Tradition hangs heavy in the air at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a stern, granite complex on the steep bluffs above the Hudson River. Intimidation radiates from its history-rich presence, as palpable as the sodden humidity of an August day.
Gesturing with outstretched arm across the Plain, West Point's marching field, is the oxidizing likeness of George Washington, who once made the site his Revolutionary War headquarters. In a beehive of classrooms behind massive wooden doors, heads with short-cropped hair bend over open textbooks. During cadet assemblies in the courtyards, swords glint in the sunlight and white-gloved hands snap to foreheads in salute.
All of which makes it not terribly surprising when high-sounding pronouncements about such things as discipline, honor and sacrifice issue from the eager lips of Kristin Baker, the recently chosen first captain of the Corps of Cadets.
Ask her about the role of the modern-day military, for example, and you may as well have pressed a button for a "Be All That You Can Be" commercial.
"More than anything else, it's a peacekeeping force," she says. "It has to be ready instantly to defend the nation. And when you sign the oath to support the Constitution of the United States, you've got to be willing to go out there and give whatever it takes to defend the U.S. and its traditions. I'm just one of many who signed that oath, and there's no difference from one to the next. The only difference is the capacity in which you serve. But the sacrifice is the same."
Academic, Athletic Performance
Early this month, Baker, a 21-year-old psychology major and self-described "Army brat," was chosen as the first female to lead the 4,400 cadets at the 187-year-old institution. One person each year is selected brigade commander and first captain based on academic and athletic performance as well as military prowess. In addition to serving as commander, the first captain is responsible for the cadets' performance.
Baker, born in North Dakota, calls Virginia home because most of her high school days were spent there. Her father, an Army colonel and West Point graduate, was recently made commander of a base in Yuma, Ariz., one step away from a one-star general. She laughs, pointing to an insignia indicating academic excellence on her lapel. "But I got my star first."
Although unabashedly confident about her leadership abilities ("How can other people have confidence in you if you don't have any in yourself?"), she still is adjusting to the historic significance of her position, the academy's highest honor and one held in the past by Douglas MacArthur and William C. Westmoreland. But the new first cadet, whose family used to kid her about her schoolgirl fondness for new outfits, sometimes finds it odd to be occupying an olive-drab world of rigid sameness.
"My mother used to say I could never be a missionary," says Baker, in regulation jungle fatigues and combat boots. "I could never wear the clothes."
West Point graduates come away with a bachelor of science degree and a five-year Army obligation. The first-captain position is a pinnacle for seniors--the top rung in an officer cadre where the chosen can be set on the fast track for career advancement. Candidates are offered by the cadets themselves. A review board of academy officers and professors draws up three combinations of command staffs, and the superintendent makes the final choice.
That a woman is atop this heap for the first time is supposed to be no big deal at the nation's oldest continuously occupied military academy. Her uniqueness is pointedly downplayed by the male-dominated population, who will be following the directives of Baker and her staff of 40 for the coming year.
"It really doesn't bother me at all," says Fred Stampe, a 21-year-old Wisconsin senior, one of the clomping herd of cadets who form a green stampede on academy grounds between class bells.
"If anything, I think it's been blown out of proportion."
This is also the low-key pitch of West Point Commandant Maj. Gen. Fred Gorden, who says, "Our purpose wasn't to make any statement about women in the military."
Two women have been wing commander, a position equivalent to Baker's, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in 1980 and 1988, but the U.S. Naval Academy has never appointed a woman to its comparable position, known as midshipman captain.
Women, first admitted to West Point in 1976, make up 10% of the student population and have climbed to superior positions in the past. Gorden described this as one of the best graduating classes in years, adding that any of the half-dozen top cadets could have been picked for the premier spot.
Baker, who has a 3.36 grade-point average and is a member of the school's cross-country ski team, caught his attention and that of the review board this summer as a senior officer while whipping the entering class of cadets into shape, a post traditionally known as the "King of Beasts."
'Queen of Beasts'
"She was the Queen of Beasts," he says.
On a normal day, she is up at 5:45 to make the 6:30 formation before breakfast. Classes start at 7:15 and continue into the afternoon; after-class time is taken up with intramural sports, training for the ski team and practicing with the chapel choir. Throughout the day and into the evening, she meets with her staff.
As first captain, she not only represents the cadets to the outside world but also helps prepare for such activities as the presentation of the academy's Thayer Award to Ronald Reagan on Sept. 21. She will be seated at the former president's table.
Her ideals are unsullied, as if all problems need wait only for the proper application of hard work and self-discipline. Heading toward noon formation, Baker plops a fatigue cap over chestnut hair woven into french braids, a style that conforms with the above-the-collar hair standards for women. On the way, she salutes passing officers, calls out greetings to senior cadets or exchanges this week's exhortation of "Beat Syracuse," all with an impish good nature suggesting the exchange of an inside joke.
For entering plebes, West Point is a purgatory filled with shouting upperclassmen demanding memorized monologues of data: explanations of rank in all the services, the number of days until graduation or the next football game, inspirational poems, the definition of leather, a precise description of a cow. Plebes may not talk unless spoken to and must hug the wall while going from class to class.
"It was tough," says Baker, who recalls standing silently in front of a wall waiting for a clothing issue during one of those initial hellish days. "That was my first impression of the academy, staring at that wall for what seemed like hours. I even counted all the cracks. The only thing that saved me that day was some guy who came up behind me and whispered, 'Psst, how you doing?' "
Now fielding interviews on national television and wearing her senior West Point ring, she has a different view. Like a nostalgic veteran, she mentions fond memories such as working this summer in the Army chief of staff's Pentagon speech-writing department and chortles about the bad old days as a plebe.
Can she still rattle off the definition of leather?
"I don't know if I can say it anymore," then takes a breath and begins in rapid fire: "SIR! The fresh skin of an animal impervious to and insoluble in water which when immersed in a dilute solution of tannic acid a chemical combination ensues. . . " she breaks. "And it goes on and on. This, SIR, is leather."