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Photo of weeping Maryland immigrant's West Point graduation goes viral

A West Point photographer wanted to capture the emotion of the school's graduation. He pretty much nailed it.

The tears streamed down Alix Idrache's face. In the photograph, the streaks reach almost to the high collar of his gray dress uniform.

The moment, captured by a military photographer Saturday during commencement exercises at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., marked the culmination of a journey that began in 2009, when Idrache came to Maryland from his native Haiti, barely able to speak English.

Now 24, he graduated at the top of his class in physics, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army, and is headed to Alabama to train as a helicopter pilot.

Idrache, who served in the Maryland National Guard before enrolling at West Point, says his past, present and future flashed through his mind on the graduation field.

"I am from Haiti and never did I imagine that such honor would be one day bestowed on me," he wrote on Instagram. "I could not help but be flooded with emotions knowing that I will be leading these men and women who are willing to give their all to preserve what we value as the American way of life.

"To me, that is the greatest honor."

The striking image of Idrache spread across the Internet this week after the military academy posted it on social media.

The photographer, Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant, said he was looking to capture the emotion of the commencement exercises, when cadets complete four years of grueling intellectual and physical training, take the oath of office and are commissioned.

Bryant had a wide lens ready to photograph the traditional hat toss when he noticed Idrache's tears. He quickly switched to a long lens and trained the camera on the cadet's face.

"He made it easy," Bryant said.

Idrache was not available for interviews Thursday, a West Point spokesman said. But representatives of the academy and the Maryland National Guard were happy to share his story.

Idrache's father, Dieujuste, came to the United States in search of economic opportunity. In 2009, he was able to bring Idrache here as well.

Idrache's military career began in the Maryland Army National Guard. He was drawn to the Guard, he told a military reporter, by the offer of a free T-shirt.

He served in the 231st Chemical Co., based in Greenbelt.

Idrache's sister gave him a sticker that had been handed to her at school by a recruiter from West Point. He thought his chances of getting into the elite military academy were slim, according to an Army account of his career. But his lieutenant in his National Guard unit helped him start the application process, and an administrator, Sgt. 1st Class Christi McKinney, guided him through the process.

Idrache enrolled at West Point in 2012. He is now on his way to Fort Rucker, Ala., where the Army trains helicopter pilots.

"This is the country that comes to help when very few people do," Idrache said, his voice cracking, in a video made by the Maryland Guard. "This is the 82nd Airborne being in Haiti within a few hours of the earthquake to help people. This is a place where, like, a guy who was born with nothing can become a pilot, and to me, that means so much.

"I love Haiti, but I would probably think twice before I go to war for it. But if I had to die for this, I'd do it."

Idrache had watched the U.S. military conduct humanitarian missions as a child, according to the Army account, and was amazed by its helicopters.

"The first time I saw a Chinook, I ran after it, and I was like, 'This thing kind of looks like a flying telephone,'" he told a military reporter, speaking with a slight accent. "And I was like, 'How is this up?'"

The moment faded from his mind. But when it came time for Idrache to choose a military career, he knew what he wanted to do.

"I was like, yo, I could be in one of those flying telephones and up there having some random kid in the Third World running after me with no shirt on," he said. "I asked myself, 'What is one thing I could never be if I didn't come to West Point?' — and that's a pilot."

McKinney followed Idrache through his West Point career, and was there to watch him graduate and be commissioned as an officer.

Once his lieutenant's bar had been pinned on, she was the first enlisted soldier to salute him.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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