Family at War

Their West Point-grad son is serving in Iraq, and their twin daughters just recieved diplomas from the military academy. For John and Susan Cioffi of Westchester, pride and anxiety go hand in hand.



Family At War

 

Three children, three West Point grads. For the Cioffis of Westchester, pride mixes with apprehension

 

by David Gottlieb

 

Pondering the realities of warfare is a sobering business, but for most it¡¯s an arms-length exercise ¡ª passionate, maybe, but just an exercise. Not so for the Cioffi family of Westchester. For them, the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is up close and acutely personal. Lucas, 24, a 2001 West Point graduate, is serving in Sadr City, Iraq, while his two sisters just joined the regular army after their May graduation from the U.S. Military Academy.

 

Sitting in the family living room in Edgemont just weeks before being deployed, First Lieutenant Lucas, executive officer of a 200-man company with the First Cavalry Division, analyzed what¡¯s ahead. ¡°There are no front lines these days. On the streets of Baghdad, everyone is in a combat zone. Everyone¡¯s life is threatened.¡± He lays out these harsh truths calmly and dispassionately.

 

His 21-year-old twin sisters, Alexandra (Zandra) and Christiana (Christie), nod and give tiny shrugs. And it¡¯s hardly news to them when he adds: ¡°In reality, those who are in supply, who are not as heavily armed, are easier targets.¡± This takes note of the fact that Christie and Zandra will be serving in the quartermaster corps when they start their minimum five years of service.

 

Neither the girls nor their parents, John and Susan, see any need to comment on the stark future facing the youngsters. ¡°I accept that,¡± says Susan, bluntly. Adds John: ¡°As a parent, I, of course, am concerned about their safety.¡± Both are suffused with pride, but not so much that it obscures what lies ahead. In a later aside, Susan admits that ¡°it is a very sobering reality¡± that all three of her children may soon be working in combat zones. To help assuage her worries, she works with the organization Support Our Troops, founded by West Point parents, which sends boxes filled with a variety of useful items to soldiers in the war zones.

 

How did this suburban family get on the road map to military service? ¡°The school [Edgemont High] puts out bulletins and the kids were supposed to bring them home, but never did,¡± explains John, a retired attorney. ¡°Susan happened to be there that particular day and picked up a bulletin with an item, down at the bottom, about a military career night sponsored by Congressman Benjamin Gilman.¡± Susan suggested they go. They did.

 

During the pitch by a West Point grad, Lucas (then an 11th-grader) now says he ¡°was getting answers to questions I didn¡¯t know I had.¡± Near the end of the session, he nudged his father with an elbow. John interpreted it as meaning ¡°No way!¡± and murmured to his son, ¡°I guess that rules that out.¡± Lucas¡¯s response that day in 1996 was, ¡°What do you mean? That¡¯s where I want to go.¡± Mother and father still recall their surprise.

 

If Lucas had displayed no interest in West Point that night, chances are his sisters wouldn¡¯t have worn the academy¡¯s dress gray, either. ¡°We probably would not have been aware of it, so I doubt it,¡± says Zandra. After their brother matriculated at the school, they attended a summer soccer camp on the grounds; that experience provided ¡°the first spark of interest to go there,¡± adds Christie. That spark soon grew into a flame so steady that if one twin hadn¡¯t made the cut, the other would have attended nonetheless.

 

Given the nature of the armed forces, it¡¯s no surprise that physical attributes, especially within a team framework, are significant in recruiting tomorrow¡¯s generals. The Cioffi kids played lots of ball at Edgemont and, by impartial accounts, were highly competitive. Lucas was a catcher on the baseball team for four years, with a career batting average over .400. He also founded a Bird Club, which entailed lots of hiking, not bad conditioning even for today¡¯s mechanized army. His sisters were All-American softball scholar-athletes, varsity soccer players, and lifelong Girl Scouts. All three served as co-presidents of their student body. Lucas also founded his school¡¯s Chess Club, his sisters the Museum Club.

 

Their well-roundedness continued at West Point. Christie played two years on the varsity softball team and served last fall as a Company Commander, with direct responsibility for 130 fellow cadets. Zandra took up fencing when she arrived at the academy and wound up captain of the team. She ended her sports career with a first-place finish in the saber competition at the National Intercollegiate Fencing Association championships this spring. She also made the Dean¡¯s List every semester and last fall served as a regimental intelligence officer. Lucas competed on the speech team for four years, played varsity baseball for two, and earned his Ranger tab after graduation. All three achieved the rank of cadet captain during their senior years and earned their Airborne wings during summer training at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Once the twins, commissioned Second Lieutenants upon graduation, complete officer¡¯s basic training, they will begin their military careers at Fort Hood, Texas.)

 

Though the three youngsters entered the academy with a sense of adventure mingled with nervous wonder, by no means were they settled on military careers, nor are they now. Lucas says he and many of his fellow academy veterans typically start to consider their next move about two and a half years after graduation. But he¡¯s looking even beyond that. ¡°If I get a very attractive offer [in the military], I could see another 10 years out,¡± for a total of 13 years. ¡°It¡¯s where you can go back to grad school, you teach at West Point, then they send you back for more schooling. The army continues your education and you pay back with years of service.¡±

 

What sounds attractive to him? Not necessarily in order: teaching; working in military strategy in the Pentagon; doing research, such as developing new vehicles; and integrating new information systems. The last is particularly inviting ¡ª ¡°a big challenge,¡± he says ¡ª because of a growing recognition that combatants need much more information during battle than is now available.

 

All of this is well down the road. For now, the Cioffis are preparing to deal as best they can with the burning reality of what¡¯s taking place on the other side of the globe. ¡ö

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