By Christine Graf
New Jersey native Brian Bergen was a standout on the cross-country team at James Caldwell High School when he attracted the interest of a recruiter at the United States Military Academy at West Point. At the time, Bergen had not considered the possibility of attending a military academy. Although both of his grandfathers had served in the Korean War, he was not from a military family.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” said Bergen. “I was very into politics and history and had an appreciation for the military, but until they reached out to me I hadn’t really considered that angle. So, at first I was just going through the motions because the opportunity was there.”
It was after visiting the campus and receiving a West Point nomination from Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen that Bergen began to seriously consider attending the academy. “The whole thing started to become a reality,” he said. “I got to spend some time up there on a visit, and it really appealed to me. The sense of commitment, pride, and integrity they displayed was really a draw to me.”
Bergen was ultimately accepted to West Point, one of the most selective colleges in the country. Their total undergraduate enrollment is less than 5,000. Cadets attend free of charge but must agree to serve five years of active duty after graduation.
In July 1997, just weeks after graduating from high school, 17-year-old Bergen joined the freshman class at West Point. His first year was not an easy one. The life of a plebe—a first-year military academy cadet–is extremely challenging both physically and mentally.
“You are being yelled at all day every day for months on end,” said Bergen. “The way that West Point is effective at creating you into this leader is that they first have to break you down completely.”
In order to do this, Bergen said new cadets were given an “endless amount of impossible tasks” to complete. As an example, he said upperclassmen would order plebes to change into new uniforms in 30 seconds.
When plebes are asked to explain why they were unable to complete an assigned task, they are allowed to respond in one of four ways. “You could have the best excuse in the world, but you are limited to four responses. ’Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir. Sir, I do not understand,’” he said. “You learn to say, ‘No excuse, sir’ and just get yelled at. You deal with it up until March. From the time you get there in July until March, every day is like this.”
Surprisingly, West Point has one of the highest freshman retention rates of any college. Their 95 percent retention
rate far exceeds the 72 percent national average. Although he admits there were many times when he wanted to leave, Bergen said it was the support he received from his fellow first-year cadets that enabled him to persevere. “You form that connection with your team,” he said. “You would learn to help each other out and make light of these situations that are just devastating situations when you first get there.”
Despite the challenges, Bergen described his experience at West Point as amazing.
“West Point is a great place to be from but not such a great place to be at,” he said with a laugh. “But, the entire experience from start to finish is just amazing. It’s an experience like none other. Probably 80 percent of the time it’s not very fun because they are developing you into a leader of character to serve the nation. To do that, requires a lot of discipline, a lot of commitment, and a lot of hard work.”
During a cadet’s senior year at West Point, they are asked which specialized field or branch they would like to serve in after graduation. Assignments are made based on cadet preferences as well as the needs of the Army. “You have to rank your preferences, and you get what you get,” said Bergen.
He was undecided about whether to select aviation or infantry as his top choice. After flipping a coin, he listed aviation as his preferred assignment.
After graduating from West Point with a double major in French and Spanish and a minor in computer science, Bergen was selected to attend flight school. He spent the next two years at Fort Rucker Alabama where he was trained to fly the Apache helicopter. The Apache, the world’s most technically advanced helicopter, is the Army’s primary attack helicopter.
After graduating from flight school in 2003, Bergen spent the next eight months at Ford Hood Texas. It was there that he received training to fight as part of a battalion. At the conclusion of training, his unit was sent to Fort Bragg North Carolina to begin preparations for deployment to Iraq.
By the time Bergen’s unit arrived in Kuwait in January 2005, the Iraq War had been raging for almost two years. Bergen’s best friend and fellow platoon leader, 25-year-old Joe Lusk, died in a helicopter crash just thirteen days into their deployment. The two met at West Point and attended flight school together.
“I was on the radio with him when it happened,” said Bergen. “Then a couple days later, I had to lead a convoy 350 miles into Baghdad.”
Several years later, Bergen and a group of Lusk’s family and friends established the Captain Joe F. Lusk II Memorial Foundation. The foundation honors the life of Lusk, a third generation West Point graduate, by offering assistance to wounded veterans.
There were 94 West Point graduates killed during the Iraq War, and Bergen said he lost “quite a few” friends from the Academy. Two pilots from his unit were also killed during a combat mission during his deployment.
During his year in Iraq, Bergen served as a platoon leader. His operations took place at Camp Taji (on the outskirts of Baghdad) and Camp Victory (in the center of Baghdad). He flew 150 combat hours during his deployment.
After returning home, he was stationed at Fort Huachuca Arizona. He married his wife, Kristin, in 2006, and their daughter, Samantha, was born in 2008. She was born three months early and weighed just 1lb 14 ounces.
Samantha spent two months in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, and Bergen refers to her as their “miracle baby.” It was because of her that he and Kristin began to reevaluate their life. They decided they wanted their daughter to grow up surrounded by family in New Jersey. That meant that Bergen had to give up the Army career he loved so much.
At the time, Bergen was a company commander with a bright future in the military. “I wanted to run the whole show,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a pretty ambitious guy, so I had aspirations of being the general of all generals.”
In 2008, Bergen and his family moved to Denville. He took a job as a transportation supervisor for Iron Mountain, a document storage and data protection company. His transition to the civilian world was not an easy one.
“I turned over my command on October 31st, 2008,” said Bergen. “I went from commanding 250 soldiers on Oct 31st to being in charge of 10 drivers in Long Island on November 10th. It was a very, very difficult transition–from being turned into a soldier and then trying to turn myself back out of it.”
In the years that followed, Bergen worked for several different companies. “I poured my heart and soul into being the best business person I could possibly be. I was very ambitious about learning and growing as a businessperson. I worked a variety of different jobs in different industries to grow myself,” he said. “I wanted to learn everything.”
His quest for learning led him to the MBA program at Rutgers. “I felt like I was missing the understanding of how to build your own business and run it,” he said when explaining why he sought an MBA. By this point in time, his family had grown to include his son, Justin, who was born in 2012.
While at Rutgers, he was part of a competition in which students were given the opportunity to pitch a business plan. Bergen pitched his idea for an indoor landscaping company.
“It was for indoor plants in corporate buildings,” he said. “I had worked for a company that did this so I knew a little bit about the industry.”
Bergen won the competition and received $20,000 in seed money to start his own company. He established Bergen Botanicals in 2013. Today, the business grows at a rate of 10 to 20 percent a year and has clients throughout northern New Jersey and Manhattan. In addition to providing indoor landscaping, the company offers corporate holiday decorating services during the Christmas and Chanukah season.
It was while at Rutgers that Bergen learned that one of his classmates was a town councilman in Paterson. “I asked him a lot of questions,” said Bergen. “So he started explaining it to me. I had never really thought about it, but one of the things that I was always searching for was another way to give back and to serve. I really felt like that piece of me was missing. So I started thinking that this was a way I could really get involved and do some good for people.”
After that, Bergen met with Chris Golinski, his town councilman. “I said to him, ‘When you decide you don’t want to be a councilman anymore, I would love to be the guy who replaces you,” he said.
During their conversation, Golinski suggested that Bergen get involved in the local community. Bergen followed his advice and began volunteering for a variety of local organizations. He also became a member of the town zoning board.
When Golinski decided not to run for reelection in 2017, Bergen entered the race and ultimately won the election. “It’s awesome,” said Bergen when describing his experience as town councilman. “I love helping people. It doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to write some earth-shattering ordinance,” he said. “It’s simpler than that. It could be as simple as fixing a pothole.”
“He has been in that position for 25 years. Those opportunities don’t come along very often,” said Bergen. “As much as I love doing things in the town of Denville, I could do even more good for more people if I can create actual laws that can change their lives.”
If Bergen is elected to represent the people of the 25th District, he said his constituents will be electing a man who never forgot what he learned at West Point. “At West Point, we lived by a very strict honor code. I will never under any circumstance compromise my integrity.”