Among them is Gen. Joe Martin, who is vice chief of staff of the Army, the service’s second-highest-ranking officer. “Joey, we’re really proud of him,” Green says, predicting “he’ll probably be chief of staff of the Army.”
Other members of the class still on active duty include Lt. Gen. J.T. Thomson, the NATO land commander, headquartered in Turkey and Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Quintas, deputy commander of the Army’s Forces Command. Lt. Gen. Dan Hokanson heads the Army National Guard. Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, deputy commander of Futures Command, is leading the Army’s efforts to modernize its equipment and strategy for the kind of great power conflict the Pentagon was expecting from the USSR in the mid-1980s, and has now reemerged in different form from Russia and China.
Indeed, the Russian threat still looms large over their discussions. “We talk about it a lot,” said Steve Cannon, who was a regimental cadet commander like Esper and later served alongside Pompeo in an armored cavalry regiment in West Germany in the waning days of the Cold War, says of the classmates’ private gatherings. “Now it is back to the future. You’ve got a fairly aggressive [Vladimir] Putin, who in many ways feels like he is pulling us back towards the Cold War. We do ruminate on those things.”
But it is out of uniform where the class has made its largest imprint. Green recalls that Army Gen. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joked at a private event some years ago that the number of high-ranking civilian officials from the class of ’86 were giving the generals a run for their money.
“You’ve got a better shot of being a Cabinet member than being a four-star general in the class of ’86,” Green recalled Milley as saying.
It is Urban who gets the most credit for orchestrating the class’ rise in Washington—and ultimately into Trump’s orbit. When Esper left the Army and was angling for a job on Capitol Hill, it was Urban, then working as chief of staff to Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who recommended his classmate to work for then-Republican senator and future Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Urban also introduced Pompeo to key allies when he arrived in Congress in early 2011, including helping him land a perch on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
After Trump’s election in 2016, Urban’s role brokering top jobs for his classmates gained considerable altitude. Urban had first met Trump at a New York fundraiser for Specter, who died in 2012, but got to know Trump personally in 2016 working on the president’s campaign in Pennsylvania. “We clicked immediately. We hit it off. … It was a time when nobody else thought Donald Trump stood a chance,” Urban recalled in an interview.
Urban put in a good word for Pompeo to be CIA director with Trump during the transition. He also advocated for Esper, first helping him become Trump’s Army secretary before he was tapped for the top Pentagon job earlier this year. At the past two Army-Navy football games, Trump visited Urban’s box, along with Pompeo and other members of the class.
Fellow classmate Steve Cannon, who is CEO of AMB Group, which owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, and has hosted both Pompeo and Esper in Atlanta, sees Urban as the clear driver in the rise to prominence in Washington of his classmates —the man quietly steering events out of the public eye.
“He is a veritable force of nature,” Cannon said of Urban.
It was Cannon who enlisted Esper and other classmates in establishing the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund, named for Col. John McHugh, who was killed in a suicide attack in 2010.
But nowhere are the class’ ties now more prominent than in Foggy Bottom. Pompeo, who credits the rise of the class to “just providence,” has had Brechbuhl and Bulatao at his side for years. The three first worked together at Thayer Aerospace, which Pompeo founded before he was elected to Congress from Kansas in the Tea Party wave of 2010. They also served under him when he was CIA director in Trump’s first year before following him to the State Department.
“Ulrich and Brian are literally my longest best friends in the whole world, and it’s an opportunity for us to serve together, which is really pretty special,” Pompeo told POLITICO.
The wider group also tries to get together regularly even with their busy schedules in Washington. To celebrate Urban’s engagement last year, Pompeo and Esper attended an elegant party at the St. Regis Hotel organized by David McCormick, a member of the West Point class of 1987 and co-CEO of top hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and now-wife Dina Powell McCormick, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser.
Other minireunions of the West Point Mafia take place monthly at eateries near the Pentagon such as the Lebanese Taverna, where one participant said they talk about “life stuff” and try hard not to get political. “Some I know from my earliest days at West Point,” Esper said via email. “Others I got to know here in Washington. Regardless, we all have common friends, experiences, and values from our earliest days at the academy.”
“We were a close class,” agreed DePinto, the 7-Eleven CEO who also served as a civilian aid to Esper when he was Army secretary. “We take care of each other. When one of us is down, we’re there to help. When some of us are successful, we’re all there to cheer each other on. …
“I can always count on a West Point classmate when I have something that’s important to talk about or I’m in need of some sort of support,” DePinto added.
“Not every class is as tight and connected as we are,” Cannon said. “I will say that differentiates us.”
Esper describes a “unique level of trust and rapport” with Pompeo in particular, which he maintains “helps us both do our jobs more effectively.”
Each class at West Point designs its own coat of arms during its first year, and the motto emblazoned on the 1986 class crest is never far from the reach of Pompeo and Esper. Both men have “CNQ”—“Courage Never Quits—engraved on their official commemorative coins, which they’ve been known to hand out to subordinates as a token of appreciation.
How their behavior lives up to their cadet creed is being watched closely now by their fellow West Pointers as the hyperpartisan impeachment drama plays out. Esper waded into the controversy recently when he stood up for Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a senior staff member on the NSC, who oversees Ukraine policy and who has testified to House investigators in the probe.
Vindman’s integrity has been attacked by some of the president’s fiercest defenders, leading Esper to pledge that Vindman will not face any blowback in the ranks for coming forward. “He shouldn’t have any fear of retaliation,” Esper told reporters, adding that he has also relayed that message to the secretary of the Army.