DEVENS, Mass. –
Rifle fire punctured the air in Hudson Valley as West Point cadets conducted infantry assault training. It was the year 1999. It was early and cold, but the cadets kept training as if they were really under fire. Blanks filled their magazines, and shots filled the air. Then, a young cadet, McKinley Wood, took shots at an enemy. With every trigger squeeze, he could feel the burst of the gunpowder recoil the weapon into his shoulder, and the blank would fly to his side. He squeezed the trigger until, “Click.” He was out of ammo.
The unit charged with training the cadets was the 3rd Battalion, 304th Regiment (USMA), 104th Training Division. One thing the unit preached was, ‘when all else fails, be aggressive!’ Recalling this, Wood looked around lying prone and plotted his next move. He bounced up, sprinted to the closest cover, and leaped to the ground. Shots rang out as if he were in enemy sights. He bounded again, until he got close enough the enemy. When in range, he pointed his rifles and boldly shouted, “Safety kill!” — a training code word that indicates one has dropped an enemy, but they are too close to safely discharge a blank.
Wood secured his target, and he procured their excess ammo.
Now, more than two decades later, Wood is a lieutenant colonel. On Oct. 23, 2021, he took command for the 3-304th, the same unit that trained him over 20 years ago — he is also the first-ever West Point graduate to command the unit.
Wood’s very appearance is commanding. His stern eyes look down from his tall figure, and his confident, bellowing voice lets you know he is not afraid to lead. He is also not a commander who watches from the sidelines. He will get in the fight with his Soldiers and teach them were necessary.
“I want to use my power to impart knowledge on younger Soldiers,” Wood said. “The Army’s a revolving door. Once the older generation is gone, these young guys are going to be all that’s left.”
Wood said, when he was given the opportunity to pick his next duty station, he spent hours poring over the list. He was up late at night when one of the last opportunities seemed to call out to him. He noticed it was a unit tasked to train military academy cadets. Unfamiliar with the unit, he wondered if they could be West Point cadets. After some research, he found out that is exactly what they do. Wood put it at the top of his list — it was the 3rd of the 304th.
“I still can’t believe I’m here,” Wood said.
Excited for his unit’s mission, Wood aims to train West Point cadets to be the best Soldiers they can be.
“Whenever we have down time, I want them to know, there is always something to work on,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity to train on something more.”
Wood knows firsthand that West Point can be difficult. After all, he has been through it himself.
“It was hard, but in the end, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said.
He reflected on his time as a cadet — after complaining about the difficulty — one of the senior cadets told him it, "will still get harder." A noncommissioned officer nearby also heard the conversation. The NCO was grizzled and going on over 20 years in service at the time. He was a Gulf War veteran and served many deployments. He brought Wood aside and told him it is true — it will still get harder. ... One day, Wood will actually have to lead Soldiers into battle.
The NCO was right — that is exactly what he had to do.
Wood said there is a myth at West Point: if something bad happens on your acceptance day parade, that class will go to war when they graduate.
For Wood, on his acceptance day parade, clear skies quickly turned into ominous clouds. Lightning began to strike. His battalion was not able to march that day.
“It was as if God told us, ‘not today,’ ” Wood said.
That had proven true for his class. Four years later, when he graduated in 2001, he got to his unit shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. He was told to not get comfortable because his unit will be deploying in a matter of months.
Like that grizzled NCO so many years ago, Wood wants to use his experiences to teach the next generation. He wants to continue to make the Army better and more efficient. By his estimation, it is.
“When I went back to West Point this summer to see the cadets — with everything they’re charged to do — there’s no way I could graduate now,” Wood chuckled, half seriously.
Wood also addressed his unit. He wants to use his knowledge and experience from West Point to make his unit the best they can be, as well.
“The foundation I learned at West Point is what may have saved my life on many occasions,” Wood said. “As officers and NCOs, it is our job to take what we learned, and impart it on the next generation, so when we’re gone, our lessons are not forgotten.”