Atlanta woman saluted for West Point graduation

She did it. Brittany O’Connell graduated Saturday from the U.S. Military Academy, joining that long gray line of other West Point men and women while completing a difficult journey.

In the summer of 2006, O'Connell was profiled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for her journey from poverty to admission into the academy's preparatory school. At the time, she needed $600 for uniforms and incidentals.

Nearly a thousand readers responded, and more than 200 sent letters of encouragement and donations totaling nearly $30,000. Nine days later, O'Connell joined the rest of the cadets at the prep school in Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin also helped her mother, Bette O’Connell, secure a better place to live.

"Atlanta is pulling for you," one letter writer said.

At Fort Monmouth for the next two years, O'Connell ran a lot of miles and studied her lessons. In May 2007, she graduated 38th in a class of 196 cadets. Next stop was the U.S. Military Academy.

Days before Saturday's commencement, Major Greg Lee, O’Connell tactical officer, said she had worked diligently to meet every challenge and excelled.

"Her mental toughness and dedication to duty will serve her well as a second lieutenant in the Army's Transportation Corps," he said. "Through hard work and perseverance, Brittany learned that every obstacle can be overcome to accomplish the mission. I hope to serve with her again in the future."

In an email, O'Connell remembered looking at a West Point pamphlet as a high school junior and wondering if  she could complete the academy.

“I realize now that I had it in me all along and that with hard work I could accomplish anything I set in front of me,” she said.

O’Connell was a sophomore at Southside Comprehensive School when counselors enrolled her in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps. It was the first time she'd ever heard of the JROTC. She hated it. She wanted out.

"One semester," she told herself.

Over the next few months, O'Connell grew to like the Army's regimented way. She rode two MARTA buses to get to Southside to work toward her dream.

It was different from the life she'd known. It provided stability to an unsightly existence that involved an absentee father and a hotel for a home. In JROTC, she left that all behind.

Few knew that O'Connell rose at 4:30 a.m. to make the long bus ride to school, and when she didn't show up, it wasn't for lack of trying; she simply had no way to get there.

She gave it dedication and discipline. She was promoted to private first class. She loved the taste of power.

At prep school, the weeks rolled by slowly at first. O'Connell struggled in her English class, but she set herself apart physically and militarily from the others.

By the end of basic training, she easily recited passages from the 400-page Cadet Candidate Book, the code of conduct, the West Point history, the chain of command, drill and ceremony and the Army song. She aced physical tests and, with better time management, English, too. For three out of four quarters, she made the dean's list and commandant's ist.

"It's a mark of her character," said Maj. Brent Skinner, the tactical officer of Charlie Company and former prep school and West Point grad.

In April 2007, she was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy. Now four years later, West Point, she said, had widened her view of the world and helped her prepare for life in the military.

“I would be lying if I said I loved every minute of it, but I’m grateful for the opportunities for personal growth … and for all the inspirational people I have met along the way,” she said.

O’Connell was scheduled to return home to Atlanta this week before heading to basic training at Fort Lee, Va., and later joining the 3rd Brigade 1st Calvary Division at Fort Hood, Texas.

If the academy has taught her anything, she said, it is this: “Anything worth achieving will require hard work. I may fall on my face a couple of times but in the end I’ll be OK. I’ll make it.”