Almost exactly 3 years ago, I reported to the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point to begin my journey from civilian to Army officer. About 10 months ago, I decided against affirming and left USMA to complete my education at a civilian university. The purpose of this post is to give some insight into the factors I considered when making my decision to leave. When I was debating my decision I scoured the internet to find the stories of others who chose to leave. No two people have identical reasons for leaving or staying, but I hope my story can provide another perspective to those struggling with the decision.
Table of Contents
- What is "Affirmation"?
- The Right Reasons
- Separate Decisions
- Career Details
- Outside Considerations
What is "Affirmation"?
First, for any non-cadets, here is a brief overview of the Affirmation process and the commitments required of graduates. After 4 (tuition-free) years, cadets graduate and commission as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. In exchange for their education and training, graduates owe the military 5 years of active duty service and 3 years on reserve status. Cadets are allowed their first two years at the academy to decide whether they are willing to make this commitment or if they would rather leave. This decision is formalized in a ceremony called "Affirmation" (as in, they are "affirming" their initial decision to join the Army from two years earlier). If a cadet leaves West Point before Affirmation they owe the military nothing, but if they choose to leave after Affirmation they must reimburse the Army for the value of all of the training and education they received as a cadet: an exorbitant sum.
The Right Reasons
My first piece of advice is to think about your goals early and often. Keep a journal and write down your thoughts: the good and the bad. Looking back on your doubts, failures, insecurities, and fears is just as important as remembering the laughter, success, and camaraderie when evaluating the decision to stay or leave. Trying to remember past emotional states is difficult; having a physical record of your emotions and thoughts is extremely helpful when making any life decision. At a minimum, you should know (or be working to figure out) what ultimate goal you would like to achieve and how your current activities are helping you to get closer to that goal.
Ideally, when you entered West Point, you should have had a solid idea of why you want to be in the Army, what you want to do in the Army, and so on.The mistake I made in high school was confusing West Point with my end destination. In high school I was so focused on getting into West Point, so sure that it was what I wanted–no, needed to do–that I failed to realize West Point (and college in general) is just a stepping stone to a future career and life.
I wanted to go to West Point because it was the biggest/baddest/hardest thing high school me could imagine. I obsessed about West Point culture (so embarrassing), but didn't even bother to learn all the Army branches till after arriving as a cadet. Some cadets come because their parents want them to. Some come because they want to play a sport. Some come because it is free. In the end it is not important why you come West Point. The reasons you stay or leave are a million times more important.
Treat deciding to affirm like an entirely separate decision from your initial decision to attend. The amount of time and effort you put into your application and your first two years at the academy should have absolutely no bearing on the decision to stay or leave. Deciding to stay and commit the next 7+ years of your life to the Army should not be based on how hard you worked in the past. That work is already sunk; you should not stay out of a desire to "justify" it.
Start fresh and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of both options. After two years at West Point, you have more knowledge about what it means to be an Army officer, what career paths are available to you, and who you are as a person.
As I mentioned before, in high school I was obsessed with West Point. Every activity and class I participated in was designed for maximum impact on my USMA application. I was so focused on getting in that my identity was already becoming intertwined with "cadet-hood." I sacrificed time with my family, fun with my friends, and a lot of the typical high school experience to become the "perfect candidate." No one could have talked me out of going to USMA. I didn't even allow myself to consider leaving until the months immediately prior to Affirmation because I felt that after all the hard work I did to get in and how fiercely I had wanted to go, West Point had to be the right place for me.
Coming from a non-military family, I had no clue what being an Army officer actually looked like. Like the majority of cadets, I had never qualified on a rifle, given an OPORD presentation, gone on a ruck, rendered a salute, observed an officer/NCO interaction, etc. I didn't know how the branching/posting process worked. I didn't know the difference between combat arms/non-combat arms. I didn't know what ADSOs/PADSOs/BRADSOs were. I definitely did not understand the full meaning of the word bureaucracy.
I do not want to dwell into the specifics of everything I liked/disliked about the branches (mainly because I never actually experienced any of them and only have my own impressions). Suffice it to say, I was not interested in paper pushing/management or in field operations. My top branch preference (and the only one I really considered interesting) was Cyber. Ultimately, I think I could have had an interesting time in the branch, but I never got enough information to convince me that it was worth 5 years plus a 1 year ADSO. The information I did get indicated that the Cyber branch was running into bureaucratic red tape and struggling to actually make any significant contributions to the country.
Additionally, I realized if I regretted leaving at a later point, as long as I received my bachelor's I could still become an officer through OCS. Not affirming did not eliminate my option to become an Army officer, it just freed me from committing years of my life to a career path I was not passionate about.
Deciding to not affirm also involves understanding the challenges and risks that come with transferring schools and career paths. I took my interests and financial situation into heavy consideration.
Honestly, I still don't know precisely what I want to do, but at the time I made the decision I realized that I wanted a career that aligned better with my innate interests and talents. Luckily for me, I am most interested in Computer Science and Mathematics which are fields that have many available positions and good pay. I figured that if I finish my bachelor's degree in CS I can certainly find an adequate job offer (even if I don't find my "one true calling").
In terms of getting to college itself, my future was much less certain. Particularly for me, because I decided to leave only weeks before Affirmation, I would have to take an entire year to apply to transfer to other colleges. IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING LEAVING, THEN APPLY TO OTHER SCHOOLS DURING YUK YEAR! I had to leave with no guarantee that I would get accepted to a good program, that my credits would transfer, or that it would be financially feasible for my family.
In the end, I was fortunate enough to be able to live at home for the year and found a good paying job to fill the time. The transfer application process was much more brutal than I expected, but I survived that as well and even got into my top choice (the reject pile was still high though…).
Some Outside Factors to Consider:
- where you will stay before you get back to college
- how many of your credits are transferable
- how you will pay for civilian college
- how much family support you have (emotional and financial)
- career prospects for your intended major
- civilian college options (selectivity, program availability, location, price, size, etc.)
- how you will keep yourself busy for a year
Deciding to leave West Point was the hardest decision I've ever had to make. I still miss so many things about West Point and occasionally wonder about what would have happened if I chose to stay. Ultimately though, I know I made the best decision I could with the information I had available at the time and do not regret my choice at all. I also do not regret going to West Point in the first place because my time there taught me so much about myself, about teamwork, and about the world. Hopefully this long-winded post helps someone out there think about their decision a little more clearly! Feel free to reach out if you have other questions.
My e-mail is laurabauman12 [at] gmail [dot] com