West Point cadet’s faith becomes path from jealousy

By Art Toalston

WEST POINT, N.Y. – Amid the rigors of basic training at the U.S. Military Academy, Austin Hemminger asked an out-of-the-blue question to a fellow West Point cadet aboard a troop transport vehicle:

“You’re pretty religious, right?”

“Yeah,” the cadet, William, replied during the few moments when squad-mates were permitted to talk en route to a training exercise.

“What church or religion are you?” Hemminger asked.

“I’m a Baptist.”

After his baptism, West Point cadet Austin Hemminger (right) enjoys the moment with Joshua Austin, director of the Baptist Campus Ministry at the U.S. Military Academy. Photo submitted

The short-lived conversation in the back of an LMTV (Light Medium Tactical Vehicle) – within earshot of a dozen other cadets – reflected Hemminger’s yearning to be “a better person.”

Jealousy toward a girlfriend had become a personal crisis during his prep year at West Point prior to becoming a cadet in 2022. A relationship had grown from the female classmate’s help with Hemminger’s struggles in math.

“I got so frustrated because math came so natural to her,” he said, “and I had to work so hard just to do worse than her.

“Eventually this seeped into other things in our lives” – somehow escalating to the point that “I really didn’t know who I was as a person. I hated those feelings toward her, and I hated who I was.

“And I was just not OK with that.”

Faith – a non-factor

Hemminger’s parents had divorced when he was 10. He periodically attended Catholic services with his mother in his Pittsburgh hometown. “I was actively trying to pay attention when I was there sometimes,” he said. “But other times, I just didn’t want to be there.”

Faith-wise, the divorce left him feeling that “I should just live my life and not really worry about that. … It had no significance in my life at all.”

Prior to entering West Point, he had enlisted in the Army in 2019 at age 17, serving as an infantryman on a machine gun team at a small installation, Rose Barracks in Bavaria, about an hour from Nuremberg on the eastern side of Germany.

He attended church services and Bible studies “here and there” but “it never really amounted to anything, nothing that struck a chord with me.”

But at West Point, struggling with jealousy, Hemminger began to sense that “the only way I’m going to find myself is through God and through Christianity.”

Holy Spirit’s prompting

That’s the backstory of his Are-you-religious? query to his squad-mate while riding beside each other on the LMTV during basic training. “I honestly think the Holy Spirit just had me ask that question,” Hemminger stated.

When the academic year commenced, he and William found they had been placed together as roommates.

“Yeah, it’s weird how God works, isn’t it?” Hemminger said.

The roommates – a Pennsylvania native and a Southern Baptist from Georgia – discussed which Christian fellowship to attend at West Point, selecting the Baptist Campus Ministry led by Joshua Austin, a missionary with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. The BCM choice was partly “because of the food” at the weekly gathering, now encompassing about 70 cadets and officers. “Josh cooks,” Hemminger said. “He cooks good.”

That first evening when Austin, the BCM leader, was speaking about Jesus’ teaching from one of the Gospel of Matthew’s parables, something stirred in Hemminger’s soul.

“I don’t remember which one it was that caught my attention,” Hemminger said of Jesus’ words regarding the parable. “But I was like, this is the person I want to be. … It stuck with me and I couldn’t let it go.”

Rooting himself in Jesus as his Lord and Savior, Hemminger was baptized in late September 2022 in Lake Frederick near West Point’s campus.

Hemminger, in his growing faith, describes William and himself as “checks and balances for each other.” Because he has “only been studying the Bible heavily for a year now,” he sometimes is on the “fiery” side. William, meanwhile, is “passionate about God’s Word” but also has “a lot of the knowledge base.”

“I hope I provide that spark he may need sometimes,” Hemminger said, “and for me, if I might say something that may not be theologically correct … he helps me out with that.”

Post-baptism realization

Even after his baptism, however, Hemminger struggled with maintaining the relationship with his girlfriend. He recounted 2022’s Columbus Day when he had the weekend away from West Point and intended to focus on studying the Bible and prayer.

It never happened. It was like the relationship “kind of defined me as a person. That’s when I realized that God needs to define me, not anything else.” Giving up the relationship, Hemminger said, was a key sacrifice toward Christ “changing my life.”

His changed life has included a mission trip to New York City last fall led by the BCM’s Josh Austin and a trip to Puerto Rico to serve at a Send Relief center there operated by Southern Baptists. In addition to BCM worship services, he serves on the cadet leadership team and attends a weekly discipleship group. “It has been such a joy to see Austin’s transformation right before me,” Josh Austin said. “He has jumped in with his whole heart and loves people well.”

“Forgiveness of my sins,” Hemminger noted, is especially precious, “knowing that every day I’m going to make mistakes and Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice for my mistakes.

“That doesn’t mean I can go around willy-nilly committing sin after sin. It means I can live life with the clarity that as long as I have my faith in Christ, my faith will ultimately reflect my works and save me in the end.”

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Published January 10, 2024

Art Toalston

Art Toalston is a writer based in Nashville and a former editor of Baptist Press.