Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Corps

It has been 15 years since I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  There aren’t many things I have been as long as I’ve been “fighting MS” since 1999.

  • I’ve been a husband to my beautiful wife for only 8 ½ years.
  • I’ve been a daddy to Eleanor for only 4 ½ years…8 to our puppy, Monte!

Sometimes I will field questions about my past:

  • Aren’t you a “New Yorker”?
    Well, I grew up in the Bronx but now I’ve lived in other places longer than I was there.  I’m a Portland resident now, with my family.
  • Aren’t you an “Army pilot”?
    Well, I flew the Apache back in my Attack/Air Cavalry days, but now I’ve been medically retired longer than I was in.  
  • Aren’t you a “West Pointer”?
    Yes.  Yes, I am.  Class of ’93!

West Pointer.  Fighting MS.  For me, these terms have become defining characteristics of who I am.  For others, they are positive assurances to others of what I can do.  A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who’s a younger grad familiar with my MS struggles, asked me when my West Point connection became so strong.  I never gave much thought to it before.  My immediate reaction was simply “I don’t know.  It just seemed to grow stronger over time.”

It is ironic that my love for all things West Point is most closely linked to my fight against MS.

I’ve never really considered myself a “Gray Hog” (someone endeared to the cadet lifestyle), but my connection has indeed grown stronger over time.

My adventures with West Point started on June 28, 1989.  R-Day: Reception Day for the Class of 1993.  It is day I will never forget, though I’m unable to recall most details other than almost blacking out on my feet during our swearing in ceremony late that afternoon.

 After that long first day of in-processing, issuing new articles of everything, and learning the very basics of formations/marching/saluting, we headed out to the parade field for our swearing in ceremony.  After standing at attention for what felt like an eternity, everything went dark.  Instead of bad becoming worse, good fortune stepped in at about the same moment.  The ceremony completed and we started marching. I-4 - the last platoon off the parade field.  As the blood came back to my head and my vision returned, all I remember thinking was “what did I just get myself into?”

On June 28th I was exactly 17.5 years old.  Before applying for admission, I never knew someone who went to West Point.  Little more than a year before that, I received a brochure in the mail; a standard flyer sent out to high school juniors who scored well on their primary college entrance exam.  The brochure depicted notable graduates through the years and simply stated “much of the history we teach was made by the people we taught” in bold letters across the top.  That was it.  From that moment on, attending West Point was what all that I wanted to do.  In addition to West Point, I applied to the Air Force Academy (I could never envision myself a Navy-man) and a state school (just in case) but I never really gave a thought to anything else.

Over the next year, I learned what it would mean to graduate from West Point.  I would become an officer in the US Army; that was what I wanted.  Before R-Day I already knew where I wanted to be stationed after graduation (Ft. Bragg) and what I wanted to do (Aviation, flying AH-64 Attack Helicopters).  I had my career planned out; well, at least what would be my first four years after graduation from West Point.  I guess I thought about the future as much as you can when you are 16 and 17 years old (not much).  But on 28 June 1989, at about 1600 hours, thoughts of the summer to come were all I had.  “What did I just get myself into?”

I’m not sure when my initial allure of West Point transitioned into the deep love that I have for The Long Gray Line today.  I do know two things:

First of all, I know my emotions have spanned a broad range of cliché terms.

  • Initial awe and reverence gave way to fear of those above of me.
  • Fear turned quickly into obedience, then respect, for those classes ahead of me and those who graduated before me.  
  • The “me” quickly became the “us” of my fellow plebes.
  • My fellow plebes became the Class of ’93, then Defenders of the Free (simply, Defenders).
  • We were plebes, yearlings, cows, then firsties… but we were always Defenders first.
  • We were part of those ahead of us, as well as those who followed us.  We were “The Corps” and “The Long Gray Line.”
  • Finally, we were Grads; stuck between Cadets and Old Grads.  We yearned to call ourselves Old Grads.
  • At some point those clichés gave way, back to the awe and reverence of The Long Gray Line.  

Second, my “some point” was when I was diagnosed with MS.  Since that day in 1999, there has rarely been a moment in my fight without guidance and inspiration from The Long Gray Line… always pointing the way.

  • My MS issues first arose while overseas in Korea, commanding Delta Troop, 1-6 Cavalry (Darkhorse).  Seth O'Brien ’94, our Squadron Flight Surgeon, was there to first diagnose my issues as neurological.  After a short debate with me and my self-diagnosis, I was sent back to the states for further testing.  After my diagnosis was confirmed and I returned to Korea, Seth was there to administer my care.  Travelling out to a field site with a box full of IV-steroids, I rejoined my squadron while they were deployed for training.  I was scared, struggling with trying to recover damaged vision and basic motor functions.  Far from ideal circumstances, I was comforted to have him caring for me as we reminisced about our overlapping year together in Company A-4.
  • When I travelled to Tripler Hospital in Hawaii for that full diagnosis, Terry Walters ’80 had been notified of my condition and was on the lookout for me.  As the health clinic commander, Colonel Walters oversaw my extensive testing (including two less-than-pleasant spinal taps) and personally walked me through those first steps of my new MS life.  A graduate with the first class of female cadets, her accomplishments are extensive and impressive, including having tolerated the less-than-professional sarcasm of one scared Captain!
  • The immediate response was to re-deploy me back to the states, but I balked at that idea.  Unsure of what was next, I wanted to stay with my troop.  For an Air Cav commander, back with my troop was the only place I felt safe.  But a sick soldier - a pilot grounded from flying and requiring intense treatment, nonetheless - is not ideal for any overseas deployment.  It’s even more challenging if that soldier is in command.  EJ Sinclair ’76 made it happen anyway.  As the 6th Cav Commander, Colonel Sinclair fought for the approvals needed to keep me in-country and start treatment there.  Nine months later, he was also the person who sat me down to clearly explain that my career in attack aviation would never progress.  I guess I knew it for some time but I still needed to come to grips with all the new realities on my own terms.  EJ gave me the time I needed; then he gave me the nudge needed when I was afraid to take the next obvious step.  

For a long time, I resented that nudge.  At some point I realized what he did was absolutely correct.  Correct for the mission, for our soldiers, and for me.  My Army days drew to a close.  In only a few weeks, I relinquished command and was bid a fond farewell by my Darkhorse family.

What those three West Pointers did for me during my last year in the Army was exactly what we expect officers of their caliber to do; it was exactly what they would have done for me regardless of where I went to school.  That was the spirit embodied by West Point, and their lesson is the spirit I work hard to venerate and emulate.

I left Korea at the end of June 2000.  By October, I was fully evaluated and out-processed from Walter Reed Hospital in DC.  Now settled in Pittsburgh, PA, I began my new life.  I didn’t reject my military days.  On the contrary, I found it quite difficult to come to grips with the fact that I was no longer an attack helicopter pilot, troop commander, an on the move Army Captain who was destined for bigger and better things.  Instead, I was now a “market maker” and team leader with FreeMarkets (online business-to-business sourcing).  I learned to adjust to this strange new world, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to be back in uniform.  When the events of 9/11 sent our military into action, a big part of me was angry that MS took away everything that I had, everything that I was and everything that I had trained to be.

  • Two grads demonstrated what it meant to still be a West Pointer: Dave McCormick ’87 and Mike Dunn ’87.  Dave, whose brother is one of my classmates, was our CEO.  Mike was a senior manager.  They didn’t need to wear a unit patch on their sleeve.  They didn’t need to start every conversation with their class year, rank, badges, and awards.  What they did was demonstrate for me that Duty, Honor, Country in the civilian world was exactly the same as Duty, Honor, Country in uniform.  There was no difference in the expectations held for me, and no grace period given to adapt.  

That was my first lesson of the far-reaching bond we held for no other reason than because we are part of The Long Gray Line.  Good favor was not blindly extended, but expectations regarding character and performance were put in place when your ring was earned and they are still in place after your time in the military is over.

  • I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another contributor to this lesson while with FreeMarkets.  Dave Dawson, Annapolis ’88, was one of my directors and my first exposure to just how far the Army/Navy rivalry extended beyond the Department of Defense.  I still remember Dave’s smug chuckle after the 58-12 rout by the squids in 2002.  After 12 years of painful losses, we will prevail this year, Dave…this year. Beat Navy!

For a while, my MS wasn’t the predominate focus in my life.  I was afforded a valuable, albeit short, time to settle professionally, personally, and realize that what I developed during my 11 years in uniform hasn’t disappeared overnight.  That would prove valuable for me in 2003, when most of my recovery of the last few years abruptly ended and my MS threated to take everything away.  For the next few years, my focus changed to stopping the damage, recovering, and regaining the ground I lost.

With the strength I learned from West Point I was able to build that focus and to fight for myself.  Fighting for myself was no longer enough.  The Long Gray Line was poised to remind me of that fact.

  • John Shaw ’06 was a soldier in D/1-6 during my command.  Long separated from our Darkhorse days, John reached out to me just prior to entering his third year at West Point.  Cow year was when further Army commitments were incurred, so like so many West Pointers before him (including myself), the desire for a little guidance and insight led to a grad.  That was my first calling to use my experiences towards the continuing mission of West Point: to educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadets.  MS or not, I still had that charge

The fact that I was now retired and separated from the profession of arms only expanded that charge.  West Point’s alumni association, the West Point Association of Graduates (AOG), is charged in serving West Point and its graduates; its purpose is to further the ideals and promote the welfare of our Academy.  I now chose to further those ideals, to support others as I continued to better myself.

My new charge was in the MS Community.  Because of West Point and The Long Grey Line, I was now ready to fight.  At that time, the best way I could do both was by riding and fundraising for the National MS Society.  I started riding in 2003, riding in Western Pennsylvania and New York City, then later in Delaware.  Through the MS Society my advocacy grew for those who needed my support, as did thanking those who supported me in my need.  My physical and emotional health was stronger.  The AOG stood with me and helped share my fight in our Assembly Magazine.

  • One of the first grads to help me celebrate my success and support my efforts was John Brier ’43-June (there were 2 graduating classes in 1943, expedited to support the effort in World War II).  Colonel Brier helped me start tying it all together.  Shaken handwritten notes from an Old Grad offered support I needed and helped me see the power and reach of The Corps.  Support for my fight, random notes of encouragement, and a silver baby cup (sent on Eleanor’s birth, with wishes from June ’43) reminded me of an earlier lesson……

    In early 2002, I was living in Brussels while still working with FreeMarkets.  Enjoying a quiet Sunday brunch, I curiously peered at an older couple sitting across the room.  There was nothing exceptional to note except for that ring; they do indeed stand out.  Not pursuing the thought further, I resumed my meal only to be interrupted as they were leaving.  I was wearing an Army/Navy t-shirt and that was all the impetus he needed to inquire.  We chatted: 1993 and June 1943…West Point was our common link.  The conversation was brief, as the happy couple was enjoying the last day of their vacation.  After only a few moments, his wife had to pull him away with a smile and frustration she has surely expressed many times before: “You guys are all alike.”

    We both shrugged our shoulders and went on our way.
    Indeed, we are all alike; the Class of June ’43 made that connection for me.

In June 2006, now together as a newly married couple, Brie and I headed west to begin a new life together in Oregon.  Having already started our annual fundraising before we moved, our plan was to return in September for one more “Bike to the Bay” event with the Delaware Chapter of the MS Society.  Within a couple of weeks, however, I was in the hospital fighting reactions to my medication and in danger of leaving the hospital without my leg (if I left at all).  I made it through that challenge, but recovery would take some time.  We returned to Delaware in September, determine to ride.

  • Joining Brie and me was John Macdonald ’79.  One of my battalion commanders when I was a lieutenant at Ft. Bragg, Brigadier General Macdonald needed a weekend off from his hectic work at the Pentagon.  What better way to rest than by biking 150 miles for MS!  I surely needed the motivation and inspiration.  Every mile, every inch, John was there to support me.  He would help me extend and stretch my leg at rest stops, allowing my still open wounds to stretch and express the fluids that built up.  Along the route, he would motivate and push me to keep pushing.  When he thought I could no longer push myself he would grab my handlebars and pull my bike.  It was quite a surreal experience to curse at my former commander, yelling for him to get his damn hands off my bike and barking that I can do it. 

In the end, I did complete the ride.  Over time my leg healed.  More importantly, I finally started to piece together all of these seemingly random events and circumstances.  Only then did I realize that they were not at all random.  All of these instances are the direct result of the spirit, drive, and energy that was instilled in each of us while at West Point.  They didn’t support me because I was a West Pointer, they supported my because it was the charge they were given:
Duty, Honor, Country: those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. 
Nothing better describes me in every instance of support from The Long Gray Line:
    • when courage seems to fail
    • when there seems to be little cause for faith
    • when hope becomes forlorn
No, they didn’t support me because I was a West Pointer.  Instead, they expect me to support others because I am a West Pointer.  In fact, they demand it.

  • That’s where Terry came in.  Terry Connell ’58 was the President of the local AOG chapter, The West Point Society of Oregon.  To Terry, I was a West Pointer.  That overshadowed the fact that I was disabled, that I had MS, or that I struggled every day.  He knew that I could face all of those challenges.  He knew that because I was a West Pointer.  Those traits I learned would help me battle my ailments just as he knew they would help me to be a better leader, friend, husband, and now a father.

This will come as no shock and surprise to Terry, but he was absolutely correct.  With his help and guidance, I embraced The Long Gray Line like I never knew possible.  I stand and support them for no other reason than it is the charge I was given.  I am proud to have served the last four years as our Society President, and I look forward to supporting them for even more.  I lead, support, and celebrate with all of our Alumni.  Together, we strive to demonstrate those values of Duty, Honor, Country.

  • To our community and our nation, to whom we will always remain in service.
  • To our current cadets, who will soon carry that charge as leaders of character who serve the common defense.
  • To our active duty and citizen soldiers, who carry that charge today.

My MS is the reason I learned the true gifts of my Alma Mater.  I was once, and hope someday to again be, defined as a West Pointer without the also-known-as “fighting MS”.  I can’t, however, fight my MS without the strength and support I gain from all my friends in The Long Gray Line.

My years at West Point were bookended by two of the most influential lessons that I draw upon daily in my fight against MS, marked by Grads who always held my awe and reverence.

  • In my plebe summer, John Bahnsen ‘56 gave that first lesson of ideals that West Point will instill in me: what is means to have the “Want To” needed to do absolutely everything that’s required before we win; to endure and persevere in the face of unyielding opposition.
  • In the spring of my graduation, Robert Foley '63 laid the groundwork for my understanding of what is meant to Never Stop…Never Quit…  As I listened to our Commandant tell stories of West Pointers through the years, I remember the awe and reverence I had for those soldiers. 
On April 30, 2008, I reached out to The Long Gray Line with our 2008 BikeMS fundraising message:
I am deeply honored by your graciousness and the support from The Long Grey Line around the world!  Donations from the Class of ’43 to ’06 really showed me our strength 
It is a fight. For approximately 400,000 people with MS in the US, the fight is not over and it won't be over until the cure is found. 
It will never stop….nor will we
It will never quit….nor will we
This is why we ride.

General Foley’s lesson simmered and stirred in me for 15 years.  That lesson is now our mantra and the cornerstone of our fight:
Throughout these years, there has been one constant.  The Class of 1993.  My classmates have covered every concept of support, in every way imaginable, both before and after my battle with MS began in 1999.  In the Army, we grew together each step of the way.  It’s impossible to express every moment of support and camaraderie from R-Day in 1989 until my final day in uniform in 2000.  It’s even more difficult to express the growth of that support and camaraderie every day since then.
For fear of accidentally omitting even a single name, I choose to just group us all together.  Every bit of thanks and every praise I will ever express for a member of The Long Gray Line can easily be supplemented with the phrase “and every single Defender as well.”

As someone battling MS, this support and service is needed as I battle every moment of every day.  More and more, West Pointers continued to shoulder the burden of that battle with me.

  • Some donate and support our BikeMS efforts every year.  
  • Some ride with us, as part of Team Amulet (’68, ’80, ’93, ’99), and on teams across the country.  
  • Some offer never-ending support and spread the message of our fight and our need every day.
  • Others share that fight with me, battling their own MS or other grave affliction
  • Some do all of these things together...

I use lessons from The Long Gray Line every day of my fight.  When my courage seems to fail, lessons drive the Want To needed to fight; to do everything that’s required until I defeat MS.  Those times when there seems to be little cause for faith, I remind myself to Never Stop… Never Quit…  because that is what so many did before me; that is what they would do now; that is all the expect from me.  If I ever start to feel that hope has become forlorn, I grip hands with The Long Gray Line.  It may be a random social gathering, sharing over Facebook or email, or just reading/remembering stories of their examples.  On those tough, lonely miles of BikeMS they are there in spirit to motivate me and pull me when I can’t push myself.  That is the reason I don’t stop.

So, as I close out this year’s fight with MS my thoughts go towards the question “what’s next?”  The answers about my future start with visions of ghostly assemblage.

  • The Old Grad in my fight against MS is Paul Walters ’33 (1908-2011).  I never got to thank Colonel Walters in person.  He found me because of one of the AOG’s profiles on my fight.  I received my most powerful message in a simple note:
    You’re an inspiration
    Keep up the great work!
    - Paul and Betty Walters ‘33

To even think that the little bit I’ve done could be considered an inspiration to this man, who graduated 60 years prior, only drove me to do more.  His task succeeded: Colonel Walters and Betty educated, trained and inspired me with the stroke of a pen.  They still do; my career of “professional excellence and service to the nation” didn’t end in 1999.  In fact, it was just beginning.

Well done, Colonel Walters!  Be thou at peace…
We’ll take it from here!

To my fellow Defenders, my friends in The West Point Society of Oregon, the West Point Association of Graduates, and all my family in The Long Gray Line: GO ARMY!

It will never stop…nor will we
It will never quit…nor will we
This is why we fightBeat the Hell out of Navy!

Kevin Byrne - Portland, OR