Johnson ready for senior year at West Point
Ask Chad Johnson for a definition of leather, and he can rattle off a minute-long recitation that pretty much includes everything a tanner might say on the subject.
As a freshman, or plebe, at the U.S. Army Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Johnson learned the definition and other bits of "knowledge" as a survival skill. The motivation to learn the arcane subject matter was daily questioning on the topics from upperclassmen.
"It's a test of your ability to think on your feet under pressure," he said. "If you're wrong, you have to drop for pushups or pull extra duty."
Like every other cadet, Johnson said he didn't avoid the consequences of failing to please an upperclassman.
"If it's not you, it's someone in your squad," he said. "We're in it together. If someone gets it wrong, you all go through it."
The 2001 De Soto High School graduate survived his plebe year at the academy, as well as what he said was appropriately called the yuk year, which most college students know as their sophomore year. Having just put his cow, or junior, behind him, Johnson is in De Soto for a short visit with his parents, Tami Johnson of De Soto and Gary Johnson of Lenexa, before returning to West Point for a "beast" of a summer.
In the tradition-rich U.S. Military Academy, beast was the name given the incoming freshmen's basic training. Members of the senior class, or "firsties," take charge of a platoon of the newcomers.
"I'll qualify them on the shooting range and with gas -- that means I'll get gassed again, too," he said. "It's basically teaching them how to be soldiers and cadets."
There was an added sense of urgency to such basic skills from when he arrived on the campus overlooking the Hudson River north of New York City four years ago, Johnson said. The peacetime atmosphere that prevailed in his first weeks of classes disappeared with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Security at the academy was tightened in the wake of the terrorist attacks, but Johnson said the mood of cadets also changed.
"It got a lot more focused and serious," he said. "You started paying attention to what you're studying, because you're going to be using it."
Many upperclassmen he went to school with have or were presently in Afghanistan or Iraq, Johnson said. One of his closest friends was currently in Iraq, he said.
"She's in supply," he said. "She does paperwork, but she still got deployed. It doesn't matter. We stay in touch with e-mail.
"It's tough. So many people I know were deployed."
Johnson wasn't the only recent graduate of De Soto High School to enter a military academy. Josh Goodin, who graduated in 2000, went to the Naval Academy, playing football for the Midshipmen.
"I was able to see him twice," he said. "We exchanged IMs (instant messages) a few times. He's going to a different academy, but we're still on the same team. We're still brothers in arms."
Johnson said his musical talent first groomed with the De Soto High School Madrigals got him a place on the academy's choir.
"It's giving me a lot of opportunities," he said. "We sang at Carnegie Hall my freshman year. We sang for one performance from the pit at the World Trade Center. That's where we sang to President Bush. During spring break, we performed in California."
Johnson did take up a sport at the academy. He was among 60 cadets to participate in the U.S. Marines Marathon last fall in Washington, D.C. Flashing a genetic disposition to distance running that earned his brother Casey a state championship in the 800 meters this spring, Johnson finished third among his school mates in his first marathon."
"I'll going to do it again this year," he said. "I'm thinking about getting back in training to get in marathon shape."
Cadets were in the Army and physical training and discipline were part of the daily routine that starts at 6 a.m. and ends with Taps at 11:30 p.m. It is a discipline that doesn't have a place for the small indiscretions tolerated at most colleges.
"Don't skip, and don't be late (for class)," he said. "They have a list for everything. I haven't really missed, I have been late."
That earned him a punishment known as "walking hours," Johnson said.
"That's where you have to go to this one area and parade back and forth with this heavy uniform and a gun," he said. "Everything at West Point is gray so there isn't much to keep your mind occupied. It's not too exciting -- and it's on the weekend when you could be out having fun."
Johnson said about 1,200 cadets started his freshman year and about 1,000 of his classmates were expected to graduate next June. They will then owe the Army five years of active duty and three years in the Reserves, he said.
Many graduates will make the military a career and a select few of those will become generals. In all probability a few of the 7,000 or so cadets who were at the academy during Johnson's four year will serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff or, perhaps, make a greater name for themselves like such past West Point graduates as Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton or Dwight D. Eisenhower.
That history of leadership, reinforced with statutes, plaques and traditions, sometimes overwhelmed him, Johnson said.
"I look around sometimes and wonder who's going to assume that tradition of leadership," he said. "We're pretty close. It's kind of interesting to think you know someone who's going to be a two-, three- or even four-star general.
"Those who want to make it a career will probably end up getting out after five years, but those thinking about getting out will probably retire."
With an understanding of how much his circumstances could change in the next six years, Johnson isn't talking about either. He'll graduate with a degree in information systems engineering, which he hoped to put to use in military intelligence, he said.
Johnson said he certainly never would have envisioned that he would be where he was now at the start of his senior year.
"It was a shock to my classmates," he said. "I didn't even think about it until I got a letter my senior year."