A Letter from Andrew Pedersen-Keel to Hayden DiMaio
Thanks for your thoughtful note. And your gratitude for our service means the world to all of us. I’ve known your grandmother and grandfather my entire life, and they are the sweetest of people. Please give them both a hug for me the next time you see them. I was very impressed by your note, and can easily tell that you’re a sharp guy who’s light years ahead of his peers given your demonstrated careful consideration of your future.
At your age, I had not yet considered the prospect of joining the military. In fact, I did not give it much thought at all until I realized that I could potentially play lacrosse at West Point. I had been recruited by other colleges throughout New England, but West Point was the only Division I program that indicated interest. Thus, my journey to West Point began with that in mind, rather than service to the nation, or any other higher callings. Though my reasons for going essentially began selfishly, they morphed when it came to justifying why I was sticking with my decision. What lured me was lacrosse, what kept me was the camaraderie.
West Point is not simply a four year endeavor, it is a nine year commitment. Obviously, the education is four years, but at the completion of your time as a cadet (upon graduation), you commission as an Army Officer (or 2nd Lieutenant) and are required to serve 5 active duty years. Thus bringing the total time to roughly 9 years. When I discovered this, it seemed like an enormous commitment to make to an endeavor which I had little understanding or experience. Fortunately, the first two years of West Point are commitment-free, meaning that any time up to the end of your second year, if you decide that West Point (or your future in the Army) is something you’d rather walk away from, you’re entitled to do so without incurring any penalties.
If, however, you decide to stay, you then enter a contract to serve the Army for a five year active duty commitment. There were times at the academy where I found myself contemplating my decision, and weighing the idea of leaving for a civilian school. Personally, I’m so happy that I decided to remain and graduate. Although West Point can be difficult at times, the friends that you make there become the closest friends imaginable. The camaraderie I experienced is what motivated me to stay. It’s worth noting too that West Point should be considered as a four-year practice, and your time in the Army is essentially the big game. That’s where you get to use the skills you learned while at the academy in leading soldiers in real-life. Leading soldiers is, in my humble opinion, the most utterly compelling, demanding, and rewarding experience a young man could possibly have. I cannot imagine doing anything else in my early 20s than that. Nonetheless, I just wanted to provide you with some rough knowledge of what the commitment entails.
At the end of the day, if it’s something you want, go for it. If it’s something you decide during high school no longer appeals to you, that’s fine too. I would encourage you, above all else, to find what you want to do and make it happen (which will almost always involve working hard). Despite feeling partial at this point in time to the idea of West Point and the Army, you’re number one priority should be working hard in school. It is essentially your insurance policy for future decision making. Regardless of what you decide to pursue (military or otherwise), doing well in school affords you the ability to entertain as many options as you can imagine. The worse you do, the more limited your options become. With respect to West Point, admission can be very tough, and good grades allow you to get your foot in the door. The same is true for any top tier school, and maybe more so with the academy. I greatly admire your innate patriotism and call to service. It seems that your heart is in it, and that’s critical.
With respect to your perceived physical limitations, don’t sweat it! You’ve got plenty of time yet to grow. I’ve topped out at 5’8”, which is relatively small for the job I currently do. I’m not the tallest, I’m not the fastest, I’m not the strongest. The strength of an officer lies not in any of these things, but rather in your heart (ethics) and mind (intellect). Of course, being tall, fast, and strong to some degree certainly bolster your credibility with your men, but it is by no means what defines an officer. Definition comes from your ability to make decisions (usually under pressure), which clearly leverages your heart and mind more than your biceps. If physical tenacity is something you’d like to achieve, maximize your participation in your school or town’s sports programs. Athletics are a great way to get physically tuned, and have fun while doing it. When I was your age, I played Pop Warner football, snowboarded, and played baseball in the spring. When I got to high school I fell in love with lacrosse, and wrestled and played football just to stay in good shape for lacrosse season. I enjoyed doing it, and when I arrived to West Point, I was in great shape. Also worth noting too, West Point puts a great emphasis on physical training while at the academy because they want to prepare cadets for the Army. They understand that upon arrival, all new cadets won’t be capable of meeting the demands of the Army automatically, so you’ve got four years to physically ready yourself before the big game.
I’ll leave you with a book recommendation that I feel may be of benefit to you as you navigate your future with West Point. It’s a book about West Point called ‘Absolutely American’ by David Lipsky. Lipsky, at the time anyhow, was a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Thus, his account is from a fairly neutral perspective, permitting a pretty honest portrayal of life as a cadet.
Hayden, I hope some of this is useful to you. If you’d ever like to ask a question, get some more information, or raise any other concerns, please don’t hesitate to email again. I’ll be home from Afghanistan in two months and will be back in Connecticut for a couple weekends in May and June. If you’d like to sit down and talk further, I’d be happy to. Again, please tell your family a big hello for me!
Captain, Special Forces