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VMI and The Citadel – A True Band of Brothers

VMI and Citadel cadets go head to head in a friendly game of Rugby.


I am a Citadel graduate, class of ’69 (I may look like class of 1869, but trust me, it’s 1969). You notice I use the present tense; no military school graduate ever saying he or she was a member of a particular class. VMI and The Citadel are the only remaining non-federal 24/7 military colleges in the USA. Having spent many years in the Air Force, I have the unsubstantiated opinion that the government school graduates (West Point, Air Force Academy, US Naval Academy) identify more with their military branch; the Citadel and VMI graduates more with their school and class.


That said, the natural next subject is the so-called rivalry between these two schools. I believe the Citadel-VMI rivalry simply doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, it is a gentle and collegial rivalry, unlike any other. I believe it has to do with the mindset of those who would train to be soldiers, men  and women.


I visited VMI recently for the military basketball tournament (Army, Air Force, VMI, Citadel) and attended the VMI-Citadel game with my friend, Lee (Citadel ’69) and his wife, Margie. I wore my Citadel hat and was uniformly treated with friendliness and respect. Lee, a math professor at VMI, wore his Citadel hat, yet he cheered for VMI. While there, I began to see what he saw: the school colors fading and both teams becoming one, rather like an inter-squad practice. I was as pleased when VMI won as I would have been had The Citadel won.


What could cause this schizophrenia of loyalty? I think it is the sharing of mutual suffering and intent. Outside of VMI, no one other than a Citadel graduate can understand the rigors of freshman year military demands (essentially the Plebe system) while also trying to adjust to their first year of college. Citadel graduates understand and vice-verse.


In my era of the anti-war sixties, the graduates of both schools were respected within their respective home states, but elsewhere we were called baby killers and taunted by the flower children, the media, and Hollywood. So there has always been shared suffering, both foreign and domestic.

It is, however, intent that most closely joins us at the hip. We graduate to become military officers. We choose our military branch and climb the promotion ladder by way of individual excellence. We lack the patronage and good ol’-boy network of the government schools (Example: the government schools commission their seniors early so that they will outrank, by date of commissioning, those Citadel and VMI graduates of the same year). We go in harm’s way. When you hear about ‘a Band of Brothers,’ you are hearing about us.


Graduates from civilian colleges enter the work force. Or they go on to professional sports. Citadel and VMI graduates rarely qualify for professional sports. While college is their highest athletic attainment, these athletes don’t cry over lost games. We save our tears for the day when we will surely cry over lost comrades in arms. We are gentle with each other because athletic contests bear no resemblance to the battles we are being groomed to join. At Normandy beach in France, VMI and Citadel graduates are equally included in the cemetery there; the same for Arlington National Military Cemetery.


All of the graduates of these military schools have been trained to counter-intuitively run toward, not away from, the sounds of battle. Though I am old and will never again be asked to run  toward the sound of rifle and cannon fire, I retain the firm belief that I would trust a VMI graduate to watch my back as much as I would a Citadel graduate. The peaceful sleep of American civilians is due, in no small part, to the sacrifices of the graduates of these two fine schools. When the graduates of these schools sing or listen to their school’s fight songs, they alone hear the subtext of a quavering bugle echoing Taps across a green field, dotted with white crosses and Stars of David, blurring into the obscurity of a distant mist.


Rivalry? No. Competition? You bet. All of these military schools’ graduates compete with themselves to be the best damned soldier possible and thus bring pride back to their school. Both schools have drawn a circle large enough to include the other school. Citadel graduates, my brothers. VMI graduates, my brothers. Sleep well, America.


- Dennis Garvin