your husband sacrificed their life so that I could have that opportunity. Thank you.
Ms. BRYANT: Thank you for saying that. I appreciate that very much and I'm sorry for your loss, as well.
DARREN: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks, Darren. Let's get one last call. This is Kyle, Kyle is calling is from Hartford in Connecticut.
KYLE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to call and I, myself, am a 2003 graduate of the United States Military Academy, as is my wife, actually. We both have done two tours in Iraq. I was with the 2A Cav, my wife was in the First Brigade in the headquarters there. And I wanted to express my thoughts that I think that West Point does an excellent job within the confines of being a college as well as a military training establishment while preparing the graduates to be platoon leaders. I was able to get a platoon shortly after graduating. My first platoon, actually, they had been in combat already for a few months when I showed up. Anytime you take a new job in the military, there's some on-the-job training that happens...
CONAN: I especially imagine in that situation.
KYLE: Yes. And I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my NCOs and my soldiers for the way that they helped me get my feet under me and hit the ground running. But the academy did a tremendous job preparing me, as well. My first week there, I knew, I was told a number of times that it was possible - and this was in '99 - that my first platoon would be one that I would take in combat. And that's something that was stressed to me throughout my time there. I think they do a great job of preparing within the confines of being a college.
CONAN: 2003, your five years is just about up.
KYLE: Actually, my wife and I just separated from active duty in June and we're still in the reserves.
CONAN: So you may go back yet.
KYLE: It's possible. We hope not to, as we're trying to begin our lives as civilians. We've done two tours already, totaling 27 months each.
CONAN: Kyle, thanks very much.
KYLE: You're welcome.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Before we leave, Jen Bryant, what are you doing now?
Ms. BRYANT: I'm actually teaching high school in Manassas, Virginia. I teach biology there, which keeps me very busy, getting involved in the kids' lives and involved in the school.
CONAN: I imagine that can be a tough job at times, too.
Ms. BRYANT: It can be, but it's very rewarding in its own right.
CONAN: Thank you so much for being with us and sharing your story with us today.
Ms. BRYANT: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Also, our thanks to Drew Sloan, a graduate of West Point's class of 2002, with us from our bureau in New York. Drew, thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. SLOAN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And Bill Murphy Jr. was also with us here in Studio 3A. His book is, "In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002." Thanks a lot, Bill.
Mr. MURPHY: Thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: We'll be back with the story of Cindy McCain in just a moment. Stay with us.
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