NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. — The list of distinguished graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., reads like a “Who’s Who” of American military men: H. Norman Schwarzkopf, William C. Westmoreland, Brent Scowcroft, Buzz Aldrin, Matthew Ridgeway and many more.
Joining them on Tuesday will be New Cumberland resident and retired Brig. Gen. John “Doc” Bahnsen.
Bahnsen, 81, is one of six West Point alumni to receive the Distinguished Graduate Award this year. Also in the 2016 group is National Security Agency Director Keith B. Alexander.
“This is sort of like the culmination of everything,” Bahnsen said, describing himself as the “token warrior” of the group. “It’s a great honor.”
Bahnsen’s selection resulted from a nomination process that started with 40 names. A selection committee reviewed his records, as well as 60 to 70 endorsement letters from U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, three- and four-star generals, former classmates and soldiers he served with in combat.
This year’s award recipients will get the VIP treatment on Tuesday, from a full cadet brigade review in the morning to an award luncheon ceremony in the afternoon. Bahnsen and his wife, Peggy (Miller) Bahnsen, will host a reception for invited friends and family later in the day.
A native of Albany, Ga., and a member of the Class of 1956, Bahnsen attended West Point when it still offered only one degree – bachelor of science in engineering – and when its main purpose was to inculcate the warrior spirit, he said.
“It’s changed a lot since then,” he said, “but it’s still hard to get in.”
Recipients of the Distinguished Graduate Award are selected for their military service and for what they’ve accomplished since their graduation.
Bahnsen is a Vietnam veteran who did two tours of duty in Vietnam – the first in 1964, when he commanded the “Bandits” gunship platoon at Bien Hoa Air Base, and the second in 1968, when he commanded a troop of UH-1 and OH-6 helicopters and AH-1 gunships.
During his second tour, he commanded an infantry aero rifle platoon that saw more than 300 enemy contacts in 13 months.
A loyal fan of Army West Point Rugby, Bahnsen has presented a pistol to the team captain for nearly 20 years. A room in the rugby stadium is dedicated to him and has a portrait of Bahnsen on display.
For just as long, he was a mainstay at the Academy, giving pro bono lectures to cadets on duty, history and leadership.
“Our Army is still today liberally sprinkled with graduates who were inspired by him to a lifetime of service,” said former West Point Superintendent and retired Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer, a member of the Class of ’56.
Bahnsen wrote about his Vietnam experiences in the 2007 book “American Warrior: A Combat Memoir of Vietnam” (Citadel Press).
He is the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Stars, the Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster, and 51 Air Medals, among other honors.
He also has been inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame, the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame and the Gathering of Eagles.
Retiring from active service in 1986, Bahnsen returned to his alma mater and worked at BDM Corp. prior to forming his own consulting firm, Bahnsen Inc. After his wife Peggy’s retirement from active service as an Army lieutenant colonel, Bahnsen settled in her hometown of New Cumberland, where they operate the Miller Family Farm.
(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])