TAMPA — Without hesitation, a dozen military cadets walked into a patient's room at James A. Haley VA Medical Center on Saturday and said hello.
A young man, severely injured while serving overseas, struggled to respond.
A doctor asked him to give a thumbs-up to the crowd. The cadets cheered him on.
It's a different experience for those training to be officers in the Army.
Wrapped up in classes at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., students can find that war sometimes seem far away. Meeting an injured soldier can help students gain perspective.
"This is so that they realize what they are getting into," said Sgt. 1st Class Alexander Petty, who works with the U.S. Military Academy's Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. "So they realize what it's like to have one of these soldiers in their unit."
The 12 cadets, including an Alonso High School graduate, are in Tampa to host a high school leadership conference Monday at the University of Tampa.
Upon graduation, the cadets will serve as Army officers for five years and three more as reserves.
"This helps them understand that some of the decisions they make later in life could lead people to situations like these," Petty said.
Gabrielle Mangru, 19, who graduated from Alonso in 2010, is a sophomore at West Point majoring in Portuguese and international law. The visit with injured soldiers inspired her.
"Seeing people who are overcoming paralysis, who are relearning to walk, it's incredible, the willpower they have," she said.
Fellow cadet Doug Walsh, 22, agreed. Walsh, of Naples, graduates this year and will go to Fort Bragg, N.C., as an engineer officer.
"These are the same soldiers I'm going to lead," he said. "They are willing to do so much, I have to be the best officer I can be in order to lead them."
For Raymond "Mike" Berkeley, a 67-year-old Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and is at the hospital recovering from a recent car crash, the cadets' visit was meaningful.
"I'm glad they came," he said. "You don't see many young people doing this."
Dr. Steven Scott, the director of the polytrauma unit at Haley, led the cadets on a tour. The hospital's mission is the same as the cadets', he told them.
"Take care of (soldiers) and give them a future," he said.
A visit to the veterans hospital, he said, puts cadets on the right track.
"Visiting the veterans gives our new leaders hope and inspiration," he said. "It's also good for the vets here. It allows them to know they haven't been forgotten."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2442.