- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — As a sergeant in Afghanistan, John Griffin led patrols, survived firefights and was decorated for his service.

Now the 22-year-old is trading in his soldier greens for cadet gray, joining a small cadre of West Point plebes who already have faced combat, cleared minefields, jumped from airplanes and subsisted in the desert on vacuum-packed pouches of jambalaya.

The veterans, interviewed as they arrived last week, say giving up combat duty for class work will be worth it for a shot at the education, an officer’s rank and a chance to rejoin their comrades.

“They’re still willing to put their lives on the line for me,” said Michael Kranch, a 21-year-old former specialist from State College, Pa. “I hope I have an opportunity to put my life on the line for them again.”

The U.S. Military Academy annually takes in cadets with prior military experience along with the hundreds of recent high school graduates. West Point even has a prep school for soldiers. The difference this year is that many of those entering the school are coming off stints in combat zones — 24 compared with about eight last year.

Although the combat veterans leave behind bleak battle zones for the granite and green space of the Hudson Valley academy, there are still trade-offs. Plebes are at the bottom of the military totem pole. Veterans of night patrols in hostile territory will have to endure marching drills.

Because cadets must be single, Mr. Griffin put off marrying his hometown sweetheart in Bellevue, Wash. However, he did entice her to move east to Long Island, a few hours from West Point.

Many of the veterans feel bad about being back home while their old units are halfway around the globe.

“It’s just hard when you’re sitting there with your nose in a book and they’re doing all the hard stuff,” said 22-year-old Jonathan Smith of Garland, Texas, who was an infantry sergeant.

They describe the uneasy feeling of watching CNN to ensure that none of their old friends were killed in action. Mr. Kranch ended up attending a funeral in Pennsylvania for a soldier who disposed of mines and bombs with him in Afghanistan.

“I left to come here,” he said. “She stayed.”

If they make it through four years of West Point, they will return to military service as lieutenants. A few said the biggest challenge will be biting their tongues when cadets a few years their junior tell them how to act like soldiers.

“I’ve been through Ranger school,” Mr. Griffin said. “If I can make it through that, I can make it through this.”

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