4th of July is a time to celebrate the great diversity that is the woven fabric of the United States of America. I was excited to find out that we had a huge Latinx history making moment a couple of months ago in one of the oldest U.S. institutions, and even better, among this story…I found an El Pasoan.
West Point (United States Military Academy) has long been a source of prestige in creating the next generation of leaders in our nation’s military.
To graduate from West Point is an incredible honor, and with over 12,000 applicants – of which only 1,200 are admitted – it is also an honor that only a select few will get to experience.
In the 217-year history of the academy, it has been 104 years since the first Latino graduated from West Point and this past May, 88 cadets made history as the largest Latinx graduating class, which includes 19 Latinas.
One of these history-making graduates was Benjamin “Ben” Michael Gutierrez of El Paso.
I was able to track Ben down and had the opportunity to speak with him after graduation and hear his story on becoming a member of “The Long Gray Line.”
Building a legacy begins with one person, and for Gutierrez this person was his grandfather, Ruperto Solis, who was a WWII Veteran in the U.S. Navy.
Ben’s earliest memories were filled with stories of his grandfather’s Navy service, instantly he knew he wanted to grow up and become part of the military.
However, Gutierrez’s journey to West Point was not a direct and easy path, a real-life “Rocky” type story complete with rise, fall and rise again; a true testament to his dedication, endurance, redemption and ability to overcome any circumstances.
Ben’s path began with plenty of excitement, an El Paso native, Austin High School graduate, where he was a member of the National Honor Society and part of the Cross-Country dynasty that won multiple Texas state medals as a team.
Filled with hope and ambition, Ben enrolled and completed his first year at UTEP, but the desire to serve in the military kept calling.
Ultimately it would be his academic and athletic ability combined, that impressed a recruiter at West Point, who encouraged the young man from El Paso to follow his dreams and apply to the U.S. Military Academy.
Applying to West Point is one thing, being appointed, is another.
All Cadet Candidates must meet a meticulous academic, athletic, service and leadership qualifications in order to be appointed. In the summer of 2012 Gutierrez made the final cut and set out to start his new life at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School (USMAPS).
As for the man that first inspired Ben, his grandfather beamed with pride, and lived just long enough to witness his grandson carry on his legacy and begin his first year at The Academy.
After one year of prep school, then transferring to the academy in 2014, Ben began the 4-year program. As a cadet he was excelling in his studies and took great pride in representing the Sun City, and his Mexican heritage.
I was thrilled to learn that an El Pasoan ended up becoming a prominent leader on campus.
Gutierrez was elected to be the president of West Point’s “Spanish Club,” which is the cultural hub for all Latinx at the academy.
As president, he was an integral part of Latinx life at West Point, coordinating different cultural nights to honor the various Latino heritages represented at the academy and created lasting impact by petitioning to have the group’s name changed from Spanish Club to HACS “Hispanic American Cultural Society.”
Nearing the end of his final year, Ben was just months away from achieving the dream, to walk across the field at Michie Stadium. Life moments like this are to be celebrated by the entire family; invitations went out, travel arrangements were made, and everyone awaited the big day.
With graduation right around the corner, Ben made a choice that would change the course of his career.
One night he decided to stay out past curfew – no other offense occurred – but there was a strict curfew rule and he chose to disregard it. Gutierrez was then called in by his superior officers and when asked about the curfew violation, he denied it. His denial broke the honor code and he was immediately pulled from his course work.
Not only was graduation no longer happening but he was also transferred out of the academy and awaited his orders to report for active duty.
Returning to El Paso, while waiting to leave for training, he felt disappointed in his actions and felt he had let down his family, his grandfather’s memory, everyone who was rooting for him.
I asked him how he was able to bounce back from such a harsh decision, all that hard work, the excitement, it all seems to be just within your grasp and then…it’s gone! He told me that after a few days in deep thought and reflection, he decided that he was not going to waste all he had learned and that the best way to snap out of his temporary mind frame, was to get active and give back to the community. He took a job, volunteered, and even taught a course. He was determined to rise above.
By the time his ship date arrived, he had made promise to himself that he wouldn’t give up and vowed to complete what he started at West Point and receive his diploma.
Leaving El Paso, Gutierrez was in a healthy state of mind and ready to serve as an enlisted soldier. Although he missed walking the stage with his fellow classmates, he was honored at the fact he was about to join a very distinct family of service men and women; Gutierrez reported for duty at Fort Bragg, NC and became part of the prestigious and historic 82nd Airborne Division.
During his time at Fort Bragg his leadership skills really came through and he ended up receiving, one Army Commendation Medal and three Army Achievement Medals, as a field artillery joint fire support specialist.
At the beginning of 2019, Gutierrez – now a Corporal – was encouraged by his mentor from West Point, Dr. Lissa Young, to re-apply to the academy and finish what he started.
This had been the moment that he had lost and now he had a chance to reclaim his day. Ben was able to transition back into the academy and worked diligently in his classes as the last months flew by to graduation. I jokingly asked him if he was ever tempted to stay out late, to which we both a laughed a bit and he immediately replied with a firm NO.
Finally, this past May, the moment arrived, here he was again. With his mother Carmen, younger brother Vince, his mentor Dr. Young and family and friends that flew in, including former classmates who came to support, and his grandfather’s service flag in the background, Corporal Benjamin Gutierrez walked the field and finished what he started.
I asked Ben if he was upset about not graduating with his previous class, and with such a profound secured maturity in voice (well beyond his years) he said no, he doesn’t blame anyone for that curfew incident and now looking back, he feels that things fell into place as they were meant to be.
He told me how honored and grateful he was to have served as part of the “All American” and considered himself blessed for having the opportunity to experience all that he did outside of textbook knowledge, before graduating.
A full circle moment, Gutierrez is now part of a historic graduating class, has completed his studies with a major in Business Management and minor in Systems Engineering and is officially a Second Lieutenant. I asked him the question we ask all graduates, “what’s next?” In great spirits, he told me that he has made a choice, and has decided to return to the Sun City and continue his service at Fort Bliss.
Now here at home, Ben is enjoying catching up on family time and staying active, whether it’s cross-fit or training for a marathon, reading up on a new subject or cooking up something in the kitchen, he keeps pretty busy.
What I loved most about Ben’s story is, that it wasn’t easy. A true El Pasoan, he held strong to his roots, his family, his commitment of service to this country, and he never gave up.
I asked him for his final thoughts, what is something he can share with anyone that has a dream and gets off track. He reiterated how crucial his support system was. Having a mentor was key for him,
“Dr. Lissa Young from West Point, was a ray of sunshine, she never stopped believing in me, she fought for me, she was in my corner.”
Without a mentor to keep him focused and pull him back in from time to time, he would have never graduated. As for words of wisdom…he does have a personal mantra, for those hard times when all seems lost, he reminds himself that “no matter what happens, the Sun will always come up tomorrow.”
A truly inspirational story; from El Paso to West Point and back again…welcome home Second Lieutenant Gutierrez!