WEST POINT, N.Y. — At 8:46 on Saturday morning, the unmistakable aroma of grilled sausages and just-cracked-open beer wafted through parking lot E above Michie Stadium, the quaint football field nestled on the banks of the Hudson River.
Tailgaters were, at that moment, relishing something like a return to normalcy, having been prevented last year from attending football games here because of the coronavirus pandemic. And yet, because this was Army football, it was hard to miss another context, one which lent a degree of solemnity to the day: the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the weeks-old end to the war in Afghanistan that they spawned.
Teams across the country marked the occasion in some way: Notre Dame players did 20 push-ups, Ohio State and Brigham Young played with “never forget” helmet decals, and Rutgers had the number 37 affixed to the side of its helmets to represent the number of its graduates who died in the attacks. Air Force and Navy wore commemorative uniforms and scheduled their annual game in Annapolis, Md., for Saturday.
But it may be hard to find any college where the day carried more weight than the United States Military Academy. The cadets study Sept. 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in textbooks. They pepper their instructors — who have often served tours of duty — with questions about being on the ground in a war that had largely disappeared from the American consciousness. An emphasis on current events is part of the curriculum and so there is an awareness that the country is paying more attention this year.
“This week is opening our eyes for what we represent,” said Marquel Broughton, a junior safety and captain from Lawrenceville, Ga., who intercepted a pass in Saturday’s 38-35 win over Western Kentucky.
The Black Knights, who improved to 2-0, each carried an American flag when they ran onto the field before the game. They were led out by Steve Trizano, a Yonkers Fire Department lieutenant who helped rescue efforts on Sept. 11, and Rocky Sickmann, a former Marine who was among the hostages captured in 1979 in Iran and held for more than a year. They had addressed the team this week.
Coach Jeff Monken, who has Army in the midst of its most successful stretch since the 1940s, was trying to strike a delicate balance: He wanted to his players to hear what the day means from those who were old enough to live through it, but he did not want them to be consumed by it. “There is a consciousness here that may be different than at other college campuses,” Monken said. “It’s important that we’re prepared to be our best and be America’s team, which we are. We don’t want to allow the ceremonies, the remembrances to be a distraction — not that they’re not important. But we have an opportunity to represent people by playing well.”
Few in Army’s football program understand that more profoundly than Mike Viti, a former fullback and the current running backs coach. He was a platoon leader in Afghanistan after graduating in 2008. The gravity of what he experienced prompted Viti to call attention to Gold Star families — relatives of those who died in service — by spending eight months hiking 7,100 kilometers across the country, a kilometer for each service member who died.
Each Sept. 11, he said, has always felt like mourning during a funeral.
“This one feels different because of how close it is to having the last boot on the ground and how close it is to the anniversary,” Viti said. “But those 13 Americans who were just killed brought it from the rearview mirror and into the windshield for a lot of us.”
He added: “It doesn’t feel quite finished because of the threats domestically and internationally. Some of that closure won’t happen the way we think of a ticker-tape parade for some of our other conflicts.”
Still, with the last troops out of Afghanistan, this year’s seniors are the first in 20 years who will graduate without the expectation that they will be shipped off to war.
That thought surely had to enter the mind of some of the roughly 25 recruits who were lined up along the sideline Saturday watching Army warm up. Jack Latore, a defensive end from Middletown, N.J., who is also considering Rutgers, said he hadn’t given much consideration to the war ending. His father, Dan, who played at Rutgers, said he liked the academics that West Point offered, “whether it’s wartime or not.”
Dan McCarthy, a deputy athletic director, said that in recent years about one in five cadets went to a war zone within five years of graduation. Even so, he said, “Every parent of a kid we’re recruiting is going to ask: Is my son or daughter going to Afghanistan and Iraq?”
When Arik Smith, a senior linebacker from Bowie, Md., was a high school senior in 2016, there was a far greater expectation that he would be heading to Afghanistan. Even though his grandfathers had served in Korea and Vietnam, and his father was in the Coast Guard, he said: “There was a little bit of concern. We considered the risk factor. It’s not as much of a risk factor now as it was then.”
On Saturday, there were few signs of the dark sides of a 20-year war.
It marked the culmination of an eventful week. It was branch week at the academy, when different branches — infantry, cyber, air defense or transportation, for example — recruit cadets to their programs. And on Friday, a statue commemorating Buffalo Soldiers was unveiled. Smith, who is Black, said the statue is an important step to recognize “everybody that is part of the foundation of what we’re doing here.”
Much of the pomp and circumstance was reserved for Saturday: Paratroopers parachuted onto the field, helicopters staged a flyover, and fire trucks and police cars lined Black Knight alley outside the stadium.
As fans entered, they were offered small American flags.
Like several former Army soldiers who served Afghanistan or Iraq, Michael Grimm expressed misgivings about what lay ahead for future cadets, saying there was increasing distrust in military leadership. But he said coming to West Point for a football game was a communal experience, like going to church — especially on this day.
“The impact of 9/11 diminishes with time,” he said, stepping away from the chicken he was tending to on a grill. “It’s a lot further way from that visceral feeling that everyone felt 20 years ago. Today is a reminder. To be here, I don’t think there’s a better place to be with Americans who are intent on paying their respects.”
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