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Two former West Point ‘first captains’ help lead JBLM's 4-23 Inf.

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Just as lightning seldom strikes the same place twice, there are other things equally as rare to witness. For one battalion in the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, such an event has occurred. Two former first captains of the U.S. Military Academy's Corps of Cadets have been added to the leadership of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment "Tomahawks" - simultaneously.

Each year at the USMA, a senior is chosen to hold this position. The first captain is the senior leadership position for the Corps of Cadets - similar to a student body president. His or her duties include acting as a liaison between the Corps and the administration, as well as implementing a class agenda. The first captain is responsible for the overall performance of approximately 4,500 cadets.

It may add perspective to know that other West Point first captains include names such as John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur and William Westmoreland.

These two men are Capt. Jason Crabtree, Alpha Company platoon leader, and 1st Lt. Tyler Gordy, executive officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Company. To these men, and to their battalion commander, it's not such a coincidence at all.

"A good infantry officer will naturally gravitate to the cutting edge in combat action," Lt. Col. Gregory Harkins, commander of the 4-23 Inf. Tomahawks, said. "It's what good infantry officers do.

For graduates of the USMA trying to get to where they want to go, there is an established pecking order. Branch and first duty station selections for West Point work according to class ranking. For a graduating first captain it's basically a shoe-in.

Both Crabtree and Gordy wanted to be infantry officers and were both commissioned as infantry officers upon graduation.

They each described the process of finding their post-graduate Army home as a process of careful research to find what was happening and upcoming in the Army. They both said they had heard good things about Harkins, the 4-23 Inf., and 2nd Bde. And since it was the first infantry unit on the patch chart to deploy, it was their first choice. The Army patch chart shows deployment and rotation information broken down by unit. It's a projection of the Army's needs and assignments several years in advance.

Harkins explained that a stryker brigade is one whose combat technology is on the cutting edge, "so it's no surprise that an infantry officer would want to end up here."

But it's more than just wanting to be where the best technology is.

"The fact that these men joined during a time of war, and that they both wanted to be in the infantry, knowing full well that they'd be going straight to combat, speaks volumes to their characters," Harkins said.

Crabtree addressed what some may wonder regarding perceived pressures to live up to historical greatness of other former first captains.

"To whom much is given, much is expected," Crabtree said. "I don't think anybody is destined for greatness - it's all about hard work."

Crabtree served as West Point's first captain during the 2007-2008 academic year. He learned in 2007 that he'd been selected as an infantry officer.

Although he had graduated and was commissioned in 2008, Crabtree only recently reported to JBLM because he was also a 2008 Rhodes Scholar. The Rhodes Scholarship provides all expenses for two or three years of study at Oxford University in Oxford, England. It has been awarded to applicants annually since 1902, on the basis of academic achievement and strength of character.

West Point has had 88 cadets named Rhodes Scholars since 1923, which ranks fourth among American colleges and universities.

Crabtree's selection speaks to his immense talents and achievements. From his two years of study at Oxford, Crabtree earned a master's degree in engineering science.

As a result of his years at Oxford, and a few other stops to include Pathfinder School and sapper training, Crabtree arrived at the battalion two years behind his peers. This means that as a captain he still has to serve his time as a platoon leader, normally the position of a lieutenant, before he is considered for a company executive officer position.

Crabtree anticipates progression to an executive officer position at some point in the fall.

Gordy, who served as first captain for West Point's 2009-2010 academic year, arrived at the battalion sooner, has put his time in as platoon leader and is now an executive officer in the same battalion- even though he is junior to Crabtree.

Gordy is a former Army NCO. Having joined the Army in 2002 as an infantryman, he rose to the rank of sergeant during his four-year enlistment.

Gordy said his decision to enlist was a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"I just felt like it was my time to answer the call for my generation," Gordy said.

Gordy deployed for his first combat tour in 2003, which was the invasion of Iraq. He served as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

This combat tour saw Gordy decorated with a Purple Heart and the Army Commendation Medal with Valor device for his actions and injuries sustained in combat.

Gordy's combat experience, together with his knowledge gained as an NCO gave him a lot to bring to the West Point table when he entered the academy in June of 2006, through the Soldier Admissions Program.

Each year the Secretary of the Army allocates 170 cadetships at West Point to be filled by active duty Soldiers, Reservists and National Guardsmen. Prospective Soldiers must be recommended by their company (or higher) commanders.

From leading infantry Soldiers as an NCO, Gordy has returned to the infantry to lead them further as an officer.

"It's where I want to be," Gordy said. "It's who I am. I'm drawn back to these men for the character that they have."

Harkins, himself a 1993 graduate of West Point, said that commanders Armywide are continuously doing their homework, hoping to find young officers with exceptional strength of character such as these two men.

That being said, Harkins added, "To be perfectly clear - whether they come from West Point or from any other college in the country, everyone gets commissioned as a second lieutenant and that levels the playing field. What happens moving forward is for the individual to establish."

Although it seems coincidental, in the end all the pieces appear to line up: The best of the West Point graduates get to choose; the best infantry graduates tend to choose from the best of the infantry units; and those who are in command of those units, after doing much of their own homework on newly commissioned infantry officers, get to make their requests known - not so coincidental after all.

Photo: Capt. Jason Crabtree, a former U.S. Military Academy cadet first captain and a Rhodes Scholar, receives his diploma in 2008 from Secretary of the Army Pete Geren. Crabtree now serves as an infantry officer in 4-23 Inf. USMA Public Affairs photo

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