One of the first orders of being part of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is the infamous 90-second goodbye.
This is how long cadets are given to say farewell to their parents, siblings or any other loved ones who have made the trip to the campus 50 miles north of New York City.
Tears are shed. Embraces are tight. Hearts temporarily splintered.
And in typical West Point fashion, it will be 90 seconds.
Not 89. Not 91.
This unseen bridge connecting adolescence and adulthood is about to be crossed by three Johnson County student-athletes — Alex Auckerman, Chapman Johnson and Austin Montgomery.
Auckerman, a recent Center Grove graduate and 3.9 grade-point average student who also was recruited to play football at Army, will experience this on July 2. Montgomery, Greenwood Community High School’s salutatorian with a 4.64 grade-point average, must say his goodbyes that day too.
Both then aim their efforts, and no less than the next nine years of their lives, to Army life — four at West Point, followed by five more of active duty.
Johnson’s big day takes place July 21, as he’ll spend his first year at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School.
West Point Prep, as it’s commonly referred to, is designed to prepare candidates selected by the academy’s admissions office for the demands and challenges of West Point.
“They say I need to work on my math, which I knew was my weakness,” said Johnson, who played football and carried a 3.7 GPA at Center Grove and who has no reservations about the path he’ll take.
“Everyone I’ve talked to when I went on my visit in January, the kids that had gone to prep school said they wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Johnson said. “Everyone I talked to said it prepares you so well not only from the academic standpoint, it makes you stronger. It’s not like I’m going to just be sitting in a classroom all day looking at math.
“I’m going to be strengthening everything else to where why would I not love that opportunity to have another year of preparation before I go into something that’s going to be very rigorous.”
Their own decision
Even before they arrive in New York, the young men were connected.
Auckerman attended Greenwood for part of his elementary school years, and the family lived close to the Montgomerys. Johnson said he’s known Auckerman since their youth football days and first met Montgomery last summer at Hoosier Boys State at Trine University in Angola.
However, the decisions to attend West Point were made independently.
Auckerman, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound starting strong safety for the Trojans the past two seasons, committed on Aug. 12, 2013 — 11 days before the opening game of his senior football season — despite receiving offers from Harvard, Penn and Holy Cross.
“I was offered in July. I could have committed right there on the spot, but I was like, ‘This is a nine-year commitment. I’ll think it over,’” Auckerman said. “August rolled around, and I wanted to; and since then I haven’t looked back. I’m ready for the next chapter. I have so many friends and family here, but nothing is really that intimidating.
“Obviously, I think basic (training) will be the most intimidating. But I feel like summer running and the stuff we’ve done here has definitely prepared me more than some of the other people that are going to be there. If they can do it, I’m definitely prepared enough to do it.”
Auckerman finished as Center Grove’s top tackler and the county’s interception leader with five last football season. Montgomery, Greenwood’s 5-10, 190-pound linebacker, racked up 111 tackles for the Woodmen, second-most in the county.
“I had not even looked at going into the military until my junior year,” Montgomery said. “I had been researching all the Ivy League schools, and all the academies kept coming up as some of the top schools in the country. So I started looking into them. I got to go to the SLE, the Summer Leadership Experience (at West Point). Even going into SLE I didn’t really think that’s what I wanted to do.
“As soon as I left, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Montgomery is thinking about becoming part of the West Point Parachute Team, which serves as both a competition and demonstration team. Its intent is to train and educate cadets in the art of free-fall parachuting as part of their leadership training.
Johnson said when it came to making a decision regarding his immediate future, the military best fit with who he had always been.
“It really started to take shape. ... I don’t want to say it was always there, but it was always kind of there within me,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t West Point exactly, but I always knew there was some sort of inner drive. I had my graduation open house, and in all the videos you could see me in Army garb and just playing Army man. The point that really hit home is my parents wanted me to look at some colleges because I was kind of lackadaisical on that. I got looking around, and when I saw (Army) it was an instant attraction. It wasn’t one of those, ‘Oh, I could see myself there.’ It was, ‘No, I will be there.’
“That’s where I want to fit. That’s where I can do the greatest good for myself and the country.”
Auckerman, Johnson and Montgomery realized long ago what they signed up for.
The physical and emotional exertion of seven weeks of basic training followed by the continued pursuit of academic excellence. The strict regimen associated daily with being a West Point cadet.
Experiences prepared all three.
“(Center Grove football) definitely prepared me. Just the camaraderie,” Auckerman said. “The tough summer runs when you just band together and get through it. You address everyone as ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Yes, ma’am.’
“The team’s just set up with the ranks. You report to your position coach. Then you’ll go to, say, the defensive coordinator and then finally coach (Eric) Moore. I don’t think I really had to change much. You look at a role model, and they just expect perfect behavior from you. It is a lot to ask, but I don’t really have a problem with it.
“Nine years is a long time. It’s doing something that I’ll have great honor in doing. It will be very fulfilling just knowing I’m serving my country and I’m actually serving a purpose that’s more than a regular office job.”
Johnson, too, is braced for the commitment and undaunted by the challenge.
“There’s definitely nerves as I go about this. It’s definitely going to be extremely different from everything I’ve done,” he said. “The thing that really excites me is just being around a ton of like-minded people. Having that common goal that you can go for and just going through that training.
“It’s very intimidating because you realize the company of people that have been there in the past, and you realize you’re going to become part of that long, gray line, as they call it. It takes on an intimidation factor, but it also takes on an encouragement factor. It definitely continues to make you want to do what you’ve pledged to do.”
Founded in 1802, West Point maintains and takes tremendous pride in its own aura of tradition.
Previous military giants such as former U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower are counted as alums, as are World War II generals George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur. More recent U.S. generals with West Point backgrounds include Alexander Haig and Norman Schwarzkopf.
“A lot of people when they hear ‘West Point’, they’re really excited for me. They ask a lot of questions because it is such a rare experience,” Montgomery said. “It just kind of dazzles people sometimes, and they have questions because they don’t know a lot about it. It’s awesome they care so much about it.
“I think two things have helped me prepare. In the classroom I took some science research courses that are only three or four students per year. It’s very independent, and you do all your learning on your own. I think that’s more like college will be like and will help me push myself academically.
“And then one of my (football) coaches, Jared Watson, he probably could rival any drill sergeant. He taught me how to be a man out on the football field. I’ve had a lot of time to be nervous. I’m not really nervous anymore. I’m excited. It’s just the next step for me.”