Photographing the Lives of Young Military Cadets: An Inside Look At An Honored Tradition At Texas A&M


Toward the end of the introductory training week, the incoming freshmen are given the chance to release the stress of the new training and cadet life by way of a large water fight.
All Photos © David Lund

The fish learn skills that will carry them in their college career as cadets and into their adult lives.

Being a former member of the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University, I thought about all the incredible memories I experienced and that others, even other students at Texas A&M, might not have known about. In 2012 I began to formulate a project that would both challenge my photographic skills and communicate this experience to the community, and world at large.

To many people familiar with Texas A&M University, they know that there is a large Corps of Cadets that marches into the home football games. However, very few know of the cadets’ day-to-day lives as they juggle their tough academic schedules in addition to their rigorous training and lives as cadets. I discussed my idea with the Company Commander (a senior) and the First Sergeant (a junior), and told them the aim of my project was to show those incredible moments and their day-to-day lives through photography.

This project covers their story from the 2013 to 2014 school year. We agreed that the outfit would be given the images to use for their own purposes. We set the start date with the beginning of 2013 Freshman Orientation Week (FOW), which begins before the university officially starts classes. The cadets’ training lasts the entire year, but FOW is used to teach the incoming freshmen (“fish”) how to be cadets.

Company C-2’s First Sergeant reviews a written request from another cadet. The old uniform blouse in the frame is over 30 years old and has been worn by every C-2 First Sergeant in that time. Each of their names is written on the inside of the blouse along with their class year.

Every Sunday evening each outfit meets to disseminate the coming week’s plans, including events, training, and requirements. Even in the meeting the fish (freshmen) sit at attention. The sophomores (the red shirts) watch over the freshmen, while the seniors lead the meeting and the juniors (out of the frame) assist.

Even the way an underclassman introduces himself to an upperclassman is scripted and expected to be correct. The freshman, on the left, is introducing himself to a sophomore on the right.

The company’s guidon bearer stands stall, holding the guidon high over his head while the rest of the cadets (out of the frame) participate in the company’s unique yell (cheer).

I worked with a Nikon D800 and a Nikon D7000, using a variety of lenses, including a Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 and a Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8, during the numerous planned shooting days and events. The photography would encompass everything from narrow dorm hallways to exceptionally small dorm rooms to parade fields. Some shots would be naturally lit as I moved quickly along with the cadets as they marched or ran; others required significant planning to execute the lighting needed to capture not just the event but the mood of the scene as well. In the end, though, I relied on camera bodies with good ISO control and fast glass to keep up with the action.

Events & Candids
Some of the milestones and events were set on the calendar well in advance, such as the home football games in which the entire Corps of Cadets marches. Others were more candid or more fluid and sometimes weren’t fully determined until a week or a few days before.

So, come August 15th I found myself thrust back into a world I hadn’t experienced firsthand in 15 years. The faces were different but the sights and sounds reverberated deep in my memory. To the freshmen, as they live day-to-day in FOW without clocks, watches, the Internet or TV, the days seem forever long. However, by the time the fish leave for Christmas break, FOW is nothing but a distant blur.

The anxiety and the stress are broken up by two events that the fish have no idea are coming. First, during FOW there’s an incredible water fight between all 900-plus fish. With large troughs of water filled and refilled by fire hoses, the fish break into a battle between each outfit using buckets and the trash cans from their dorm rooms to throw water. Inevitably, the upperclassmen join in the fun.

Before sunrise, cadets from Company C-2 stand at attention during their flag detail to raise the main flag in Academic Plaza on the campus of Texas A&M University.

A full OCS-style obstacle course is available to the cadets and Company C-2 makes ample use of it. In this photo a sophomore cadet clears an 8-foot-tall wall midway through the challenging course.

Late in the afternoon a flag detail from Company C-2 retires the colors at the east entrance to Texas A&M University, located in College Station, Texas.

Second, one night after a long and strenuous day the fish are put to bed early, although after dark. Nearly an hour later, after many are asleep, the Quad (the area where the cadet dorms are located) erupts in absolute pandemonium with a canon blast outside and yelling in every dorm. Moments later, doors burst open and the fish are led by their upperclassmen to the brick arches that mark the front of the Quad. There the Aggie Band is playing and the Yell Leaders are there to give some motivational encouragement, followed by the first official Yell Practice for the fish. What was moments earlier stark terror to the fish is now an incredibly positive event, which ends by them being surrounded by their classmates and standing at attention while they sing the “War Hymn” (the school fight song).

Through the rest of the semester, in addition to the physical training, the fish learn skills that will carry them in their college career as cadets and into their adult lives. The duty and service taught to honor those who earned it, the physical training, the unique and scripted method of introducing yourself to an upperclassman, strange at first, instills the confidence to walk up to anyone, no matter how intimidating, and introduce yourself.

For Company C-2 the fall semester is capped with the nearly 40-year-old tradition at the end of October called Flight Of The Great Pumpkin (FOTGP). That tradition grew from humble beginnings to an event, fun in nature and intent, to thumb their noses at the band members. At a reunion for former C-2 members, I photographed and spoke with former cadets who graduated nearly 30 years prior and they point to the Great Pumpkin tradition as something that helped them forge lifelong friendships with their fellow classmates. Two others even related anecdotes about how they met their wives because of FOTGP. After the conclusion of FOW, the newly trained fish hold a Pass In Review for their parents who drive in to visit their sons and daughters.

Before every home Texas A&M football game, the Corps of Cadets completes a march into Kyle Field and are graded on their uniforms and drill proficiency. The grading counts toward Corps of Cadets wide awards given in the spring of each school year.

“Flight of the Great Pumpkin” may look scary, but it is a long-held tradition (nearly 40 years) where the Great Pumpkin battles against the Aggie Band, all in good fun and jest.

Less than two weeks prior, many of my photos were already uploaded to C-2’s social media outlets, which the parents followed. I was at the Pass In Review photographing for the project when all the different parents in attendance whose sons were members of C-2 came to me and thanked me for all the photos. They were able to see the day-to-day lives of their sons, the training and the fun. Most importantly, they could see that the kids who just moved out of their houses were all in good health and good spirits. That was when the depth and meaning of the project became clear to me.

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