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‘Challenge Yourself Personally and Professionally’ - Nearly 350 Cadets Graduate from VMI in Outdoor Ceremony

Lexington, Va., May 17, 2021— Gen. Gustave “Gus” Perna, a U.S. Army four-star general who served as chief operating officer (COO) for Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to facilitate and accelerate the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations, offered life lessons for cadets graduating from Virginia Military Institute in commencement exercises held Sunday, May 16, in Foster Stadium on the VMI post.

Just under 350 cadets received degrees in VMI’s first in-person graduation ceremony since December 2019. While graduation on the Parade Ground was common in the 19th century, it was VMI’s first outdoor graduation in many decades. A sprinkling rain fell throughout the ceremony, and umbrellas and raincoats were common sights among families and friends in the stands.

Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, noted that 326 of the graduates were members of the Class of 2021 and just under 170 of them commissioned into the armed services Saturday. This year’s graduating cadets came from 30 states and two foreign countries, and the three most popular majors were civil engineering (43 cadets), economics and business (38), and international studies (37).

May 2021 Commencement Glove Toss
VMI Photo by Kelly Nye

Wins used his time at the podium to reflect on the unusual events faced by the Class of 2021, which matriculated just before the solar eclipse in August 2017 and graduated as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic was receding. This academic year, cadets were challenged by having to attend some classes remotely, stay socially distanced in nearly all situations, and sometimes be confined entirely to post and/or go into isolation or quarantine as health conditions dictated.

Despite this, Wins said, the Class of 2021 prevailed as members of that class not only succeeded in completing their own cadetships but also running a professional Rat Line for the Class of 2024.

“VMI’s history will record the events of your class as a tremendous success,” said Wins. “You did not give up or compromise your honor or integrity. A crisis brought on by COVID-19 stared you down, but you succeeded as citizen-soldiers, putting the safety of your neighbors, family, and friends ahead of your desire to socialize and travel.”

Perna, who was Wins' supervisor when Wins was on his last active-duty assignment with the Army, congratulated the graduates on their achievements and Wins on assuming the superintendent’s role, which Wins did in April after roughly four months as interim superintendent.

Perna then shared three quotes with cadets and discussed the life lessons of each. The first was from the well-known 19th century American writer Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you figure out why.”

Finding a purpose, said Perna, is critical as cadets move forward in life—the impact they will make and their contributions to humanity. Occupations, whether military or civilian, are not a purpose, he elaborated; rather, they are the “how” of a purpose.

“Your purpose should be your driving force behind what you do and how you do it,” he stated.

The second quote came from retired Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, author of the book, “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” which details Moore’s experience as a battalion commander during the Vietnam War. Asked how he’d succeeded in a very difficult battle, Moore replied, “I just kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing that I shouldn’t be doing, and what am I not doing that I should?’”

The answer to the first question is often that leaders are doing what they should instead be teaching their subordinates to do, Perna noted, and thus they deprive others of the opportunity to learn mission-critical skills.

The answer to the second question has to do with priorities. Being busy is a far cry from being productive, so having goals and a purpose is paramount. “You will have more things in life to do than time to do them,” Perna told the cadets. “You will have to prioritize things to make sure you do the most essential things first.”

The third quote, from the 19th century Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone, well known for his exploration of Africa, spoke to the need to establish direction. One day in Africa, Livingstone’s team encountered a river that they could not navigate by boat. After considering the situation, Livingstone’s subordinates presented a recommendation to the doctor, who replied, “I will go in any direction, as long as it is forward.”

President of the Class of 2021, Dylan Stoltzfus ’21, Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, Gen. Gustave “Gus” Perna, U.S. Army,  Army 2nd Lt. Jordan Chaulklin ’21, valedictorian of the Class of 2021
President of the Class of 2021, Dylan Stoltzfus ’21, Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, Gen. Gustave “Gus” Perna, U.S. Army, Army 2nd Lt. Jordan Chaulklin ’21, valedictorian of the Class of 2021 - VMI Photos by H. Lockwood McLaughlin

Perna drew on this lesson himself as he led Operation Warp Speed. “Many thought that it could not be done,” he stated, referring to the effort to develop a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 in a matter of months rather than years, as is typical with vaccine development.

Perna’s phone calls and emails, he noted, often conveyed both congratulations at being given such a high responsibility and sympathy at being tasked with something widely believed to be impossible.

The general’s response was always the same: “I will do my best. I will always move forward, and I will not quit until we are done.”

That attitude will reap rewards, Perna believes. “My challenge to you is never fall back,”  he said. “Challenge yourself personally and professionally to be uncomfortable.”

Army 2nd Lt. Jordan Chaulklin ’21, who was peer-elected as the valedictorian of the Class of 2021, discussed the brother rat spirit that sustained members of the class throughout their cadetships, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic dragged on this academic year.

“As we go our ways in the next few hours, we must remember that genuine brother rat spirit,” he said. “As we go on into the military, the workforce, graduate schools, and wherever life may take us, we will carry that loving connection.”

Chaulklin, who commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserves and plans a career as a professional firefighter, also urged his fellow graduates to stay true to themselves rather than be overly concerned with the opinions of others.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning to all true wisdom,” he said. “Moving forward into this much greater chapter of life, we must confront this.”

Wisdom and growth, Chaulklin observed, come when we compare ourselves to who we were yesterday, rather than who are others are today.

President of the Class of 2021, Dylan Stoltzfus ’21, introduced Perna, but first had a message for the audience and his brother rats. He expressed gratitude to those who brought him to where he is today. He also took time to highlight some of his special memories of each of his four years at VMI.

“You were the ones I led with,” Stoltzfus said to his fellow graduates about their final year. “We experienced highs and lows, the likes of which we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. But at the end of it all, I’m proud to say, it was us that took the challenge…and, against all odds, achieved success.”

Three awards are traditionally given at VMI’s May commencement exercises. The First Jackson-Hope Medal for highest attainment in scholarship, accompanied by the Commander Harry Millard Mason Academic Proficiency Award, went to Air Force 2nd Lt. Eric Munro ’21, an electrical and computer engineering major who earned a minor in mathematics and was a distinguished Air Force graduate.

There was a grade point average tie for the Jackson-Hope Medal this year, and just one credit hour separated the recipient of the Second Jackson-Hope Medal for second-highest attainment in scholarship. Receiving the Second Jackson-Hope Medal, accompanied by the Col. Sterling Murray Heflin 1916 Academic Proficiency Award, was Army 2nd Lt. Troy Smith ’21, a computer science major and distinguished military graduate who served as regimental commander during the 2020-21 academic year.

Smith also received the Society of the Cincinnati Medal, which recognizes efficiency of service and excellence of character. The Society of the Cincinnati Medal is accompanied by the Richard J. Marshall and Sumter L. Lowry Awards. 

Air Force 2nd Lt. Eric Munro ’21 and Army 2nd Lt. Troy Smith ’21 receive awards from Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent
Air Force 2nd Lt. Eric Munro ’21 and Army 2nd Lt. Troy Smith ’21 receive awards from Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent - VMI Photos by H. Lockwood McLaughlin

Mary Price
Communications & Marketing

VMI: Forging 21st Century Leaders