MARCH 2015, West Point, NY - Laura Walker and Renee Ramsey were classmates — cadets — and members of the United States Military Academy Class of 2003. They were teammates on the handball court and sisters off of it. They shared, and continue to share, a bond that is hard to quantify. Renee is now MAJ Ramsey and a professor of International Relations at West Point. She was also the volunteer head coach of the 2014–2015 West Point Women’s Team Handball program when I wrote this essay. Laura died in Afghanistan in 2005 as a 1LT — becoming the first female graduate of West Point to be killed-in-action. She is missed (I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to see for yourself). But MAJ Ramsey, Women’s Team Handball, and the United States Military Academy at West Point won't let her be forgotten.
MAJ Renee Ramsey spent her first year as head coach exploring Laura’s legacy with the team — turning everyday into Memorial Day. Through personal letters from friends, her own stories, photos and memories, she strengthened the bond of the team. She also forged a new bond with the past, urged a perspective to live with mindfulness in the present, and examined the many possibilities as to what the future holds. The poem below is a prime example:
By Cadet Breezy Sharkey, USMA ‘15
I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve heard her voice
you love to talk about
she exists in stories and in your dreams
with only her tombstone, a physical memory
I hear the loss each time you speak
it’s in your voice
her name and story choked with grief
you’ve lost your greatest friend
in that moment I regret this place
its created a world with friends I cannot replace
people I cannot live without
but as I see her face and hear your voice
I know it’s true
one day I will lose someone too
Her face it haunts because I know
I may face a world
The poem above was penned by Cadet Brianna Sharkey. Cadet Sharkey (known as Breezy to her friends/family/coach) was a Firstie and a member of the West Point Woman’s Team Handball club. At the time of this article, her 4-year West Point experience was winding down, things were about to change.
Anyone who has graduated from West Point knows how she felt. The feelings are sweet and the feelings are bitter. There is a one-of-a-kind anticipation — you feel like you are being set free and your life is FINALLY about to begin. And then there is a longing to hold-on — there will never be such a high concentration of close friends at her disposal.
Don’t get me wrong, there will be attempts to mimic the closeness and to recreate the environment — a wedding here and a wedding there, a trip every two to three years, reunions of course and perhaps an Army-Navy weekend in there for good measure. On the particular weekend pictured below, a few members of the class of 2003 gathered in Arvin Gym to remember and honor our classmate, Laura Walker.
Other efforts will be made and those times are certainly worthwhile and tremendously important. However, they will pale in comparison to those remaining 36 days. As I said, life is FINALLY about to begin.
Back to Breezy…I was curious about her poem. Specifically, I asked her about her time management. She informed me that she wrote the poem the night before in reflection of the weekend and the past few months.
As is usually the case with West Point cadets, the night before meant the morning of. And this was, in fact, true. She wrote it as her Sunday night turned into Monday morning. After a weekend of Team Handball competitions and commitments and with the mounting academic requirements of a full week of school ahead added to branch/duty station anxiety, she penned her poem around 3:00 AM.
I am drawn to Breezy's words. They are outstandingly honest. I think they capture (among other things) many of the feelings of those final days at West Point. Most notably:
in that moment I regret this place
its created a world with friends I cannot replace
people I cannot live without
Alfred Lord Tennyson would certainly approve of this conundrum. Cadet Sharkey and her teammates — those friends she ‘cannot replace’ — were coming off a second place finish at the the 10th Annual 1LT Laura Walker Memorial Team Handball Tournament. A tournament they desperately wanted to win — for each other, for MAJ Ramsey and of course, for Laura Walker’s Legacy.
The 1LT Laura Walker Memorial Handball Tournament took place the last weekend of March — March 28–29, 2015. This was the 10th year that the tournament has been held in honor of 1LT Walker. Along with two teams from West Point, attendees included the University of North Carolina, an NYC Club, Boston Club, and a Washington, DC Club.
Laura Walker died on August 18th, 2005 in Afghanistan, many miles removed from Arvin Gym, the Cadet Barracks, the Mess Hall and trip sections. Laura was an Army-brat, Captain of Women’s Team Handball, and a member of the class of 2003–our classmate. I did not know her very well. And that fact stung me with a sense of dread as I arrived at West Point on the morning of Friday, March 27, 2015.
As a cadet, you can find yourself wearing blinders — concentration and focus narrows to the task and people within your limited periphery. But as a graduate, for those who are willing and/or able, you get the chance to see West Point through a new set of eyes and different perspectives. I wasn’t going to let my past lack-of-relationship with Laura keep me from observing this moment and this tournament. I wasn’t sure what I would find or what I was looking for, but I had hunch I would find something. What I did know is that I didn’t want to just go back to West Point, snap a few photos and write a few captions as if it were just any other news-worthy story on any given day. I wanted to understand, just a little bit, how those cadets felt about Laura Walker.
The sum of these details, after all, is her true legacy. Legacy is much less about what you did as it is how you are remembered. Whenever I think of legacy I am drawn instantly to the words of Maya Angelou:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel
From everything I observed and read and heard, that is how Laura lived…with feeling, and with a certain unmistakable presence. Everything she touched or attempted was met with a fervor and a passion that was contagious. Since she was, after all, my classmate, as well as MAJ Ramsey…maybe I felt an obligation to help amplify the voice and legacy of the class of 2003, even if in a very minor way. So here we are.
The Statues, Monuments & Symbols
Every day cadets and visitors learn about many of the graduates of West Point. It is often remarked in guided tours:
Much of the history we teach was made by people we taught
Many are the statues, monuments and memorials honoring these late, great leaders and graduates. Immovable in stature and unshakeable in character, they are always there, at the ready, primed to induce a state of reverie for those willing.
They stand throughout the campus; they give the grounds a truly historic feel. Stone. Stoic. Story. They mark the edges of the cadet area like guardians — hollowed grounds protected by hallowed heroes — Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Thayer.
The roots of education are bitter, the fruits of education are sweet — Aristotle
These men are the heralds of legend and mythology at West Point. These men helped shape our 4-year experience at the Academy and gave us guiding principles for our near (Active Duty) and slightly-more-distant future (civilian life).
But they lived so long ago. As real as their lives were, they are untouchable and almost beyond relatable. They fought in wars and conflicts 3/4 of a century ago. They were generals, one a President, they’re purveyors of wisdom and the embodiment of those “three hallowed words (Duty, Honor, Country) that so reverently dictated what we ought to be, what we can be, what we will be.” Their likenesses grace stamps, the silver screen, oil paintings; they have government buildings and highways named after them.
And they are all men.
It’s no secret that there has been a steady uptick in the female cadet population over the past decade or so. In fact, in 2016, the United States Military Academy was expected to enroll it’s largest number of female cadets for a single class in the institution’s 213-year history, its 39th-year enrolling the female population. This historic enrollment statistic happened to coincide with women in the Infantry and women attending Ranger School (UPDATE***Two West Point Graduates just made history as they became the first female soldiers to complete Ranger School). Times they are a’changin’ — Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.
These facts are simply meant to draw to the reader’s attention that Laura Walker’s legacy is as important today as it has ever been. Keep in mind that each year, March is celebrated as Women’s History Month and coincidently, the tournament was played on March's final weekend.
During celebratory months it seems customary to honor trailblazers. The first woman to break down a barrier, the first to attain a given status or to hold a particular position. Holding with this tradition it is worth noting, again, that Laura Walker was the first female West Point graduate to be killed-in-action. This sole fact does not define her legacy, but it is a part of it.
Humbly, Laura's picture, a framed 8x10, hangs near the cash register at the Starbucks across from the cemetery where she is buried.
Laura’s death marked the beginning of a new era for West Point graduates. The battlefield’s toll is no longer regulated solely to one gender. While she was the first female graduate to perish in combat, she was not the last, and with women taking their place in the ranks of the Infantry and Ranger School, Laura’s death ushered in an era with a Sisterhood of the Fallen. Is it possible that the current climate truly marks an opportunity to remove gender bias — the quantifiable ‘female cadet’ ‘female soldier’ ‘female officer’?
The academy has a history of holding the scholarly-warrior in high regard, male or female. The helm that graces the West Point crest and new identity mark representing the athletic programs is that of a warrior and goddess. It is Athena that stands as the unifying symbol of the institution — a scholarly-warrior first, woman always.
Singular in mission, she cuts across the classroom to the playing field to the battlefield and into the mind, body and soul of each and every member of the Long Gray Line. There is no male, no female, no corps-squad or club-squad. There is but one singular goal: Arete.
But statues and monuments and symbols don’t establish legacy or always communicate legacy effectively. At times their meaning must be explained. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of individuals and the support of communities, organizations and institutions. The onus rests with the individuals that share Laura’s story, they become the heralds of her legacy.
So let’s end with the words and perspectives of a few of the individuals who have taken on the responsibility to communicate Laura Walker’s legacy:
Task Force Walker — Beast Barracks
Plebe, USMA '18
"Team Handball and 1LT Laura Walker are synonymous to me. My first summer of cadet basic training was known as Task Force Walker in memory of Laura’s life and service. When I joined the team later that fall, I only knew of the sport and its association with her memory. I’ve never known one without the other. To me, they represent the same things: hard work, dedication, and compassion."
Yearling, USMA '17
"Prior to this year, I had very little understanding of who 1LT Laura Walker was. As a plebe last year, a Firstie on the team explained Laura Walker’s story in a short few minutes from which I gained a very weak grasp on her life. The Firstie was also the only girl on the team who wore 1LT Walker’s memorial bracelet. I felt so out-of-place when I observed her confidence in wearing the bracelet, and I was embarrassed of my lack of connection with the woman who we attributed our annual home tournament to. I honestly thought to myself, 'I don’t know this woman- how could I possibly wear a bracelet for someone whose story is so far outside of my understanding? I would not be able to do her justice in telling her story.'
At the 9th Annual Laura Walker Memorial Tournament in 2014, MAJ Ramsey attended our tournament and shared her side of knowing Laura Walker as her best friend. MAJ Ramsey joined our team as a Coach and mentor for the 2014–2015 school year when she started her mission to make Laura Walker come alive for us. MAJ Ramsey shared pictures, intimate stories of her own and others, and the voice of Laura Walker. Over the course of 9 months, 1LT Laura Walker came alive for me. The week of the 10th Annual Laura Walker Memorial Tournament, MAJ Ramsey gave 1LT Walker memorial bracelets to each member of our team. We immediately donned them, and I remembered looking down at it with everything coming full circle—one year ago, I was a spectator and apprehensively viewed that bracelet from afar.
Now, I proudly wear the bracelet with confidence in knowing that I am wearing and honoring an absolutely incredible woman who I feel closely connected to. I feel a strong responsibility to share 1LT Laura Walker’s story with anyone who asks and especially with the future members of Women’s West Point Team Handball."
Setting the Example
Firstie, USMA '15, Women's Team Handball Co-Captain
"For me, a winning spirit, is never accepting anything less than your best effort. You can fail (West Point does a very good job of demonstrating that to every cadet who goes through here, no matter who you are) but it’s up to you as an individual to let it define you as a failure.
Laura represents to me how our club isn’t just a handball team and never has been. We’re a family; we aren’t just here to play handball. We’re here to commission and serve, hopefully having the same kind of impact that Laura had on the people around her which the stories we’ve had a chance to hear highlight over this past year. This team has always been special to me and definitely the reason that I’m still here at the Academy. It’s a lot to live up to, following in the footsteps of role models such as Laura."
Leadership by Example
Lead from the Front
MAJ Renee Ramsey
USMA '03, International Relations Instructor/Team Handball Coach
"Laura’s life may have been cut short, but her legacy still reverberates throughout these walls because she embodied what it meant to be a leader of character. Look no further than the words of those whose lives she touched to understand the true impact of such a person.
I want a new generation of leaders to understand that they possess the same profound power to make a lasting impact in the lives of others….and that opportunity starts now. We’re always looking toward the future, counting down to the next big thing like graduation or our next assignment, but life is happening now, all around us. The power is in the present. That’s how Laura lived her life. Those that met Laura will never forget her because she brought such talent and passion for serving others into everything she touched.
Each day that I put on my uniform, I strive to be worthy of wearing her memorial bracelet — did I do enough with this gift of an extra day?
I hope to make a positive difference in the lives of these cadets in some small way as a tribute to the immeasurable impact Laura had in mine. I started working with the team last year because of the memorial tournament in Laura’s name, but I stayed on to coach because these young leaders inspire me with their own service and depth of character.
I witness them navigate through the rigors of daily cadet life toward the same goal of becoming leaders of character and officers in the US Army — to be worthy of the Soldiers they will lead they find inspiration in the legacies of the past."
Excellence & Friendly Strife & See it Through
The inches that we fight for are all around us every day. They exist in relationships, in athletic competition, on the battlefield, corporate boardrooms, and as we grind for grade point averages. These inches are worth fighting for. These inches take on different names: hustle, hard work, the extra mile. Someone really wise once said “We are what we repeatedly do…Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”
As a cadet, I walked by Don Holleder everyday. On my way to and from practice at Michie Stadium, I would see the monument that stood, aptly, outside of the Holleder Center.
Don Holleder was an scholar -athlete. Courage was in his DNA. Bravery echoed from his legend. His spirit was a rallying point for a group of 18–22 year old cadets headed off to war. He was also the grim reality.
The inscription above him reads:
Upon the fields of friendly strife
Are sown the seeds
That, upon other fields, on other days
Will bear the fruits of victory
- Douglas MacArthur
It is this principle alone that justifies cadet athletic endeavors. From the pomp and circumstance of the Army-Navy Game to the intramural orienteering team to Women’s Team Handball. Competition exposes something uniquely human and, for cadets specifically, it allows them the freedom to learn to deal with temporary failure in a place of little consequence…so that we may learn to be courageous in the eyes of death…so that we may learn to never give up on those we lead or give up on ourselves…so that we may learn to see it through.
Life is a lesson. This quote reminds us that failure takes many forms. Failure does not belong in our DNA. This principle is hammered into our bones. From the moment one becomes a new cadet to the moment we are buried six feet under, we will continue to deny defeat. Even once we've been summoned to our ultimate demise, because of the tenacity in which we choose to live our lives, our legacy will endure.
Our classmates only die when we let them. Somebody made it a point to ensure that every future cadet knew who Don Holleder was, to be inspired by his life and his character and his legacy.
Over the course of one weekend at the end of March in 2015, I witnessed how MAJ Renee Ramsey has become that “somebody” for Laura Walker.
To West Point Association of Graduates. To Anthony DiNoto for his guidance, spirit and creative vision. This project would not have gotten off the ground without his enthusiasm and desire to see it documented. His videos and images and ideas were a big part of this piece.
To MAJ Renee Ramsey USMA '03 — Thank you for…well…for being you. Your effort, help and patience truly embody the spirit of what a West Point instructor is.
To MAJ Aris Comeaux USMA ’03 (and my forever Army Football teammate) and Faith Comeaux for allowing me to crash on your futon. Your hospitality made my trip all the more special.
To USMA Class of 2003 — Protectors of the Free. Your support made this tribute come to life. Your personal tributes to Laura were my guide and our collective effort to keep Laura’s legacy alive has, in fact, has reverberated with the newest members of the Long Gray Line.
Handball is a niche sport. At West Point, like many institutions, handball is a club activity, meaning funding for uniforms, equipment and trips comes from donations from former players, interested parties, and people like you and me.
The 1LT Laura Walker Memorial Fund was established to help fund the West Point Women’s Handball. This is a very concrete way for Laura’s legacy to continue to have an impact on the future generations of West Point Cadets.
Contributions to the 1LT Laura Walker Memorial Fund can be made here.