Leaders of the nation’s military academies say swiping one another’s mascot animals is strictly forbidden, but that hasn’t seemed to deter glory-seeking raiders.
By Dave PhilippsDec. 3, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET
Just before Thanksgiving, cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point did something that the three-star general in charge of the school officially ordered them not to do: They stole a Naval Academy goat mascot.
The general said afterward that the prank went against West Point’s core values and that he was disappointed by the breach of trust. Properly chastised, the academy’s cadets had time to reflect on the matter over the holiday.
Then last weekend, cadets stole a goat again.
Two goats, actually.
The animals are the latest in the line of 37 different bucks, stretching back more than a century, that have served as Naval Academy mascots. All have been named Bill. And among a certain set of West Point cadets and alumni, stealing Bill from one of the Navy’s secret pasturing locations has become the ultimate mission impossible. Cadets have done it least 12 times.
Army leaders have forbidden the heists, publicly at least, for decades, but the pranks have continued, reflecting an enduring contradiction in the academy’s mission: a requirement to produce disciplined officers who follow orders and a need to cultivate risk-takers with the boldness and creativity required to lead in battle.
Two goats, Bill No. 36 and Bill No. 37, now share official mascot duties. On Saturday night, a group of cadets dressed in black crept into the back yard of a Navy alumnus near Annapolis, Md., where the goats are kept, grabbed the two active-duty goats, clipped on their leads and slipped away undetected. The goats were found on Sunday morning on the West Point parade ground, tethered to the general’s reviewing stand. They were returned to the Naval Academy unharmed.
West Point leaders declined to comment about the incident. A member of the academy staff said the leadership wanted to keep the incident quiet, even among the student body, to discourage future raids. They are reviewing security footage to try to identify the culprits, but so far, no luck, the staff member said.
The Navy and the Army signed a formal agreement in 1992 banning mascot heists, after Navy midshipmen stole the Army’s mules in a brazen raid planned in part by Navy SEALs, which included the zip-tying of Army employees and a chase that involved a helicopter. Leaders became concerned that animals and people would be hurt if the rivalry escalated.
But the raids have not stopped. Both Bill the Goat and a snow-white gyrfalcon named Aurora, who was the Air Force Academy mascot, have been injured in recent years by West Point cadets.
According to two cadets who said they helped execute the latest goatnapping, it was an attempt to make up for a bungled raid the week before, when a clumsy group of cadets trying for one of the current mascots mistakenly grabbed an arthritic retired Bill with only one horn.
The two cadets refused to give their names, saying they would be punished if their names became public, but they provided photo and video evidence of the second heist.
Planning began months ago, they said, when a team of Army cadets wearing Navy T-shirts tailed the Navy goat trailer from a football game to the undisclosed location of the goat pen, switching cars regularly to avoid detection.
The cadets said they choreographed their strike to occur on the Sunday after Thanksgiving — a date close to the annual Army-Navy football game, so that it would help whip the respective student bodies into a frenzy, but at the end of a holiday weekend, when the Navy might have its guard down.
Around midnight, two teams closed in on the objective, according to the cadets. Through surveillance they had learned of the goats’ favorite snacks. With stealth, guile, and the liberal disbursement of whole peanuts and peppermint candies, they silently led the goats out through the fence to a rally point, where a van waited.
In the many whiteboard planning sessions leading up to the mission, the safety of the goats was always priority no. 1, the cadets said. To that end, the goats were monitored constantly, and the team mapped out the locations of several large-animal veterinarians along their route north to West Point, just in case.
Before dawn, the cadets said, the strike team slipped into West Point through an unguarded gate, tethered the goats at the center of campus, and used a burner phone to tell West Point authorities that the mission was done.
Naval Academy leaders said in a statement that they were “disappointed with this repeated breach of an agreement between the military service academies to stop taking live mascots in the interest of protecting their health and welfare.” They added, “We will defer to West Point’s leadership to address their cadets’ behavior.”
It was unclear what West Point’s response would be.
The academy’s honor code, engraved in a stone monument on the grounds, says that “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Cadets are told each day what to wear, where to be and even how to eat. They face strict punishment for small infractions, like being late to class, that often go unnoticed at other colleges. So brazenly defying a specific order from the superintendent might be expected to elicit a severe response.
But stealing the Navy goat is so deeply entrenched in the school’s culture that cadets who succeed achieve almost mythic status. And despite the official condemnations of stealing, the prank is tacitly admired by influential alumni, including many school leaders and top military commanders, according to Daniel Gade, a graduate of West Point who taught leadership and ethics there for years.
“It’s a difficult balance, because often in the history we teach at West Point, we celebrate rule-breakers,” he said. “And yet, it’s extremely important that young officers follow orders.”
Past superintendents have tried to walk a fine line, Mr. Gade said, by reprimanding the raiders but not expelling or prosecuting them. The cadets were often made to parade in circles in a courtyard of the barracks as punishment, soaking up the admiration of their peers as they marched.
“If the superintendent was serious about stopping this stuff, cadets would be seriously punished,” Mr. Gade said. “But they are not.”
For his own part, he said, he is of two minds on the issue. As a military ethics instructor, he sees it as deeply problematic for a commander to give orders and not enforce them, and even worse for young officers to believe that the rules do not apply. But as an alumnus, he said, “I think it’s great. Good fun. I’m just glad our mascots weigh 1,200 pounds each and are a lot harder for Navy to steal.”Mascot TheftsArmy Cadets Tried to Get Navy’s Goat, Again. Commanders Were Not Amused.Nov. 23, 2021A Covert Coup for Cadets: Steal the MascotDec. 6, 2018
Dave Philipps is a national correspondent covering the military and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book is “Alpha, Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy SEALs.” @David_Philipps • Facebook