Photo by Alex Werden.

Photo by Alex Werden.

Claire in 1998, age 12, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Camouflage courtesy Matt Kapinos, a sophomore at the academy.

Claire in 1998, age 12, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Camouflage courtesy Matt Kapinos, a sophomore at the academy.

I was born at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where my father was a professor.

As an active-duty Army family, we moved 8 times in 18 years. But in 1997, the Army sent my father back to West Point to teach again. At the time, I was ten years old.

I tell people that growing up at West Point was like growing up at Hogwarts. All around, there were stone buildings that looked like castles. Attractive, athletic college students ran the place, jumping out of airplanes and blowing things up. Every morning, I woke up at five a.m. to the sound of cadets singing cadence outside my window. Every night, I heard Taps putting post to sleep. To this day, waking up after six-thirty a.m. makes me feel like a little bit of a failure.

A few years after I graduated college, I was busy freelance writing for newspapers and magazines. I knew in my heart that I wanted to write a novel set at West Point, but I couldn’t see how. Unlike so many of the cadets we knew and loved while living there, I wasn’t a graduate.

How could I write about barracks I’d never slept in? How could I write about wars I’d never deployed to? How could someone with no class ring touch the Long Gray Line?

Then in 2013, I got a phone call that changed everything.

Out of the blue, a friend called to ask if I’d be interested in listening to her stories from West Point and beyond. After talking for hours, she offered to connect me with her friends—other West Point women who’d experienced more in their twenties than most survive in a lifetime. She suggested options for what those conversations might turn into—a story for a magazine? a book? something else? But I knew immediately—this was the novel I’d been waiting all my life to write.

In April of 2013, I started conducting phone and in-person interviews with anyone who would open up about their time at West Point. One interview turned into two, which turned into six. Soon, I’d amassed hours of recorded conversations, dozens of stories, and countless anecdotes. Using their experiences as inspiration, I started writing.

A Few Quotes From Favorite Interviews:

Caroline %22Annie%22 Pestel.png
I was in complete and utter shock. I’d never processed that I was going to be in the actual Army. In the first five minutes, I remember I touched my hair out of nervousness, someone yelled at me, and then I laughed. In an instant, four or five people were around me screaming. Yeah. The first couple days are brutal…
— Caroline “Annie” Taft Pestel, USMA Class of 2010, on her first day at West Point

Dionna McPhatter.png
I experienced racism as a young kid. I experienced it at West Point too—you feel it. In a sense, there are so few black women there, you just stand out. People made comments or assumptions. But I never lived from a place where I would ever let that hold me back.
— Dionna McPhatter, USMA Class of 2004

I was at Nordstrom Rack standing behind a group of teenage girls, going on and on about piddly teenage stuff. One said to her mother, ‘Hey mom don’t you wish you were 24 again?’ And just like that, it hit me. Dang. When I was 24, I was married and at that point had been in Baghdad for almost a year.

When you’ve been to combat, it’s shocking to compare your experience to what people are doing now at 24. To be in a place where people want to kill you and come out alive? To go through the heartache of losing people? That’s something not every generation is going to understand.
— Charlsey Mahle, USMA Class of 2002

One of my most precious memories is of my company mate, Todd Bryant. I knew he was so smart, definitely smarter than me. And he always acted so nonchalant; he didn’t seem to care much about getting in trouble. He used to strut down the hallways in this HUGE robe he’d gotten from his summer assignment in Korea. The thing was massive and he loved showing it off and it just always made me laugh. Tragically, he was killed in action not long after graduation, which makes that memory even sweeter.

That is one of the toughest parts of graduating from West Point. Losing a friend. But the losses make bonds with current friends that much stronger.
— Jen Hartney, USMA Class of 2002