Like many cadets, U.S. Army Maj. Chris Perry ’05 came to VMI to play a sport—in his case, football—and he was seeking a challenge. But what kept him at VMI wasn’t time on the gridiron, sweat parties, or even the brother rat spirit. If you ask Perry why he stayed at the Institute despite academic challenges and then came back to work as a member of the commandant’s staff for 11 years, he will tell you: It was the bone-deep caring he experienced day in and day out.
“As a cadet, I will say the faculty and staff—they take care of you,” said Perry, a native of Hampton, Virginia, who’s now an Army chaplain based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “They really want you to succeed. And so, it doesn’t matter if it’s the commandant or the commandant’s staff or if it’s one of the professors or whoever: They want you to succeed, and I think that is the beauty of this place is the care. I think everybody’s here because they care, and I truly believe that I experienced that.”
As a rat especially, Perry found himself struggling academically. The transition from high school to college academics was a lot harder than he’d expected, and while he switched majors twice, going from mechanical engineering to civil engineering to history, the struggle persisted. Almost every summer during his cadetship, Perry found himself attending summer school.
But early on, Perry learned that asking for help was the right thing to do. Thanks to the academic tutors provided for NCAA athletes and the staff at the Miller Academic Center, he received lessons in time management, avoiding procrastination, rewriting notes, and other strategies proven successful in boosting academic performance.
“I had to rewire my thought process on how to study, and that’s what helped me get out of the hole I was in,” said Perry. “It was a matter of knowing that you needed help, and then they were able to help me.”
Sometimes, Perry would come into the football locker room and see his name on the bulletin board—a signal that the coach wanted to talk to him about academics. Whereas some players might see this as embarrassing or a sign of failure, Perry did not.
“It was more from a caring standpoint of saying, hey, look, we want you to be successful,” he commented. “We want you to succeed. You’re not here just to play football. You’re not here just to do these things or whatever.”
In his 2nd and 1st Class years, Perry served on the VMI Honor Court, an experience he called “just an honor in itself.” In his 1st Class year, Perry was president of the honor court, and he felt the weight of helping to decide who would stay at VMI and who would have to leave. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” he stated. “It was a very heavy burden.”
Another responsibility of a 1st Class cadet, of course, is being a dyke to a rat. “Now, you have the ability to influence somebody and also the rest of their cadetship, how they operate, how they do things,” Perry stated. “And so that’s a very important relationship that you’re building.”
“I am so grateful for the opportunities that I had when I was here. I’m so grateful for the experiences, so grateful for the hard times, for the friendships that were built that to this day that are still so tight because of things we went through.”Chris Perry ’05
Throughout his cadetship, Perry saw how the interconnected nature of the VMI experience made for lessons in character he might not have gotten at another school.
“I had phenomenal coaches that made sure we knew that, hey, this wasn’t just about being a football player,” he explained. “It was learning how to be a man. It was learning how to be a leader. It was learning how to be a citizen-soldier. And so, they held us accountable for the things that we didn’t do or do when we were over here on the hill, in barracks. That was huge.”
After graduation, Perry did not stay away from VMI for long. In 2006, he was hired as an assistant commandant for cadet life, a position he would hold until 2017. It was time to give back, and with his easy smile and positive energy, Perry did that in spades.
“I gave everything I could to the cadets,” he commented. “I wanted to be a mentor to them.”
Not surprisingly, Perry took a special interest in cadets who were struggling due to challenges, whether those challenges were academic, athletic, or family based.
“I was pouring into them, investing in them, letting them know, hey, you’re going to make it through this,” he stated.
While he was working on the commandant’s staff, Perry first felt a call to the ministry. In 2010, he began seminary at Liberty University, adding the role of student to his already-full plate. Once he graduated from seminary, Perry commissioned into the Virginia National Guard as a chaplain. Shortly after, he was called into the Army Reserves and then active duty. Today, he’s serving with the Third Special Forces Group (Airborne).
No matter where he is, Perry continues to extol the virtues of VMI. To a young person considering VMI, he would say, “You need to go to [VMI]. … You need to learn discipline. You need to learn how to lead. You need to learn to work with others that aren’t from the same background as you, and you need to learn how to work with your peers to accomplish a task.”
Some days, Perry contemplates all that the Institute has done for him.
“I am so grateful for the opportunities that I had when I was here,” he stated. “I’m so grateful for the experiences, so grateful for the hard times, for the friendships that were built that to this day that are still so tight because of things we went through.”
Today, Perry is the father of a young daughter, and while college is still many years away, he’s already hoping that she’ll attend VMI. It’s a dream borne of seeing VMI women succeed year in and year out.
“Looking at their experiences and looking at where they are now, I’m like, I want my young one to one day go through that to prepare her for life as well. VMI men and women will rise to the top.”
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