As local West Point senior Katrina Mecklenburg will tell you, the reason someone goes into the U.S. Military Academy and the reason they stay are often different.
When the Cathedral Catholic alumna got into West Point, she wanted to go because she knew it was something she might regret if she didn’t — she didn’t want to look back and wonder what kind of person it would’ve made her.
“Why I stayed? All of the unknowns were validated. I saw I became a better person, I loved the training that I was doing, and now I’m at a point where I can’t wait to graduate and I can’t wait to be in the Army and start out as an officer. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else,” said Mecklenburg, 21.
Mecklenburg’s decision to go to West Point came as a surprise to her family, who didn’t have a history of military service outside of a grandparent Mecklenburg never knew. Her parents were supportive but hesitant and asked multiple times, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I went from zero percent military knowledge to now holding the highest position you can hold, being the captain of the cross country team, doing well academically and basically succeeding at West Point — and there’s not anything extraordinary or special about me except that I work hard,” Mecklenburg said. “It just shows if you’re willing to work hard, if you put in the effort, you’ll come out a stronger, better person.”
A systems management major, which is essentially a business degree with a focus on quantitative analysis and systems engineering, Mecklenburg will graduate in the spring of 2015.
As a West Point graduate, she has committed to five years’ active duty with the Army and three years as a reserve.
Mecklenburg competes in cross country and track for the Black Knights and this season placed on the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll with a GPA of 3.999.
Mecklenburg said the “plebe” year, the first year at West Point, can be difficult. Plebes cannot talk when they’re outside, they have to walk along the wall and must keep their hands cupped.
Then there is the adjustment to the military lifestyle: formations at 6:30 a.m., being in uniform, marching together into the mess hall for meals, and taps at 11:30 p.m. every night to make sure the cadets are in their rooms. The cadets live in the barracks for all four years, a small simple space with strict regulations on how it is kept — no decorations on the walls.
Mecklenburg said she was well-prepared to handle the change. But what she was most unprepared for was being so far away from her family for so long, returning home only for Christmas and summers. However, big chunks of her summers were taken up by both military and cross country training. This Thanksgiving was her first spent at home in three years, and she was only in San Diego on a special outreach trip.
Summer is when most of the military training occurs, beginning with “Beast Barracks” for incoming cadets.
In her junior year, Mecklenburg served as an SLE (Summer Leaders Experience) squad leader, leading 12 high school juniors through a mini Beast training, “with less yelling,” she said.
“A few of them are at West Point now, and some have come up to me and thanked me and said, ‘You’re one of the reasons I came,’” Mecklenburg said. “It was one of the most rewarding summer experiences I had.”
Last summer, she also went to Israel for Academic Individual Advanced Development training, allowing her to become more culturally aware. It was her first time out of the country.
This past summer, she went through Cadet Leader Development Training.
The physically and mentally demanding training program is three weeks long and the cadets are in the field most of the time, hiking with 50-pound rucksacks through the mountains, performing various missions and rotating leadership positions. Each cadet is expected to take over the platoon and delegate tasks to subordinates.
In many cases, the cadets were operating on two to three hours of sleep a night.
If the cadets don’t execute a mission properly, they don’t get to rest. On one mission, they had intelligence that an enemy was coming at a certain time and they had to fill 2,000 sandbags to prepare their defensive position before then. Because they had so many bags to fill, they did not complete their task until just as the attack was beginning — so they did not get to sleep.
Some missions were designed to be long. In one case, Mecklenburg went 42 hours without sleep.
“It was very challenging, but it was extremely rewarding,” she said. “I definitely came out of it more confident in my skills and my ability to lead in the future.”
Also this past summer, Mecklenburg went through Cadet Troop Leader Training, in which she got to job-shadow a captain adjunct general at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. This gave her the opportunity to see what a real-life job would be like before putting in for her branch preference. Along with 30 other cadets, she was able to experience a normal work day, a big departure for the cadets who have been living barracks life for the past three years.
As captain of the cross country team, Mecklenburg just wrapped up her season, but her final indoor and outdoor track seasons are to come. In addition to school and military training, Mecklenburg is very busy with her running training, logging about 45 miles a week.
Despite their program being in transition after losing their longtime coach, Mecklenburg was able to lead the girls team to a 14th-place finish in the region, which is better than they have placed since 2008. They also placed third in the Patriot League, beating Navy, which is a big coup.
Mecklenburg loves to run and is fueled by the memory of friends she lost to tragedy.
Just before her senior year at Cathedral in August 2010, two friends and former teammates, Amanda Post and Natalie Nield, died in a car accident that also left former teammate Derek Thomas seriously burned.
The cross country team had been very close and it was a challenge for them to deal with the tragedies. But they pulled together, dedicating every race to their friends’ memories.
Mecklenburg said Amanda and Natalie’s passion for running continues to drive her.
“Whenever I start to feel weak or start to doubt myself, I imagine them running with me and run a little faster,” she said.
“I see that a lot with people at West Point. When you go through something difficult in your life, you become stronger because of it and you believe you can overcome anything. There are a lot of cadets at West Point that have amazing stories.”
After graduation, Mecklenburg will get a two-month leave in which she plans to travel to Europe. She then goes into Basic Officer Leaders Course training for six weeks to learn the fundamentals of her branch: adjunct general. She is hoping to be stationed in her choice locations of Hawaii or Colorado.
Last week, she soaked up her time in San Diego and reflected on the commitments she has made and how far she has come.
“Being home is such a great feeling. I didn’t appreciate it until I left,” Mecklenburg said. “I’m so glad that I did leave. I wouldn’t have grown as much.”