The Citadel: Saying Good-Bye, But Always Connected

I really thought I’d be more emotional this past weekend. It was Corps Day Weekend.  The weekend when The Citadel celebrates it’s founding. During this weekend the Summerall Guards change to the new class of cadets and the Citadel Family Association holds its final meeting of the academic year.

The Citadel Family Association area representatives representing: Georgia, Florida, California, Massachusetts and New York. Photo by Stanley Leary.

It normally doesn’t take much for a tear to come to my eye.  Given this weekend of good-byes, I really thought I’d need a whole box of tissues. It didn’t turn out that way. Friday afternoon, I attended the Citadel Family Association meeting. I’ve served as the Cadet Recruitment and Retention Coordinator this past year and this meeting is when I introduced the new coordinators.

Seeing so many parents whom I now call friends out weighed my grief over leaving this chapter of my life. I had a great time seeing; and in some cases meeting face-to-face for the first time, parents I’d worked with via Facebook and email the past year or so. It was so much fun seeing everyone that I didn’t dwell on the fact that I may not see them again.  With Facebook and email, I know I’ll continue to be connected and in touch via cyber space.

Shamus Gillen of The Citadel Admissions office presents Dorie Griggs with a Recognition Award for her volunteer service. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Friday night was also a celebration. We went to dinner with two other families and their cadets.  My son is a 2011 Summerall Guard from Bravo Company.  Their sons were incoming 2012 Summerall Guards, also from Bravo Company. This dinner wasn’t about good-byes but rather celebrating the achievements of our sons.

Saturday morning was the real test.  It was the time I came the closest to shedding a tear. In a very formal ceremony on the parade field the 2011 Summerall Guards passed their rifles to the 2012 Summerall Guards.

Cadet Nelson Lalli (second from left) and the 2011 Summerall Guards prepare to pass their rifles to the 2012 Summerall Guards. Photo by Stanley Leary.

My son would pass his rifle to his good friend.  As the time approached for the exchange I could feel the emotion and the tears begin to well up. Seeing the beaming parents of the 2012 Bond Volunteers as they marched on to the field to become the 2012 Summerall Guards kept me from dwelling on the sadness of an ending.

Good friends, 2011 Summerall Guards, Matt Spysinski, Nelson Lalli, James Harrell before the rifle exchange. Photo by Stanley Leary.

I refocused on the thrill of seeing the 2012 Summerall Guards perform the Citadel series for the very first time in front of an audience. Last year I was so happy for, and proud of our 2011 Summerall Guard I was smiling not crying.  It was a fun day that began with the rifle exchange and continued when we joined the other 2011 families at a luncheon and had the opportunity to purchase our “Summerall Guard Parent” t-shirt.

Saturday evening was time for more celebration, and probably the reason I did not become as emotional as I thought I would over this last Corps Day as the mom of a cadet. We spent the evening with several friends who are parents of graduates of The Citadel. I was the only one there with a cadet still in school. 

The 2011 Citadel Ya Ya’s reunion, plus friends. Photo by Stanley Leary.

These wonderful folks, part of the Citadel Ya Ya’s, traveled great distances so we could all have time to visit and catch up. Through this group, I’ve learned that just because your son or daughter graduates you don’t have to say good-bye to the wonderful friends you’ve made.

In a way, it must be how the cadets feel.  They may be separated by military service, job transfers, etc., but they share the common experience and bond that no one will ever break. Our cadets wear the Ring, and we share in their triumph and dear friends we have made over these last four years and the heartstrings that will always keep us connected.

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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