President Donald Trump attends a press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington.
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04:17 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion at CNN.

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As a graduate of West Point, I never thought I would write this, but the leadership at the US Naval Academy got it right. After telling the midshipmen to “stay at home” after spring break on April 10 and conducting distance learning classes since, Navy’s Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck canceled the Annapolis graduation and commissioning week to “safeguard the health and welfare of the entire Naval Academy family.” Buck and Commandant of Midshipman Capt. T.R. Buchanan then approved a “virtual ceremony.”

Mark Hertling

While not as impressive or tradition-filled as a normal academy graduation on the banks of the Severn River in Maryland, this a smart risk mitigation measure given the rages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Like Annapolis, West Point also ordered all their students to stay at home at the end of their spring break in March due to the spread of the Covid-19. Like his counterpart, West Point’s Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Daryl Williams, also requested an analysis for ways to execute the graduation and associated events for seniors (called “firsties”) at the storied military academy on the banks of the Hudson River in New York. Gen. Williams was waiting for his staff’s recommendations when President Trump announced he would be delivering the speech in person to the entire graduating class. Early reports indicate the President’s press conference announcement took West Point by surprise, but by April 25 the secretary of the Army confirmed the decision and said a plan would be forthcoming to reassemble the nearly 1000 soon-to-commissioned second lieutenants at the campus in upstate New York.

As has been the case in many other mandates emanating from the President, requiring cadets to assemble for a graduation ceremony is certainly legal. The question, though, is it smart? Cadets – like all military leaders – are taught to weigh risk versus reward when conduction operations. Leaders look for ways to carry out the mission while mitigating associated costs in resources and loss in personnel safety. Put another way, is the juice worth the squeeze?

Graduation week at the US Military Academy is impressive and filled with a memorable series of events that differ significantly from other universities. While students at every institute of higher learning across the nation share their pride with families at award convocations and the eventual matriculation ceremony, service academies are different. There is the receipt of orders for first assignments, ceremonies where underclass cadets take over leadership roles in every unit formation, parades that mark military tradition and the transition from the “long, gray line” of cadet to the “Army Blue” uniform of a commissioned officer, dedicated to service of nation. The graduation ceremony itself is impressive to outsiders with the receiving of diplomas and the hats thrown into the air, but for most, that pales in significance to what happens after: Families are present at individual commissioning ceremonies where cadet gray uniforms are replaced by service blue uniform and the placement of the second lieutenant insignia.

Being both a graduate and the parent of a graduate, I will admit bias toward these West Point ceremonies. I’ll also point out the perspective of a graduate versus that of a parent is very different.

Much of all this will be missing this year, as cadets from all 50 states and several US territories – as well as over a dozen graduating cadets representing foreign militaries – travel into four airports at the current heart of pandemic of New York and New Jersey without their pride-filled family members and loved ones.

They will be tested for Covid-19 before being allowed on West Point proper and then they will be quarantined in Academy barracks for the next several weeks, perhaps one person to each room. They will practice physical distancing during the entire process, but especially as they take meals in the massive cadet mess hall that seats over 4000. Risk mitigation measures for showers, latrines, gym and other common use facilities will be in place during the several weeks between when they return and the graduation ceremony. Faculty, staff and especially civilian environmental services crews at the academy will ensure adherence to processes and discipline. The resource and administrative costs will be exorbitant. I’d also bet that traveling back to participate in just one part of their normal graduation events will likely not contribute to morale of this most recent graduating class, but it will also likely be something they’ll talk about at their class reunions. But from the cadet perspective … I once again ask: Will the juice be worth the squeeze?

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    Presidents speak every four years at the various academies, sharing the honor with the vice president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the joint chiefs. The speaker at my graduation in 1975 was President Gerald Ford. I honestly don’t remember a single word he said, or even what his speech was about. Like most of my classmates, I was too focused on throwing my hat in the air, getting “pinned” with the second lieutenants bar, and seeing West Point in my car’s rear view mirror. Our son didn’t remember who his speaker was (maybe this speaker blockage is inherited trait), but he did remember one thing he said: “Okay, congratulations on graduating, you’re going to Iraq in a few months, good luck!”

    Under normal circumstances, having a key member of the administration – especially the President – at any graduation contributes to the sense of pride and accomplishment. But the “reward,” which appears heavily weighted to advantage the political desires of the President versus the safety of the cadets – doesn’t overcome the associated resource and personnel risks. In other words, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.