What Growing Up Near West Point Taught Me About War

My childhood was spent spying on the war games that took place feet from my backyard. Getting that close to battle teaches you a lot.

by Shane Cashman
Originally Published: 

It’s 11 at night, late July 2014, just outside West Point, New York, and three helicopters hover low, right above me. I’m at the foot of the hill across from my parents’ yard, wearing mesh shorts and slippers, and my hair is still wet from the shower. I ran outside the second I felt the helicopters getting close — so close they sent tremors through the walls — as if they’d come in search of me.

I’m 29 and thinking I’m way too old for this. Yet here I am. They look like shadows against the night sky. The force of the blades shakes the trees. Their wind sweeps back my hair. The whole sky hums. Once each helicopter lands softly on the hill in the middle of the woods, past the dark tree line, only a few dozen feet away, I hear the soldiers jump out of the helicopters and march further into the night. I know where they’re headed. They’ll spend the rest of the summer in these woods — day and night, firing rifles, exploding ordnances, establishing means by which to navigate and survive conflicts overseas — and in doing so, morph the whole of the forest, my backyard, into a simulated war zone.

After only a few minutes, the helicopters lift from the ground and maneuver toward the Hudson River on the other side of the hill. When the droning fades, I can really hear how heavy the soldiers are under the weight of their rucksacks and rifles and a summers’ worth of Meals, Ready-to-Eat — or MREs — as their boots crunch dead leaves and snap twigs. One voice carries above them all — someone in command, leading the team.

I’m really contemplating whether or not I should follow them. Like old times. When I was a kid it didn’t matter if I was in the middle of lunch or watching Duck Tales, I’d drop whatever, and chase these Army helicopters.

It’s not long until I hear the semi-automatic gunfire exchanged across the dark expanse of the forest from the safety of my bedroom. Cannons boom. There’s yelling. The woods are filled with what sounds like hundreds of voices.

Another team of helicopters descends invisibly and I think to move closer. But I hesitate. Those soldiers are only 19- and 20-year-olds. They are cadets at the United States Military Academy. I have no business interfering with them anymore. It’s not an easy decision, but I choose to go back inside the house. I almost wish they’d intercept me, think me hostile, force me back into the kid I used to be, 20 years ago, blindsiding the Army’s future leaders as they trained for war. But I have to work early and my slippers are falling apart anyway.

I grew up in one of the only civilian families that lived in West Point. My address belongs to the neighboring town of Highland Falls, but the property is owned by the United States Military Academy. The farm was originally owned by J.P. Morgan, who kept the property as a summerhouse. When J.P. Morgan passed away, the property was eventually bought at auction by the academy. It was when General MacArthur returned from World War I and became the superintendent of West Point, his alma mater, that he began to redesign the academy’s curriculum. He moved the war training from the football-field-like plain at the heart of West Point, to the vast woods in the valley overlooking the river, in an attempt to offer more difficulty in the way of truer geographical obstacles one might encounter at war.

For the better part of my childhood I was under the impression that my family was the subject of some sort of military experiment. The nuclear family living alone in the woods. No neighbors whatsoever — save for the livestock my parents managed on the farm behind our house and the occasional band of coyotes.

You could anticipate the sounds of war that disrupted our quiet forest every summer with an almost Farmer’s Almanac–type of seasonal anticipation — like, say, by the time the wild raspberries were ripe, ready to eat straight from the scrub, you’d know that the soldiers had invaded our woods.

Perhaps, I’d wonder, we’d been placed there at the center of a simulated war to see how it might affect a man, his wife, their eldest son, and two daughters. As in, what might war do to the civilians who live in its periphery?

If the Army had been taking notes, they would’ve learned the stark reality that the proximity of “war” became strangely commonplace to my family — though, it’s possible it seeped into my imagination more than I care to admit. We knew these summer wars weren’t blood-and-guts real. Still, we’d have to find ways to switch up our routines so that we could coexist with the random rush of Humvees and helicopters. You’d hold the horses a little tighter while walking them to their paddocks, fearing they might rise to their hind legs and bolt from your grip at the sound of a cannon blast or sudden low-flying helicopter. The horses, however, got used to it too.

When you’re one of a few civilians that go to school on an Army base you get used to your best friends moving every few years. And, typically, they move in the summer. So, if I wasn’t sequestered enough out there on the hill in the woods, my summer vacations typically started with my friends, Army brats, invariably getting ready to move to Virginia, Okinawa, or any other such place. It’s safe to say I was as much a hostage to the woods, as the woods were hostage to me. Its remoteness made it feel as though the land did actually belong to my family.

In reality, I belong to the place more than it will ever belong to me.

I was 10 in 1995. Twig-legged, squeaky-voiced, and bucktoothed. This wasn’t long after the United States Military Academy turned me into a coloring book — for promotional purposes. The coloring book version of myself is, by far, the most idyllic version of me. It is the image of a child that most would expect a young boy who lived on a farm to look like. It immortalizes my denim overalls, the bowl cut my mother kept me in, and on each page, I’m seen having conversations with my friends, those that did not move away every few years — the ducks, the dogs, the horses.

The coloring book was an attempt to try and drum up business for the farm. Morale, Welfare and Recreation — or MWR, a program that serves the family needs of Army officers throughout its many bases — would have liked to see more people taking horse riding lessons or visiting the petting zoo or boarding their dogs and cats at the kennel behind our house, all of which my parents managed for the academy, in addition to coaching the USMA equestrian team. I can’t say the coloring book did much in the way of marketing. My parents have lived on the farm for 33 years, and they still hear things from people who live nearby and randomly stumble upon the property, as if they’ve tripped into Narnia, saying “I never knew this place existed.”

Here’s what the coloring book did not show: that my denim overalls’ pockets were stuffed with bullet casings I’d find in the forest. It also did not have images of helicopters and soldiers and cannons to color in. And it definitely didn’t show me pretending to wage my own wars on invisible enemies.

On any afternoon, I could easily fight the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man — you name it. And chances were, I was Michael Jordan and/or Dennis Rodman fighting all my imaginary wars. All the while, in our yard, the constant sounds of explosions happening just past the trees added a real-time, surround-sound noise to my imagined battles.

That is, until the battles became a very real thing — for me at least, when one morning dozens of soldiers in camouflage wound up at my doorstep, flanking the house, pointing their rifles at our windows. They lay in our yard, save for one older soldier walking among them, looking exceptionally peeved.

We peeked out through the windows on the porch. What did they want with us? This was the first time I remember really seeing the source of all that war noise.

My mom decided to confront them. She slowly opened the screen door.

Their leader turned to face my mom when the door creaked open.

“Can I help you?” my mom asked.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the leader said. “These soldiers screwed up their orienteering and they have to follow through with the mistake.” In other words, someone read their map wrong.

My mom turned to come back in, but decided she had something else to say first.

“You know,” she said, “some of your soldiers are laying where the dogs poop.”

She pointed to the part of the yard where our dogs always shit. It was early-morning quiet and I’m sure every cadet heard her, but I don’t remember any one of them flinching even a little at my mother’s warning. I do remember feeling kind of good that some of them were lying down in the dogs’ shit. These were my woods — the one constant I could rely on. How dare these soldiers surround our home. I was obligated to defend the woods against any threat. And now I had a new mission — to seek out their headquarters and destroy them.

It was easy to know when the helicopters were approaching. Once our old, thin windows would vibrate at the helicopters’ approach, I’d jump outside, run up the hill along the tree line, staying beneath the dense canopy so that neither the soldiers nor the pilots would spot me. I’d get low to the ground and wait. I’d watch the helicopters land and the soldiers unload from them. I’d trail the cadets into the woods, keeping a safe distance.

I got pretty good at following the different camps of cadets without giving up my position. I’d locate the temporary shelters they’d build out of plywood and 2×4’s. It was the same thrill as finding a giant hornet’s nest dangling from a branch up high and considering my options — to swat it with a big stick or not?

I’d get a good read of how many cadets there were and what, if any, were there points of weakness — like, if any streams, boulders, or Revolution-era stone walls would aid them in their defense against my fantasy of a one-kid blitz. But, more likely, as far as I was concerned, this would all end as an episode of Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack saying something along the lines of: The child was last seen running into the woods, chasing a helicopter. Some believe he disappeared amidst secret military exercises…

This was back when the academy still used Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System — or MILES gear. It’s basically high-end laser tag. The cadets hold real rifles, but fire blanks. Casings spit from the rifles which, as it turned out, were what I’d been collecting off the forest floor my whole life.

The cadets, from knee to helmet, and the helicopters, Humvees — everything — were outfitted with sensors. When the sensors were “hit” they would produce an unsettling, high-pitched squeal. Depending on where and how a cadet was hit, they’d have to act out the injury in whatever limb they were wounded — or, if worse, pretend to be dead and be carried off the field by their fellow cadets.

This was around the time I thought I’d become a cadet one day. I participated in multiple so-called Mock R-days, or Mock Registration Day. I’d go through the process at the barracks on base, pretending to register as a new cadet, and marching and barking like a new cadet just for the day. They do this at the beginning of every summer to help the upperclassmen prepare for the incoming freshmen class.

In the woods, I went unnoticed for days, then weeks. I saw myriad helicopters land and soldiers march single-file into the wilderness. To be honest, it got rather boring. I didn’t see any action. The cannon blasts and gunfire were happening somewhere even deeper in the forest and 10-year-old me didn’t have it in him to stray that far from his own HQ to investigate.

One day, however, after another crop of cadets filed into the woods, something different happened. A Humvee I hadn’t seen before emerged from the tree line and parked at the top of the hill where the helicopters would normally land. Two men, also in camo, hopped out of the truck. They seemed less formal than the cadets I’d been studying. They held bigger-looking rifles rather casually from the hip. They were spitting out chewing tobacco. They appeared a lot older than the cadets, too. These new guys inspected how the grass was pushed down. I started to backtrack down the hill to home.

I must not have been as covert as I would’ve liked to believe. I either snapped a twig or stepped on some undergrowth, whatever it was, I alerted these two men to my position. And, as far as they knew, I was hostile. When they heard me, they tensed up and immediately went into war mode. Stepping away slowly from the clearing and moving toward the tree line.

I gave up my position as they approached — stepped out from behind a tree. I think they laughed at the sight of me. I might’ve had something of an unintentional mullet in those days, too. Regardless, I wasn’t what they were expecting to find.

“You happen to see which way the cadets went?” one of them asked.

I had a hard time trying to suppress my excitement. It seemed I had some purpose after all. I told them I knew exactly where the cadets were. I told them I could lead them right to their bases. But, first, I had a request.

“Can I hold your grenade launcher?” I asked. I can’t say for certain, now, that it was actually a grenade launcher, but in my memory it definitely looked like one. Whether or not it was, the soldier obliged. He didn’t seem to think twice about it. Next thing I knew, I’m standing at the top of my hill holding this weapon, feeling very much like everything I’d imagined was finally materializing.

I’d later learn that these were soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division. Older, enlisted soldiers who’d most likely already been deployed. This group’s task was to act as the aggressor in this simulated war.

“We’ll take you for a ride in the Humvee, if you show us where they are after,” the other soldier said. I was doubtless smiling at my proximity to real life G.I. Joe and all his sweet gear.

After the ride, I took them straight to the cadets. They told me I had to wait on the sidelines. I didn’t want to oblige their request at first. I did keep a good distance from what would become a great ambush. But I still snuck up close enough to get a look at the melee. The forest erupted with gunfire. It was over quickly and the woods squealed with MILES gear.

I became something of a reliable source for the 10th Mountain Division. And I suppose, after a while, I became a bit of a problem. Word was spreading about this kid giving up cadet positions. Cadets on my parents’ equestrian team would come to practice and tell them that their professors were talking about this kid running around wreaking havoc in the summer.

This, more or less, went on for a few more summers, until I was struck by the realization, when I was about 12 or so, that I was too close in age to these young men and women to continue my meddling. My fun was at their expense. And one day it dawned on me to just walk away and tune out the helicopters.

Many of my closest friends from West Point grew up to join the military. I often wonder why I never applied, like I used to dream of doing for many years. For one, I know, it’s because I have a severe aversion to authority. For another, knowing so many who have joined always made me feel as if I’m missing whatever part it takes to be in the military.

When I was a kid, joining the Army and going to war seemed like an easy escape from the boredom of youth. The idea of the glory of war quickly began to fade, at least for me, when I started to really understand the significance of its destruction.

The lineage of American war runs through West Point and Highland Falls. When family or friends visit from out of town and say they are interested in a tour, it’s inevitable that we bring them to the bomb in the basement in the middle of town. There is an unused Fat Man atomic bomb casing in the basement of the West Point Museum. It is the shell of the large bomb that decimated Nagasaki. It is a tourist trap. And every year thousands of people come to see the bomb. It’s as if these folks come to the bomb to experience a catharsis. It is a strange and horrifying feeling standing next to the bomb casing.

Having grown up with such a clear image of the same bomb that destroyed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I’ve always had this constant reminder of what awful things humans can do to each other. It is there sitting in a basement. With the fear also comes respect, I should say, because when I used to go to the synagogue on West Point as a kid I would, from time to time, sit with Holocaust survivors. It was a challenging exercise as a child to make sense of war. Plus, the aftermath of the atomic bomb was a vivid image in my mind even when I was a young boy, because my grandfather’s older brother was one of the first American soldiers to step foot in Hiroshima after the United States dropped the bombs. His old black-and-white photographs show a land shredded and mangled — completely turned inside-out.

War stopped being a game for me once the true nature of the reality of what these cadets were actually gearing up for set in. I knew they were training for war, but the idea of it seemed so abstract as a kid. On one hand, yes, war was this terrifying thing that humans did, but it also always seemed distant and sterilized in the paragraphs of our textbooks. On the other hand, it was all of my friends’ parents’ jobs. Our entire town exists because of war.

On the first night of the December bombing of Iraq — Operation Desert Fox, 1998, I had a fight with my dad in the car on the way to my basketball practice. One of those fights that happen once and is never spoken of again.

We were already running late because we had both been standing, silently, in front of our large black Magnavox watching cruise missiles shoot through the dark, devastating unknown targets.

I remember telling my father that I’d rather run away than let the U.S. government draft me into war. Perhaps the image of the bombings prompted me to believe that the U.S. government would soon be imposing a draft again.

I can’t remember everything he said, but the overall gist was that he was irate. I shrugged it off for years. Holding firm in the belief that I would not take part in war.

But when I think about that fight now, I’ve come to see that he must have reacted the way he did because he spends every day with those young men and women who, at the time, were not much older than me, whose entire lives, starting immediately after high school graduation, are being prepared for the possibility of war. Perhaps he thought my flippancy concerning the draft was offensive to the cadets who, in part, helped raise me.

I was offered a special insight into the military — even after spending many summers helping to destroy them in my woods. Although I did spend years attempting to rebel against my civilian childhood on a military base, I’ve also come to appreciate the military in a different light, I think, because I don’t see it as only this sweeping arm of the government, but also as the individuals, the parents, sons and daughters, who make up the armed forces.

I chased my last helicopter, after many years of suppressing the urge, in the summer of 2013. It was around midnight when a searchlight beamed across my parents’ backyard and into my bedroom window.

The wild raspberries had all but wilted, so I knew this was definitely odd timing for summer war games.

The helicopter woke my father. We were both, for once, surprised by the sound. Instinctively, I grabbed one of the West Point sabers that’d been gifted to my parents years before. It’s not very sharp, but it felt like the appropriate thing to hold.

Four unmarked, militaristic SUVs, painted flat black, raced up our driveway. The men got out and knocked on our door. When I let them in, I told them I had a sword. Each carried a 12-gauge shotgun and looked at me like, okay, where’s that going to get you?

They were New York State troopers and told us there was a man in the woods with a gun. A fugitive who’d robbed a bank up north.

“We believe he’s somewhere close,” one officer whispered.

“Anyone else here,” the leader asked. His flak vest and boots and shotgun made him look 10 feet tall. We told them the rest of our family was still asleep.

The troopers wore flak vests. I had on mesh shorts and slippers. They swept through the first floor of the house. Checking every room to make sure we weren’t harboring the fugitive.

“I’ve got a good view of the woods from my room,” I said. Though, I also felt like maybe I should just let this fugitive get a good head start; this was my home, and I couldn’t help but want to keep my family safe. They took me up on the offer to scout the land from my bedroom. I had trained for years for just this sort of mission.

The five troopers all stood on my mattress to get a good view of where the fugitive might be hiding out. I held my sabre at my side and pointed out the window to show them where I thought the man might be hiding. I like to think that we looked something like the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware.

There were a thousand places to hide in the woods, but I gave them a quick rundown. They wouldn’t let me join them on the search. They left us alone in the house. Told us to stay inside. They stretched a spike-strip across the driveway. By the morning, the cops were still combing the woods.

Later that day, a call came in over the radio. They were dispatched to another house in town, nearer to the river. They had the man cornered in some garage. After a while of no response from the fugitive, they busted down the door of the garage only to find a raccoon. It turned out the man was never in our woods in the first place. He only threw his cellphone into our forest on his way to the train, so the police would ping him and throw them off his trail. Later, they’d learn that he’d made it to the Carolinas before anyone knew the better.

It was the closest I’d become to actually implementing my old training in a real-life scenario and it turned out we were only chasing a red herring — just another boogeyman in my woods.

Today, when I walk my kid through the same woods, pulling bullet casings off the ground, I can’t help but think about how one day we’ll have to explain war to him and how lucky he is to not yet know the incurable images of war. But whenever a helicopter happens to zoom low over our heads, I recognize that look in his eyes. And he asks if we can run after it.

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