Band of brothers: West Point creates ties that bind, even 40 years later

By BERRY TRAMEL | The Oklahoman | Published: September 20, 2018

NORMAN, Okla. (Tribune News Service) Bob Upton walked toward the Jimmie Austin Golf Club putting green Thursday, and his pals from Company H1, West Point class of 1980, started hooting. Upton knew the story was coming.

Upton grew up in Alexandria, Louisiana, and decades of living in Pittsburgh hasn't chipped away at his Cajun accent. You can imagine how thick it was in the Catskills in 1976. So when Upton was subjected to the traditional plebe requirement of announcing, whenever commanded by an upperclassmen, the menu for the next three meals, he quickly pronounced the goods. Including "MINE-strone soup."

Forty years later, a dozen West Point grads still howl at the scene. Their memories are precious. Their bond is priceless.

Thirty-eight plebes were placed in Company H1 in 1976; 28 graduated West Point and 12 were at Jimmie Austin on Friday morning to kick off another reunion weekend, this one with the added bonus of a football game.

The Sooners host Army on Saturday at Owen Field, and West Point graduates will be sprinkled throughout the crowd. Including the guys from Company H1.

They used to convene every five years. Then a couple of their comrades died and they realized they enjoyed being together too much to let that much time pass between meetings. So they started gathering every six months or so. In Tampa or Seattle or Dallas. Anywhere someone was willing to host.

A couple of years ago, someone realized the Oklahoma-Army game was on the docket in 2018 and that Tony Foster lived in Tuttle, maybe 20 miles west of Owen Field.

"We all looked at Tony and said, 'You got this, Booger,'" said Dave Brown, a military brat who has made Tampa home and whom his company mates call the A-Man because of his affinity for the Black Knights.

"Come here, play some golf, shock the world on Saturday, celebrate on Sunday, fly home on Monday," Brown said.

Brown isn't talking smack. He's just talking proud. He loves the Army football team, loves West Point, loves the men who made it with him through Company H1.

"There's probably companies as tight as we are, but not many," Foster said.

He grew up in Paris, Tennessee, went to West Point, did three tours at Fort Sill, met and married an Oklahoma girl. Foster became a major in the 101st Airborne, took early retirement in 1992 after Desert Storm and settled in Lawton. "Peace was breaking out all over the world, so we were downsizing," Foster said with a laugh. He moved to Tuttle in 2005, and all his children and grandkids are Oklahomans.

But those four years at West Point and those 27 classmates never are from his memory.

"What binds us is we all went through something very difficult and came out on the other side," Foster said. He remembers a New York Times story from earlier this year, about the curse of convenience. Things are too easy in America. "People don't have strong relationships because they don't go through things that are difficult."

West Point is nothing if not difficult. The rigorous academic demands, the physical requirements, the postgraduate commitments. The men from Company H1 aren't like a university fraternity. They are a frat that came through the fire.

"Anytime you do something tough together, it can be policeman, or firefighters, or people in a neighborhood who went through a tornado," Brown said, "that's what brings people together."

And that is what binds these West Point graduates with West Point football players in ways that universities never can connect with their football teams.

The recent Army football success a 10-3 record last season, its most wins in 21 years pleases these West Point graduates.

"You're happy for the guys, because you know what they go through as far as the classroom and their military training," Foster said. "They're not cut much slack."

All Cadets compete in athletics. If you're not a varsity athlete, you're in intramurals.

"You gotta understand, everybody there for the most part is competitive," said Foster, who played eight-man tackle football at West Point. "Not just academic brainiacs, they take the whole person. The things you do, extracurricular, sports, president of class, those kinds of things. You've got a highly competitive bunch of people that are there."

The Black Knight football players didn't come to West Point to groom for the NFL or win a national championship. They came to West Point for the same reason the men of Company H1 came to West Point. To graduate with a serious bachelor of sciences degree, assume the rank of second lieutenant, get paid $50,000 and get sent to Afghanistan or some such place.

So cheering for the modern Army football team comes easy.

"I think it's just as important to us as you at Oklahoma," Brown said. "You look at your sports teams as the gathering place. No different than any other school. It's football Saturday. We've got a lot of tradition at Army, just like Oklahoma."

And that tradition goes far beyond the gridiron. These are a band of brothers, who came to West Point from all over America and now who have come to Norman from all over America.

They've flown in from Pittsburgh and Seattle and Tampa. Drove in from Fort Hood and Fort Bliss and Fort Carson. They've gathered to cheer on the Black Knights and keep strong the bonds that were forged in their youth.

Foster tells the story of his youngest grandchild, who now is seven years old. Diagnosed with cancer at 11 months. Underwent extensive chemo that required an $8,000 co-pay. Foster got a check in the mail for $8,000 from one of the West Point grads on the Jimmie Austin putting green Thursday.

"Everybody comes together from all over the country" to West Point, said Mike Luttman, who grew up in Long Island but has been in Colorado Springs for 25 years. "You bond, you make friends. Forty years later, you're still best friends."

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