Journalist Andrew LeRay and Michael Njokuobi, right, a cadet at West Point Military Academy, work together on a simulated wartime exercise. Photo by Yvonne Latty

Journalist Andrew LeRay and Michael Njokuobi, right, a cadet at West Point Military Academy, work together on a simulated wartime exercise. Photo by Yvonne Latty

WEST POINT, N.Y. — There’s one question no cadet escapes, according to Michael Njokuobi, a senior at West Point Military Academy.

“Unless you come from a military family, everyone here gets asked why they joined the military,” said Njokuobi, 26, of Durham, N.C.

Civilians have long been mystified by what attracts young people to serve, a life marked by rarefied discipline and sacrifice, he said. But Njokuobi is not like most cadets on campus. For him, that same “why” question takes on a whole new light.

Michael Njokuobi

Michael Njokuobi

When Njokuobi earns his degree in engineering this December, he will be among a small pool of black graduates, which comprise six percent of his class, according to the United States Military Academy. As a young black man, he is exceptional. As a black man of Nigerian descent, however, he is controversial.

For many Ibos, like Njokuobi, who hail from the Eastern region of Nigeria, dark memories of post-Biafran War military occupation and the U.S. government’s resulting sanctions linger on.

“In Nigeria, (the military) doesn’t have the best connotation, so the choice for young people to pursue military careers can be met with disapproval from some members of the community,” he said, with trademark polish and military cool.

Prior to his enrollment at West Point, Njokuobi spent two years in the enlisted army out of high school. His parents, who, he said, “take great pride in the infantry,” were supportive of his decision. Njokuobi’s father emigrated from Nigeria during the civil war and now works for the United States government as a civil engineer.

But friends of his parents, whom they encountered at local Nigerian civic association meetings, were baffled by his decision to choose the military route.

Once enrolled at West Point, from which only four cadets of Nigerian descent have ever graduated, the rebukes became direct — he remembers each vividly. The most recent was with a female friend he met through a cousin, who asked, via an instant-messenger exchange, “How can you fight for a country that wouldn’t fight for you?”

“My parents are immigrants; their parents are immigrants too — they came here for the same opportunity,” Njokuobi said. “No matter what I say, they wouldn’t understand.”

But the answer is so basic to those who know him best: This has always been his dream. Ever since he was a kid, growing up in Tar Heel country, he idolized Napoleon and Alexander the Great like others would have Michael Jordan.

After serving in the enlisted army, where he studied military intelligence and became proficient in Farsi, he finally gained admission to West Point in 2005 through the United States Military Academy Prep School. The prep school is a traditional route for many minority cadets, and a means for West Point to diversify its student population. While one in four cadets enrolled at the prep school are black, black prep-school graduates make up half the black student population at West Point Military Academy, according to the Democratic Leadership Council Web site.

His experience at West Point has been intense. Training at this elite institution is marked by scrutiny, constant evaluation and competition, where cadets are constantly ranked against each other. Still, he forged a close, fraternal bond with a fellow prep school cadet from the Democratic Republic of Congo, now a sergeant major, who would inspire him by earning a Purple Heart. In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is 1,000 miles from Nigeria. In West Point, the two cadets were countrymen, sharing similar values and experience. After all, for his success, Njokuobi credits his upbringing and culture, which taught him respect and to strive for excellence.

But on the cusp of graduation, it seems everyone but Njokuobi finds his achievement extraordinary.

“My dad’s an immigrant; my mom’s from North Carolina,” Njokuobi said. “You think it’s unique, but when you step back, it’s just another American story.”

But those who work at West Point Military Academy, such as Maj. James Smith, would argue — despite public criticism of disproportionate minority enrollment — that diversity is not just an American story: It’s a West Point story.

Smith stood before the monument of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a foreign-born West Point founding father who played a pivotal role in the Battle of Saratoga and, like Njokuobi, was an engineer.

“Here’s a guy from Poland, taught in France, who went on to fight in the Revolutionary War,” Smith said to a tour group. “That’s what we’re all about here.”

Smith teaches Njokuobi in a military tactics class and describes him as a sharp, proactive leader.

“I’d take him as my platoon leader any day,” Smith said. “I don’t care if he’s from Pluto.”