‘Rely on Your Own Constitution’

A cadet waves his diploma in the air as he crosses the stage.

A cadet, one of more than 300 who received degrees today, waves his diploma proudly as he leaves the stage. -- VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., May 16, 2016 – Exhorted to continue their pursuit of lives of service and honor, more than 300 members of the Virginia Military Institute Class of 2016 received degrees in a commencement exercise held earlier today in Cameron Hall.

Of this year’s graduates, approximately 54 percent have already commissioned in the armed services or will do so by the end of the summer. Nearly a quarter of those graduating earned either Institute Honors, which requires completing a cross-disciplinary honors curriculum and writing an honors thesis, or the designation of distinguished graduate, which is awarded to those with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher.

In his remarks to the graduates, Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, VMI superintendent, praised the Class of 2016 for its leadership, noting that thanks at least in part to the class’s careful management of the Rat Line, the rate of attrition among 4th Class cadets in the fall of 2015 was among the lowest in history.

“You have advanced the spirit of VMI,” the superintendent said.

Peay urged the graduates to hold on to their concept of honor, calling it “the foundation stone, the very bedrock” of VMI.

“Be on parade 24/7, care bone-deep about people, and lead from the front,” he said. “People will hold you to a higher standard because you are a VMI graduate.”

Also addressing the graduates was valedictorian Zachary Heard, a mechanical engineering major who will commission in the U.S. Army this summer. Heard gave an emotional farewell not only to his Brother Rats but to the entire VMI community, noting, “The people at VMI make it the phenomenal institution that it is.”

In that group, Heard included everyone who touches the lives of cadets, from faculty members to athletic coaches to members of the custodial staff who clean the barracks. “Don’t forget the hard-working people who make this place special,” Heard counseled.

This year’s keynote speaker, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, made his seventh trip to VMI today, and addressed a graduating class for the second time. In his remarks, the Democratic senator expressed his concern that the nation has been at war against ISIS since 2014 without congressional authorization – a situation that he feels should not be possible, as the U.S. Constitution gives Congress, and not the president, specific power to declare war.

Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed out that this should be of special concern to those who have commissioned into the military or will soon do so, as the oath taken by members of the U.S. military requires them to support and defend not the United States, but the Constitution of the United States.

“All of us should care about the Constitution, about not only doing the right thing, but doing the right thing in the right way,” Kaine remarked. The senator went on to say that members of Congress, including himself, should be held accountable for doing or not doing the right things in the right way. “No one should understand that responsibility more than a VMI graduate schooled in the mission of creating citizen-soldiers.”

Kaine, a former Virginia governor who now has a son serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, said that just as members of Congress confront hard choices on a daily basis, so will VMI’s newest graduates. “You will face tough choices by the dozens, hundreds, and thousands,” he said. “Will you rely on your own constitution – the values and the principles that have been shaped by VMI, by your families, and by your mentors?”

The senator urged the graduates to hew to the strict moral compass that VMI has developed within them, saying, “Do not fall victim to the belief that that compass … can be compromised in a time of crisis.”

During this year’s commencement exercises, three members of the graduating class were recognized with special awards. The First Jackson-Hope Medal for highest attainment in scholarship, along with the Commander Harry Millard Mason Academic Proficiency Award, was awarded to Army 2nd Lt. Joseph LaMagna IV, an Institute Honors graduate who received a bachelor of science in electrical and computer engineering with a minor in applied mathematics.

The Second Jackson-Hope Medal for second highest attainment in scholarship and the Col. Sterling Murray Heflin 1916 Academic Proficiency Award were awarded to Army 2nd Lt. Matt Tonkinson, also an Institute Honors graduate. Tonkinson earned a bachelor of science in psychology with a minor in national security.

Receiving the Society of the Cincinnati Medal for efficiency of service and excellence of character and the Richard J. Marshall and Sumter L. Lowry awards was John Zippel, who served as a prosecutor on the Honor Court and was involved in numerous community service projects during his cadetship. Zippel received a bachelor of science degree in applied math with a minor in business.

– Mary Price


VMI: Forging 21st Century Leaders