WPAOG Podcast

EP72 The Future of WPAOG with COL (R) Mark D. Bieger ’91, President & CEO of WPAOG

Episode Summary

This episode features an interview with COL (R) Mark Bieger ’91, the new President & CEO of the West Point Association of Graduates. Mark talks about his West Point experience and the highlights of his Army career, his mission and goals for the WPAOG and the Margin of Excellence programs they have to offer, and the importance of recognizing and utilizing the benefits of the Long Gray Line.

Episode Notes

This episode features an interview with COL (R) Mark Bieger ’91, President & CEO of the West Point Association of Graduates.

Mark graduated from the United States Military Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and commissioned as an Infantry officer. For more than 28 years in the U.S. Army, he held leadership positions at the platoon, company, battalion, and brigade levels, deploying twice to Iraq and receiving the Silver Star for valorous actions. 

Mark also served in staff positions, including on the Army Staff at the Pentagon, with the U.S. Central Command in MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and with the U.S. Army’s Pacific Command at Fort Shafter, Hawaii. Prior to his retirement from the Army in December 2019, he served as USMA chief of staff.

In this episode, Mark talks about his West Point experience and the highlights of his Army career, his mission and goals for the WPAOG and the Margin of Excellence programs they have to offer, and the importance of recognizing and utilizing the benefits of the Long Gray Line.


Key Quotes:

“Every university has a development office. Most universities have alumni associations. Only West Point has the Long Gray Line. And there's other universities out there in the nation that would like to achieve that ideal or that group, but the Long Gray Line is a powerful force, and our graduates and their families are strong, connected, active, and passionate, I believe. And at the core of all of our graduates is a genuine love for their academy and maybe even more so a commitment to other grads.” - Mark Bieger


Episode Timestamps:

(02:01) Mark’s background and West Point experience

(08:03) Highlights of his Army career

(16:50) Transitioning from the Army

(23:44) Goals and mission for the WPAOG

(40:07) The Ring Melt

(42:02) Margin of Excellence programs

(47:30) Final thoughts



Mark Bieger’s LinkedIn

Dave Siry’s LinkedIn

West Point Association of Graduates

Episode Transcription

[00:00:00] Narrator: Hello and welcome to the WPAOG podcast. This episode features an interview with Retired Colonel Mark Bieger, West Point class of 1991, and the new President and CEO of the West Point Association of Graduates. 

Mark graduated from the United States Military Academy with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and commissioned as an infantry officer. For more than 28 years in the U. S. Army, he held leadership positions at the platoon, company, battalion, and brigade levels, deploying twice to Iraq, and receiving the Silver Star for valorous actions. Mark's three sons also graduated from USMA, the most recent a 2023 grad. 

Mark also served in staff positions, including on the Army Staff at the Pentagon, with the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and with the U. S. Army's Pacific Command at Fort Shafter, Hawaii. Prior to his retirement from the Army in December 2019, he served as USMA Chief of Staff. 

In this episode, Mark talks about his West Point experience, and the highlights of his Army career, his mission and goals for the West Point Association of Graduates, Margin of Excellence programs, and recognizing the connectedness of the Long Gray Line.

Please enjoy this interview between Retired Colonel Mark Bieger, President and CEO of WPAOG, and Retired Lieutenant Colonel David Siry, Director of the Center for Oral History at West Point.

[00:01:39] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Good afternoon. Today is the 11th of September, 2023. And I'd like to start by saying welcome home to Mark and Amy Beeger, uh, Mark class of 91. And, uh, you were here previously, but we'll get into that in a second, but I want to say welcome home to you. And, uh, it's so nice to have you back at the Military Academy.

[00:01:57] COL (R) Mark Bieger: Well, thanks, Dave. Uh, it's great to be here with you, but it's great to be back at West Point. 

[00:02:03] LTC (R) Dave Siry: If we could, please, uh, let's dove a little bit into your past. Tell me a little bit about your background, your childhood, and how you got interested in attending the Military Academy in the first place. 

[00:02:12] COL (R) Mark Bieger: I was the son of a non commissioned officer, so Army brat, all over the country.

When my dad retired, we settled in Phoenix, Arizona. That's where I went to high school. My uncle was also a non commissioned officer for a career in the field artillery, and he was teaching in the Department of Military Instruction at the time, DMI, here at West Point. And he was also heavily involved with the football and the basketball team, and he would send back articles and clippings and flyers periodically, you know, back my direction.

And one day in particular, he sent back this really neat practice basketball jersey. It was black on one side, gold on the other. And I thought that this was the most amazing gift. And, uh, I was a basketball player back in high school, uh, anyhow. So really exciting. Uh, his encouragement, my dad's example. Uh, motivated me to, to apply and I was lucky enough to get accepted and join the Academy for Beast Barracks in 1987.

[00:03:12] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Now growing up, do you remember any specific lessons your father or your uncle might have passed on to you about maybe the relationship between NCOs and officers or what expectations might be of you, uh, when you became a leader? Well, 

[00:03:27] COL (R) Mark Bieger: that's a great question. I think the example that they set was one of service to the nation, one that was committed to the defense of our nation, and a genuine love for our country.

So that was a strong example shared throughout our entire family. My dad would always tell me, as I was a cadet or considering pursuing the Army as a career, you know, not to get too big headed. You know, that, uh, the officer always needs, uh, the non commissioned officer and officers and soldiers around him or her to be successful.

So his was really a message of kind of humility to make sure that, you know, I understood that it was a privilege to be able to lead soldiers in any capacity. And that stuck with me, I think, for the rest of my life. 

[00:04:13] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Tell me some of the formative moments you experienced while you were a cadet at the Military Academy.

[00:04:19] COL (R) Mark Bieger: As I go through the years, Beast Barracks, of course, was, uh, an amazing impact on my life, and, um, You know, me as an individual, when I think back to Beast, the emotions and the images that come to my mind are really my, my squad mates, my platoon mates, you know, my classmates. I entered a room there in company A4 with a classmate named Mike O'Day from kind of a farm town in eastern Iowa.

And, um, Clint Brown, a swimmer, recruited swimmer from much closer, and the three of us, you know, day by day just made our way through that, you know, very difficult summer, but we were surrounded by, back in our class, you know, our platoon would stay together, you know, through BEAST, and then we'd transition to the same company once we reached the academic year, so we got very close.

That plebe year, I know we all say this, but it was a tough one. Our upper class, uh, they did not mess around. They had high expectations of us. Uh, they put a great deal of stress on us. You know, it was all for our individual development, but for us to develop as a team, of course. So we got very close there as Apaches.

Focused on, you know, taking care of each other, making sure that everyone was successful. Those were some of the emotions, or... You know, feelings that I remember vividly from that first year. For whatever reason, a couple things have stuck with me. Of course, boxing, no surprise. I think everybody, you know, shares that experience together.

And, uh, I barely survived our fights there. Not too much blood on the floor. But, um, uh, that was, uh, an incredible experience. But also, uh, back to beast. Schofield's definition of discipline still remains with me today. You know, the words that, uh, are in that, you know, that classic saying, are, you know, carved in my mind and, uh, even in some of the, you know, more challenging, more difficult times in a career, I'd reflect back on those words and what they meant to me as a young cadet and it would give me inspiration and, uh, motivation no matter what I was facing.

Again, our class there in A4 were so tight, so supportive of each other. When I look back at old photos of us sitting there... Either formally, you know, in our class photos or just informally messing around. They were the reasons, honestly, that I made it through that first year. Again, very demanding, very high standards from our upper class.

And it was our classmates were the reason that we, you know, we succeeded together. The last thing that, and it of course starts Plebe Year, but it echoed through all four years, was the love of the alma mater, of that song, and those words, you know, so when you asked me what were the formative moments, it was, you know, committing things like Schofield's definition of discipline to memory, but also to practice, and sharing in those moments with my classmates I'll never forget.

As we proceeded through Buckner, you know, through all the excitement of yearling and Cal years, the same thing, you know, rings true. Classes were great. You know, I love the humanities, but I was better at science and, um, so I went civil engineering. But, um, you know, I loved, you know, the social and the history and the psychology, all really every class that was offered.

We'd mark our weeks by whatever intramural we were playing at that season and the competitions within our regiment there. And we're a lot of fun. I did play one year of JV basketball, I got to mention, you know, so I had some great teammates there on that team, our yearling year. I didn't play too much, but I got some, I got these really neat free shoes that I held on to.

It was a great, great experience. It was a lot of fun. 

[00:07:51] LTC (R) Dave Siry: That's wonderful. Now, when you graduated, you began a career as an infantry officer. What were some of the highlights of your time in service? 

[00:08:00] COL (R) Mark Bieger: Well, I retired just under, I guess, just about 28 and a half years, so just under 29 years. Variety of, of leadership positions from platoon, maybe to the Pentagon.

Uh, not that I led in the Pentagon, but I was, uh, supporting leaders in the Pentagon. You know, and so many great places in between. The highlights were probably company command and battalion command for sure. I had the privilege of commanding. Manchus out at Fort Lewis, Washington, with about a year of that command time in Iraq, just outside of Baghdad.

You know, those deployments, like we all share, you know, so many painful, uh, memories of, uh, sacrifice and, and heroism, really. I remember being surrounded by heroes. Of all ranks, coming from all over our nation, demonstrating some levels of courage that you only read about, you kind of only imagine inside of the movies.

These men and women, you know, are our nation's best, and the privilege to serve beside them, in the defense of our nation, overseas, in combat, is something that I'll, you know, of course I'll never forget. My last 10 years or so, I was lucky enough to serve at some of our largest commands in the Joint Force and the Army.

I spent a few years at U. S. Central Command and then one year at U. S. Army Pacific. So I got to be, again, surrounded by amazing peers and soldiers and civilians. But also some incredible examples and senior leaders. General Austin was in command there at CENTCOM for the majority of the time that I was there.

So watching him and people like General Jim Mingus lead in some very complex time was, was incredible. And then in Hawaii, General Bob Brown was our, our commander. And uh, You know, the opportunity to learn from and watch them lead in some challenging environments was incredible. I'd say the things that I learned, I feel that I learned along the way, was that although I was an infantry officer and I love the infantry, uh, no question, I felt that every branch in our army was special, unique, and important.

And I can't tell you the number of times where you just name the branch, that individual, he or she, Would step up in some of the most challenging situations and just blow everybody away. And, uh, if a cadet will listen to me, you know, this, this old guy at this age, my advice to them is they get ready to, to really think about what branch they want to pursue is honestly, they can't go wrong.

I know that that doesn't sound like great advice, but whatever they decide. Wherever they end up in terms of a branch, they're going to find a challenge. They're going to find opportunity and reward in every single one of our branches. And just like every branch is incredible. I felt like in our career, my wife might disagree a couple of times, but every installation, every post was.

Unbelievable. We went to a few of them kind of scratching our heads, not knowing what to expect, but again, we were blown away at the community, the opportunities, the unique nature of every, I mean, so it was all, I mean, just an amazing career. But the last thing I would say, Dave, and hopefully this doesn't sound too cliched, is that honestly, being in the military, being an officer, being in the infantry, for me personally, showed no greater purpose than to serve your nation.

And those that have sworn an oath to our constitution. I've only been retired now three and a half years or so, but I will never forget the time shared in the service of our country, and it's a privilege and honor that I'll take with me for the rest of my life. 

[00:11:37] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Well, in addition to leading at all levels in the infantry, you're a graduate of the school of advanced military studies, SAMS.

How did that school help you in the military and in some of the jobs you've held since leaving the army? 

[00:11:51] COL (R) Mark Bieger: Well, great question. The School of Advanced Military Studies, honestly, I was kind of surprised I got in because the caliber of officers from all services that were competing, you know, for just, I think there's only about 40 or so of us in that class.

I mean, it was incredible. You know, so the caliber of the individual getting into the course was, I thought, incredibly high. So once you get into the seminar, you know, of course, you're reading more than you think you can read. You're taking, you know, as many notes as you can possibly take and absorb. But I learned most of my, what I felt I learned most was from my classmates.

And not only did I learn, like, particular pieces of history or strategy or doctrine, whatever we were talking about on a given day, I learned work ethic, I learned how to absorb greater levels of information, I learned, I think I learned how to communicate better, how to take the complex and make it simple.

The lessons were... You know, too many to list for this podcast. I just feel very lucky, you know, for that opportunity. It was a gift that the army gave us all, really the military gave us all, to spend that year in a study of our profession, surrounded by those great individuals. Uh, it was incredible. It also reminded me, I didn't need much reminding, but, uh, it taught me how much I didn't know about our history and about our doctrine.

And hopefully it made me a better officer as I 

[00:13:12] LTC (R) Dave Siry: graduated. Now your final assignment in the Army was serving as Chief of Staff for the Superintendent under Lieutenant General Retired Kaslan from 2017 to 2019. Tell me a little bit about that experience. My 

[00:13:27] COL (R) Mark Bieger: final assignment was here at West Point, but it was actually for General Kaslan, I was his Chief for about a year, 17 to 18.

And then I had the privilege and honor of serving for General Williams as he came on. as the next superintendent for about 18 months or so. First of all, it was amazing, you know, I was incredibly honored just to come back here in that role for any superintendent, but to work for those two was, you know, like getting a PhD in leadership.

I was so appreciative of the opportunity to kind of come back home, what I considered where it started, to finish up the career. What I was surprised by, and I told this to a bunch of people, I kind of assumed at West Point. You know, you teach some cadets in the morning, you have a great lunch, you know, somewhere, you know, maybe you're doing some intramurals in the afternoon.

I had no idea the pace and the, the level of effort that our faculty and our staff would give every single day, every single weekend to their cadets. It was incredible, the demands on our faculty and staff here. So that was a surprise to me, but I was very appreciative. To serve the academy, to live in these beautiful and historic homes, and to do, you know, my small part, I thought, to strengthen the Long Grey Line.

I had never served at West Point, of course, or in higher education. And I, like I said, I was blown away at the caliber of our faculty and staff. I mean, they, they were, they just blew me away, not only in terms of the knowledge that they had in their heads, but the gift that they had to share that with cadets.

To put it in a way, you know, that challenged them individually and raised their, you know, education was incredible. As you asked, watching General Kaslin and General Williams lead, one thing I, I quickly, um, sort of found is that I was always a few steps behind those two. I was always really trying to keep up with them because they were moving fast and pushing the academy hard.

Luckily, our staff around us, the academy staff, It was incredibly talented, also committed and passionate, and the entire West Point team is made up of what I consider some of the very best across the nation. So they didn't need a chief staff really to show them the way or to, you know, save the day.

Really what they needed a chief staff to do was to try to empower, to resource. And to put them in a place that they could achieve the greatest level of success, which I thought they did. The last thing I'd say, Dave, is having observed a few four star generals prior to this assignment, those kind of level of commands, I was always struck by how much our superintendents, the scope of their responsibility, and what they would have to kind of work through in a given day.

Uh, I mean, they went from, as you well know, you know, they went from, you know, dealing with an individual cadet's, uh, situation, good or bad, you know, all the way in a span of 90 minutes, shifting gears and thinking about the future of our institution and our academy, which had. You know, second and third order effects on our army.

The scope of responsibility was incredible for a three star general, I thought, and a very small staff to work with day in, day out. And General Kazin and General Williams, I thought, did it with the greatest level of professionalism. And we're just, you know, incredible 

[00:16:38] LTC (R) Dave Siry: bosses to work for. Yes, sir. After retiring from the Army in 2020, you served as Chief of Staff at the University of South Carolina from January 2020 into August 2021, followed by serving as the Vice President of Strategy at Louisiana State University from September 2021 until July 2023.

Briefly, if you could, tell me about those experiences and some of the key lessons you learned in those roles. 

[00:17:05] COL (R) Mark Bieger: Well, probably again, I underestimated. Moving on to University of South Carolina, I thought, you know, at a university, you know, there'd be nice quiet days, lots of thinking, you know, some reading, maybe, maybe some frisbee, football, whatever.

But, uh, I was again, blown away at the, you know, the level of effort and activity. Inside of our institutions of higher education, I was lucky enough to be at, like you said, USC for about two years and then LSU for another two years. The math's not perfect on that, but, uh, so I got to see two flagship institutions at work every day.

Part of that was COVID, but I was blown away at what it takes to lead and to run a university. And the level of effort, the teamwork required, you know, to make that university successful. You know, when you think about what the challenges that these institutions of higher education have to, to work through it, you know, it goes from politics, you know, of course, budget and finance, you know, dealing with the media, social media, marketing, and they still have the most important considerations, which is Quality of education and standards inside of the classroom, or in the research center, or in the laboratory, or on the athletic field.

It's an incredible undertaking, and these flagship universities are working very, very hard to do right, you know, for their students, which is the number one mission. But also to make sure that their state, you know, feels very good about, you know, what they're, what they're doing and what they're contributing.

The people are incredible, and you know, probably no surprise there. I mean, everyone's... I thought everyone was committed, everyone was dedicated, passionate about what they were doing. And it's easy on any given day to kind of, you know, get disappointed or slow down or, you know, kind of get caught up in some of the negative, you know, parts of any one of these jobs.

But what I found at USC and LSU is that there's a genuine love. And a passion for their students and their student success. And there's a purpose there that's, um, you know, that's really immeasurable. And I thought that those two institutions in particular did a great job at focusing on the students first and then working through to make them successful.

The other piece, piece I mentioned earlier was that I honestly didn't realize how, important and integral these flagship universities are to their state. You know, of course the state is, you know, relies on the graduates that are, that are generated. You know, of course the states, you know, rely on the research that's being developed, you know, on any particular, you know, discipline for the state.

But they are vital pieces. Of a state's operations in terms of the economy, in terms of the way they're perceived, in terms of attracting talent in the shape of faculty and staff and students to the state. That was eye opening for me as well. But I felt like there was same purpose, tons of energy and excitement, and they were great teams to be a part of.

[00:20:04] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Since August of 2023, you've served as the President and CEO of the West Point Association of Graduates. Your family has very close ties to the Academy. If you could, please tell me a little bit about your family's relationship with West Point. 

[00:20:19] COL (R) Mark Bieger: I've had this question a few times recently, and honestly, the best answer I can give is that West Point has had, of any single sort of institution or location has had the greatest impact on me personally and my family of anything else.

I was lucky enough to come here as a young cadet and make my way, you know, through these four years with some incredible classmates. I was lucky enough to meet my future wife here. Uh, who is the class behind me, uh, here at West Point. Our three sons, we have three boys, they all decided to come to West Point as well and, and seek admission and, and commission as, as an officer.

So we have a class of 16 grad, a class of 18 grad, and a class of 23, uh, graduate, all out in the Army right now, all decided to go in the infantry branch. And all of them just, you know, working hard to raise families and to do their best for their unit and for the Army. So it's about as close to home as we get.

All of us, you know, we're all moving around this great nation over 20 or 30 years, however long we decide to stay in. But so thankful and lucky that West Point has had, you know, such a major, you know, part of our life. I get beat up on by some of my bosses for the free education that we got with the three boys coming here.

But my wife's quick to correct him that there's nothing free about West Point. You know, they're, they're serving our nation and we're very proud. 

[00:21:46] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Why was taking the position at AOG appealing to you? Well, we 

[00:21:52] COL (R) Mark Bieger: loved, uh, like I was saying earlier, we loved our time in Baton Rouge with LSU and we loved our time.

Previous to that, in Columbians, uh, University of South Carolina, you know, those institutions, the people, the locations, the warm weather, you know, the SEC sports, of it was incredible. Quality of life was off the charts, but honestly, nothing we've seen in our lifetime, and especially in these last three and a half years, compares to West Point.

There's a phrase we have here at the Association of Graduates that focuses our attention on what we call the moments that matter. And at West Point, these moments are literally occurring every single day. I've only been back here at West Point and with the Association graduates for a little over 40 or so days.

And Dave, I can't tell you, it's almost too much to try to... Comprehend or to capture the moments that matter that are happening all around, all around us. It's incredible. The first full week I was here, we started that week with a grad march back where the class of 27 was making their way back to West Point to be, you know, greeted by the upper class and welcomed into the Corps.

They were 77, their 50 year affiliate. And about 250 or so other old grads, you know, for 14 miles making their way, you know, three of those hours or so in complete, uh, dark rain pouring down. You were on the march as well. I mean, it was amazing, but to see the interaction between our old graduates, the Long Ray line and these young new cadets, you know, soon to be cadets or fourth class, it was powerful.

[00:23:33] LTC (R) Dave Siry: With that, what are some of your goals for AOG? 

[00:23:38] COL (R) Mark Bieger: Well, I have some personal thoughts, and I'm definitely in the learning mode here, just trying to soak up as much as I can. I was really surprised, and I would encourage all of our listeners in the Long Gray Line, if you have a question, if you have a concern, if you have a recommendation, suggestion, any of that stuff, please send it our way, because we have an amazing team here.

There's about 120 inside of the Association of Graduates of professionals, some of them graduates themselves. Who are committed to this mission of serving West Point Long Ray Line. It's a great organization to be a part of. But not only that, just for me personally, I'm hoping that our, our alumni will see that as an opportunity to reach back and ask or talk or suggest, but to answer your question, the immediate goals I have for the AOG are about four or five.

I mentioned I want to learn from our team because we have a great one. I want to elevate our communications, both internally and externally. I want to strengthen our partnerships, and I want to challenge and empower our team to seek excellence always. And finally, I want to ruthlessly pursue our mission every single day.

[00:24:48] LTC (R) Dave Siry: And are there any key initiatives that you are interested in pursuing? Anything that are different than your 

[00:24:53] COL (R) Mark Bieger: goals? I mean, I do have a few in mind. We're going to work through these here in the next few weeks as a team. Most of them are embedded and described in those goals, just as you said. But I do want an association of graduates, and I'm not saying we're not.

My hope is that we're going to be viewed As the most respected and trusted partner here at West Point, internally in the community and externally across the nation. 

[00:25:20] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Excellent. West Point has an extremely active alumni. How does the West Point alumni contribute to making our alma mater better for current cadets?

[00:25:32] COL (R) Mark Bieger: This is one of the primary reasons that my wife and I made the decision to move this direction. Every, you know, I can't say every university, but I can assume every university. I can definitely speak to the two that I just, I was able to be a part of here the last few years. But every university has a development office.

Most all universities have alumni associations. Only West Point has the Long Gray Line. And there's other universities out there in the nation that would like to achieve, you know, sort of that, you know, that ideal or that group, but the Long Gray Line is a powerful force. And our graduates and their families are strong, connected, active, and passionate, I believe.

And at the core, I think, of all of our graduates is a genuine love for their academy. And maybe even more so, a commitment to other grads. If a young grad needs help in Denver, Colorado, he or she, if they decide and they ask, will be quickly surrounded by 10, 15, 20 other graduates that'll come immediately.

No questions asked. Coming from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where we were just living, I mean, I saw this happen all the time. A young grad, maybe even what you'd consider an older grad, would ask for help or advice. Maybe new to the community, I was one of them. And immediately you'd have five or ten other grads that would come very quickly.

Again, no questions asked. They know where you came from. What you experienced, they know the nation that you've served and that common experience and that common understanding across the long gray line is a powerful force. Now, and I know that all of our graduates, all of our alumni are not necessarily.

You know, actively engaged with their society or actively engaged maybe with their class or actively engaged in any, you know, one piece of the Association of Graduates. But all are welcome. All are important to us and all perspectives and ideas are welcome as well. There may be criticisms of how we're doing things here at West Point or across the nation.

And to be honest, we are wide open for suggestions to improve. I think we have a pretty good team. I know just having come from two of these universities, that our, our efforts here are being modeled and trying to kind of be copied, you know, across the nation. But we can always do better, and we should, you know, be working.

Yes, sir. 

[00:27:56] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Now, you may have spoken to this already when you talked about old grads. Send us your feedback, send us your questions and concerns, but what is your message to the old grads? 

[00:28:09] COL (R) Mark Bieger: My message, uh, first and foremost is thank you for your service and your sacrifice. Whether you served three years, five years, 20, 30, 35, 40 years, every one of us voluntarily came to this rock bound, Highland home.

Every one of us served the military in some capacity. I would say thank you for that service and sacrifice first. I'd also say thank you for your example over many years, whether you were in uniform or out of uniform. Name the graduate. In Sacramento or name the graduate in Atlanta or Jacksonville or Minneapolis, wherever across our nation, whether they're in uniform or out of uniform, I guarantee you they're making a positive impact on the people around them.

I think that comes from sort of a place within all of us that has this desire to serve others. And to make our communities better. And I believe that to be true. So thank you for your service. Thank you for your example. And please know that your association of graduates is here to strengthen the Long Ray line.

Now we have a mission statement that says to serve West Point and the Long Ray line, and we are committed to both of those, you know, here locally at West Point and really across the world. 

[00:29:27] LTC (R) Dave Siry: The cadets are a different population. You have some that are within months of becoming old grads, you know, the first class cadets, and you have some cadets that are four years from becoming old grads.

What is your message to cadets about what AOG does for them? 

[00:29:43] COL (R) Mark Bieger: First and foremost would be a message of thanks to those young men and women for having the courage and the commitment to come to West Point. Every one of them, and this is no secret, Could have chosen five or ten other directions or universities to attend and they decided to come here.

They could have come places where we all know would have been maybe a little bit easier, maybe afforded them a little bit more free time, allowed them to do other kinds of things, and they willingly decided to come here for the challenge and for the opportunity, to be honest. So my first message would be a word of thanks.

On that same road march that I described earlier, Dave, It was incredible, you know, 14 hours, you know, walking up and down these hills with one platoon. You get to know the cadets that are inside the platoon. The leadership, off the charts. The platoon sergeant, I think, was voted like platoon sergeant of the the cycle, and I can see why, because she was incredible.

She was up and down that formation, focused on spacing, weapons discipline, communication. She was incredible, but her team leader, her squad leaders and team leaders, just as solid. And when you interacted with the new cadets, you could see this genuine respect. And I would say almost, you know, admiration for their chain of command.

That was kind of part one, but as you bounce around, you're seeing somebody from Spokane, somebody from Lubbock, you know, so you name the city and the nation and it's right there in front of you. About 30 or so, I don't, I remember the exact number inside of the platoon. 30, and I didn't find two from the same state.

So doing the math, I mean, we're covering almost the entire nation in this formation. But one of the individuals I bumped into, she's the first of her generation to go in the army. First of her generation, of course, to come to a military academy. She was killing this road march. And I asked her, so, you know, why West Point?

Why did you decide to go to West Point? Her answer was two parts. She said, I want to be around the very best. And I think I found that, and she looked around, you know, kind of at her platoon mates, and I want to be challenged by the very best. And she was really referring to faculty, staff, tactical officers, coach, you know, I want to be around the very best and I want to be challenged by the very best.

And I was like, geez, that's a pretty good answer for me. I said, thanks for your time. I didn't want to, you know, kind of just sit there and monopolize all of her time. So I started moving forward and she said, oh, sir, by the way, Uh, one more thing, I turned around and looked back at her and she said, uh, I want to make my parents proud.

And uh, I mean for, you know, a Monday morning at like 30 after three hours, um, and that was pretty inspirational to hear. And I, I'm pretty confident that if I would have asked all 30 of those, uh, new cadets the same question, I would have got similar, maybe not exact. But very similar answers, you know, just based on, you know, kind of their level of strength and energy and as they were making their way, you know, back to join the Corps of Cadets.

It was pretty powerful. So my message is thank you. Thank you for choosing West Point. You're following a long line, literally dressed in gray, who remain proud of what you are doing today. And most importantly, who you are. The Long Ray line is a resource for every one of you, every one of us, while you wear Cadet Gray, and when you decide to, or when you, you know, make your way and depart Thayer Gate out into the regular Army.

Your Association of Graduates is here for you. 

[00:33:13] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Sir, the vision of the West Point Association of Graduates is for the Long Gray Line to be the most highly connected alumni body in the world. Tell me a little bit about some of your initiatives that will support that vision. 

[00:33:26] COL (R) Mark Bieger: That's a great question. I think the way I'll try to answer that is by first talking kind of at the highest level.

About the Association of Graduates, and you're probably aware, back in May 1869, the Long Gray Line entrusted the West Point Association of Graduates to continue A legacy, strength in bonds, and always remember the institution that brought us together. For 154 or so years, that mission has remained unchanged.

Our mission is two parts, as I said earlier, to serve West Point and the Long Gray Line. We do this by remaining true to our ideals, preserving these timeless traditions, and working very hard to link graduates beyond the gates and elevating the cadet experience. The connections and the vision statement.

is one of the most, um, tangible, you know, parts of achieving that mission. When I, uh, came to West Point back in 1987 from Phoenix, Arizona, I was met by a platoon of Apaches in A4. You know, of course, who I had never met before. All across the nation, my roommates were from Iowa and Illinois. My teammates were from New Jersey, South Philly, Kentucky, California, uh, Massachusetts, uh, Texas, Connecticut, Alabama, South Dakota.

I mean, all across the nation, brought together for a very intense summer and a plea beer, and then together, working our way through those four years. There's, uh, you know, some powerful connections that exist just based on that experience. But those connections continued with us, you know, throughout our, our military careers, whether they were five years or 30 years in some very important ways, um, you know, here, you know, maybe CONUS and then, um, incredible ways overseas, you know, deployed in the defense of our nation.

One of those graduates is one of my closest friends, a gentleman by the name of John Leffers. You know, we're roommates very close here at the Academy, of course. Ranger buddies at Ranger School, uh, served together kind of, you know, through the infantry, commanded battalions together in Baghdad. He was in Baghdad, I was just on the outside.

But I can't tell you the, you know, the emotions and the, you know, the connection that we had, you know, making our way through this, uh, career, but also being side by side in combat, you know, working very hard to lead our soldiers and to accomplish the mission. It's an indescribable feeling or emotion. That you share with your classmates as you make your way through this career.

And it's not just your classmates. You know, I had the privilege of commanding at a few levels where I got to see West Point graduates at all ranks, in all positions, doing incredible things. I mean, leading soldiers, uh, risking their lives, displaying courage. And those connections, whether you're in uniform or out of uniform, you for the rest of your life.

I could talk about this all day, but the mission of the association Is to enable or advance or strengthen those connections. And make them even, you know, stronger, you know, for all of our graduates, regardless of the time you graduated, regardless of the path you took in your life, regardless of the stage of your life.

It's to work very hard to help maintain and strengthen those connections. 

[00:36:42] LTC (R) Dave Siry: AOG currently supports 82 classes. Which is incredible to me that there are still 82 classes of graduates represented, you know, across the Long Gray Line, 129 societies, and six shared interest groups. What is the importance of all of these groups?


[00:36:59] COL (R) Mark Bieger: critically important. One group that you didn't mention that I wanted to highlight is, you know, of course we have our board of directors. I bragged about them earlier and their passion for the academy and for our institution, but we have a group of 54 Advisors that are organized in a group that's at large, a group that represents our societies, and a group that represents our classes.

So 54 individuals that are giving of their time and their talent really to advance the academy and to support the Long Gray Line. They're connected to all of the societies you just described, the shared interest groups, the classes, to form a network. Of connections really, you know, across our alumni body.

You know, I haven't been across every institution around the country, of course, but I tell you the network that we have in terms of classes, societies, the shared interest groups. All of these advisors is a powerful force for us that kind of manifests itself, maybe individually, you know, one on one connections, you know, regardless of where you're at in the nation, or in larger groups, reunions, uh, gatherings, or just, uh, networks of support to each other.

It's an incredibly powerful network that supports. All of our graduates. And really, the AOG has a number of programs inside of, you know, what we're doing here to try to enable and empower these groups to, again, remain connected, to better help each other, and to support either our classmates or the graduates behind you.

You know, one of the programs that's, uh, it's incredibly powerful. is the 50 Year Affiliate Program. This program has been going on for some time now, but it joins the classes that are currently here at West Point with their 50 Year Affiliate. So, as an example, the Marchback that I was talking about earlier, I joined the class of 27, our PLEVE class, uh, with the class of 77, and I think we had, I forget the exact number, but over 60 from the class of 77 that took their time to come here and walk those 14 miles.

That was a powerful day, you know, really in terms of the connections within our Long Gray Line. And then, one week later, The class of 2025 was standing proudly in india whites at Eisenhower Hall joined by the class of 1975 for their affirmation. And so these moments are occurring with frequency in a way that is incredibly powerful, of course, for an old grad to see and be a part of, but I know for our current Corps of Cadets, you know, to see Uh, the examples that have come before them.

Uh, so, it's a long way of coming back to those classes, those societies help empower programs like the 50 Year Affiliate, and there's so many more. There's the Ringmail Program is incredible. The Distinguished Graduate Program is amazing. All of these recognizing individuals within a long ray line, connecting them with our current Corps of Cadets.

[00:39:57] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Sir, one of the great things that you just mentioned that I haven't asked you about yet is the Ringmelt program and that's a fairly new program. It wasn't around when I was a cadet, but it's so inspirational. Tell me a little bit about the Ringmelt program, please. 

[00:40:11] COL (R) Mark Bieger: So the Ringmelt program is, again, another...

Incredibly powerful initiative that occurs over the course of, you know, the, the four years that our cadets are, are making their, their journey here at the academy, but it really enables all grads, maybe family members of our fallen alumni. To donate their class ring to a ring melt, it takes those rings that have been donated and melts them down and takes that raw material, the gold, and shares that in the creation of the next class rings.

The ceremony itself of the donations is a powerful. Recognition of the service example of our graduates that have come before us and that have donated their rings. And that message is reinforced with the firsties as they are presented their rings. We didn't have this back in, in, uh, 91 when I was a firstie.

But looking at the emotion and sort of the recognition of where these firsties kind of fit inside of the long gray line. And just kind of imagining the sacrifice and the experiences of the classes that have gone before. is incredibly powerful. It's a beautiful ceremony. It's a remarkable initiative, you know, to be able to kind of, you know, share some of those, those thoughts and ideas and emotions, you know, with our first class.

You know, I'm having you know, three, three sons that have, have all graduated here. Those are some very powerful moments for them and their development and a real recognition of kind of, you know, the responsibility. that they have once they graduate and, uh, you know, fall in the footsteps of so many before them.

[00:41:52] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Something that I don't think most people understand is that the government only funds the core education for cadets at West Point. That is, everything that's required to earn a degree and to receive a commission in the Army. Many other aspects of the cadet education or the cadet experience are funded through AOG's Margin of Excellence programs.

Can you describe what Margin of Excellence is and how it contributes to the overall cadet experience? 

[00:42:18] COL (R) Mark Bieger: Yes, absolutely. Our government, the Department of Defense, U. S. Army, takes great care of the United States Military Academy, provides a great level of funding to make sure that the mission is accomplished here.

To a very high standard. Heck, there's construction going on all over this academy in the likes they haven't seen since, you know, 50, 60 years ago. The margin of excellence enables the academy, the superintendent and his leader team to create an environment of what the name stands for, of excellence, excellence in academics.

Excellence in the military domain, excellence in the physical domain, and it provides unique opportunities in and out of the classroom that cadets wouldn't normally be able to get to. Study abroad, study with industry, incredible experiences inside the Pentagon or inside the Department of State or you name it.

The Margin of Excellence is enabling our cadets to have these experiences, to improve on their education, and to make them better prepared to be a second lieutenant in the United States Army. All of this is provided by our donors, primarily graduates. who benefited from many of these programs or experiences years ago or maybe not and want to provide that for our cadets today.

And it is an incredible way to enhance the experience. We aim to be the very best in the nation at producing leaders of character in the defense of our nation. The margin of excellence is a critical element of being able to create that environment so the very, very best cadets can be the very, very best officers for our soldiers in the Army.

[00:43:55] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Sir, in addition to supporting cadets, The Association of Graduates also provides a number of services for old grads as well. Can you tell me about some of these? Dave, 

[00:44:05] COL (R) Mark Bieger: we probably need another hour to talk through all of the activities that are being offered or being thought of. You know, back to your previous, um, you know, comment and question.

Many of these initiatives are really from the Long Gray Line itself. They're either suggestions or needs or areas that the AOG can help provide and support, that best support the Long Gray Line. And I'll just, I'll give you a few of these. We have a very strong career services Team here in AOG with a lot of effort in the last few years, Todd Brown was significant in pushing this, you know, hard to the level it's at right now.

And it's a great resource for our graduates when they're thinking about retiring or they're thinking about transitioning from the military. There is, uh, you know, of course the web based tools, Saliport, which is very good, our website. Which enables societies and parents groups and others to remain connected and to help coordinate some of their activities.

We've also worked very hard the last five, six, maybe longer to make West Point a welcoming or as welcome a location as possible for reunions, for visits. If a graduate is bringing his or her family here back to the academy, we want to make that as special and rewarding experience as possible. We've got a number of programs in there, you know, to make their Rockbound Highland home more accessible and more, I guess I would say, engageable.

But there is a suite. of efforts and activities. Tons of communications that we look at all the time to try to improve, to sharpen, and to make sure they're hitting their target audiences. But a combination of them emails, the grad news, the magazine, the website. We're really working to make sure that these mediums of communication are tailored to make sure that they do what they're intended to do and that's to take care of our alumni.


[00:45:59] LTC (R) Dave Siry: one of the great things about the West Point Association of Graduates is that it helps cadets and graduates focus on the moments that matter throughout their cadet experience and in their life beyond the academy. Can you tell me about what some of those moments that matter 

[00:46:13] COL (R) Mark Bieger: are? Well, the moments that matter, I think all of our graduates...

I can quickly, you know, start a list of those, you know, based on their experience here at the Academy. Of course, R Day, as you make your way, you know, through, you know, Plead Parent Weekend, Affirmation, of course, uh, Ring Weekend, Graduation. And so, within the AOG, what we've worked really hard to do is, is identify those moments as a cadet and then as a graduate.

that have great meaning and impact on our lives and look for ways that we can help, we can enhance, we can support, and to make those moments as special as possible, not only for the cadet or the graduate, but for their family as well, to try to make that entire experience as meaningful as possible. It's a nice way of focusing our attention on the graduates themselves or the cadets and see what their needs are, how we can be of best help.

And, you know, try to make the greatest positive impact. It's a really important part of our focus and efforts. Hopefully our graduates see that and feel it, and if they don't, we'd love to get the feedback and the recommendations on how we can 

[00:47:19] LTC (R) Dave Siry: improve. Question for you, sir. What does West Point mean 

[00:47:23] COL (R) Mark Bieger: to you?

Honestly, it means everything, you know, more than words can say. I feel a great sense of responsibility coming back, a great sense of promise and possibility. And honestly, a commitment to excellence in everything we do. I feel that the expectations are very high and the sense of urgency is very, um, is very high as well.

And we have a great opportunity here in this organization to do great good for the Academy and for our long red line. And that's what I'm focused on. My dad asked me that same question right before we, we made our way from Louisiana to West Point. And he just asked, um, you know, what it meant to my wife and I having this opportunity to come back to our alma mater.

And I said, you know, dad, honestly. It means the world, and I finally feel like we are both coming back home. So, we're thrilled to be here, Dave, and um, you know, so excited to be a part of the team. And really just looking forward to the, you know, the good things to follow here in the years ahead. 

[00:48:30] LTC (R) Dave Siry: Well, sir, it's been an honor and a joy to talk with you today. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your vision for the future. 

[00:48:37] COL (R) Mark Bieger: Thank you. Thank you, Dave. Thanks for your leadership and for everything you do for our cadets and for our academy for so many years. Uh, you are, uh, such a positive example for all of us, and I'm just glad to, to be on your team. So, thank you. Thank you. 

[00:48:53] Narrator: This has been a production of the WPAOG Broadcast Network. Please take a moment to rate and review the show, and join us each week for a new episode. Thank you for listening.