The true story behind Army's 1990 mission to steal Navy's goat

"A spirit mission, gentlemen, is an activity undertaken by cadets that is typically somewhat against regulations yet demonstrates qualities that the academy supposedly seeks to develop: audacity, teamwork, creativity, and mission focus. The successful accomplishment of a good spirit mission enhances the spirit not only of the cadets involved but also that of the whole Corps and the greater West Point community in general"

-- "Spirit Mission," a novel by Ted Russ

The disciplinary form dated Dec. 6, 1990, for West Point cadet Edward Russ was harsh and unambiguous.

Under the heading "Error in Judgement With Major Effect," it read that Russ was being censured for "participating in an activity which had been explicitly prohibited by the chain of command." In a section titled, "Comments on Leader Dimensions," it read, "did not display the moral courage necessary to halt prohibited activity by peers and subordinates."

While most such conduct reports were written up and then signed by a captain or perhaps a major, this one was signed by Brig. Gen. David Bramlett, West Point's commandant of cadets.

And what was the offense that merited such severe language and the personal attention of a future four-star general?

The report described the transgression as "misappropriating the Navy goat."

Russ and a team of nine, after more than a year of planning, had stolen the Navy goat, "Bill XXVI," from a guarded pen just before midnight on Nov. 17, 1990, in advance of the annual Army-Navy game.

To Russ and his crew, it was a "spirit mission." In the strictly regimented world of West Point, where Russ said cadets have "less freedom than a minimum security prisoner," spirit missions are coordinated and surreptitious circumnavigations of West Point rules that vary from minor pranks to sophisticated operations. They are simultaneously part of the military culture and acts that can cause cadets and their supervisors all sorts of trouble.

Russ published a novel this fall, "Spirit Mission," that fictionalized his real-life experiences as a West Point cadet, including his stealing the goat. That narrative is framed by another, far more serious, fictionalized "spirit mission," an off-the-grid, white-knuckle rescue operation in Iraq that explores the complexities of duty, friendship and military politics.

"I never felt like more of a cadet than when I was doing an activity that was against the rules," Russ said. "Part of writing the book was trying to scratch that itch and figure out why that was."

Cadets first kidnapped the Navy goat in 1953, and it has become a quasi-tradition, imbued with glory but also laden with potentially negative ramifications, as Russ and his crew knew even before they launched their operation. Russ and his co-planner, a high-ranking, active-duty member of the military who requested anonymity and will be called "the Accomplice " here, in fact, learned how complicated things might get beyond logistics when they confided their plans to author and military historian, Tom Carhart, at a book signing.

Carhart, a West Point graduate, had been part of a goat-stealing operation in 1966.

"First thing he said was, 'No. 1, don't do it,'" the Accomplice said. "Then he said, 'No. 2, I know you're probably going to anyway. Just understand it affects a lot of people very fast. As soon as you take it, you must go to ground quickly because they are going to come looking for you. This thing will involve generals and admirals, and it will be far more political that you might realize at your young age.'"

That sobering warning in mind, the goal for Russ and the Accomplice, members of E-4 Company, was to pull off the job immaculately, without any collateral damage. They wanted to get the goat to the game under Army auspices. During the course of their planning, they discovered other cadets had the same idea, so they combined forces. Still, they operated in secret. Even roommates were not informed of plans.

Using intelligence and surveillance, they discovered the farmhouse where the goat was housed. They signed out at West Point on Friday, Nov. 16, stating their destination was a buddy's parents' house nearby, which was at least partially true. The next day, after Navy beat Delaware, they began the operation.

"Much like in the book, we rented a van, dressed up like ninjas and went in there around midnight and got the goat," Russ said. "It wasn't where we thought it was going to be, so we had to bust it out of the building. We threw it into the van and drove a couple of hours to the farm where we put the goat."

Complications quickly arose. Exchange cadets at Navy who were accomplices were given 24 hours to reveal the location of the goat or face severe consequences. Parents then were enlisted to move the goat to a new hiding place on a farm in New Jersey. The ensuing investigation at West Point was no joke, and the intensity increased when it became obvious that the only route to escape would require lying. That was unacceptable to all involved.

The group hatched an alternative plan. The goat was secreted to West Point, and Russ, the Accomplice and others donned masks and rushed the goat into the massive mess hall and released it before scrambling away.

Almost immediately, they were busted and put on room restriction.

Their dressing down before the commandant would last an hour and a half. They were put on a "boomerang," which meant no big Army-Navy weekend for them; they only would be bused to and from the game.

Said Russ, "When you're a cadet, the game is your own version of Mardi Gras. It's a weekend of going nuts. It's a really cool weekend."

They expected further punishment, including the potential delay of Russ' graduation.

As noted, however, they had carefully planned the operation, covering the contingencies, including getting caught. Even before stealing the goat, they made key political connections. The Accomplice even touched base with a family friend: Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

The final months of 1990 were a tense time in the country. After years with no major military operation, the U.S. was facing down Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait, an operation Schwarzkopf was heading. The Accomplice's connections helped him get a photo of the group and the stolen goat standing in front of a U.S. flag to Schwarzkopf.

"We sent him a note that said, 'Hey, we hope this motivates the soldiers who are over there for Desert Shield," the Accomplice said. "We are thinking and praying for everybody involved in the operation. Beat Navy!"

There also was plenty of back-channel, after-the-fact communicating among Army brass in support of the goat stealing, which Russ, the Accomplice and their friends helped promote.

"We knew many high-ranking old grads put pressure on the commandant," Russ said. "After dressing us down on how we missed every important lesson that they've been trying to teach here, [the commandant] let us off at the last minute. It was surreal."

The Accomplice recalled standing in the tunnel immediately before the 1990 game in Philadelphia. The West Point cadets took the field and then moved into the stands first. They were followed by the Midshipmen. A man ran to the Accomplice.

"Some captain comes in and says, 'Hey, come here, you need to see this," he said. "So we run out of the tunnel onto the field at Veterans Stadium with the whole brigade of Midshipmen standing at attention. The whole corps is on its feet chanting, 'We got your goat!' It just was an amazing feeling. The corps knew, and Navy had to stand there and couldn't say a damn thing. That made a lot of it worth it."

Not to mention Army won 30-20.

The Accomplice hastens to add that he never was directly told that Schwarzkopf intervened on their behalf. Still, during a spring visit to West Point after victory in the desert, Schwarzkopf invited the Accomplice to dine at his table in the West Point mess hall.

Said the Accomplice, "In the middle of dinner, Schwarzkopf looks over at me and says, 'Hey, I really appreciate that picture you sent me of the goat. I hung it in the middle of my war room so all those admirals would have to look at it.' Everybody kind of chuckled, but when I looked across at the commandant, he was not laughing."

Russ did express one regret. A year later while he was in flight school after graduating, he received a dreadful bit of news. In a massive and impressively orchestrated 17-man operation, a crew from Navy successfully stole the Army mule for the first time in rivalry history two days before the game. Not only that, but they got all four mules: Spartacus, Traveller, Trooper and Ranger.

Navy, though 0-10 at the time, won 24-3.

Unlike Russ' heist for West Point, Navy celebrated its theft, awarding a certificate to honor those who had stolen the mules, termed "The Order of the Mule."

The schools called a formal truce, which originated at the Pentagon, on mascot theft, but it didn't last. The Navy goat has been kidnapped four times since.

That being noted, the goat-nappings haven't helped Army's cause of late. When Russ and the Accomplice stole the goat, the all-time series was essentially tied. When Army and Navy meet Saturday, the Midshipmen will be seeking to extend a 14-game winning streak.

"Cadets now don't even know what it's like to win -- it is frustrating," the Accomplice said. "There is an element to beating your rival that is an integral part of being a cadet: this passion to come out on top, to beat your rival and prove you're better. So [14] years really stinks."

Russ feels the same way, though his chosen terms are a bit more colorful -- and unprintable. Still, he takes solace that at his recent 25-year reunion, their goat-stealing operation received more than a few celebratory toasts.

Explained Russ: "I was a pretty unremarkable cadet from every angle. And the thing I'll be most proud of and probably talk about until I'm 6 feet under is, 'But me and my friends had the balls to steal the Navy goat.' It's a weird thing."