Earning the Honor to Guard the Colors
Training Scrupulous - and Tough - for Cadet Color Staff
LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 17, 2012 – Cadre Week at VMI, the week before Matriculation, is all about training. But while cadets assigned to the cadre train to teach the soon-to-arrive new cadets, another group, the color staff, is training just as hard.
And their ideal is perfection.
“Traditionally the color sergeant is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed,” said 1st Battalion Sgt. Maj. Zachary Stark. “It’s not just the physical properties of the garment. What it embodies is the soul, and the values, and the history of what that flag represents.”
“We set the standard for the Corps,” said 1st Battalion Color Sgt. Keith MacDonald. “We uphold the standard for the Corps, for uniform appearance, for conduct.” They also manage the flags and enforce proper flag etiquette in the Corps.
VMI trains three complete color guards. Between the two battalions, which each have their own color staff, are two sergeants major, eight color sergeants, and six color corporals. The regimental color staff consists of the regimental sergeant major, five color sergeants and four color corporals. With only five of last year’s color corporals returning as color sergeants, this year’s training was intense.
“We have to train to make sure we can do it before everyone comes back,” said 2nd Battalion Color Sgt. Dominic Paoli. “We had to train on how to carry flags, how to march together because it’s [2nd Battalion] a whole new staff this year. … We had to train the corporals up to carry their rifles because they carry them different than they would … with their companies in parade.”
“It got tough at times. Literally, we were out there for eight, nine hours a day, easy,” added 2nd Battalion Sgt. Maj. Nicolas Mari.
For the three sergeants major, who are responsible for the color staff, as well as the discipline of the entire Corps, it’s a lot of information to communicate real fast – and a lot of moves to perfect.
“I … oversee all the ceremonies,” said Regimental Sgt. Maj. Eric Alter. “So that means I’m proficient with the Blue Book, the VMI drill and ceremonies handbook, and the Army drill and ceremonies handbook.”
This is fun stuff for Alter, who was at Marine Corps Officer Candidates School over the summer and arrived at VMI later than the others. “I really do have a passion for it,” he said.
With Alter away at OCS, Regimental Color Sgt. Thomas Bower directed much of the training of the two battalion color guards, which are responsible for the Reveille and Retreat ceremonies – the raising and lowering of the flags – and regimental color staff, which presents the colors in parades. All three staffs are trained for all three ceremonies and to post flags for events on and off post.
“We got in a lot of practice,” said Bower. “Everybody worked really hard; nobody complained. The corporals this year are perfectly in sync. … I was really proud of them, for accomplishing that.”
“He did a fantastic job,” said Sgt. Maj. John Neel of Bower. “His level of commitment, his attention to detail, and his sense of duty is outstanding.”
The color staff have a tough job, added Neel, who is responsible for the discipline and appearance of the Corps.
“They have to learn and know drill – not only what they need to know but what others need to know,” he said. “They have to plan, organize, rehearse, and perform … and work through ever-changing cadet schedules, gather resources, check packing lists, polish brass fittings – no better attention-to-detail training exists in the Corps. Then they get to stretch their leadership wings conducting inspections of platoons and penalty tour formations. That’s a tough leadership challenge and great training.
“All of these folks translate very easily into next year’s leadership,” he said.
Neel also pointed out that while much of the work the color staff does is behind the scenes, they are prominent in ceremonies and often travel far and meet celebrities when they perform in ceremonies off post.
“We get to represent VMI,” he said, “and we get to show our stuff and honor the colors of the nation.”