Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been honored to attend The United States Military Academy at West Point. But only after a policy change in the 1970s could cadets leave school, usually after their “Yearling” or sophomore year, to serve full-time missions for their church.
Since enrollment was opened to women in 1976, dozens of LDS women have also graduated from this challenging college experience. To date, approximately 200 cadets have joined the distinguished family of missionaries. But every single one has entered the mission field with the title of "Elder".
Soon, one cadet will make history with something else printed on the iconic black name tag — "Sister."
On Sept. 2, 2015, Niquelle Cassador of Gig Harbor, Washington, will enter the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, and become the first female cadet to depart the prestigious program for a mission.
The lack of sister missionaries from West Point hasn’t been about desire, but timing. Church member Sherman Fleek, a retired lieutenant colonel and the current command historian at West Point, describes the predicament Cassador’s predecessors faced.
“There were other women who really wanted to serve a mission, but the mission age at 21 was a hurdle. If they left the Academy the end of their second year, at age 19 or 20, they would have to be absent some three years before returning. That was too long for our young women to wait and the opportunity to serve a mission escaped them.”
Like so many others, Cassador was watching general conference when the announcement lowering the mission age was announced in October 2012.
“It was one of those moments that felt like it was for me," Cassador said. "It was an answer to my prayers and all the confirmation I needed.”
At the time, Cassador was already in the process of applying to both Brigham Young University in Provo and West Point. She was accepted to both, but with a mission and the Army no longer mutually exclusive, her heart was already in New York.
Fleek, one of the foremost experts on the history of the academy and the church’s presence there, explains the decision all students face after their sophomore year.
“A cadet has to accept a military commitment on the first day of school of their junior, or Cow, year. It’s called 'Affirmation.' After that official obligation, a graduate then has to serve a minimum of five years in the U.S. Army. This was the sticking point for LDS women. When they reached 21, they were already in their junior or senior years.”
Even with the opportunity for female cadets to serve at age 19, there are no guarantees about their future. During a recent interview, Cassador explained the process of resigning her appointment. When she returns from her mission, she’ll have to reapply.
“There are a lot of hoops I’ll have to jump through again,” she said. “But it’s all worth it.”
Cassador is humble, but confident. She has faith that after her mission, she will return to West Point and commit to at least seven additional years — two years of school, plus five years of active service toward an honorable career in the Army.
When asked if she could recall the moment her dreams shifted from Provo to West Point, she reminisced about an experience as a teenager in an airport.
“I didn’t know anything about West Point until I saw this cadet, a man, walking through the terminal," she said. "I became so curious and started researching on the Internet.”
She giggles at the simplicity of the process.
“I was so excited when I saw women cadets in the photos on their website.”
Later, Cassador found herself writing an essay about a Vietnam veteran for a high school assignment.
“Before then, everything I knew about the Army came from movies," she said. "But I loved what I learned about the values, the brotherhood, the honesty.”
Cassador was especially moved by the promise of growing to trust the person next to her with her life.
It’s a feeling she hopes to also experience as a sister missionary.
During our interview, the conversation gradually turned to her family and I asked how supportive they were of her decision to move from one coast to another.
“My parents have been so great," she said. "There’s been no pressure one way or the other. They’ve always pushed me, but not pressured me. They want me to be challenged, but they would have supported me no matter what.”
Before moving to another topic, Cassador took great care to praise every member of her family by name: her parents, Marco and Kristi, who teased her during the holidays that BYU hadn’t gone anywhere, and siblings Alex and Natasha. Alex is also preparing for a mission and expects his call soon.
Cassador has cherished many moments during her first two years at West Point. Among them all, she points to an inspired February trip with 18 other cadets and several church leaders to Kirtland, Ohio. While there, serious storms tore through the area and forced the cancellation of Sunday meetings.
Undeterred, the cadets joined with local missionaries and held their own worship service. With just a few hours' notice, Cassador was asked to speak about her preparation to serve a Mormon mission.
After her talk, she confided to a few friends and some of the sister missionaries that she was already in love with the area. “I would love to serve here in Ohio,” she said.
A few months later, Cassador opened the long-awaited letter and smiled at the call to serve in the Ohio Cleveland Mission.
“I was so excited," she said. "I received an immediate confirmation that I needed to go back to Ohio.”
For Cassador, the wait is almost over. But she’s not just walking into the MTC. She’s stepping in history.
She hopes many cadets will follow.