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    West Point cadets support DPAA mission

    West Point cadets support DPAA mission

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Apryl Hall | Cadet Joshua Smoak, U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York, class of...... read more read more

    His alarm screams at 5:30 a.m. prompt and wakes him from a heavy, much-needed sleep. He takes note of his sore muscles and stretches the stiffness out of his legs and arms. When he finally opens his eyes, he realizes he’s in an unfamiliar place. The cracked walls in the tiny room remind him where he is and why he’s there. It feels like Groundhog’s Day, but he’s used to that.

    Cadet Joshua Smoak, United States Military Academy, West Point class of 2020, is no stranger to long days with strict timelines and an overwhelming amount of work. He just finished his junior year at the academy and was planning to take a few weeks of vacation when an unexpected opportunity came his way.

    “I was going to go home for five weeks, which does not happen!” Smoak said. “I was really excited, but then, when talking with my mentor one day, she said, ‘You’re going to Vietnam.’”

    Not sure what to make of the situation, Smoak did some research and discovered the trip to Vietnam was to support a recovery mission with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. DPAA’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of our missing personnel to their families and the nation. Smoak instantly knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse.

    “My grandfather actually served in Vietnam, and I felt so humbled that I was able to go honor his fallen brothers,” Smoak said. “I’ll be able to converse with him about something my generation otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect with.”

    Smoak called the trip leader Capt. Matt Salyer, an associate professor at West Point, immediately. He agreed to cut his vacation time short and headed to the small Vietnamese village of A Luoi, where he and Salyer joined ten other individuals, seven service members and three civilian partners, who had already started the mission a few weeks prior.

    For weeks the team members shoveled and screened soil in search of finding three soldiers who went missing during the war. The days were long. The heat was unbearable at times. The work was exhausting, but Smoak never lost site of how important the opportunity was for his development as a future officer.

    “At West Point, you’re so consumed with yourself, but here it’s really cool to take a step back and not worry about myself as much as the team,” Smoak said. “Yeah, we are tired and dirty and we may make small mistakes, but we are all willing to put in the work and come back and make a difference in the end.”

    Smoak also said the mission helped him learn a valuable lesson in leadership.

    “I wanted to learn how not to be a leader,” Smoak said. “I learn everyday how to be a leader. In order to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower, and I have not gotten enough training to be a good follower.”

    For Capt. Sayler, the mission was about opening a door for his cadets. The trip was a pilot program for what Sayler hopes to be a future partnership between West Point and DPAA. His goal is to do an annual mission with cadets and newly commissioned lieutenants.

    “I thought it was a great opportunity for cadets to interact with a real, small-team environment with non-commissioned officers from all branches of service and be part of a real, operational mission,” Sayler said. “There’s a great framework in place for a relationship that can give smart, young future leaders a chance to support DPAA and that can, in-turn, help provide them a great opportunity to honor the fallen and develop their competencies.”

    Sayler also feels a strong connection to the mission. Growing up in the Bronx, Sayler said he admired the men in his neighborhood who left for the war and returned to a community that had changed. Partnering with DPAA allows him to honor those men, while still mentoring his young students.

    “For me to combine the personal angle with something that can help educate cadets, that’s the goal,” Sayler said. “This is like a practicum for a lot of things they learn in the classroom. To get the exposure to work with other branches, civilian entities and a host nation, and have to accomplish a mission in that environment, it’s a very complex atmosphere and will help develop them as officers.”

    Being the team lead for his cadets on mission also allows Sayler to see his students thrive in a real-world environment, something cadets spend years in the classroom preparing for.

    “What is really meaningful for me is the ability to really see what we try to holistically teach cadets being put into practice,” Sayler said. “You always want to find ways to link what you’re doing academically back to the operational Army. To be able to see kids I knew in the classroom and take them on their first mission and let them go, you almost feel like a proud dad in a way.”

    With the pilot mission in the books, Sayler and Smoak look forward to teaming up together next year for another DPAA mission, this time with a much bigger group of cadets along for the ride.

    “For me to be in this program, what we are doing right now is potentially opening a gateway to change 30 plus cadets’ lives, and I am so humbled and honored to say I was part of opening that door,” Smoak said. “I wanted an opportunity that teaches me something that I can apply to myself as an officer. So allowing cadets this opportunity that is very different, but still an option in the military is amazing. Work your butt off, sweat a lot and develop as a leader.”



    Date Taken: 06.18.2019
    Date Posted: 06.20.2019 14:57
    Story ID: 328257
    Location: VN

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