Post-505: Virginia Military Institute
"A nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its laws made by cowards and its wars fought by fools."  ~ Thucydides

I work at Virginia Military Institute.

I tell everyone that it is "the best Transitional Job a guy could have getting out of the Army," but now that I've been here thirteen years, I'm not sure I'll be transitioning anywhere. 

I'm damn proud of this school and what we do here.

My title is Corps and Institute Sergeant Major and I work for the Superintendent and the Commandant.

VMI is a special place, filled with a special group of young people.  Our system is honorable, Spartan and highly adversarial.  There are no benefits for doing the right thing, only penalties for breaking the rules...actually...for getting caught breaking the rules.  We have one of the last few single-sanction honor systems left in the country.  Our Cadets will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those that do; it is the basis for our whole system and the Cadets hold their honor precious above all else.

What this school produces is well educated, honorable, citizen-soldiers, who take and negate risks, with a strong work ethic, tested leadership and people skills, who are physically fit, motivated, and patriotic.  We do that by--Hell!  I don't really know how we do it. I'm not sure anyone does, but I know it works.  "A Magical Alchemy" is what author Pat Conroy calls it.

I've often asked what a VMI Graduate should look like.  What skills should they possess, how do we train those skills, what's our plan?  I've never gotten a straight answer. 

Maybe it is the tough life in general that simply turns out a strong person.  Maybe it is the hours of walking around in a circle doing Penalty Tours that gives Cadets time to reflect. Perhaps piling more on them than they can ever accomplish in a normal day, housing them in a Barracks room with three, four other Cadets, with little or no amenities works some of this magic. 

Somehow this school produces young leaders who act from the front, able to lead their subordinates and peers with respect and deference, and able to speak out with candor to Superiors...men and women who will do the hard right thing, in the absence of orders, when no one is looking over their shoulder, even if they know they won't be caught.  Valuable People!

 

The Folks in the Commandant's Office

I work with a great group of folks.  We coordinate everything, except academic classes, that has to do with Cadets on Post.  We operate much like an Army Staff, with a Commander, his XO, an S1, S3, S4, and a Sergeant Major.  The Chaplain, Band Director, and Cadet Life office are also a part of the team.

This photo is a little dated, but I can never get the crew together for a new one.
The Colors!

The Corps has three amazing Color Guard Teams.  They train themselves with a little oversight from me and we post and march the colors for special events.  Since I've been here, we've posted the Colors in London, in two Presidential Inaugural Parades, four Gubernatorial Parades, two Secretaries of State, Prince Andrew, the Queen, the rededication of the State Capitol in Richmond, the world premier of Gods and Generals, a Rose Parade, and Parades all over Virginia and Washington DC
Parades

During a Cadet's four years at VMI, he will march dozens of Parades and hours practicing.  The first parade that they march is the Rat New Market Parade, which takes place in their first month at VMI, after they receive a historical orientation on the 1864 Battle of New Market and take their Cadet Oath.

After that parades, though spectacular and impressive, become a thing of loathing for the Corps.  They take place most Fridays and home football game Saturdays, and for special events like reunions and Marshall Awards week.

There are three parades that Cadets really care about--Parents Weekend Parade, the 15 May New Market Parade , and Graduation Parade.  The rest make me want to pull my hair out.
Barracks

All students at VMI live in Barrack.  I work with the Commandant's Staff, Cadets, the Custodial Staff, and the Physical Plant maintenance crew to keep it in good order as befitting a military post and National Historical Monument.  Add to that the responsibility to supervise, mentor, discipline, inspect, and sometimes control seventeen-hundred 18-22 year olds.  It is a full-time job.
This is a Military School

Cadets at VMI wear a form of uniform 24 hours a day.  When they have some time off and go uptown to Lexington, they are still in uniform.  They react to the bugle to rise in the morning, assemble for formations, and to end their day.  They march parades to morning and evening meals after honoring the National Colors.  The are accountable for their status, personal conduct, dress, and military bearing at all times.

I hear all the time how VMI is not the military.  I think we may be more military, at times, than the Military.
 
Sad Duty

Too often we have had to bury Brother Rats who have fallen on the Field of Honor.  We try to support any way we can, but always try sending a Cadet presence.
Brother Rat

In the fall of their second class year, VMI Cadets join their Brother Rats in a ceremony called Ring Figure where they receive their VMI Class Rings.  These rings are intricately designed to represent the history of the Institute on the "Institute Side" and the history of the class on the "Class Side."  The Chaplain reminds Classes each year that they should be reminded of who and what they are and represent each time they slip on the ring.  I think this must be what takes place from the young men and women I have met wearing one.

The year after I began working this job, the Class of 2004 honored me by adopting me as their Honorary Brother Rat.  I consider my VMI Ring equal to my CIB and Master Wings, and it will always tie me to this school and to the class.  I told Jason, the class president, on the evening of Ring Figure, that I would be proud of the fact that I would no longer be able to render a proper hand salute.
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New Cadet Military Training (NCMT)

NCMT grew from the good idea of a Cadet from Sweden to introduce more Military Training into the VMI Experience.

I was approached by the Commandant and Cadet Magnus Nordenman right after I arrived (Fall 2001) to look into the possibility of starting up the program.  The Supe was sold on the idea, and Commandant wanted it, but nobody else wanted to touch it.  I might have been the new guy, but, TRAINING!!  Now this was something I knew. 

Magnus and I chose some hard-chargers within the Corps and built a cadre of trainers.  We chose 12 days in the second semester, during Military Duty, for the training, and then chose our Minimum Essential Tasks.

We chose Marksmanship, First Aid, Land Navigation, and Survival Skills and started the program in the Spring of 2002.  What started out as a shoe-string program has grown into a tradition of solid training followed by a tough evade and escape exercise in the George Washington National Forest before summer furlough.
Magnus Nordenman '02, the Father of NCMT, with Commandant (2000-2008) Eric Hutchings '77

Proof that the best ideas come from inside the Corps, Magnus applied to VMI expecting a real military experience.  What he got was learning how to wear a uniform, learning how to march, and taking four years of Army ROTC.  There was no core military curriculum being taught and Cadets were leaving VMI having never fired a rifle.  He prepared a short brief on his idea and briefed the Commandant, who sent him to the Superintendent.

This is His program and I consider it my honor and duty to keep it going.  It is a Cadet run, taught, and led program; all I do is resource it and check on it to keep it in-between the white lines.
Special Events

One of the great things about my job is the opportunity to take Cadets all over to support special events and represent VMI off Post. 

We've assisted in ceremonies honoring two Vice Presidents, two Secretaries of State, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Andrew, in London for the opening of the Jamestown Exhibit and a State Dinner, and the World Premier of Gods and Generals.  Each year for 5 years I chaperoned Cadets at the Old Dominion Cotillion and the Norfolk Azalea Festival.  Cadets support dozens of patriotic events around the nation each year.
Little John II

Built in 1958, Little John is our cannon that we fire at football games and at other events on and off Post.  It is manned by an all volunteer crew of Cadets.

I picked up this duty with the passing of a long-time VMI employee who had been supervising the club for about 20 years.
Trap and Skeet

A few Cadets approached me a while back about using the DeButts Trap and Skeet out at VMI's McKethan Park.  I got permission to use it, had Coach Thorp teach me how to set up the range and turn on the machines, bought some rounds and clays, and then a few of us went out and shot.  It was a blast.

From there we began working on a Club team proposal for the folks in Cadet Life and we've had a team ever since.  We compete locally with like teams from Kentucky, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Radford, Delaware, Yale, George Mason, James Madison, Army and Navy.