Gen. Gustave “Gus” Perna, a U.S. Army four-star general who served as chief operating officer for Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to facilitate and accelerate the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, offered life lessons for cadets graduating from Virginia Military Institute in commencement exercises held Sunday, May 16, in Foster Stadium on the VMI post.
Just under 350 cadets received degrees in VMI’s first in-person graduation ceremony since December 2019. While graduation on the Parade Ground was common in the 19th century, it was VMI’s first outdoor graduation in many years. A sprinkling rain fell throughout the ceremony, and umbrellas and raincoats were common sights among families and friends in the stands.
Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, noted that 326 of the graduates were members of the Class of 2021 and just under 170 of them commissioned into the armed services Saturday. This year’s graduating cadets came from 30 states and two foreign countries, and the three most popular majors were civil engineering (43 cadets), economics and business (38), and international studies (37).
Wins used his time at the podium to reflect on the unusual events faced by the Class of 2021, which matriculated just before the solar eclipse in August 2017 and graduated as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic was receding. This academic year, cadets were challenged by having to attend some classes remotely, stay socially distanced in nearly all situations, and sometimes be confined entirely to post and/or go into isolation or quarantine as health conditions dictated.
Despite this, Wins said, the Class of 2021 prevailed as members of that class not only succeeded in completing their own cadetships but also running a professional Rat Line for the Class of 2024.
“VMI’s history will record the events of your class as a tremendous success,” said Wins. “You did not give up or compromise your honor or integrity. A crisis brought on by COVID-19 stared you down, but you succeeded as citizen-soldiers, putting the safety of your neighbors, family, and friends ahead of your desire to socialize and travel.”
Perna, who was Wins’s supervisor when Wins was on his last active duty assignment with the Army, congratulated the graduates on their achievements and Wins on assuming the superintendent’s role, which Wins did in April after roughly four months as interim superintendent.
Perna then shared three quotes with cadets and discussed the life lessons of each. The first was from the well-known 19th century American writer Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why.”
Finding a purpose, said Perna, is critical as graduates move forward in life—the impact they will make and their contributions to humanity. Occupations, whether military or civilian, are not a purpose, he elaborated; rather, they are the “how” of a purpose.
“Your purpose should be your driving force behind what you do and how you do it,” he stated.
The second quote came from retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, author of the book, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, which details Moore’s experience as a battalion commander during the Vietnam War. Asked how he’d succeeded in a very difficult battle, Moore replied, “I just kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing that I shouldn’t be doing, and what am I not doing that I should?’”
The answer to the first question is often that leaders are doing what they should instead be teaching their subordinates to do, Perna noted, and thus they deprive others of the opportunity to learn mission-critical skills.
The answer to the second question has to do with priorities. Being busy is a far cry from being productive, so having goals and a purpose is paramount. “You will have more things in life to do than time to do them,” Perna told the cadets. “You will have to prioritize things to make sure you do the most essential things first.”
The third quote, from the 19th century Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone, well-known for his exploration of Africa, spoke to the need to establish direction. One day in Africa, Livingstone’s team encountered a river that they could not navigate by boat. After considering the situation, Livingstone’s subordinates presented a recommendation to the doctor, who replied, “I will go in any direction, as long as it is forward.”
Perna drew on this lesson himself as he led Operation Warp Speed. “Many thought that it could not be done,” he stated, referring to the effort to develop a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 in a matter of months rather than years, as is typical with vaccine development.
Perna’s phone calls and emails, he noted, often conveyed both congratulations at being given such a high responsibility and sympathy at being tasked with something widely believed to be impossible.
The general’s response was always the same: “I will do my best. I will always move forward, and I will not quit until we are done.”
That attitude will reap rewards, Perna believes. “My challenge to you is never fall back,” he said. “Challenge yourself personally and professionally to be uncomfortable.”
U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Jordan Chaulklin ’21, who was peer-elected as the valedictorian of the Class of 2021, discussed the brother rat spirit that sustained members of the class throughout their cadetships, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic dragged on this academic year.
“As we go our ways in the next few hours, we must remember that genuine brother rat spirit,” he said. “As we go on into the military, the workforce, graduate schools, and wherever life may take us, we will carry that loving connection.”
Chaulklin, who commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserve and plans a career as a professional firefighter, also urged his fellow graduates to stay true to themselves rather than be overly concerned with the opinions of others.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning to all true wisdom,” he said. “Moving forward into this much greater chapter of life, we must confront this.”
Wisdom and growth, Chaulklin observed, come when we compare ourselves to who we were yesterday, rather than who are others are today.
U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Dylan Stoltzfus ’21, class president, introduced Perna, but first had a message for the audience and his brother rats. He expressed gratitude to those who brought him to where he is today. He also took time to highlight some of his special memories of each of his four years at VMI.
“You were the ones I led with,” Stoltzfus said to his fellow graduates about their final year. “We experienced highs and lows, the likes of which we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. But at the end of it all, I’m proud to say, it was us that took the challenge … and, against all odds, achieved success.”
Three awards are traditionally given at VMI’s May commencement exercises. The First Jackson-Hope Medal for highest attainment in scholarship, accompanied by the Commander Harry Millard Mason Academic Proficiency Award, went to U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Eric Munro ’21, an electrical and computer engineering major who earned a minor in mathematics and was a distinguished Air Force graduate.
There was a grade-point average tie for the Jackson-Hope Medal this year, and just one credit hour separated the recipient of the Second Jackson-Hope Medal for second-highest attainment in scholarship. Receiving the Second Jackson-Hope Medal, accompanied by the Col. Sterling Murray Heflin 1916 Academic Proficiency Award, was Army 2nd Lt. Troy Smith ’21, a computer science major and distinguished military graduate who served as regimental commander during the 2020-21 academic year.
Smith also received the Society of the Cincinnati Medal, which recognizes efficiency of service and excellence of character. The Society of the Cincinnati Medal is accompanied by the Richard J. Marshall and Sumter L. Lowry Awards.
More Than 180 Commission in Joint Ceremony
Under blue skies in Foster Stadium, more than 180 young men and women, most of them VMI cadets, commissioned into the armed services May 15 in the annual ROTC Joint Commissioning Ceremony. VMI’s ROTC departments also serve students from Washington and Lee University, Southern Virginia University, and Mary Baldwin University. The ceremony was also livestreamed for family and friends who could not attend the event in person.
After remarks by Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, and an invocation by Col. Robert “Bob” Phillips ’87, Institute chaplain, approximately 110 individuals commissioned into the Army after taking their commissioning oath from Lt. Gen. Leslie C. Smith.
Smith, who currently serves as inspector general in the Office of the Secretary of the Army, received his commission from Georgia Southern University in 1983 as a field artillery officer and later branched as a chemical officer. He saw combat in Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn.
In his remarks to those about to commission, Smith emphasized the role of the junior officer. “Our current chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of staff] when he was chief of staff of the Army, Gen. [Mark] Milley, asked us what we fight for, and how that applies to the constitution of the United States. … What matters, cadets … is what you do to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
In closing, Smith urged commissionees to lead with “courage, commitment, and character.”
Administering the oath to the 13 individuals commissioning into the Marine Corps was Maj. Gen. David J. Furness ’87, assistant deputy commandant for plans, policy, and operations, U.S. Marine Corps.
Furness, who served as regimental commander during his time at VMI, served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom and has since served in several supporting positions, among them director of the Expeditionary Warfare School and as legislative assistant to the commandant of the Marine Corps.
In his remarks, Furness told his listeners the story of Lt. Col. Horatio “Monk” Woodhouse Jr. ’36, who led a group of Marines in an assault on Sugar Loaf Hill during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Woodhouse’s Silver Star citation stated that he “boldly led his men through savage fire … and succeeded in gaining that bitterly contested terrain.”
Two weeks later, May 30, 1945, Woodhouse was killed in action by a sniper’s bullet. He was described later by someone who knew him well as an officer who was “always placing himself at the point of friction” and “the greatest commander and Marine I ever knew.”
It was likely his experience at VMI, Furness noted, “the intangible benefits of a VMI education,” which formed Woodhouse’s character and taught him to lead from the front.
“This is now your history,” stated Furness. “This legacy of leadership and valor has been passed down to you.”
Commissioning just under 30 new Navy ensigns was Rear Adm. Michael Steffen, commander of the 2nd Fleet, U.S. Navy.
Steffen, a Naval aviator who flew more than 125 combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, commissioned from Virginia Tech’s ROTC unit, so he began his remarks with a few lighthearted comments about the onetime rivalry between VMI and Virginia Tech.
The admiral then discussed the challenges and hardships of a military school and the doubts that must be vanquished to succeed there before commissioning into an all-volunteer force. Overcoming the challenges of VMI, especially during the rat year, he commented, “says a lot about your character and will prove invaluable during your military career and especially in combat and in your life.”
Serving as a Navy officer, Steffen noted, means being in a position of authority over more than 1.5 million enlisted personnel, both active duty and Reserve. “Those enlisted are, too, volunteers, and deserve quality leadership,” he said. “It will be your responsibility to provide it.”
In a world overflowing with challenges and individuals often acting from selfish interests, “you have chosen to adopt the ethos of the military, which is to serve,” Steffen commented. “When you say the oath this morning, you are giving testament that you are willing to commit yourself and your God-given talents to serving others through the service of our nation.”
This year’s Air Force commissionees numbered approximately 30 for the Air Force and two for the U.S. Space Force, which was established in December 2019. Administering the oath to both groups was Maj. Gen. John D. Caine ’90, who serves at the Pentagon as director of special programs and the Department of Defense Special Access Program Central Office, U.S. Air Force. Before that assignment, Caine was deputy commanding general assigned to the Special Operations Task Force—Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.
In his remarks, Caine discussed the portion of the officer’s oath in which an individual promises to “well and faithfully discharge the duties” of the office to which he or she has been assigned.
The virtues undergirding duty—courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance—were put forth by the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. “All of these components make up what it is an officer and a leader in the armed forces in the United States of America,” said Caine.
“For us in the fabric of service, this is about a calling, a way of life,” he stated. “Frankly, it is a special trust and confidence placed in each of you by the people of the United States of America. … Duty is about earning every single day the confidence of those they are blessed to lead.”
After the joint commissioning ceremony was completed, each branch of the service held pin-on ceremonies in separate locations while those newly commissioned celebrated with families and friends.
Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing