CPT Charles Cook talks with us about his journey from Riverside Military Academy student; to West Point; to the Air Force; to early retirement; then, back into reserve duty as member of the West Point Admission team.
In our wide ranging conversation, CPT Cook shares his personal journey as well as his advice and observations regarding West Point admission. In my favorite piece of conversation, he recounts RMA lessons that he carries with him to this day.
Brian Fisher (BF): You're an RMA alumnus and career officer. Tell us how you came from RMA to West Point admissions?
CPT Charles Cook: This is a long journey! I graduated from RMA in 1974, accepted an offer to attend the USMA Preparatory School (USMAPS) located at that time at Ft. Belvoir, VA, right outside Washington, DC. I completed USMAPS and went to West Point.
While at West Point I joined the cadet flying club and began to take flying lessons with the hope of obtaining my FAA Private Pilot license. This was both a blessing and a curse. I discovered that I loved flying. I decided I wanted to fly in the Air Force and elected to leave West Point. I joined the Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) Detachment at Manhattan College (Riverdale, NY) where I was accepted into the undergraduate Engineering program.
While in AFROTC I secured my flight training position. Upon graduation with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering, commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force, I completed flight training and was assigned to a C-130 unit.
My wife developed medical issues which required that the Air Force to discharge me in August 1985. I was told that I could not get back into the military because of the type of discharge (humanitarian) I received.
It took me 15 years to find out that was wrong. In November 1999 I found out I could go back into the reserves – and I did so effective February 2000. I am still in the Army Reserves, as a Medical Service Corps officer, currently serving as the Assistant Health Services Operations Officer in the Operations Sections of the Army Reserve Medical Command.
BF: Joining West Point's Admission Team?
CPT Charles Cook: Over the years I had heard hushed discussions about Academy Admissions Officers. When I was applying to West Point no such person existed for me to work through the admissions and nomination processes as a guide/mentor.
In September 2007 I read a very brief, two paragraph article in the US Army Reserve Command's publication "Warrior Citizen" about the Military Academy Liaison Officer program for reserve officers working with the West Point's Directorate of Admissions. Unfortunately the article provided no contact information to obtain any additional information.
In February 2008, Errol Bisso, RMA's Alumni Director, asked if I would contact an RMA alumnus living in Clearwater (Florida). I made the call. As we shared mutual RMA background information the alumnus shared that he had just "fully" retired from his last "job" – being a MALO for West Point.
To make a long story short, the alumnus made calls to Admissions at West Point and, in a matter of less than one hour, had me in contact with the Southeast Regional Commander for Admissions and I was on my way to being an Admissions Officer.
From April 2008 I was assigned to provide admissions assistance in the Florida 10th (now 13th) and Florida 13th (now 16th) congressional districts. In February 2010, I was asked by Admissions to assume coordination responsibility for the whole state of Florida due to the active duty mobilization of the prior state coordinator.
I am now officially listed as the Florida State Congressional District Coordinator for the Directorate of Admissions. I report to and work closely with Major John Turner (845-938-5726, email@example.com), Southeast Regional Commander for West Point Admissions.
My work with Admissions allows me the opportunity to give back to West Point – an institution that, in addition to RMA, gave me the foundation for success that I enjoy today. I am the person I am because of the combined lessons learned and the traits instilled in me at RMA and West Point.
BF: What's your role in the West Point admission process?
CPT Charles Cook: Working for West Point Admissions allows me the rare opportunity to give back to West Point by helping applicants achieve their goal of attending West Point.
Each year Florida has between 850-900 students applying for admission. The admissions and nomination processes, while separate, run concurrently and present a daunting bureaucratic process for students to try and navigate through. My role is to assist, provide information, answer questions, and resolve issues for the candidate and parents as they move through the admissions and nominations processes.
One of the single most important duties that I perform is the completion of the candidate interview – a written document that identifies and discusses each candidate's assets (academic, leadership) and strengths (moral, ethical). The candidate interview is, for most candidates, the only opportunity for Admissions to get an "eyes on" assessment of a candidate by an Admissions Officer.
For some candidates the interview can tip the scales in their favor for admissions. For other candidates the interview serves as a clarifying point during which the admissions process may stop due to a candidate's change of direction or purpose.
BF: In that role, what do you have to make sure that potential applicants understand about West Point admission?
CPT Charles Cook: The candidate interview provides the final opportunity to assess a candidate's understanding of what lies ahead, and a candidate's ability to have the proper preparation, focus and determination to complete the 47-month cadet experience and graduate.
The interview, hopefully, is not the first contact with a candidate, but a culmination of many prior contacts. The candidate interview provides the opportunity to bring together a summation of all those prior contacts, and any other important information, that effectively describes each candidate's strengths, capabilities, and preparedness for the challenges waiting at West Point.
Of all the documents contained in each candidate's electronic admission file, the candidate interview remains one of the most important documents and is typically read by the Admissions Committee on each candidate.
BF: What are some of the ways Academy admission is similar to traditional college admission? And, different?
CPT Charles Cook: Almost all collegiate admissions offices ask for the same information: transcripts, academic accomplishments, letters of recommendations from guidance counselors, teachers, principals, extracurricular activities information and accomplishments, and some type of an essay. A few colleges may look at some aspects of school or community leadership during their admissions reviews.
West Point and its sister academies (USAFA, USNA, USCGA, USMMA) devote a significant portion of the admissions assessment process to examples of leadership within groups and organizations – team captains of high school sports teams, JROTC Battalion Commander, club and organization leadership positions. And in this assessment we look for specific examples of leadership accomplishments – what did the candidate actually accomplish for the group, club or organization. What did the candidate do that sets the candidate apart from peers? Demonstrated leadership in high school is an effective measurement of the potential for higher level leadership in adulthood. And West Point is recognized internationally as the premier leadership training and development institution in the world.
Candidates for West Point have to be honest with themselves when assessing their potential for admission – have they truly prepared themselves (academically, athletically, morally, and ethically) for the West Point cadet experience?
West Point produces a much different graduate than civilian colleges and universities – for a different purpose and mission – service to the nation as a leader of Soldiers. And that's what sets West Point apart for all the rest!
BF: How is an Academy applicant different from a traditional college applicant?
CPT Charles Cook: Academy applicants are different in that they, even at their young age, have a more clearly defined sense of service to others, service before self. Academy applicants know they are not going to attend a top ranked "party school."
They know the academics will be challenging – they just may not know exactly how challenging. Few have a true and accurate picture of the intensity of the military training they will experience – but they know the military training is part of the program and they look forward to those challenges. Academy applicants like and seek out the challenges at the academies – challenge creates personal growth.
Many (not all) candidates come from either a career military family or close relatives that are career military – father, mother, brother, uncle, aunt, grandparent, etc. And these candidates know first-hand the different lifestyle and demands placed on military families – some have experienced it directly. They enter the admissions process with eyes wide open!
BF: Coming back to RMA and the boarding school experience, talk a bit about what RMA instilled in you that connects with your Academy and admission work.
CPT Charles Cook: RMA, as an all-boys school, uses the military organizational and leadership paradigm as the foundation for character development. The military organizational model also creates an environment that more readily supports and enhances the academic development of each student beyond what normally can and should occur in public schools.
The enhanced sense of personal responsibility, and acceptance of that responsibility individually by each student, allows RMA to more effectively prepare each student for adult life – an RMA cadet is responsible for his decision, right or wrong, and the cadet must accept the result of each decision.
The opportunities available at RMA for leadership development and a sense of mentoring those who follow you, prepares each RMA cadet for both college and adulthood. I directly benefitted from every aspect of the RMA experience. Even if a cadet comes to RMA somewhat unwillingly, the cadet cannot help but benefit and grow as an individual from the RMA environment. Sadly few RMA cadets truly appreciate what they have gained from their time at RMA until many, many years later. And when that cathartic "Ah Ha" moment occurs it is monumental!
BF: What RMA teaching and lessons do you still use every day?
CPT Charles Cook: Service to others over service to self!! – Colonel May, former RMA Commandant
Lead or follow, but don't get in the way!! – Captain Patrick Milroy, former RMA JROTC SAI
Make a decision and own it! - SGM Blanding, former RMA JROTC NCOIC
You are not the center of the known universe, get over it!