“Make Sure To Check All Parts Of Your Operation”: Leadership Lessons From A West Point Commandant

Walter Ulmer


LTG(R) Walt Ulmer grew up in Bangor, Maine, in an extended family household with his grandparents, aunt, parents, and sister. His father, an officer in the Maine National Guard, was federalized in 1941, eventually deploying to Europe, where he commanded a Field Artillery Battalion. After graduating from high school, Ulmer attended Bates College, following a pre-med track, but the academies were on his mind; in fact, his father had wanted to go to West Point, but failed the eye test. Walt wanted to go to Annapolis, but his congressman offered West Point instead, and he accepted. During Beast Barracks, he found that he had to deal with “inconsequential nonsense,” but later realized that learning to adapt to stress and incoherence builds resilience that helps graduates perform on the battlefield. Upon graduation, he branched Armor because he liked the excitement offered by the heavy combat vehicles. After an initial assignment to Fort Carson, Colorado, with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, he took command of the first of his three companies in the 56th Amphibious Tank and Tractor Battalion. With that company, he practiced amphibious landings on islands all over the Pacific. Next he commanded A Company in the 6th Tank Battalion in the 24th Infantry Division, followed by the Tank Company in the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division. After the Advanced Course, he returned to West Point in 1958, teaching in the Military Topography and Graphics Department. After leaving West Point, he attended Command and General Staff College before deploying to Vietnam in 1963 as an Advisor to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) 40th Infantry Regiment. Following Vietnam, he became the Assistant G-3 for the 5th Infantry Division at Ft. Carson, Colorado. Next, he became an Assignment Officer in PERSCOM before being assigned to the Office of the Chief of Staff, in charge of reporting on the Army build-up in preparation for sending units to Vietnam. He then commanded the Sheridan-tank-equipped 17th Cavalry in the 82nd Airborne Division. After leaving Squadron Command, he attended the War College, and stayed on as faculty before deploying to Vietnam again as the Senior American Advisor to the 5th Division. He survived the siege of An Loc, and describes several humorous incidents under fire. He then was one of the officers in charge of implementing the Kissinger Peace in January 1973, and recalls believing that the Vietnamese Military was capable of holding out if supported with material by the Americans. He served as the Commandant of Cadets at the United States Military Academy from 1975 to 1977, when the Vietnam War had ended, women had been accepted into the Academy, and the Class of 1977 experienced a cheating scandal. After retiring from the Army, he served as the President and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his West Point experiences, and his assignments in the Army. He recounts several anecdotes, and highlights leadership lessons from all levels of command. Finally, he reflects on what West Point means to him.


name Walter Ulmer
institution USMA
graduation year 1952
service Armor
unit 11th ACR; 56th Amphibious Tank and Tractor Battalion; 6th Tank Battalion, 24th Infantry Division; 82nd Airborne Division; MACV; 17th Cavalry, 82nd Airborne Division; 194th Armored Brigade; USCC; 3rd Armored Division; III Corps
specialty Commandant of Cadets, Distinguished Graduate
service dates 1952 1985