VMI Naval ROTC Unit Turns 50

Col. Travis Homiak ’95 looks on as Sgt. Maj. Alvin Hockaday uses a saber to cut the anniversary cake.

Col. Travis Homiak ’95 looks on as Sgt. Maj. Alvin Hockaday uses a saber to cut the anniversary cake. –VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va. July 10, 2024 — The Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) unit at Virginia Military Institute celebrated its 50th anniversary July 1 in Kilbourne Hall. Col. Travis Homiak ’95, NROTC commanding officer (CO), presided over the ceremony and welcomed special guests from the original unit.  

Homiak stated it was important for him to be the CO during the 50th anniversary since he was a product of the unit, came back to be a Marine officer instructor (MOI) from 1999 to 2002, and will finish his career at the unit, as he plans to retire from the Marine Corps this year.

“I feel very strongly about it, and I see by the cast who have come from far and wide, that you do too. Being able to bring everybody together to this place, where I think we’re unified around the fact that for 50 years, this unit has been producing — in conjunction with VMI — a great product for both the Navy and Marine Corps.”  

According to Homiak, the unit has commissioned 2,032 Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants.

“This past May, we produced our largest class ever of 59 officers. Thirty-six for the Navy, and 23 for the Marines. We have 37 freshmen coming in August, all of whom are coming with four-year Call to Duty scholarships, which covers the cost of room and board. That is hands down the biggest number of high caliber matriculants we have ever had.” 

Homiak reported that nationally, the NROTC produces about 1,000 officers every year. Of those 1,000 officers, 20 to 25% come from five senior military colleges.

“VMI is the third largest unit in size behind Texas A&M and Virginia Tech. We are second only to the U.S. Naval Academy in producing Marine officers, and we are the second largest producer in the NROTC curriculum behind Texas A&M for Naval officers. One of the things I’m most proud of though, is that we lead the nation in sideload scholarships, which is when a student comes here without a scholarship, but earns a scholarship through hard work and is then placed on a commissioning track. VMI punches well above its weight, and that’s part of the magic of this school,” he said.  

Beth Ripley Owermohle, daughter of Col. George Ripley ’52, the unit’s original CO, attended the ceremony on behalf of her father, who passed away in 1987. She shared how proud she was of her father’s accomplishments.

“I remember the day that we moved here from the Northern Virginia area, to this little town, and thinking as a young teenager, ‘what is there to do here?’ But there was a lot to do here! We so enjoyed having cadets over, and I was pleased to see my father so happy doing his job of educating Marines. I remember being so in awe of all the things going on here,” she said.

Accompanying her at the ceremony was her husband, retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kurt Owermohle ’81, a VMI alumnus who trained at the unit before commissioning into the Marine Corps. He returned to the unit in the late 1980s and served as an MOI for three years. Col. Travis Homiak ’95 welcomes guests to the VMI NROTC 50th anniversary celebration.

A VMI NROTC plank owner—a Naval term referring to an original crew member — is Sgt. Maj. Alvin Hockaday, who attended the event. Hockaday started at the unit as assistant Marine officer instructor then later served as Institute and Corps sergeant major when Homiak was a rat. Hockaday remembers when he first got orders to report to VMI.

“It was spring 1974, and I was a gunnery sergeant stationed on Okinawa, Japan. One night late, one of the guys said, ‘Gunny Hockaday, you’ve got a phone call. Somebody at the Pentagon wants to talk to you.’ I thought it was a joke. No one at the Pentagon wants to talk to me. So, I didn’t get up to go to the phone. A couple of minutes later he came back, ‘Hockaday, somebody from the Pentagon wants to talk to you.’ So still believing it was a joke, I thought I’d play along, and went to the phone. On the other end was Colonel Ripley. ‘Gunny Hockaday?’ I replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘We’re going to VMI to start a unit. You in?’ I answered, ‘I’m in!’ When I got to VMI that summer, I remember sitting in Colonel Ripley’s office with three other Marines, George Ripley, Jim McManaway, and Jim Williams. The Colonel said to us, ‘Okay, guys, we’re gonna start an ROTC unit.’ He looked at Jim Williams and said, ‘You’ve been here a year, you know the ropes, get things going.’ Then he turned to McManaway and said, ‘Get with the other senior military colleges, find out what they’re doing, and see how we can use the best of what they’re doing.’ Then he looked at me and said, ‘Gunny, I don’t know what the heck a gunnery sergeant is supposed to do here, but do a good job!’ That was the start of the Naval ROTC unit at Virginia Military Institute in July 1974, and we proceeded to have fun,” Hockaday laughed. 
Capt. John E. “Ned” Riester Jr. ’78, who retired from VMI in 2023 after teaching in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering for 29 years, was one of the original rats in the fledgling NROTC unit. He vividly remembers Hockaday and his example of leadership.

“At the start of the semester, the NROTC staff members were introduced to us one by one. Hockaday marched out, stopped, did a right face, and popped his heals together. I was in awe. One afternoon, all the NROTC rats were doing a physical training test led by Hockaday, who asked us what class we were. We told him, ‘Gunny, we are not allowed to say that number.’ To which he responded, ‘You don’t know what class this is?’ We answered, ‘Well, this is the class of ’75 plus three.’ He replied, ‘Oh, the class of ’77.’ We corrected him, ‘No, ’78.’ To that he declared, ‘I didn’t think you were allowed to say that number.’ He then pulled himself up to the pull-up bar and did 78 pull-ups. He then dropped down, clapped his hands a few times and said, ‘Just letting you know who is in charge here.’” 

A plaque commemorating the anniversary was designed by a group of Navy ensigns commissioned at VMI last May. It will hang at the entry door of the unit in Kilbourne Hall.   

Marianne Hause
Communications & Marketing

VMI: Forging 21st Century Leaders