Col. Robert “Bob” Phillips ’87, chaplain, is retiring June 30, 2023, after seven years of encouraging the development of interpersonal faith and providing spiritual and emotional guidance to the Corps of Cadets.
Phillips’ journey with VMI began in 1983 as an incoming rat, a young man from Long Island, New York, without direction. Phillips, who came to VMI because he wanted to be a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, majored in economics. Today, he remembers his cadetship fondly. He credits VMI for changing his life, boosting his confidence, and giving him a sense of purpose and identity. “I was a good cadet. I held rank and played on the lacrosse team, but I was a horrible student,” he confessed.
He met and dated his wife, the former Tracy Barricks, during his cadetship while she was attending Roanoke College. The two met at a statewide Baptist campus ministry retreat in Lynchburg, Virginia. “My buddy invited me to the retreat, and I initially declined the offer. In those days, though, VMI had Saturday classes, and cadets who went on the retreat were excused from classes. So I went to the retreat just to get out of class, and I sure am glad I went because that’s where I met Tracy,” he mused.
The day after Phillips graduated in 1987, the two were married at Manly Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, and the reception was held in Moody Hall on post. He commissioned into the Army as a field artillery officer.
It wasn’t until he was a lieutenant serving as platoon leader to 51 men that he felt the calling to go into ministry. “I had the platoon from hell,” he lamented. “There were soldiers attempting suicide, domestic abusers, one guy sexually molested his daughter and is still serving time in Leavenworth, there were guys going AWOL, guys committing adultery, and I had no idea how to help them. But I had a great battalion chaplain, whom I was able to call and request that he visit and talk with these guys, and he would go and help them. I watched him make an impact on the lives of these men and their families, and for the first time in my life, I was taking ownership of my own faith. One morning I was praying, and I got the sense of God telling me, ‘I want you to become the chaplain whom other lieutenants can call for help.’”
Phillips fought the calling for a long time but finally surrendered to it as he prayed, “‘Lord, if this is what you want, if you open the door, I will step through it.’ That was the most powerful prayer I ever prayed in my life because, after that, all kinds of crazy stuff started to happen,” he shared. That crazy stuff included the Army discharging personnel early, allowing Phillips to leave without having to fulfill his obligation. He didn’t have enough money to enroll in seminary, but the same buddy who invited him to the Baptist retreat years earlier informed him of a scholarship VMI offered to alumni who wanted to go to seminary. “So VMI paid for my seminary education. Then, three families approached us separately and offered to sponsor us. Those three families faithfully sent us monthly checks for three years that paid for our rent while I was in seminary. But the real kicker is that one day before starting my first semester, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there is a guy who said, ‘Hi, Bob, my name is Alan. I was just talking to your neighbor, and he told me you just got out of the Army and you’re starting seminary, and you’re interested in the chaplaincy program. I’m in the chaplaincy program, too. Do you need a job?’ So, Alan got me a job as an armed security guard, with full benefits and time off for reserve training. During an eight-hour shift, I could get in seven hours of studying. To this day, I’m the only person I’ve ever heard of who has had a complete stranger knock on his door and offer him a job. It was an incredibly affirming time for us and our faith,” Phillips recollected.
In 1990, Phillips left active duty and successfully pursued a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He returned to active duty as a chaplain in 1994. His military assignments include the 82nd Airborne Division; 1st Armored Division; 4th Psychological Operations Group; 1st Special Warfare Training Group; XVIII Airborne Corps; the Joint Readiness Training Center; and Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces Command. He was deployed with the 160th Signal Brigade in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. His awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal (four oak leaf clusters), the Army Commendation Medal (two oak leaf clusters), the Army Achievement Medal, and the Senior Parachutist Badge. He holds a master’s degree in counseling from Columbus State University and a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the U.S. Army War College.
Phillips and Col. James Park, VMI chaplain for 22 years, had established and maintained a relationship. Park had invited Phillips to return to post to speak on various occasions, including the baccalaureate service one year, so he was aware of Park’s plans to retire in 2016 and applied for the job.
"It is such an encouragement to see how VMI can transform these young men and women into leaders who will commission and lead service men and women."Col. Robert “Bob” Phillips ’87
Both Phillips and his wife were happy to get back to VMI. “I believe it is a calling from God to be with the cadets. I have always wanted to return and help in the shaping of young people. I love to watch the maturity process in cadets. Several during their rat year would come into my office regularly filled with self-doubts, questioning themselves, not sure they had what it takes, and you watch them grow through the four years, and they come back as 1st Class captains with significant leadership roles and responsibilities. It is such an encouragement to see how VMI can transform these young men and women into leaders who will commission and lead service men and women. One of the greatest rewards of this job is to watch that transformation from child to independent adults,” he stated.
Each spring furlough, Phillips and Lt. Col. John Casper ’04, associate chaplain, took a group of cadets on a mission trip. In recent years, they have worked alongside Samaritan’s Purse and their U.S. disaster relief ministry. In spring 2022, the group traveled to Mayfield, Kentucky, and assisted with clean up after the devastating tornado destroyed the town in December 2021. The group returned to Mayfield this past March to assist in the construction of 70 homes built by Samaritan’s Purse. “We installed floors, put up siding and roofs, installed insulation, and painted,” he said.
The highlight of Phillips’ tenure as VMI chaplain was hosting weekly “dine by invite” dinners and Bible studies each Thursday for the 1st Class cadets. “Anyone was welcome to come. We usually averaged 15 cadets, and we had such a wonderful time getting to know them. My wife worked so hard on Thursdays preparing the meal. She was on her feet all day,” he said.
Tracy also led a Bible study for the female cadets helping them find their faith and identity. She called it “G3: Girls with Grit and Grace.” During the coronavirus pandemic, Tracy prepared goodie bags for cadets quarantined off post. “I calculate that throughout the seven years here, Tracy has baked 20,000 chocolate chip cookies,” quipped Phillips.
Phillips’ last sermon in Memorial Hall was April 23. He spoke before a full sanctuary, including cadets, alumni, faculty and staff, friends, and family, and was presented with several gifts at the service. Cameron Cavanaugh ’23, 1st Class president, and Blake Smith ’23, regimental commander, presented him with a VMI flag signed by the entire Corps of Cadets. Alexander Alvarado ’17, who served as a cadet chaplain during his time at VMI, presented him with a memory book filled with cards and notes from all the cadet chaplains who served under Phillips. Casper and Mary Cannon, chaplain’s office administrator, gave him a framed photograph of House Mountain. In addition, Tracy was presented with the inaugural Volunteer Service Award for her selfless work. During his sermon, Phillips referenced the Bible verse which he has adopted as his life verse, II Timothy 4:7-8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on, there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Phillips doesn’t consider this season in his life a retirement but more of a sabbatical. He and Tracy purchased an RV and will spend the next year to 18 months on the road visiting their five adult children—Robert, Timothy, Kathryn, Carolina, and Carly—and their seven grandchildren, who are spread out from Virginia to Kansas. “We are going to see things we haven’t seen before—Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, the Badlands, the Great Salt Lake, the Grand Canyon. We are looking forward to it,” he stated.
Phillips doesn’t know where they will finally settle but believes they will plug into a ministry somewhere. He is on the governing board of Officers’ Christian Fellowship, a nonprofit headquartered in Englewood, Colorado, whose mission is to engage military leaders in Biblical fellowship and to equip them for Christ-like service at the intersection of faith, family, and profession. He hopes to further work within that organization.
Major Fick ’23, a cadet chaplain who graduated in May, said, “Chaplain Philips has been a beacon of inspiration and guidance all four years of my cadetship. He has been a man of honor, truth, and character, no matter the circumstances or conditions. I have personally been able to come to him with anything, and he has helped guide me. I count it as one of my highest honors to have served under his leadership.”
Another cadet chaplain and recent graduate, Cassidy Dufour ’23, said, “The VMI experience is not easy, but Chaplain Phillips always makes sure every cadet knows they are not alone. He takes time to walk around barracks at night, popping into rooms and just chatting with cadets. His faith is strong, and through his example, cadets are able to deepen their own faith. Even for cadets who are not religious, his experience from the military provides valuable insight for all of us. His commitment to cadets and their future is unmatched, and he will be missed at the Institute.”
Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing