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Open Letter to the Rat Mass

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Joe Elie '88

The Spirit of VMI Political Action Committee welcomes the Rat Mass of 2024+3. You all should be proud of your decision to attend the Virginia Military Institute, the toughest military college whose cadets abide by and cherish the strictest honor code.

Honor remains the essence of VMI. Undoubtedly, you are aware of the changes VMI has undergone, but rest-assured VMI’s Honor Code and DNA remain the same - passed down from class to class since 1839. You all have made a decision that will benefit you for the rest of your lives. Your high school friends attending other colleges will have a completely different experience.

Needless to say, you all are feeling some trepidation and uncertainty over the journey ahead. You may have a parent, close relative, or family friend who attended the Institute or - like me - you have no idea what to expect. Know this - you will be pushed far beyond what you currently perceive as your mental, physical, and emotional limits. And through it all, you will form friendships that last a lifetime. You will develop your character, and you will be given every opportunity to lead - even as a rat.

Having been in your shoes 39 years ago, I know exactly how you feel. I accepted VMI’s admission offer sight unseen. Although I met my dyke that summer through some mutual friends, the only thing he kept reiterating was how difficult it was going to be. A challenge is what I was looking for, so on 13 August 1984 - two days before Matriculation Day - I drove to Lexington from Massachusetts with my parents. Until that day, the furthest south I had been was Arlington, Virginia.

After we checked into the Howard Johnson motel, we drove south on RT 11 in a severe thunderstorm with wind driven rain. We didn’t have GPS back then, but somehow, I was able to see the right-hand turn below Crozet Hall and we proceeded slowly up the hill leading to barracks. It must have been around 2100 and the rain had stopped.

Passing Washington Arch, I could see members of the cadre through their open windows preparing their uniforms and shoes for the next day. Turning right toward Jackson Arch, we circled halfway around the parade ground and stopped in front of Smith Hall to get a view of barracks. Just then a brilliant flash of a lightning bolt illuminated the entire night sky. I looked over at my dad and he said “Are you sure you want to go here?” My dad was a Navy veteran, child of the Depression, and a stern disciplinarian - and he already felt sorry for me; but I didn’t see the lightning as an ominous sign. Instead, it seemed like a special kind of energy - or spirit - and I was drawn to it.

We drove back to the motel. The next day at breakfast I met one of my brother rats, also from Massachusetts. (We would room together 3rd, 2nd, and 1st class years.). That Tuesday night, 14 August 1984, I slept not a wink.

On my Matriculation Day, I can remember our commandant, Special Forces “Colonel Everywhere” John Cummings ‘61, offering the best advice I ever received in his first speech to us. He encouraged us to do everything we could to retain our sense of humor. And that’s the secret to survival at VMI.

Be proud to be a rat. Wake up every day determined to do your very best. Enjoy the early morning PT in the fog. Stay in the present. Meet each challenge head on and with confidence. Don’t worry about the results - focus on the process and you will do fine. Your cadre is there to train you. They were chosen for their leadership ability, and they are your models to emulate.

After the initial shock of Hell Week, you will settle into the routine of the daily class schedule. You will have more time away from your cadre, but now you must balance academics, athletics, and military duties - the three legged stool.

Your success or failure at VMI will be determined by how you manage your time. You will have no free time - ever. Shooting the breeze with your brother rats for too long will cause your grades to suffer significantly. Take 30 minutes after supper to talk to your roommates and brother rats then get out of barracks to study. Don’t study in your room. You won’t be able to resist talking to your roommates, going to visit your brother rats in other rooms, or your dyke on the first stoop. Don’t fall behind in your academics, use the weekends to stay current with your assignments and catch up on your sleep to the extent that is possible. The trick is taking advantage of unscheduled time to study, work out, clean your room, shine your shoes, or get organized and prepared for something in the immediate future.

The Shenandoah Valley in late summer is the time for harvest. It’s a time for renewal at VMI because of the matriculating rats. By September, you will realize that the energy in barracks flows from the 4th stoop down. As rats, you are the focal points of barracks life. In their own way, every member of the upper classes has an interest in the rat line. Some will take more of an interest than others. Nevertheless, excitement emanates from the 4th stoop.

The seasons mark the passage of time at VMI. The leaves will fall and you will be rats. The snow will fall and you will still be rats. You will experience the dreaded Dark Ages after Christmas furlough as rats. Eventually, the sun will move higher in the sky, and you will break out of the rat line. Then an idyllic spring will come to the valley. During the rat line, time will seem to pass excruciatingly slowly, but when you look back from the vantage point of an alumnus, it all will seem to have flown by.

The rat line is about survival. 3rd class year is more challenging academically. 2nd class year you might have more of a yearning for a social life after Ring Figure. And 1st class year, you might get too comfortable. It’s a four year journey with each year more demanding in a different way.

Call your parents at least once a week. Your decision to attend VMI is a tremendous commitment for your parents and families to support. Don’t ignore problems when they pop up. If you can’t resolve them on your own, seek counseling from your dyke, brother rats, a favorite professor, cadre member, tactical officer, the commandant, the superintendent, or any other staff member you feel comfortable with. If allowed to fester, problems can cause you not to be able to graduate on time.

You can have fun at VMI, especially after break out, but don’t run the block. I never ran the block until I accidentally did when I went to a Sweet Briar dance on a Friday night in November. My permit said I needed to be back by 0200, but I fell asleep for a bit and did not get back until about 0230. The OCMNI stick had already caught me, and in a span of 30 minutes I went from Hotel Company Commander to Hotel Company Private. So be careful what you write in your own permit requests on such occasions. Also, do not go uptown in civilian clothes no matter how hard your brother rat tries to convince you it is a good idea. It is not a good idea. Trust me.

Don’t walk past Lee Chapel without saluting. That is a tradition I still abide by and no one’s going to tell me I’m wrong. Visit Stonewall’s gravesite in uniform. Many of the founders and former leaders of VMI are buried nearby. They all deserve our respect. Former Superintendent Peay often encouraged cadets to “Be on parade, 24/7.” No matter where you are nor whom you are with, you represent VMI.

The culture, ethos, and spirit of VMI are your inheritance as cadets, and will hold you in good stead throughout your lives. Those who have gone before you - the cadets, professors, commandants, and superintendents with names like Preston, Smith, Patton, Jackson, Shipp, Kilbourne, and Marshall - contributed to the grand design. Their wisdom is imparted through the traditions and the rigorous demands of the daily schedule to produce disciplined and courageous citizen-soldiers, leaders in war and peace. In four years, you will join their ranks.

A statue of Lieutenant General Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson until recently stood in front of Old Barracks because he was a great general, a model of Christian virtue, and gave his life for his native state of Virginia. Jackson’s statue may be gone, but his spirit and that of the New Market cadets remain palpable on post. I believe this is what I felt that stormy summer night when I first set eyes on barracks. “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” Strain hard and good luck.

Founded in 2021, the Spirit of VMI PAC is a registered Virginia Political Action Committee whose purpose is to restore VMI’s reputation as an elite leadership institution.

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