The Extra Mile: Arnold Air Society

LEXINGTON,  Va.  Feb. 21, 2024 — With dreams of attending the U.S. Air Force Academy, Nathan “Skye” Van Ness ’25 had to shift gears when he wasn’t accepted. But it didn’t deter him. Rather, if he could go back in time, he wouldn’t have even applied. Instead, Virginia Military Institute has provided an overwhelmingly beneficial college and military experience for the cadet.  

Overall, he’s much happier in his decision.  

“VMI teaches a level of humility and appreciation for the enlisted side. And not only that, but also for the non-commissioning cadets as well," the physics major said. “It affords all sorts of other unique and distinct opportunities to interact with other kids in different branches and really get a full picture of everything while building yourself in a way that I haven't really seen anywhere else.” VMI students part of the Air Force ROTC Arnold Air Society participating in community service work.

Van Ness said by attending VMI, his skills in athletics, academics, and leadership have improved significantly, which in turn has prepared him to be an effective leader. By joining VMI’s Air Force ROTC Det 880 Arnold Air Society John P. Jumper Squadron, his leadership skills have increased tenfold.  

The Arnold Air Society (AAS) is a service organization through the Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) that centers on professionalism, honor, and community service. Squadrons are formed by AFROTC in collegiate settings focusing on cadets who are dedicated to their community and to becoming an Air Force officer. 

Van Ness is the commander for the squadron. The club was recently rebooted. It was reinstated in 2021 after a pause, but the club has ties at VMI stemming back to the 1970s.  

What drew Van Ness to the club was its values, but also there’s the possibility of national scholarships upwards to $10,000.  

"I saw that sort of excellence as something I want to be a part of and really live up to,” he said.  

He decided to join, which requires a list of things before being initiated, that includes: 

  • Have at least a 2.5 GPA 
  • Score at least an 80 on the United States Air Force Physical Fitness Assessment and meet physical standards 
  • Be active in the cadet corps and have necessary leadership qualities 
  • Receive an invitation from AAS and complete the post-training program 
  • Pass the AAS national test 

The two big things that VMI’s chapter does is have the candidacy class come up with a service project. This year it was collecting funds for the Rockbridge SPCA. The other initiation task is getting signatures from all the current members, which is around 10. 

Normally, that wouldn’t sound hard, but to get the signatures, the candidate would need to do a task. Last year, Van Ness required a candidate to clean his shoes in order to get his signature.  

VMI students part of the Air Force ROTC Arnold Air Society participating in community service work.“I took one shoe, and I shined it because I'm good at shining shoes. I love doing it. I made one shoe as shiny as I possibly could get it. I was like, if you can get this other shoe just as shiny, I'll give you my signature,” he said. 

The more Van Ness participated, the more leadership opportunities he craved. He began working towards squadron commander. 

"I would say that the Arnold Air Society has single-handedly improved my leadership and leadership philosophy as a whole,” he said. 

By attending the National Conclave, or NATCON, last year, Van Ness said he felt like he grew up an entire year within just a few days due to the impact of the conference.  

“It felt like I matured so much just from being able to be there,” he said.  

Last semester, Donald “Alex” Dieffenbach ’26, a computer science major, was the candidate training officer for the club. His role in the squadron was member onboarding, and initiation. Each potential new member participates in a candidacy before they are initiated.  

Candidacy is a several months long process which goes over the basic knowledge about AAS, history, structure, and administration.  

"A lot of it is like the tradition, the heritage, the values, just kind of teaching the candidates what kind of person best fits into this society,” Dieffenbach said.  

The club is also not strictly for VMI cadets, as they’ve had Washington & Lee and Mary Baldwin students also participate.  

"We intend on completing a lot more service projects, a lot more morale events, and really engaging with the region and as a squadron,” Van Ness said. 

"That's the nice part about Lexington, it's a small community,” Dieffenbach said. “We’re really blessed to be in this place because community outreach is significantly easier than say, like Richmond or Charlottesville. You can build those connections." 

Laura Peters Shapiro
Photos submitted by AFROTC Det 880 Arnold Air Society
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