Celebration, Tradition, Ritual: The Long Gray Line

The Citadel Class of 2008 forms The Long Gray Line.

I’ve just lived the quickest 4 years of my life so far. I’m not sure that is how my son would put it however. As the mom of a cadet at The Citadel we’ve measured the past 4 years by how many Parents Weekends and Corps Day weekends have passed.  For the cadets going through the rigors of the 4th Class System and navigating the ins and outs of the cadet chain of command, I’m sure it has felt like every bit of 4 years.

Wednesday of this week marked the beginning of final exams for the cadets.  I sent a text to my son Tuesday to congratulate him on finishing his last class of his undergraduate career. I also asked if it felt strange.  His reply? “Yeah, weird.”

I’ve experienced a lot of changes in my lifetime. To help me cope with these transitions I’ve developed a few rituals. The changes we go through are a natural course of life, but for so many they signify a finality that is hard to bear. In my view, transitions, like graduation, are the happy changes of life and should be celebrated. It doesn’t mean that I won’t tear up next Friday at my son’s commissioning ceremony and the graduation parade which includes the Long Gray Line.

Toward the end of the final parade of the year, the graduating seniors are called out of their companies.  They line up shoulder to shoulder down the length of the parade field.  On command they march forward away from their companies and toward the review stands and their family and friends.  They leave their friends and move toward their new life as graduates. I watched this parade once my son’s knob (freshman) year. I’m sure I’ll have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as they move forward.  They will be tears of joy.

It took me 7 years to complete the course work for my master of divinity degree. My final semester at Columbia Theological Seminary I finally allowed myself to think about graduation.  Up to that point I was never sure if life circumstances (and finances) would allow me to complete the work and obtain my degree. Back then I had small little rituals to help me live into my graduation. I visited the web site of the church I was baptized in as an infant.  I sent notes to people who had helped me along the way.

The Class of 2008 as they cross the parade field.

To help get ready for my son’s graduation from The Citadel, I’ve developed other rituals.  One ritual is this blog. Writing these blog entries has helped me to document some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope my experiences and insights may help other Citadel parents down the road. Another is a new group I posted to Facebook for parents of cadets on military contracts and parents of graduates with children in a branch of the military. With the advent of Facebook many parents of Citadel cadets have joined groups for parents of cadets.  The groups help us connect with each other, share photos and advice. This new group should serve in a similar capacity. Unlike the “regular” liberal arts university I attended, I’ve learned parents of cadets at military schools get to know each other.  If your child goes on to a military career, these friendships between parents continue. For that I am grateful.

I grew up in a family who celebrated milestones and achievements big and small.  I’ve continued that tradition with my children.  We have a celebration for goals achieved and special occasions.  For years, the end of the school year was celebrated with a sparkling cider toast and a small present.

Some graduating senior cadets kick off their shoes and leave them behind when they reach the end of their march across the field.

Next week will be the first college graduation I’ve been through with one of my children. To celebrate the achievement, I looked for just the right gift. A fellow Citadel parent named Paul T. who is also a proud graduate of The Citadel suggested a Lifetime Membership in the Citadel Alumni Association. Paul is also a veteran of the Army and had served in the Armor Branch after his graduation. He has been a tremendous resource for me, and scores of parents, the past several years. I’ve learned to take Paul’s advice.  After all, he was right when he suggested I give my son the movie “Patton” when he found out he would be in the Armor Branch.

I sent a text to Nelson last week to let him know about our graduation gift to him. He had already called on Easter Sunday but called again to say thank you. Two phones calls in one week from him is a record!

Looking ahead to next week, I’m excited more than sad. Yes, it is an ending to what has been a wonderful 4 years. It also marks the beginning of the next chapter in my son’s life. He’ll have a month before he reports to Ft. Benning to begin his training in the Armor Branch.

I will be spending time between now and next week’s ceremonies making some small tokens to present to the various people on campus who have been particularly helpful to me the past 4 years. Several people on campus have served as my “sources” and helped me learn what terms meant, or explained various traditions when I only got the short answers from my cadet.  It wasn’t me spying on him as much as me trying to learn in general about the process he was going through.

My son is being commissioned into the U.S. Army next Friday and graduating next Saturday. He’ll split his time between the friends he has made over the past 4 years and his family. I’ll split my time between seeing my son and the many friends I’ve made over the past 4 years. We are all richer for the experience.

Advertisements

Survival Skills to Succeed as a Citadel Mom

Recognition Day for the Class of 2014 at The Citadel is this Saturday, April 16. As I wrote earlier, this is the best day in the life of a first year cadet, or knob as they are called.

Readying for the cadets to arrive in Marion Square, the original site of The Citadel in Charleston. Reenactors are dressed in the uniform of the original cadets. The building in the background is the original site of the school.Now, it is an Embassy Suites Hotel.

It is the day that marks the end of the 4th Class System and the knobs become full members of the Corps of Cadets.  It is a day that begins with several hours of physical challenges, followed by a period of being “recognized” –  called by their first name for the first time. In the afternoon the first year cadets march to Marion Square, the site of the original Citadel, to retake their cadet oath.

Over the past five years or so an increasing number of parents and family members head to Charleston to watch the proceedings of the day from a distance. Alumni from the school tell me that wasn’t done when they were cadets. Like most things in life, traditions change.

The first year cadets arrive on Marion Square and prepare to re-take their cadet oath.

The number of emails I’m receiving from first year parents indicates that quite a few parents will attend the events this year too. The big question I’ve been asked is, “What is the schedule for the day.”

I learned very early in my son’s tenure at The Citadel that you can find the answer to most questions by searching the web site.  Scheduling questions are usually answered on the “Office of the Commandant” page under “Operations and Training.” Recognition Day 2011 is no different. The full schedule for the day is available there in PowerPoint format.

Members of Bravo Company Class of 2011 re-take their cadet oath.

Parents who really want to learn about the training their cadet receives can check out the “Training” section of the Office of the Commandant page.

You may wonder how I learned about all this. The answer is I’m curious plus I have a son who doesn’t tell me much.  If I want to learn about the school and his training, I have to find out on my own. The good news is, after talking with other parents, I found I wasn’t alone!  Many of my Citadel Ya Ya friends helped fill in the blanks when I didn’t know about certain traditions or events.

I’m beginning to learn about resources for Army parents like the web site Go Army Parents and Blue Star Mothers for mothers of active duty military members.

Our children may be the ones at the leadership school and going into the military, but their parents helped give them the skills necessary to succeed;-)

The Citadel Bond Renews Parents’ Long Time Friendships

In two months, my son will graduate from the Citadel and also be commissioned as a 2LT in the Army. I find myself filled with a jumble of emotions. While he has been the one to endure the many challenges of the 4th Class System and succeed, I feel like I’ve gone through my own type of training.

Long time friends reunite, L-R Doug Christ, Michelle “Chelle” Leary, named for Michelle “Chelle” Chaudoin, Gwen Lynch Christ, Dorie Griggs.

After a recent conversation with a Brigadier General, I realize my training as an Army mom began when my son was in JROTC in high school. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with the General on the transport train at the Atlanta airport. I made a joke of how I have found ways to learn about the Army training, much to the chagrin of my son. The General laughed and said HIS mother still has her ways to find out things about him.

I know I’m not alone in wanting to learn about the process to better understand and support my son. My years as a volunteer in the Citadel Family Association and with the Atlanta Citadel Club’s parent group has proven that you should never underestimate the abilities of a mother to support their children. I made some wonderful friends the past several years. As I wrote about in a previous post, The Citadel Ya-Ya’s continue to be a source of friendship and support even after many of the group now have graduates of The Citadel.

There are so many neat friendships that I can’t list them all. A couple of people really do stand out though because I’ve been reunited with long time friends through our cadets.

Last year some time in the early fall, I received an email asking if I am the same Dorie Griggs that went to Sparta High School in Sparta, NJ. I am. The note came from a long time friend Gwen Lynch Christ.  It turns out her oldest son was a knob (first year cadet) last year. She saw my name of some Citadel Family Association correspondence and had to reach out.

Friends Gwen, Chelle and Dorie from 1979. Five months later, May 4, 1980, Chelle Chaudoin died in an airplane collision.

The last time I remember seeing Gwen was in December of 1979.  We were at our friend Chelle Chaudoin’s house. I’ve had a photo of us from that night on my desk for almost 30 years. Our friend Chelle died 5 months after the photo was taken in an airplane collision while she was at Arizona State. Chelle’s mother put the photo in a collage for me with a few other photos.

As life happens, I was in school in Virginia and rarely went back to NJ to visit. Gwen stayed in the north to finish school, work, marry, and raise her family. Here we are 30+ years later in regular contact because of our children. Gwen’s son Andrew is also in the Army ROTC at The Citadel, so we are both future Army moms too.

Years ago, I met a great friend when by the luck of the draw she was assigned to my younger son as his occupational therapist. Marie McKenzie Dopson worked with Taylor for a few years. We developed a friendship, but after Taylor no longer needed therapy on a regular basis, we saw each other less often.

Bravo Company Moms, Dorie Griggs and Marie McKenzie Dopson.

Well this past summer, I found out we’d be in touch regularly again when Marie’s son’s name appeared on the list of incoming knobs at The Citadel. Marie attended the orientation I hosted in June for incoming knobs. We marveled how life has a way of bringing friends together, but we had no idea what would happen in just a few months.

Marie’s son was assigned to the same company as my son. On Matriculation Day, the day first year cadets report, I told my son he knew the mother of one of the knobs. (Nelson would attend the therapy sessions with his younger brother years ago.) Apparently my little heads up to Nelson didn’t register. About a month later during a brief phone call, Nelson told me he selected his new knob mentee.  His name is Dopson, he said.  He is Marie’s son! The mentoring relationship solidifies friendships between cadets. Our sons will be friends for life, therefore connecting us as well.

The ties between the cadets at The Citadel are very strong. No one else besides the graduates who wear the ring can truly understand the bond that is formed from that shared experience.

The parents of the cadets may understand that bond better than anyone.

Previous posts by Dorie Griggs:

The Making of a Military Mom

Mom Readies for Son’s Military College

The Citadel: Year One a No Fly Zone for Hovering Parents

How The Citadel “Ya-Yas” Came to Be

Learning Leadership and Ethics at The Citadel

The Citadel Trained Me as Well as My Son

The Citadel: BVA’s and  Summerall Guards

The Citadel: Recognition Day and Ring Weekend

Care Packages for Cadets: The Citadel Heroes Project

The Citadel: BVA’s and Summerall Guards

2012 BVA’s on a training run. (Photo by OttoFocus Photography)

I admit it; I didn’t understand why my son, or anyone else for that matter, would want to go to a military college.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Citadel Year One A No Fly Zone for Hovering parents, I’ve learned a lot about the students who choose this type of experience. Although I couldn’t quite understand his motivation, I accepted his decision and learned how to support him.  He is in a leadership school and learning to set goals and attain them is part of that process.

2011 BVA’s in 1st Battalion.

After a few years of reading books about The Citadel and other military schools I concluded that there is a personality type that needs to challenge him/herself in this way: A conclusion that was affirmed by a renowned expert in resiliency in the military Special Forces, Dr. Steven Southwick of  the Yale School of Medicine.  I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Southwick at a conference at the Carter Center called When Veterans Come Home. When I shared my observation with Dr. Southwick he said, “You are exactly right.  The soldiers in the Special Forces are very competitive, but they are competitive with themselves.”

This conversation with Dr. Southwick took place in January of 2010.  January and February historically are the toughest months of the year for first year cadets at The Citadel and juniors who are trying out for the elite precision drill platoon called the Summerall Guards.

The 2011 Summerall Guards perform at halftime Parents Weekend, October 2010 (Cadet Nelson Lalli to the far right). Photo by Stanley Leary.

It took me almost three years to understand why my son wanted to go to The Citadel. It took me even longer to understand why he wanted to try out for the Summerall Guards.

The Summerall Guards are revered at the school and, I’m told by residents, also in South Carolina. According to The Citadel web site the Summerall Guards are, “first-class (senior) cadets who go through a rigorous physical training and initiation process and are chosen for their physical stamina and drill proficiency.”

The 3rd class (junior) cadets who set their sights on becoming Summerall Guards are called Bond Volunteer Aspirants (BVA’s). I had to read up on all of this history to really learn what it was all about.  During campus visits the first couple of years I heard stories of how rigorous and difficult it is to train to be a Summerall Guard. The cadets don’t talk about the process which leads to an air of mystery  about the whole thing. Just like heading into the unknown of Matriculation Day that first year, I was a bit hesitant and scared about the whole process.

2011 BVA’s (in hoodies) train with the 2010 Summerall Guards.

Even though I read the school web site and one maintained by former members of the Summerall Guards, I didn’t feel I learned enough about the process.  Heading into my son’s junior year the best help I received came from a member of the 2005 Summerall Guards, Andy Frey.  I met Andy through the Atlanta Citadel Club.  At the annual “Hell Night Happy Hour” in Atlanta he tolerated quite a few questions from me about the process. I am very grateful for his patience with this very anxious Mom.

His advice helped me through that year. He told me not to expect to hear much from my cadet. In addition to his course load and his duties as the 1st SGT for his company my son had to do the extra duties and physical training that goes along with being a BVA.  In addition the BVA’s have to keep their hair in a very short “high and tight” style. When they are with the current Summerall Guards the BVA’s are treated like knobs with no status. It is a demanding process but once the BVA’s go through it they are revered by their peers.

The Proud Family, Dorie Griggs, Cadet Nelson Lalli, Chelle Leary, and Stanley Leary.

Throughout that year when I’d get a quick email from my son that said “I’m really busy.” I’d hear Andy’s voice.  In explaining why a cadet would try out for this platoon Andy said he explained it to his mother and girlfriend this way, “It’s like being part of the only fraternity on campus.”

In January of 2010 I began to see photos on Facebook of the 2011 BVA’s in training.  I found some videos on YouTube. Take Your Rifles, by Chris Florio followed the 2009 BVA’s through their process and The Summerall Guards 2010 by Polk Studios follows the 2010 BVA’s. I found myself nervous again watching these videos.

Georgia Cadets James Harrell, Nelson Lalli and Matt Spysinski after becoming 2011 Summerall Guards. Photo by Stanley Leary.

The training culminates in a series of trials ending in “Cuts Day.” Our family waited anxiously to hear if our cadet made it. I tried calling him but he didn’t pick up his phone. I saw congratulatory notes to other cadets posted to status updates, but still no word from our cadet. Finally after 9:00 PM we got the call, he made the Summerall Guards!

The 2011 BVA’s became 2011 Summerall Guards at a ceremony on Corps Day weekend, which celebrates the founding of the Corps of cadets. Nelson and his high school friend, Matt, became members of the 2011 Summerall Guards!

These two friends who looked around the barracks during their pre-knob visit in 2006 and said to each other, “This isn’t as bad as I thought.” are now in their final few months of their Citadel career. They proved to themselves and everyone else they deserved to wear the band of gold that distinguishes them as graduates of The Citadel.  In May they will graduate and be commissioned as a 2nd LT in the Army.

The 2011 BVA’s become the 2011 Summerall Guards, March 2010. Photo by Stanley Leary.

At the beginning of this whole process I couldn’t understand why he wanted to go there. I know I couldn’t have done it, but I see now this is exactly the school my son needed to attend.  I could not be more proud of him.

Dorie Griggs has contributed previous blog entries about her journey as the mother of a Citadel cadet. You can read her previous submissions:

The Making of a Military Mom

Mom Readies for Son’s Military College

The Citadel: Year One a No Fly Zone for Hovering Parents

 How the Citadel Ya-Yas Came to be

 Learning Leadership and Ethics at the Citadel

%d bloggers like this: