The first black woman to be selected for the role of “First Captain” at West Point, a historic first in the history of the U.S. Army, began her duties on Monday.

Cadet Simone Askew, now starting her senior year at the U.S. Military Academy (known as West Point), officially assumed the role as First Captain following the completion of summer training on Sunday. The First Captain is the Brigade Commander and most senior ranking cadet for the student body at West Point, known as the United States Corps of Cadets, which numbers around 4,400 cadets.

Cadet Askew joins a long line of distinguished historical figures who have previously held the position, including Generals William Westmoreland and Douglas MacArthur.

I have seen some people on the internet already questioning the significance of her achievement. Why should it matter that she is the first black woman to achieve that? After all, in a perfect world, it would not matter what her gender or race was, just that she is an effective leader. That is of course true, but it is also true that we do not live in a perfect world. Her position as the First Captain represents a monumental shift in the history of West Point and what it has come to represent for the country it was founded to serve.

When I was a cadet, I largely viewed the cadet chain of command with a heaping dose of cynicism. I was not interested in climbing the ranks of what I viewed as a made-up class structure that had no relevance in my future career as an Army Officer. While that is true with regard to its effect on a graduate’s career, as I have gotten a little older and wiser, I can see that the position has a lot to do with how the Army wants the Academy to be perceived by outsiders, and as such it requires a little history about the Academy to adequately be placed into context.

West Point was founded in 1802 to provide a permanent officer corps for the fledgling U.S. Army. In its early years, the academy underwent significant changes, resulting in a more standardized curriculum and lifestyle that largely continues to this day. For much of its history, West Point was specifically designed to commission officers into the combat arms. Women were not admitted to the academy until 1976, and due to the restrictions which remained until last year, were not eligible to become officers in the combat specialties of the army. At the time I graduated in 2010, the Army still required West Point to commission 80% of the males into combat arms roles within the Army. Women are now authorized to choose any branch, and many have chosen to branch infantry. Women at West Point area also now required to take boxing, the same as their male peers. Previously, they only had to take a self-defense ‘combatives’ course.

While the Corps of Cadets is technically run by cadets, the role of First Captain is largely symbolic. Cadets have very serious and all-encompassing ‘supervision’ from actual Army officers called “TACs.” For example, the cadet commanders do not have UCMJ authority. But they do largely run the day-to-day affairs, as well as plan and execute the military training required of them.

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The First Captain is sort of like the best example of what a high-performing and exceptional cadet is supposed to look like. If they are not the valedictorian, they are typically ranked within the top five of every class (usually out of 1000+). They also tend to be in extremely good physical shape, and have nailed down all the military requirements placed on them as well. They are model cadets. To be chosen as First Captain indicates to me that Cadet Askew is an all-around stud.

What makes it more of a commendable achievement is that West Point has very few black women in the Corps; they represent a tiny minority of cadets at the Academy. That small population was exposed to national controversy last year following a photo that surfaced in the media showing a number of black women cadets holding their fists up in what some described as a politically provocative statement.

Her selection to represent the Academy shows that West Point has had a seismic shift from its earlier days, when the student body was almost exclusively white males. It shows that the Army is committed to having a diverse talent pool, and is attempting to have the demographics of its leadership better reflect the society which it serves.

To Cadet Askew, I say, “well done”.

Featured image courtesy of 2LT Austin Lachance/U.S. Army