Citadel Mom Cycle Completed – A Blue Star Mom Emerges

The Bravo Company sophomore clerks stand behind the first sergeant, a junior, as a knob checks in on Matriculation Day 2010.

It’s been a month since we were in Charleston for our son’s commissioning service, the Long Gray Line graduation parade, and then graduation. Since that event filled weekend, there have been many new experiences. The most significant for me: passing along my contact lists and notes from the past three years as the coordinator of the Georgia Citadel Parents Group.

The new coordinator is Lynda Goodfellow. Her son, Niles, is a rising sophomore. Lynda will do a terrific job making sure the new families are informed of the new life their child is entering.

Passing along the information is a mixed bag of emotions for me. I know the friendships I have formed the past four years will continue, but I’ll miss the regular contact with the school, the families and regular visits to Charleston to take part in the various big weekends. The role of coordinator and also, for the past 2 years, Area Rep coordinator for the Citadel Family Association felt more like a calling to me.

I have a master of divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. During my time there, I took a number of classes in pastoral care and clinical pastoral education, which is the training you go through to be a chaplain. In many ways, I used what I learned in seminary to be a supportive caring presence to the families I came into contact with the past several years.

Writing for the Off the Base blog has helped me ease into the eventual graduation of my son and his move into his new role as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. By writing down what I’ve learned, I hope to help future classes of Citadel cadets and their parents navigate the fourth class system.

Dorie and Nelson pose in front of Murray Barracks after the Class of 2011 receive their rings. Photo by Stanley Leary.

By the number of hits the most recent entry, A Letter to The Citadel Class of 2015, is receiving, I can tell the preparation for Matriculation Day has begun. The official information for the Class of 2015 has not been posted yet, but that doesn’t keep incoming cadets and their families from searching for all the advance information they can find. The Success Packet from 2014 can be found online, but will be revised for 2015.

All academic institutions have their cycles. For military schools in particular, the cycles are very predictable. Beginning in late April and going through July, families begin the preparation process of sending their student off to become a cadet.

Some parents begin to do their own research. Since my name remained on the Citadel Family Association web site as a contact, I have received emails and phone calls for the parents doing the early research. I’m sure the new contacts in each position are now getting the early inquiries too.

In the next few months the Class of 2015 will be (or SHOULD BE) running, doing push ups and sit ups in preparation for Matriculation Day in August.

The rising 3rd Class cadets, or sophomores, are looking forward to not being a knob. Some are preparing for their new role as part of the cadet command system, attending various military camps, and in general enjoying their summer.

The rising 2nd class cadets have similar outlook, but they know they will have even more privileges and will have more responsibility in the cadet command. The juniors who have set their sights on becoming a Bond Volunteer Aspirant and eventually a member of the Summerall Guard silent drill platoon, are spending their summer working out (or SHOULD BE) to prepare for the tough year ahead. These cadets have a tough road ahead of them.  They will hold rank which is like having a full-time job outside of their class work, and they are treated like knobs by the current Summerall Guards.

The rising 1st Class cadets spend their summers looking forward to the day in the fall when they receive their rings, one of the best days in the life of a cadet. If they are on an Army ROTC scholarship, many will attend the Leader Development Assessment Course (LDAC) held each year at Joint Base Lewis McCord. There are other training courses and events for all the branches of the military. The cadets who are not entering the military begin to see their time as a student is coming to an end and begin to focus their energy and thoughts to what they will do in the “real” world after graduation.

Each step of this process means the cadets and their parents and guardians are learning their new and changing roles. It’s a time of life when our role as parents shift a bit. We are about to watch our children launch from adolescence into full adulthood. Some will make that transition completely for others it will be more gradual.

The Griggs/Leary Family attend the annual “Roswell Remembers Memorial Day” celebration. Dorie, left, with daughter, Chelle. Photo by Stanley Leary.

In the past month, my son attended at least three weddings of his classmates with more on the horizon. Some former classmates are still hunting for jobs. Most are beginning to realize they spent four years looking forward to graduation and now they miss their classmates and the life they complained about for those four years.

My son reported to Ft. Benning May 30, Memorial Day. He is living in an apartment complex in Columbus, Georgia where at least 20 other classmates from The Citadel are also living. Each young man is serving in the Infantry or Armor branch of the Army.

We spent our Memorial Day morning at a large ceremony in our hometown. I met several other Blue Star Mothers that day. When the national anthem was played, we all stood with our hands over our hearts and tears in our eyes. I’ve attended this ceremony before and didn’t feel as connected to it as I do now.

The cycle continues. As the cadets and their parents prepare for the next school year, I’m moving on from my role as a support person to Citadel parents, to a student of how to be a supportive parent to an officer in the U.S. Army. I know this next role will last a lot longer than the previous one.

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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

The Citadel Trained Me as Well as My Son

Dorie's son, Nelson (center), poses with other ROTC cadets from his Regiment during the summer LDAC.

The cadets at The Citadel form a tight bond. And as I mentioned in the earlier blog How The Citadel Ya-Ya’s Came to Be, I found a group of good friends as well. Now that I’m making the mental transition from being the mom of a cadet to being the mom of an Army 2LT in less than five months, I’ve learned the network of mom’s only increases.

This past summer my son attended the Leader Development and Assessment Course (LDAC) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. About 6,400 Army ROTC cadets from around the country passed through LDAC last summer. LDAC is a 29 day leadership test. The ROTC cadets are graded on a series of challenges. That grade is added to the grade they receive from the ROTC program at their school.

Ultimately these scores and their grade point average and a few other factors will determine where they will be assigned within the Army after graduation.

The Public Affairs Office (PAO) there kept up a blog and a Facebook page to keep the parents, wives, husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends informed. They’d post updates on the schedule, information on how to send mail, photos from the various challenges and also provided live streaming of the graduation ceremony. This was my first introduction to the wider dimensions of being an Army family.

Cadets from 5th Regiment at their graduation ceremony. Photo by Jesse Beals.

I combed the blog and Facebook site daily looking for a photo of our cadet. For 29 days I had no sign of him. Then the day after graduation, they posted a photo of  the cadets marching to graduation. There he was on the far right in front carrying the Platoon Guidon!

I was introduced to parents across the country through the Facebook site. We had our own discussion group on the Facebook page for parents of cadets.  There were also discussion groups for spouses and girlfriends. It did appear the wives, moms and girlfriends were the most active on the discussion boards. An occasional dad would chime in. I also learned the Army is active in social media and several discussion boards are available.

The experience helped me see that the training my son received at The Citadel prepared him for the challenge of LDAC.  What I also realized is that The Citadel experience prepared me well to send him off to this challenge. It never occurred to me to be concerned whether he passed the PT test, as so many other parents on the boards were. The Citadel has a very rigorous program and physical training is one of my son’s real strengths.

The group photo is of 5th Regiment Platoon A posted by the PAO of LDAC at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

Many of the posts were of family members upset that they couldn’t talk to their cadet for most of the 29 day experience. The cadets’ phones are locked up the first few days and returned later. I had already gone through that communication shut down during the first week of my son’s first year and then again the year my son tried out for the Summerall Guards.

I don’t for one second equate what I went through as a parent supporting my son at The Citadel with the challenges of an Army ROTC cadet. And it is absolutely not in the same category as that of the parent of a deployed soldier.  However, I do see that being the parent of a Citadel cadet is great training for the tougher challenges of being the mom of a young Army officer.

Boy, did I need that training.  I had no idea at that time how useful all of those experiences would be later on for understanding, accepting and supporting a young Army officer. I am now very grateful to have been a distant companion to our son on the road less traveled.

Helpful links:

Leader Development and Assessment Course

Operation WarriorForge

Army Social Media Handbook 2011

Army Social Networks

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