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Cadet after cadet spoke up. Terrorists attacked us, they said. If you were on the fence even in the slightest, if you weren't 100% sure you wanted to be in this fight, you shouldn't be here at all. Beyer didn't know those cadets or whether they knew her or whether they saw her as a laid-back swimmer type without a soldier's steel. Still, their comments cut straight through her and destroyed the frail truce she had made with West Point. "I just shut up," she says. "But I was so angry. 'What the hell am I doing here?' I asked myself. The attitude was, If you didn't grow up just dying to be in the military, you're worthless."
It was the beginning of Beyer's darkest time at West Point. "Every day I just hated myself for staying. I hated everybody else." Everyone except her teammates and Huntington, whom she had talked into staying with her. "We got much closer. I could use her as a shoulder to cry on, and she could use me the same way," Beyer says. Ultimately, she decided that the Army wasn't going to change. She had to.
She revisited the mental list of reasons to stay at West Point that she had made over the summer: 1) she had fought hard to leave Tucson and was too independent to drop out and move back in with her family, and 2) she had survived the worst part. By the third and fourth years, cadets can take some electives, like international relations and cultural anthropology. The subjects were getting more interesting, especially as the academy raced to meet new demands. Vincent Viola, a '77 West Point grad who on 9/11 was chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange, which stood in the shadow of the Twin Towers, credited his academy training with helping him steer the exchange to a speedy recovery. In gratitude, he donated $2 million in seed money for a Combating Terrorism Center at the academy. The center was up and running by February 2003, under the leadership of Colonel Russell Howard, a former special-forces commander who discovered that cadets have a special gift for unconventional warfare. "They learn how to be terrorists themselves," he says. "The creative terrorist is about the same age as these cadets." He put his students up against lieutenant colonel-- grade officers, and the cadets "kicked their asses in thinking about terrorist threats." Beyer worked with counterterrorism agents leading a cell of cadet "terrorists" who drew up plans for imaginary attacks on real cities. "It just felt very relevant," she recalls.
And then she fell in love--with the sky. After three years of summer war games, she got to spend time with an active-duty unit in Washington, flying Blackhawk helicopters--in her case, the deluxe, leather-seated, air-conditioned kind used to ferry VIPs around. She saw in the members of the 12th Aviation Battalion a value system that more closely mirrored her own. "Those guys are deadly serious about the important things. They really look after the safety of their crew and their aircraft," she says. "But they also know what's not important, and I think in aviation you won't see nearly the stupid small things you see here." Relaxed but driven and supremely competent, the aviators looked like the type of officer she would want to be.