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In a Time of War
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He was laid-back and blond, a surfer dude in manner if not literal truth, a California kid who believed a double- double burger from In-N-Out was nature's perfect food. Five foot nine and stocky, he was known in high school for decent golf, mediocre football, better grades, and outrageous pranks. He was sentimental, even sappy, a romantic who was confident in his charms. When he wanted to take a girl he hardly knew to the senior prom, he armed himself with a dozen roses, drove to her house, and asked her in person. (She said yes.) Most of all, he was mischievous. On days off from school, he and a friend would cure their boredom by wandering the mall or the shops of their hometown, competing to see how many stores would kick them out. When all else failed, a game of one-on-one basketball in the sporting goods department usually did the trick. Perhaps his most famous high school prank was the time he sneaked in before marching band practice and swapped a porn movie for the videotape of the band's most recent performance. The band director fumbled with the VCR for the longest fifteen seconds of her life.
But there was another side to Todd J. Bryant, West Point class of 2002: He had practically been born in uniform. Though he was born on January 14, 1980, the tale of Todd's life had truly begun two decades earlier, when his mother, Linda, visited the United States Military Academy on a family vacation. The year was 1959, the height of the Cold War, not even two years after Sputnik. Linda was eleven, a small-town Indiana girl, daughter of conservative and patriotic parents. As she walked the gray stone campus on the banks of the Hudson River north of New York City, she instantly fell in love. There was something so honorable and compelling about West Point — the tradition, the uniforms, the utter crispness of the place. It moved her deeply. How wonderful it would be, Linda thought, to one day stand as part of the long gray line of West Point graduates.
Seventeen years would pass before the American service academies admitted women, and so when Linda went home to Indiana, she limited herself to collecting military memorabilia. She grew up, went to high school in a class that included future vice president Dan Quayle, and earned a degree from Indiana University. Still, she thought about the military. She had high school friends who had died in Vietnam, and she felt that as an American she was in their debt. When the Air Force started commissioning women as regular officers in the 1970s, she joined up. She married a fellow officer, Larry Bryant, and they served together for more than a decade.
She loved the military life as much as she had hoped, but it all came to an end when she started having children. Especially after Todd was born, Linda had trouble losing her pregnancy weight. Her annual evaluations dripped with sarcastic comments and faint praise about the truly admirable effort she was making to slim down to military standards. She was passed over for promotion, and by the mid-1980s, when her husband left active duty for a civilian job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the writing was on the wall. She cried as she turned in her military ID card, and as she scraped the Department of Defense parking sticker off her car.
Todd, the youngest of the three Bryant kids, grew up in a five-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac in the desert suburbs an hour east of Los Angeles. He and his sister, Tiffany, went to school an hour away, near Pasadena, the Rose Bowl, and their parents' work. It was a long commute but a good life.
Riverside County was right-wing California, flush with military retirees and civilians working in the defense industry; Linda and Larry fit right in. Their kids grew up understanding that it was important to serve in the armed forces, to repay their country for the freedoms they enjoyed. Barely three years after Linda left the Air Force, there was a Bryant back in uniform. Tim, Todd's big brother, nine years older than Todd was, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve and went off to college on a Naval ROTC scholarship.
Then it was Tiffany's turn. Pretty and blond, she had towered over Todd for most of their childhood, and tagged him with the teasing nickname Poco, Spanish for "Little." But in truth, Tiffany thought of herself as more of a second mother to Todd than a sister. Nearly three years older than Todd, she was trendy and rebellious, about as unmilitary as could be imagined. Convincing her even to spend two years part- time in the National Guard, Linda and Larry thought, would be a major accomplishment.
But again, the subtle lessons sank in. Even if Linda and Larry never recalled saying it explicitly, their kids understood that military service, especially as a commissioned officer, was among the highest positions one could aspire to. Tiffany came home from high school one day talking about enlisting in the reserves. She also mentioned wanting to study architecture in college, or civil engineering.
"You know," Linda said, "the number one civil engineering school in the country is West Point."
"What's West Point?" Tiffany asked.
Linda was incredulous. How could her daughter not know about the world's greatest military academy?
United Air Lines had a special over the July Fourth weekend that year, $60 or $70 each way, direct from Ontario Airport in California to Newark. Linda, Tiffany, and Todd flew out on the red-eye. They drove straight from the airport to the academy, the first time Linda had been on campus since her childhood visit thirty-five years before.
In later years, Tiffany and her mother would remember things differently. Linda would recall that after a daylong tour, her daughter stood apart from her brother and mother on the academy's storied parade ground, known as the Plain. "Okay," Linda recalled her announcing. "This is where I'm going." Tiffany recalled being much harder to convince. Regardless, she applied, and though she did not get in at first, the academy offered her a sort of tryout, a year at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School in New Jersey, to see if she could get her grades up to West Point standards. Tiffany thrived at Prep. She felt she'd had a much stricter upbringing than many of her peers, and despite all the Army discipline, she felt freer at the Prep School than she ever had in her life. At the end of the year, she was admitted to West Point as a member of the class of 2000.
Excerpted from In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002 by Bill Murphy, Jr., published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2008 by Bill Murphy, Jr. All rights reserved. www.inatimeofwar.com.