Through thunderstorms and near-zero visibility, nothing seems to slow down 87-year-old Lt. Col. Wallace Ward, USA (Ret), as he trudges up and down the hills at the U.S. Military Academy with cadets nearly 70 years his junior.
For the past 20 years, Ward has returned to his alma mater in West Point, N.Y., to join dozens of other alumni in the annual March Back – a 12-mile march culminating weeks-long basic officer training for the new class of cadets. Twice, Ward has been the oldest member of the oldest class, earning him honor of leading alumni in the march.
“They’re all surprised because of my age – 87 – doing the whole thing,” Ward said, chuckling. “The first 10 years were a snap. Even in my 60s and 70s, I felt very (eager) and the hills didn’t bother me, but now, at my age, the hills are a problem. But, you’ve got to have the determination to go up those hills and down those hills.”
Ward, a MOAA member since 1975, relishes the opportunity to visit West Point each year to meet cadets and share upperclassmen survival stories. For Ward, the memories are particularly special as he was initially rejected from the school that would helped him escape a rough childhood in New York City.
Ward’s father served in the Coast Guard and Merchant Marines, which left him and two brothers in the care of their mother. She wasn’t much involved in their lives, Ward said, and he and his brothers bounced around three foster homes.
His brothers ran away from home, but Ward was determined to finish high school and set himself up for a successful future. While running on his high school track team, Ward attended a meet at West Point.
“I saw this beautiful fortress above the Hudson River and I said, ‘My God, what a great school, I want to go there,’” Ward recalled.
He competed with about 300 others for a coveted spot and was rejected. With a newfound fascination for the military, Ward enlisted in the Army in 1951.
He thought he’d be sent to Korea, where he hoped courage in combat would garner enough attention to earn an appointment to West Point. But in an agonizing twist, Ward’s Army entrance test exam score was so high that he was held back from war while leaders tried to find a job for him.
Wallace Ward, in his days at West Point (Courtesy photo)
While waiting at Fort Devens, Mass., Ward applied for a spot at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School, then located at Stewart Air Force Base, N.Y. That education, and a three-phase exam, finally got him an appointment to West Point, and on July 7, 1954, Ward and 17 others from the Army, Air Force, and Navy entered the academy. He is a graduate of the class of 1958.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ward said.
Ward went on to serve 21 years as an air defense artillery and operations officer. He deployed to Germany, Korea, and Vietnam before he retired in 1979 as a lieutenant colonel.
He’d always been an athlete, completing 10 marathons and one ultramarathon. Even in his retirement, Ward continued to walk up to six miles around his Virginia neighborhood, where he’s known as “Walkin’ Wally.”
So in 2000, when West Point alumni suggested joining cadets for the March Back as a fundraiser, Ward was thrilled and began training.
He can’t replicate the infamous West Point hills in his Virginia neighborhood, but trains his legs to go for 12 miles.
“Rough,” Ward said, describing the hills. “Up, up. Down, down. There are about 19 hills and some of the hills are pretty steep. And, you’ve got to watch the person in front of you. If he falls, you don’t want to fall in the same place he did.”
Ward led the alumni this year, once again completing all 12 miles. As he trains for the 2020 March Back, Ward said he’s going to explore locations near the Appalachian Trail so he can walk on steep hills.
Besides the walk, Ward said he enjoys meeting the cadets and chatting with them as they march. Whether they are from a small farm town or a bustling city, Ward said he admires they each have a desire to attend West Point.
“I try to give them advice,” he said. “I tell them it’s going to be a tough year, the upperclassmen are going to be on you constantly and you’re going to feel like you want to quit, you want to get out, but stick it out. Before you know it, plebe year will be over.”Amanda Dolasinski is MOAA’s staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMOAA.