ARLINGTON -- In a bit less than two months, You Li will graduate from the U.S. Military Academy, take the oath of an officer and receive the "butter bar" of a second lieutenant, all in one momentous day.
Close family friends from North Texas will be there on the grounds of the picturesque campus on the Hudson River to take pictures, slap his back and maybe shed a few tears as Li joins the Long Gray Line.
Beyond the relief and satisfaction he will feel that day will be a lurking sadness.
As Li prepared for his junior year at West Point, his parents -- both active in the Chinese-American community in Arlington -- dropped him off and died in a traffic accident on a rain-slickened highway just minutes from the campus.
"It hurts every single day, and I think of them every single day," Li said. "I will just have to know that on that day they're watching me and are proud of me."
Li's story is definitely an American one.
Born in Beijing 22 years ago, he moved to the U.S. as a toddler because of his father's pre-eminent work as an engineer and physicist with particle accelerators, including the superconducting super collider outside Waxahachie and later in research laboratories at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Naturalized as an American citizen and fluent in Mandarin, Li graduated from Martin High School in Arlington and surprised his parents -- perhaps himself a bit, too -- by accepting an appointment to West Point and a life in the uniform of a U.S. soldier.
Like many college students, Li recently returned to Arlington for spring break. His visit was probably a bit different, though -- he visited high schools in the area to answer questions about the academy, and rather than sleep at his parents' home, he stays with longtime family friends.
"I haven't been able to sell my parents' home yet," he said. "Maybe someday."
'I liked the challenge'
Li (his name is pronounced yo lee) already knows that he will enter the Army as a signal officer and that his first assignment is the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.
At this point, Li has never prematurely left a seat on an airplane.
"I'm not a big fan of heights, frankly, but I won't have a choice, really -- they'll put a boot in my rear if I hesitate out the door," he joked. "It'll be fun."
The U.S. military is increasingly dominated by men and women who serve because their fathers, mothers, siblings or grandparents did. More uncommon is someone like Li, who has no military tradition in his family.
In 2006, Li was waiting to hear about his applications to Rice University, Cornell University, Princeton University and other illustrious colleges when he had a conversation with Henmar Gabriel, a retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel in Dallas who is active in the West Point Association of Graduates.
Despite the apprehension of his parents, who wondered whether their son was military material and whether it would be wise to join in the middle of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Li eventually convinced them that he was all-in for West Point.
"The other schools I applied had a lot of prestige, but nothing about them really stood out as separate from the others," he said. "I liked the challenge of West Point. I knew they'd help push me to levels I wouldn't get to on my own."
He got what he was looking for -- 18 to 21 hours of courses per semester, rigorous physical training, leadership positions within the corps, summers spent on at Army bases, research projects on taxpayer dollars funneled to Afghan villages, to name just a sampling.
Pain and support
His greatest challenge, though, he never saw coming.
It came June 16, 2008, when his parents, Jia Li and Yun Qian, died in a traffic accident during a rainstorm just outside West Point, N.Y. The family -- Li has no siblings -- had just driven from Chicago to West Point and spent Father's Day weekend at Niagara Falls.
He had to identify his father's body at the morgue. He couldn't, however, see his mother that way.
Then he had to plan their funeral in Arlington by himself. He was 19.
"That made it tough," he said. "I had plenty of friends around me and plenty of people to confide in, but I had a unique pain."
He took almost a year off from West Point, handling his parents' estate, traveling the country in a sports car he bought, flying to China to visit family and working part time for Perot Systems, a job that Ross Perot Sr. offered when local West Point alumni told him about Li's situation.
"He just needed time," said Gabriel, who has become close to Li. "We worked through some things, and some parents helped him with the wills and finances. I can't replace his dad, but I, and others too, do what we can to help him."
It is Gabriel, perhaps most responsible for his choice of colleges, who will swear Li into the Army.
"He's going to make us a very good officer," he said.
Li will enter an Army that also knows loss -- and, in many cases, at a very young age.
The Army has sustained more than 4,000 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade, even more when suicides, overdoses and other problems stateside are included. Li might relate better to loss and grief than many straight-out-of-college second lieutenants.
"I've already learned how much I can handle physically and emotionally," he said.
When he returned to West Point, he vowed to press forward with his studies and officer development just as he had before. He never considered not returning, if only to satisfy what he knows would have been his parents' wishes.
"They would have been furious with me if I had stopped because of what happened," he said.
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547