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

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Learning Leadership and Ethics at The Citadel

The cadet leaders of The Citadel at a the Corps Day parade.

The Citadel is a “Leadership College.” I wasn’t sure what that meant until well into my son’s first year.  I went to a liberal arts university and the whole military college experience was foreign to me.  As I mentioned in my first entry, The Making of a Military Mom, when I don’t understand something I read about it and learn as much as I can to help take away the mystery so it ideally becomes less scary.

Senior Cadet Nelson Lalli leads the Bravo Company cadre into the barracks to meet the new cadet recruits.

During his first year, if I dared to question why something was done a certain way my son would reply, “Everything has a reason,” then he’d rattle off a list of things they do and the reason behind it.  Many of the tasks are designed to help them with skills they will need later in their careers. Memorizing certain facts and being able to report them at a moments notice in a military situation can be very important.

Between reading and talking with the parent volunteers with the Citadel Family Association, I started to gain insights into the leadership training model used at The Military College of South Carolina.

Another helpful experience was attending the Ethics Seminar my son attended Sunday mornings instead of chapel.  All first year cadets, or knobs as they are called, attended a religious service of their choice or they could attend the Ethics Seminar.  Our family belongs to a Presbyterian Church, and I am a seminary graduate. My son decided that first year at The Citadel that the Ethics Seminar was his choice.

On Parent’s Weekend that first year, when everyone was attending chapel or religious services with their son/daughter, I attended the Ethics Seminar with my son.  A retired Marine officer led the discussion that morning.  They discussed events of the past week. The cadets were asked to give examples of a situation with an upper class cadet officer and why they thought it was a good or poor example of leadership.  I was impressed with the level of thoughtful discussion and engagement the cadets had in the discussion.

Bravo Company cadre and the new cadet recruits march to their first meal in the Mess Hall.

When second semester started I began to learn about the cadet leadership model and how they go about becoming cadet officers.  The book “Sword Drill” by David Epps was very helpful for me understanding the thought process a cadet goes through when challenging themselves to reach for a position in the chain of command.

A real understanding hit me at the end of that first year.  My daughter and I went for a weekend visit.  We took my son and a friend out for brunch.  Toward the end of the meal my son and his friend began to discuss their week ahead.  They talked about the rank board meeting, the meeting where they are asked why they want to be a certain rank, their schedules, and how they had to proceed.  As I listened to their conversation it hit me.  These two college freshman were discussing their schedules like two young business men.  They weren’t talking about parties, or what class they would skip, but rather when the review board was rumored to be and what they had to do to prepare.

In the years after that first year, I’ve observed each new class go through the process of growing up and taking responsibility for their path at The Citadel. Not everyone wants to rise through the ranks. Some are senior privates.

The cadet leadership of Bravo Company signing up a new cadet on Matriculation Day.

Most cadets, even the ones who do not have rank, take on some type of leadership role during their time as cadets. They may be athletes,  involved with an academic or professional society, participate in an ROTC activity or other campus activites.

The graduates of The Citadel leave the school prepared to take on life’s challenges. As stated on the Leadership & Ethics section of their web site, “Graduates of The Citadel succeed because they know what it takes to meet a challenge in any field: “patience and persistence, discipline and determination, teamwork and hard work.”

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

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