For Those We Lead: Scenes from 2015 West Point graduation

Serenaded by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about 1,000 West Point cadets graduated on Saturday at Michie Stadium and were commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in the Army.

You can find a full gallery of my images, about 150 total, from the morning here on Flickr. Below are some of my favorite shots.

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I should first mention, this was the sixth time I’ve had the honor to photograph this great day, and you can see my images from each of the previous five years here.

The ceremony begins with the Cadet First Captain, Austin Welch, leading his class into Michie Stadium:

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Organized by regiments, the remaining cadets march in:
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This is the literal depiction of the “Long Grey Line” as they like to say at West Point, and it’s always fun to focus in on individual cadets and their eyes as they walk in. Some are serious and some can’t contain their excitement:USMA Graduation 2015 076 USMA Graduation 2015 089

The dress grey uniforms are full of details and shiny buttons that make for interesting close-ups:USMA Graduation 2015 093 USMA Graduation 2015 111 USMA Graduation 2015 133

I framed a few of these wider shots by putting the camera near the grass and shooting up, which let me include the “Beat Navy” sign in the background. Also got to play with shadows and lines:USMA Graduation 2015 150

Way up in the upper deck of Michie, the rest of the Corps of Cadets sit and watch:USMA Graduation 2015 176

I always love shooting the uniforms, and the way the cadets are lined up, it creates for a very shallow depth of field with my 400mm lens:USMA Graduation 2015 186 USMA Graduation 2015 238

Here’s Gen. Ray Odierno walking in:USMA Graduation 2015 259

Gen. Martin Dempsey fist-bumps the iconic Army football plaque at Michie before his speech:USMA Graduation 2015 276

During the national anthem, you can get every cadet saluting:USMA Graduation 2015 309 USMA Graduation 2015 343

Lt. General Robert L. Caslen, the “Supe,” introduced Gen. Dempsey:USMA Graduation 2015 360

As predicted, Gen. Dempsey took a casual approach to his speech, removing his cap, walking around with a mic, reciting Frank Sinatra tunes, telling anecdotes about when he graduated. Great speech.USMA Graduation 2015 399 USMA Graduation 2015 436 USMA Graduation 2015 491 USMA Graduation 2015 508 USMA Graduation 2015 517

Finally, cadets began walking up to accept their diplomas and shake hands. The top-ranked cadets all received their diplomas from Dempsey himself:USMA Graduation 2015 562

After the stage exchange, you can get some really great emotion-filled portraits when the cadets walk back down to their seats and pass by senior officers and academy leadership they’ve built relationships with over the years.USMA Graduation 2015 631 USMA Graduation 2015 641 USMA Graduation 2015 644 USMA Graduation 2015 670 USMA Graduation 2015 708

Jonathan Schwindt of Beeville, Texas, the lowest-ranked cadet in the graduating class, known as “the goat,” celebrates after receiving his diploma and a package of money, roughly $1,000, from his classmates. Some folks asked me about the significance of this, so here ya go, from the Wall Street Journal:

“The origins of the goat are a mystery, but the earliest written reference to the term goes back to 1886, according to author and historian James S. Robbins. Mr. Robbins counts the collection of goat stories as a cherished hobby, and eventually wrote a book about them, called “Last in Their Class.”

In most cases, Mr. Robbins said, a goat either tried hard but just barely made it through the school’s tough academic and physical program, or opted to do the bare minimum to get to graduation, preferring to socialize or pull pranks rather than study. Some were charismatic risk-takers; others didn’t exactly fit in, though the most typical trait among goats appears to be a stubborn refusal to give up. Far from failures, Mr. Robbins argued, these cadets should be seen as survivors.”

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Back on the field, Army football slotback Trenton Turrentine points to a friend after grabbing his diploma:USMA Graduation 2015 793

I always try to get these portraits where the only thing visible is one eye. It’s sort of fun to take the chaos of the moment — hundreds of people moving around, cheering, walking, the band playing — and kind of boil it down to a very small center of focus:USMA Graduation 2015 800 USMA Graduation 2015 821

Here’s a great moment as Brigadier General Timothy E. Trainor, the 13th Dean of West Point, embraces his graduating son, Daniel, on the stage:USMA Graduation 2015 831 USMA Graduation 2015 843 USMA Graduation 2015 852 USMA Graduation 2015 881

No stranger to big moments at Michie Stadium, former Army football fullback Larry Dixon also earned a diploma:USMA Graduation 2015 935

Dempsey told a story about a dollar he gave someone years ago and recently had returned to him — it centered around the trust soldiers put in officers and a symbolic gesture of the dollar. Military tradition is that newly commissioned officers give a dollar to the noncommissioned officers who render them their first salute. On Saturday, Dempsey gave each of the 994 new 2nd lieutenants an autographed dollar bill to signify his trust in them:USMA Graduation 2015 954

Oh yes, Olivia Schretzman. Every year I manage to find one cadet who really turns the excitement level up to 12, and this year, it was Liv, a star basketball player who recently won the prestigious Maggie Dixon Award. Both her parents graduated from West Point, so the “I did it” aspect of this expression goes deep:USMA Graduation 2015 1058 USMA Graduation 2015 1083

Finally, the ceremony came to a close with the final oath and formalities. I switched lenses and kneeled in front of the stage with a pair of camera bodies: a Canon 1D Mk IV with a 15mm fisheye lens and a Canon 1D Mk II with a 16-35mm L set to 16. I aimed and fired both simultaneously to get two similar but noticeably different versions of the iconic cap toss:USMA Graduation 2015 1088 USMA Graduation 2015 1113 USMA Graduation 2015 1115 USMA Graduation 2015 1116 USMA Graduation 2015 1118

Boom. It’s downhill from here. Once the caps go flying, it’s a free-for-all on the field. This is the chance, especially in the very immediate moments, to get the raw emotion and excitement (and relief) from these new lieutenants.USMA Graduation 2015 1146 USMA Graduation 2015 1168

Here’s Army football’s Geoffery Bacon:USMA Graduation 2015 1202 USMA Graduation 2015 1208 USMA Graduation 2015 1214 USMA Graduation 2015 1217 USMA Graduation 2015 1220

As is the growing tradition, the “Old Grad” yellow t-shirts started coming out!USMA Graduation 2015 1272

Again, you can find more of my images from the day here.

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