Robert Paley was born in Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii in 1966, shortly after his father deployed to Vietnam with the 65th Engineer Brigade in the 25th Infantry Division. His father was a career Non-Commissioned Officer who joined the Army with his parent’s permission on his 17th birthday. Robert’s paternal grandparents were Jews who fled the Russian Revolution and came to America. His father served in the Korean War and was sent to a hospital in Japan when he was wounded. There he met Robert’s mother, a young Japanese woman who had grown up in a village in Manchuria that had been taken from the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. The two married, and she followed her husband as an Army spouse. When Robert, the third of four children, was born, they were living in Hawaii. While deployed to Vietnam, Robert’s father contracted Cryptococcal Meningitis and returned home to Walter Reed, where he was a patient for two years. He recovered enough to return to Active Duty, and retired in 1973 after twenty-three years of service. The family settled in Columbus, Ohio, to be near the Veterans’ Administration Hospital at Rickenbacker Air Force Base. For years, the extent of his father’s illness was kept from Robert until he took a turn for the worse when Robert was twelve. It was at that point that his mother showed young Robert his father’s box of “treasures,” including dog tags, his Purple Heart medal, and, most significantly, silver dollars that he had received from giving newly commissioned Lieutenants their first salute. It was then that Robert vowed that he would graduate from West Point to allow his father to render his son’s first salute. The road was not easy, but Robert never waivered in his determination to graduate from the Military Academy. When he received his father’s medical records during his senior year, the shock of knowing how badly off his father was caused him to fail every single exam, and he was on the verge of being kicked out. Several officers who had served with his father came to his assistance – not for Robert’s sake, but for his father, whom they respected. That provided the extra spark of motivation that Robert needed to persevere. On May 24, 1989, he received his first salute from his father, who stood proudly at attention and saluted smartly. In turn, his father received a silver dollar dated 1978, from the year Robert first determined to graduate from West Point.
In this interview, Robert talks about his childhood and his family history, including the time his mother motivated him not to give up in judo tournaments by telling him that he was descended from a famous Japanese Samurai. He discusses his father’s illness, and how that shaped his life. He describes his experiences at West Point, including overcoming challenges by learning to believe in himself and the “power of the dream” of graduating. He reflects on the importance of the Jewish Chapel in his Cadet development, recalling that his Bar Mitzvah was the first performed at the Military Academy. Throughout the interview, he explains the importance of West Point, intermingled with positive memories of sharing his Cadet experience with his father. Finally, he talks about learning to deal with the Post Traumatic Stress he carried from years of dealing with his father’s illness, and overcoming it to write his book “The Last Salute: The True Story of a West Point Cadet’s Dream To Honor His Dying Father.”