How the Women of West Point Inspired Her

Growing up at the Academy, Claire Gibson met women who helped her face adult challenges

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- Posted on Mar 21, 2019

'West Point was a great place to be a kid,' Claire says.

It was a September morning in 2017. I sat in a rocking chair on our front porch in Nashville, working on the manuscript of my novel. I should have been focused on finishing my edits so my agent could send the book around to publishers. But what really held my attention was the stream of neighborhood children walking to school, holding tight to their parents’ hands. Seeing those children was a source of both joy and pain.

My husband, Patrick, and I got married in 2010. We dreamed of having a big family—I wanted four kids; he wanted five. For the past four years, we’d been trying to have a baby. Years of doctors’ visits, pregnancy tests and infertility treatments. Years of tears and prayers, so many prayers. But nothing helped. And now my novel seemed stuck too.

For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted to write a novel about West Point. My father was an active-duty Army officer who taught systems engineering at the Academy, and I was born on the campus, the youngest of three girls. We moved away when I was a year old, then back in time for me to attend middle school on campus at the Department of Defense school for children of faculty. We lived there until I was 16, and I still consider West Point my home, even though it’s basically a national monument.

Growing up at West Point was like growing up at Hogwarts. The school is perched high atop a hill overlooking the Hudson River, 50 miles north of New York City, and the gray stone buildings look like castles. The rousing sound of cadets singing cadences would wake me at 6 a.m. every day as they ran by my house in squads of 20, and dusk was announced by the firing of a single cannon.

West Point was a great place to be a kid—there were parades, pep rallies and bonfires, cadets jumping out of planes and blowing things up. Although the campus housed some 7,000 faculty, staff, family members and cadets, the community was tight-knit. My family had an open-door policy for cadets, and a group of five to 10 came over every weekend to hang out and watch TV and feel as if they were at home. My mom led the women’s basketball team’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes Bible study, and I loved listening to them tell funny stories of life at West Point. One cadet painted my face in camouflage and taught me to march with a broom for a weapon.

Even our Sunday school program was run by cadets. We attended church services in the beautiful Cadet Chapel. Though young, I took my faith seriously, often reading the Bible on my own, asking God to explain the Scriptures. The tragedy of 9/11 proved to be a double whammy for our family, as cadets we knew and loved would be going to war. One we’d hosted was killed in action in Iraq; another, in Afghanistan.

 

It was a privilege to have all those exemplary U.S. Military Academy students to look up to, especially the female cadets. Less than 25 percent of students at West Point are female, and the courageous young women who’d chosen this path of challenge and difficulty showed me that you’re capable of enduring and accomplishing much more than you can imagine. For me, however, there were other paths to success. I went to Furman University, moved to Nashville and got married in short order. I became a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines in part because it was a job I could see myself doing as a stay-at-home mom. Being a mother had always been a big part of my dreams—but so had being a writer.

I knew in my heart that I wanted to write a novel set at West Point, but I couldn’t see how. I’d never worn a uniform, gone through training or been deployed to war.

Then in 2013, an old friend named Dionna McPhatter called me out of the blue. I’d met Dionna when I was 13 and she was a cadet in my mom’s Bible study.

“Claire, would you like to hear my stories about West Point?” Would I! Dionna and I talked for hours, and she offered to connect me with other West Point women. I knew immediately that this was the novel I’d been waiting all my life to write. I recorded dozens of interviews, and soon I started writing, using the women’s stories as a springboard.

That was the same year Patrick and I started trying to have a baby. And failing. Hope is heavy. The Bible even calls it an anchor for your soul. But what happens when the anchor drags you down until you feel as if you’re drowning?

It was Dionna who helped me face our problems with a positive attitude. She had suffered an injury that kept her from getting commissioned as an Army officer, but she never lost her fearless energy. She channeled it into founding her own marketing agency. She told me to focus on the blessings I already had in my life—a loving husband, great friends and a fulfilling career—rather than on the baby I didn’t yet have.

I talked to another cadet, Jenny Jo Hartney, who had been our youth group leader. When I was in high school, I’d volunteered to participate in a practice run so upperclassmen could prepare for training incoming cadets. An upperclassman screamed in my face, and I was just about to run away when Jenny Jo came striding down the hallway. “Are you okay?” she asked. There she was, a senior getting ready to go to war, and yet she’d made the effort to check on me. She taught me that even in the midst of our own storms, we should look out for someone else who’s struggling, perhaps with a different heartache. With infertility, it’s easy to get myopic. When an acquaintance’s husband was diagnosed with cancer, I began regularly visiting her and cooking meals for her family. We talked openly about her husband’s illness. Comforting her comforted me.

By 2015, I’d been writing the book and facing infertility for two years. I got pregnant, only to have a miscarriage, and our beloved dog died. I was swimming in grief, and God seemed silent. In a Nashville coffee shop, I ran smack into Jen Wardynski, with whom I’d gone to school at West Point. She later became a cadet and served as a captain in the Army. Over cappuccinos, Jen and I caught up, and she told me about a friend who’d lost both legs in combat. “You can’t ignore loss,” she said. “You have to acknowledge it.” Unlike many friends who avoided asking about my miscarriage, Jen never backed away, and I realized that it was not only appropriate to talk about uncomfortable things but necessary.

I also interviewed West Point graduate Haley Uthlaut, whose husband, a West Point classmate, had been killed in combat in Iraq. “While my husband will always remain a part of me,” Haley said, “I didn’t let his death define my life. It’s okay to grieve and keep going.” She remarried and has four children. Haley showed me that when you fully grieve a loss, it allows you to open your heart for the next dream. I gave myself permission to grieve the “loss” of a biological family, and Patrick and I let that dream go. We opened ourselves to the idea of adoption and signed up with an agency. But nothing was working out so far.

There I was, sitting on our porch that September morning in 2017, trying to edit my manuscript but feeling as if the novel and my life were going nowhere.

And then the phone rang. It was the adoption agency. Patrick and I had been matched with a birth mother! I finished my manuscript, and in October, the book was sold. In November, our son, Sam, was born. The timing was uncanny, and I can only believe that God orchestrated everything. He connected me with these remarkable West Point women so that I could tell their stories and—through them—find the strength, faith and hope for the rigors of my own journey.

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The cover for Claire's novel, Beyond the PointClaire Gibson’s debut novel, Beyond the Point, follows three female cadets from the summer of 2000, when they start training, through the winter of 2007. Find it wherever books are sold.

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