The field is so big they call it the Plain. The ranks of soldiers who will march across it seem so endless they call them the Long Gray Line. And even though heavy rain is forecast, more than 10,000 spectators are on hand. It is, after all, commencement time at West Point, New York, home of the U.S. Military Academy. For graduates, this is their final parade as cadets.
As the troops marshall themselves on the field, one small group stands in front, stiff at attention, the black plumes of their “tarbucket” hats ruffling in the breeze. These are the cadet commanders. And the tallest, and second in command, is Shaun Greene, deputy brigade commander—and returned missionary.
How Shaun got to this point, to be among the highest cadet officers as well as in the top 5 percent of his class academically, is a story of faith, inspiration, and perseverance, or as Shaun might say, of learning to put first things first.
When he was 14, Shaun, a native of Roseville, California (near Sacramento), received his patriarchal blessing. “At age 14, I was not known as a particularly religious guy,” Shaun says. “But the stake patriarch was moving, and my parents thought he was a great guy, so I prepared for the blessing and got it.”
One phrase in the blessing startled Shaun. It mentioned serving in the military, and told him that if he was obedient he would be protected in time of war. “There were other things that were quite specific, as far as having a family for example, but the sentence about the military really affected me,” Shaun explains. “I’d always been interested in the military, but I hadn’t told the patriarch about that and I’m sure he didn’t know.”
The words of the blessing stayed with him. As he reached college age, he planned to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But a misunderstanding about an eye examination disqualified him, so he accepted an academic scholarship at Brigham Young University instead.
“I was thinking that if I was going into the military, then I’d get into pre-med and become a doctor,” Shaun says. But his pre-med studies left him dissatisfied. “I quickly found that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
At the same time, Shaun felt a growing testimony that the gospel was true. He heard the prophet say all worthy young men should serve a mission. It sounded like a case of putting first things first.
“A mission wasn’t something I had really planned on until then. My parents would talk about me going on a mission and I’d just smile. But when I started looking into the Church for myself, I became converted.”
He was called to serve in the Taiwan Taipei Mission. “BYU did some terrific things for me,” Shaun says. “But I think the mission did even more. I saw the gospel in action. I learned to try to love as the Savior loves.”
At the end of his mission, Shaun again felt prompted to act on the words of his patriarchal blessing. Getting into the military now seemed to be putting first things first, so he wrote to West Point. He also wrote to his senator and congressman, since cadets can only enter the military academy by senatorial, congressional, or presidential appointment. And even though he had attended college and served a mission, he met the age limitation (you can’t be older than 22) by ten days.
Shaun’s record at West Point has been outstanding. He is one of only a few cadets ever to make it through four years without a single demerit. He served as regimental commander for cadet basic training. He’s been on a cultural exchange program in China and Hong Kong. He’s had dinner with senators and generals, been interviewed by the national media, and he’s on line for a scholarship that will allow him to study in the Orient, then pursue a graduate degree at Harvard University.
Talk to Academy administrators and you’ll hear things like: “He’ll make a great addition to the army.” “He’s somebody who can get things done.” “He’s already a seasoned officer. He’s just masquerading as a cadet.”
And the story could end right there, except there’s another person involved, another Latter-day Saint who, thanks to the promptings of the Spirit, put first things first and found her way into Shaun’s life.
Several years ago, Amy Stohl didn’t know exactly why she accepted a position as an au pair (similar to a nanny) with an LDS military family living in Belgium. She just felt right about it. She enjoyed her time with the Robert McBride family, and they became close friends.
Soon, however, Amy was back at BYU, where she continued work on her pre-med requirements. But she became convinced that medical school just wouldn’t be right for her, and she switched to a humanities major.
A couple of years later, the McBrides, now assigned to the U.S. Military Academy, called to tell Amy about a cadet named Shaun Greene. He’d been a student at BYU before, but was now at West Point. He was going to be at BYU for a couple of days in the fall to watch a football game, and they’d like her to meet him. Shaun and Amy got acquainted and began writing to each other.
By January, Amy was close to graduation, but was planning to stay at BYU for one more semester. “But I became restless,” she says. “I prayed for guidance, and I felt something important was coming up.”
She talked to the McBrides and decided to move to Manhattan. “I found a place to live, had a job lined up, even arranged to finish my degree by correspondence,” Amy says. “Everything seemed to be working out.
“But when I visited West Point, I had a strong impression that I had to stay, isolated as it was, so that I could understand Shaun and what he had been through. I don’t know that anyone can fully understand a cadet’s thinking without spending time at West Point.”
The understanding grew. In fact, now Shaun and Amy see each other every evening.
It’s graduation day at West Point. Time for the final parade. And even though rain will soak cadets and spectators alike, it won’t matter. Tomorrow the sun will shine, bright and hot, and the graduates, dressed in white because their gray uniforms were ruined by the storm, will receive their diplomas and commissions from the President of the United States.
A few days later, Shaun and Amy will enter the Washington D.C. Temple to be married for time and eternity. Oh, sure, by July Shaun has to report for additional training. But before that, there’s a honeymoon to attend to. It’s a matter of putting first things first.
A New Tradition
In a place that prides itself on tradition, LDS cadets are glad to be building a tradition of their own—that of having returned missionaries graduate from West Point. Even though cadets already appointed to the Academy must resign in order to serve a mission, many are able to be reappointed once their mission is complete.
“Returned missionaries have a good reputation here,” says Drew Syphus of Altadena, California, who served in the Italy Milan Mission. “Those who have come back have performed so well it’s made it easier for others who want to go.”
In fact, RMs at the USMA return to school with added maturity and experience, qualities that stand out in the military. “You gain patience in the mission field,” says Clint Pincock, of Blanding, Utah, who served in the Taiwan Taichung Mission. “You learn to stick with it when things get tough. You learn to be sensitive to other people and cultures. It’s really impressive when you tell cadets and teachers about your experiences.”
What’s more, cadets say the Academy—with its emphasis on physical fitness, good study habits, time management, organizational skills, and leadership—provides good training for those preparing for a mission.
“One summer I had 57 people at my command,” says Vince Barnhart of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. “I had to learn to think on my feet.” After doing that for five weeks, he says, “knocking on doors in England wasn’t intimidating.”
And of course you’ll never hear a cadet-turned-proselytizer complain that the rise-early-and-study-hard schedule at the Church’s Missionary Training Center is just too tough.
There are approximately 4,000 cadets at West Point at any given time; roughly 70 of them are LDS. At the time this article was prepared, there were ten returned missionaries at the Academy, five cadets preparing to leave on missions, and eight former cadets in the mission field (of four soon to return, three are coming back to the corps). Says Robert McBride, West Point’s branch president, “The Academy administration is accepting more and more that a mission can be a good thing for a cadet.”