In the shadow of the US Military Academy, a cadet's death leaves a pall of sadness
Posted June 6, 2019 9:06 p.m. EDT
Updated June 6, 2019 9:49 p.m. EDT
CNN — The half-mile-long business district here ends at the main gate to the US Military Academy, where a West Point cadet was killed and 19 other cadets and two soldiers injured on their way to a training exercise.
"For a little community, something like this touches all of us," said Bernell Johnson, 43, whose barbershop caters to cadets.
"They're not even at war and someone is going to show up at their parents' house with a flag, saying your son is no longer with us. That's very sad."
Indeed, the name of the deceased cadet would not be released until their family was notified.
The cadets, from the Class of 2020, were in a light medium tactical vehicle on their way to a land navigation course where they were going to do a map reading exercise, according to West Point spokesperson Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt. The vehicle overturned.
The injuries are not considered life-threatening, said Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, academy superintendent.
Highland Falls, a village of about 3,800 residents and a 45-minute drive from New York City, enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the neighboring academy and its more than 4,000 cadets.
Thursday's accident came on the day the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France. As US and Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, West Point held its commencement ceremony for the Class of 1944.
'It's tragic no matter what day it happens," said Ginny Lee, a longtime bartender at the South Gate Tavern and Restaurant, a popular cadet hangout less than a block from the elite academy. "These kids are so good. They are literally the cream of the crop."
The academy's website brags to prospective cadets that its alumni include 83 Medal of Honor recipients, 20 astronauts and 93 Rhodes scholars.
The 108-year-old tavern sits in the shadow of West Point, whose cadets stroll up and down Main Street in camouflage fatigues. The tavern owner offers "cadet specials." Adorned in Army Black Knights gear, the restaurants and bar were bustling after graduation last month.
On Thursday, the father of a cadet sat at a table worried about his son.
"He was on the phone the whole time," said Kathy Ripa, 58. "He couldn't finish lunch. He left and still didn't know if his son was involved in the accident."
Ripa, who was born and raised in Highland Falls, said her sister works has worked as a barber at the military academy for more than two decades.
"She texted me to say all the kids are crying," Ripa, who used to work at West Point telecommunications, said of her sister. "She said it was so sad and asked me to please pray for the cadets."
Many residents, even civilians, are connected to the academy. Main Street is lined with bars and restaurants, an ice cream shop and barber shops, a tattoo parlor and souvenir stores. There is a laundry named the 5 Star and the Pentagon Federal Credit Union. Cadets participate in the annual Fourth of July Parade and Chamber of Commerce banners celebrate servicemen and women.
"West Point runs this little town," Johnson said. "If it wasn't for West Point my barber shop wouldn't exist. Nothing would exist. The tattoo parlor next door wouldn't be there. Everything revolves around West Point and those cadets."
Said Lee, "If not for West Point, this place would be a ghost town. Every that happens in Highland Falls revolves around West Point. We just had graduation not even two weeks ago and it was such a happy time."
When Vice President Mike Pence gave the commencement address to the 221st graduating class in May, it was noted that the academy was graduating its most diverse class in history. More than 5,000 women have graduated since they were first admitted for the Class of 1980.
On Thursday, academy superintendent Williams told reporters, "Today was a tragic day for the West Point community and our United States Army."
Johnson said a pall of sadness hung over Main Street.
"Somebody's child is gone despite them being in the military," he said. "That's somebody's child. They have to call the parents and tell them."