Nov. 6, 2014
It isn’t often that a picnic lunch is a life-changing event, but for 11-year-old Lindsey Danilack one afternoon on the banks of the Hudson was all it took for her to determine her future.
While not from a military background, Lindsey’s father decided that a trip to West Point would be a good place for the family to learn about some of the most important events in the United States’ early history. One look at a group of new cadets practicing combative exercises on Daly Field, and the oldest of the three Danilack children knew she had found her place.
“At the time I had no idea what the new cadets were or what they were doing, but I was so interested in everything I saw,” Danilack recalls. “I went home, and talked to my parents about West Point a lot. My mom constantly reminded me that I needed to get good grades and excel at everything I did. Literally, from that point on it was the only school that I wanted to go to. Coming out of high school, it was the only school I applied to. I wanted to come here so badly. It was the only thing that I wanted to do.”
It may have been the past that originally brought Danilack to West Point, but since her arrival she has charted a track that portends a bright future.
A four-year member of the Black Knights’ track and field team, the Montville, N.J., native not only became the captain of that team, but was chosen to serve as the First Captain of the United States Military Corps of Cadets for the 2013 14 academic year, achieving the rank held by such historical figures as John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur and William Westmoreland. Since women were first admitted to West Point in 1976, she is the fourth woman to serve as the Brigade Commander. While such a prestigious list of predecessors may leave some star-struck, Danilack prefers to remain humble.
“I will reflect on this past year, and the opportunities provided to me, later in life” she says. “I know that it’s an honorable position, and I know it’s a blessing, but for me right now, I am focusing on doing the job well. I greatly appreciate the opportunity provided to me. I love being the one who makes critical decisions. I just want to get the job done and get things working for others. I think most of my reflection will come when I’m older and I can sit back and think of the things I was able to do and some of the people I was able to meet, and hopefully, some of the lives that I’ve impacted.”
Danilack’s journey to the top rung of the Corps of Cadets’ chain of command began midway through her Cow year when she was nominated by her Tactical Officer for a key. With her leadership profile on the track team rising, Danilack was originally unsure she would be able to take on any additional roles as a Firstie. She ultimately decided to move forward and after going through the rigorous selection process, she was named the Cadet Basic Training I Regimental Commander, guiding the cadet candidates through their Reception Day experience. After turning over the reins for the second half of “Beast,” Danilack was informed last August that she had been selected for her lofty position.
“I got a call from the Commandant congratulating me on being selected First Captain,” Danilack recalls. “I didn’t know what to say. I knew the competition was between me, the (Cadet Basic Training) II Commander and the Buckner Commander. Those guys are the most incredible people. They are beyond qualified for the First Captain position. I was blown away and just so excited. I was so eager to start the academic year and start leading The Corps.”
Her leadership was utilized working on issues ranging from the cadet alcohol policy and civilian dress code to the development of sexual harassment and assault programs aimed at cadets. Whatever the initiative, Danilack’s goal was to better the lives of her fellow cadets.
“We changed a lot of things from previous years,” she explains. “I think we definitely made a difference in The Corps and bringing life back into The Corps, However, I don’t think I’ve done anything. I think it’s the Superintendent, the Commandant and the entire brigade staff. Everyone works tirelessly, and for them to be able to put these new policies in place, enforce them and see the outcomes has been impressive. I definitely think it’s made a difference.”
While obviously driven to succeed from an early age, it was a quote from Aristotle that Danilack came across as a Plebe that has shaped her approach to life at West Point. It has become so ingrained in her mindset, that the last line adorns the signature of her e-mail correspondence:
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
“I think it has gotten me through West Point because you really can’t pursue excellence unless it is a habit,” Danilack explains. “In everything you do, you really have to strive for excellence or you’re going to fall into the mediocre path where you’re accepting something below the standard. I don’t think any cadet should go through West Point that way.”
The path through the rigors of West Point wasn’t without its challenges. After finally reaching the goal she set for herself since that day at Trophy Point, Danilack had to learn to navigate the cadet lifestyle while balancing her academic, military and track & field responsibilities. Admittedly shy and nervous as a Plebe, the eventual leader of the corps broke out of her shell and found her voice.
“My plebe year, I barely did anything but study,” Danilack remembers. “I didn’t really even want to come out of my room to socialize at all. I was so focused on academic and track that I set myself up in a small bubble. Starting my (Yearling) year, I realized that wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I realized I needed to branch out, seek some mentors and take advantage of the experiences that West Point can provide.
“Once I began to come out of my bubble, make some friends and find mentors, I was really able to start to develop my leadership style and realize that I like working for others. Those slow, progressive steps really pushed me to always want to jump up to the next level, help more people and find a bigger goal. I think that it definitely sprung from a desire to help others, as well as seeking out really good mentorship from some of the officers that are here who helped shape my perspective of the academy and what vision I wanted to pursue.”
That vision is one of service to others. Danilack had plenty of opportunity to do things for her fellow cadets both in her First Captain role and as one of the leaders of the track & field team. However, doing so much for so many can often be a challenge.
“I think I manage my time to the best of my abilities, but that has been one of the most complicated things,” she says. “There are so many people asking for so many different things that there literally isn’t enough time in the day to take care of it all. Balancing academics, making sure I can always be there for The Corps and being the best track captain I could be was the hardest thing.”
Danilack had to learn the valuable lesson of making sacrifices to ensure that her leadership skills are being applied in the best possible way.
“When I sit back and think about the decisions I’ve had to make in order to take on the responsibility of the being the track captain as well as First Captain, there are sacrifices that have to be made because you can’t do everything,” Danilack explains. “You have to find the decisive point of the day. Where is my leadership needed the most? In the first semester, my leadership was definitely needed with the Corps. This semester, I’ve been much more tailored to the track team. Now that we’re in season and really starting to compete, that is where the leadership is needed. My teammates are expecting me to be there, and that is where I want to be.”
The track at Shea Stadium was certainly the place to be on April 5, 2014 when Navy visited West Point for the annual Star Meet. Winless during her career, both indoors and outdoors, Danliack and the Black Knights upset the favored Midshipmen, 103.5-99.5. The final result came down to the last event, the 4×400-meter relay. Navy held the lead for most of the race, but Samantha Reid’s kick over the last 100 meters secured the victory. Even with the opportunities to meet some of the nation’s most high-profile military leaders and have experiences such as ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, Danilack puts that day on the top line of her favorite West Point memories.
“Beating Navy was the highlight of my entire cadet career,” she remembers. “I cried when the last leg of our 4×400-meter relay was passing the Navy runner. It was the most exciting and energetic atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of. When we finally got to sing our alma mater second, it was a life changing experience. It was everything we’d been working for. We have two opportunities every year, indoor and outdoor, to beat them, and we’d never done it. The last meet ever, we beat Navy!”
Danilack certainly has many thrills in her future. True to her belief that leadership is best expressed in the service of others, Danilack, a political science major, will soon join the aviation branch of the United States Army.
“I’ve wanted to branch aviation since I was a Plebe,” she says. “As soon as I found out we had the opportunity to fly helicopters, I said, `Sign me up.’ I want to fly apaches because it’s the most combat oriented, and that’s really where I see myself. Right now, females can’t branch infantry so I want to be as close to the action as possible and being in that Apache will allow me to support those troops on the ground.”
Eleven years later, Danilack couldn’t be more grateful for that afternoon picnic overlooking the Hudson.
“The experiences that I’ve had here are unreal, and I know it’s a blessing.”