West Point cadets train amid live-fire drills and a pandemic

Lt. Paul Peterson, 31, fired his first mortar round in June. In the weeks since, Peterson has served as the mortar platoon leader for West Point's cadet summer training, teaching 900 and counting young men and women who just finished high school how to launch a mortar, and then watching them do so.

"This is some of the most fun I've had in the Army," he said. "A lot of them will go into the Army and do something that will never entail hanging a mortar round."

Or firing a howitzer two and a half miles into the Catskills or throwing a live hand grenade and then ducking for cover, but cadet summer training requires its freshman class complete those activities as well.

"Even like the hand grenades," rising senior Cadet Evan Walker said, "I'm like: OK, make sure they're holding it the right way, throwing it right, having their [advance combat helmet], their eye pro, ear pro, gloves."

Walker spent her summer at West Point helping members of the active-duty task force like Peterson run these trainings and admitted to far more nerves watching teenagers handle these weapons for the first time than she felt her first time wielding them four summers ago.

"We've had a couple of close calls but no one's been hurt yet," the lieutenant said.

The United States Military Academy has trained the future leaders of this nation's standing army from the school's campus on the Hudson River since 1802.

"There's a lot different about this summer for sure," First Capt. Reilly McGinnis said.

Mere weeks ago, rising senior Cadet McGinnis learned she'd serve as only the sixth female first captain—the highest rank in the cadet chain of command—in West Point's 218-year history.

"This selection was very humbling," she said.

McGinnis assumes leadership of West Point's cadets during one of the college's most trying school years. West Point shortened this summer training by two weeks, canceled the field training for the rising seniors McGinnis planned to lead, and, like all schools, must contend with possible coronavirus outbreaks into the fall and beyond.

"Risk-mitigation, wearing a mask, trying to be six feet apart when we can," Peterson said, listing the extra precautions taken to keep cadets safe.

In a couple of weeks, Peterson will retreat to the heat and humidity of Fort Polk in Louisiana.

"It's not too exciting down there," he said. "We love it up here."

He'll return to the south having, hopefully safely, guided West Point's entire freshman class through hanging a mortar round, and teaching himself not to flinch every time one's fired off downrange.

"It took me about two weeks," he said.

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