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West Point Plebes Gain Status

LEARNING: TRADITIONS IN TRANSITION

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ALUMNI gathering for fall events at the United States Military Academy here find that it's not like it was in the old days. Many cadets agree. West Point is striving to change its tradition-bound training system by modifying the way plebes and cadets at the academy are treated by one another. Both faculty members and cadets say revision is difficult but necessary.

It's a change sponsored from the top. Tomorrow's leaders must be more ``flexible, creative, and able to relate to their personnel,'' says Superintendent Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer. With divisions scaling back in size, officers will command smaller light-infantry units and elite special forces, for which these demands are critical, he says. And West Point was not doing the job, he acknowledged in an interview. General Palmer's concerns are heightened by the crisis in the Middle East and the demand for skilled combat troops.

The previous system, known as the Fourth Class System, was arbitrarily strict and often punitive in nature. Under it, the entering class, known as plebes, studied and trained in an atmosphere of artificially high stress and personal servitude to upperclassmen.

This past summer, the Fourth Class System was placed within the larger program known as the Cadet Leader Development System. Along the way, it became against policy to verbally abuse plebes, or force them to perform unreasonable tasks, such as memorizing upperclassmen's drink preferences at mealtimes or walking double-time across the quadrangle.

``What we are aiming for is professional standards between leaders and subordinates,'' says Col. H. Steven Hammond, director of the Office of Leadership Development. Penalties - including expulsion - result if upperclass cadets violate the 15 official standards of conduct, he says.

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