Danville grad with lofty ambitions now in second year at West Point

Published 8:38 am Tuesday, November 28, 2017

2016 Danville graduate Joseph Alcorn wants to encourage students that anything is possible.

Alcorn is a cadet of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

“It’s kind of what I expected. I would probably say it’s more than what I expected,” Alcorn said. 

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He called it “rough” because of a “rigorous academic program,” coupled with a very physical program.

“The opportunities given to me have gone beyond my expectations — I’ve met presidents, congressmen and senators,” Alcorn said.

One of those was Congressman Brett Guthrie, an alumnus of West Point.

“He asked all the Kentucky cadets to come have lunch with him … he really connected with us,” Alcorn said, comparing the camaraderie between graduates to that of a fraternity.

“It’s may be the world’s greatest fraternity. It just has such a history and an alumni base … You would think Congressman Guthrie wouldn’t connect with a bunch of 18- to 20-year-olds, but he’s just sitting in his chair, cutting up with us. It kind of puts you on an even footing,.”

When Alcorn was very young, his dad, Eric, was a manager at McDonald’s while his mom, Jodi, worked at what was then RR Donnelley. When Alcorn and his sister were still young, his mom quit work to take care of them. She eventually went back to school to become a phlebotomist.

Photo submitted by Kelly Bedtelyon, Danville Independent Schools
Cadet Corporal Joseph Alcorn, of the United States Military Academy at Westpoint, speaks to students at Bate Middle School on Monday. Alcorn is a 2016 graduate of Danville High School.

“I guess you could say we had a pretty low-class kind of raising. And I was kind of a troubled kid — I would always be talking or I would always be getting into trouble,” he said.

Alcorn said he had long been interested in military service because it seemed “cool” to a young boy. But, it was his sixth grade year that he really remembers wanting to make it happen.

“In Bate Middle School’s library … I opened a book and it was a picture of an F-22 Raptor,” he said. “I was like, ‘I want to fly that.’”

It took some time for the teen to get there physically. In eighth grade, “everything changed” for Alcorn — he remembers the day vividly.

“It was a trip that the eighth grade took to Millennium Park,” he said.

While on the trip, he observed some students, including fellow Cadet Michael Graves, “dressed nicely and playing soccer.”

“I just kind of wanted to become like them. … before that, my whole wardrobe was gym shorts and gym shirts. I was like, ‘No, I’m going to start wearing decent shirts, decent shorts, decent pants, decent button-ups. And I’m going to start (improving my grades),’” he said. “From eighth (grade) to freshman year was such a pivotal point.”

He had played football in middle school, but didn’t really enjoy it. Coach Vaughn Little convinced him to come try out for freshman football.

“If it wasn’t for Coach Little, I don’t think I would be anywhere near where I am today,” Alcorn said. “Something changed … I actually started liking football.”

Photo submitted by Kelly Bedtelyon, Danville Independent Schools
Cadet Corporal Joseph Alcorn, of the United States Military Academy at Westpoint, speaks to students at Bate Middle School on Monday. Alcorn is a 2016 graduate of Danville High School.

A few things happened in high school: He made a deal with a friend, who is now in the ROTC at the University of Kentucky, that they were going to go into the military together; and he had a teacher who had served as a sergeant major and that teacher’s pride in the country inspired him.

The final step that cemented his future plan was attending a Summer Leaders Experience at West Point.

Graves was the one that told him about the summer opportunity and Alcorn only made the sign-ups by a week.

“I loved it,” he said.

Alcorn said he wouldn’t be where he was if it weren’t for his mom. In his early teenage years, his dad was arrested, leaving his mom to take care of he and his siblings.

“We lost that income and it was just on my mom,” Alcorn said.

His little brother was only a few years old and his mom was working as a phlebotomist. Losing that income was tough, he said, so just after he turned 16 years old, Alcorn went to work.

To him, it’s not all that impressive — many teens attend school, work and are involved in extra curricular activities.

“A lot of people do this. It’s not that special,” Alcorn said.

But Alcorn didn’t have a car or transportation to his job. So, every morning, he biked from their home near the softball fields at Jackson Park to Danville High School for early workouts for football, would attend his honors and AP classes and would attend practice after school. After practice, he would bike to his job at Zaxby’s on the U.S. 127 bypass by 6 p.m.

His brother, Drew, is now a student at Toliver Elementary School and his sister Kirby is now a senior at Danville High School.

Alcorn said he believes that he’s a perfect example of anything being possible.

“I’ve heard before that some people can’t believe that Eric Alcorn’s son is going to West Point, or how I’m doing as well as I am, because of the environment I was raised in,” he said. “Anything’s possible.”

He took that message to Danville students while home for Thanksgiving break. Specifically, Alcorn visited with students at Danville High School, eighth-grade students at John W. Bate Middle School and fifth-grade students at Toliver Elementary School, where he went to school.

“The biggest thing I had to tell them was ‘It’s not impossible,’” Alcorn said.

He was speaking directly of getting into West Point, which he admitted was hard.

“There are so many ways to get in; it’s certainly achievable,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure they all knew it’s all possible.”

Alcorn shared with the students something that Brigadier General Steve Gilland, the newest commandant at West Point, had imparted to cadets.

“Have the mentality of making someone else tell you no. That really stuck with me. That means, go try out everything. Go for everything you think you want to do. Don’t stop going further and pushing yourself until someone makes you stop,” Alcorn said. “Most of the time, I think people cut themselves short. If you dedicate yourself and have the drive to keep going … someone might never tell you no.”

He said he enjoyed meeting with the students, some of whom he knew. Some students, he said, made it clear they were impacted by what he had to say.

“I realized everything I was doing had a purpose. It was worthwhile,” Alcorn said.

An average day at West Point starts pretty early, Alcorn said.

“You wake up at 6 a.m. and you get ready for morning formation where they have accountability and for breakfast. Then from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., you go to class,” he said.

There’s no skipping class at West Point.

“I’ve heard stories (about other universities) where people don’t go to class until the very last week, cram for the final and pass it,” Alcorn said, laughing. That, he said, doesn’t happen at his school.

During his two years at West Point, Alcorn’s uniform has been graced with medals. Those include:

• the National Defense Service Medal, because he joined in a time of conflict; and

• the air assault badge, after he learned how to rig tanks, Humvees and other equipment so they can be transported by helicopters.

Cadets who get the air assault badge also have to be able to jump out of helicopters.

“You’d think it’d be scary, but your mind goes blank,” Alcorn said.

Air Assault is big with the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, he said. Alcorn said he’s interested in going that route after he completes his time at West Point.

Alcorn also has the Redondo Badge, exclusive to a small percent of cadets at the United States Military Academy, which he obtained after excelling at five out of six events.

“I really wanted this. This validated me a little bit,” he said.

Cadets attend basic training for six weeks the summer between their senior year of high school and first year at West Point. Each summer, there are field trainings for four to five weeks, focusing on patrols, weapons and other things.

“They want to give you taste of each combat arms branch,” Alcorn said.

Alcorn gets paid each month while he attends West Point, a pay that increases yearly. After he graduates in 2020, he has to complete five years of active duty, during which time he will still get paid. He can then finish three years in the reserves or remain in for three more years of active duty.

Alcorn said he thinks he will do eight years of active duty and potentially turn it into a full 20-year career of military service.

He is a philosophy major, with a minor in European Regional Studies. Alcorn wants to pursue further education in either law school or business school.

Alcorn said his family is proud of him.

“Mom is ecstatic,” he said. He said she likes to brag that he attends West Point.

Alcorn said his dad is proud, too, “especially compared to where I was.”

Coming home for visits is “surreal,” he said.

“I guess that could be how it is for every student who leaves far from home … it definitely is different,” he said. “When you go anywhere in uniform, or if it’s announced you’re a West Point cadet, there’s this aura that around you. You feel lifted, a little bit. People are nicer, people just want to get to know you, talk to you.”

Although he doesn’t think he will return to Danville to live, Alcorn said he wants to continue benefitting the community that has helped him.

“One of the biggest reasons why I decided to go was to be a role model,” he said.

Alcorn said he’s grateful for his mom who pushed him to get outside of Danville and see the world beyond.

“I want to show every single kid here that’s possible. It’s easily achievable,” he said.

Photo submitted by Joseph Alcorn
Alcorn, right, with fellow Cadet Morgan Morris, left, after Camp Illumination, the celebration held after they finish the Cadet Field Training.

Photo submitted by Joseph Alcorn
Alcorn, front right, with fellow cadets after the Sandhurst, a competition that pits different companies’ teams against one another in the sport of soldiering. It includes shooting, marching long distances as quickly as possible, throwing grenades and other activities.

Photo submitted by Joseph Alcorn
Alcorn, front left, walking with Major Trivius Caldwell, an infantry officer, on a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, on a trip with the African American Arts Forum, which Alcorn helps run.

Photo submitted by Joseph Alcorn
Alcorn, left, with Lieutenant General Nadja West, the first African American Surgeon General of the United States Army, at one of the Inspire dinners held for minority cadet candidates, students who have applied to the academy.