By April Dudash
It’s a special kind of student who chooses to attend a military college. Many of them turn four years of structured, 18-hour days into a military career, but most don’t.
These cadets think pushups at 5:30 a.m. are fun. The regimen, restrictions, shouting and lack of identity as a bottom-rung freshman only fuel them to get stronger.
At The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., and Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, the corps of cadets is the face of the institution. As old friends attend a “regular” university and go drinking on Friday nights, these cadets are running their colleges as company commanders, athletic officers and squad leaders.
They alone chose these unique four years for themselves, and it’s four years that will bind them to their classmates forever.
You’re either built for this or you’re not.
Beyond the rustling marsh, hibernating downtown pubs and still, Southern mansions of Charleston, The Citadel has already awakened to the glare of its stadium lights.
About 300 Army ROTC cadets stand with their hands behind their backs in the morning haze, identical in Army sweats and gray caps. "Everyone around this field should be very nervous," one of the trainers hollers.
Since its founding in 1842, The Citadel has sent students to every American war since the Mexican War of 1846. Its Moorish architecture and checkerboard quadrangle are instantly recognizable as are the "knobs," freshmen nicknamed for their shaved heads. When 700 knobs joined the class of 2015, they were immediately banished from talking in public, expected to sprint wherever they went and told to walk in the gutters down the Avenue of Remembrance in respect for Citadel's war dead.
Freshmen enter either the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps or Navy ROTC when they arrive. Last year, 169 seniors accepted a commission into the military.
Col. J. Laurence Hutto, commander of Citadel's Army ROTC and Class of 1987 graduate, watches his students jog by as they chant in unison to their steps, "Hey, hey! Every day! U.S. Army, all the way!"
Steam rises from the cadets' bodies as they grunt their way through pushups.
"You should go until you're at muscle failure, damn near," the trainer barks.
A few pause and shift their weight, forming a triangle with the ground, shoulders shaking as the rest count down. Their goal is 55 pushups, but some haven't made the cut.
"You're kidding me, right?" The trainer shakes his head. "No one should be under 55."
There's a photograph hanging in Col Hutto's office of the old Green Ramp on Fort Bragg. A captain then, Hutto stands in front of a C-130 with a group of 82nd Airborne Division soldiers.
"It was something inside of me saying if I went to a regular college, and they're all great schools, I wouldn't have the discipline to get through it.
"Twenty-four years after I came back, I was like, holy smokes, the same things are going on."
Cadets are drilled on Citadel history and traditions from their first days on campus. The shouting starts before morning reveille. Ten knobs on sweep detail run through the barracks in a zigzag pattern. Backs braced, they clutch their brooms until squad sergeants order them to drop for pushups and recite "knob knowledge" about school presidents, important American battles or school traditions. At that moment, the same scene is being repeated in all five barracks, minutes before the bugle call that signals the start of breakfast.
Breakfast is served family-style, with bowls and platters at the center of the table heaped with hash browns, sausages, biscuits and grits. Students lead each other in a moment of silence and prayer before swiping at the bowls, passing them around to their comrades. In 10 minutes, the food is gone. Cadets sit a few inches off the back of their chairs, an engrained habit that students like senior Josh Saavedra of Fayetteville carry home to family dinners. Saavedra pours himself juice from the head of the table as he oversees his younger classmates shoveling food onto their plates.
"One thing you're taught is always feed your subordinates before you feed yourself," he said. "The orange juice is my little piece of heaven."
Knobs looking for respite find it in Summerall Chapel, a safe haven where the floor is cool and the sun shines through the stained glass on six students sleeping in the pews.
Knobs endure a grueling nine months before they attend their "breakout" ceremony in April, a powerful moment marked by tears.
Saavedra remembers his father, a former sergeant first class combat engineer on Fort Bragg, telling him not to take anything personally. Saavedra plays trumpet in Citadel's regimental band and is team captain of the intramural soccer team. He played varsity soccer for E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville.
As an athletic officer at The Citadel, he is responsible for the physical fitness of 120 students. "In a sense, if we fail, they fail, so it's a big deal. What you do trickles down to everyone else."
Danielle McKee, a Jack Britt High School graduate who runs an 18-minute 5k, attendsthe Citadel on a full track and cross-country scholarship.
Now, she wakes up around 6:15 to shine her shoes and brass. After graduation, she thinks she would rather wear a business suit, but she's considering the Air Force.
"It caused me to mature much faster than my friends who went to other colleges," she says about her Citadel education. "I think about my future a lot now."
William Northcutt, a Terry Sanford High School graduate and Citadel senior, is Army bound. He plans to enter the Army Corps of Engineers after graduation, a decision influenced by his Army father who retired as a sergeant major in 2002.
About half of Northcutt's freshman company has made it to this point. Now, he and fellow seniors will walk three miles to downtown Charleston when they're allowed to go off campus. Seniors have more time to go out and socialize.
"My friends were telling me they were partying and drinking. I told them I was drilling and PTing.
"I kind of like that, actually," he said. "They'll never understand what I went through."
Citadel invites high school students to shadow cadets in its pre-knob program. High schoolers stay in the barracks, eat in the mess hall and attend classes with their cadet.
"After a pre-knob session, they're at opposite ends of the spectrum, either, 'This is it,' or, 'Get me out of town,' " said retired Marine Corps Reserve Lt. Col. John Powell, director of admissions and class of '77 alumnus.
But there must be more of the former - Citadel is adding a new company to its 5th Battalion next fall.
Powell says cadets are looking for the close bonds Citadel creates. "They'll help each other to the grave. And that's quite literal."
On a recent Friday afternoon, the Corps of Cadets prepares for its regular parade. The Citadel Pipe Band practices on Indian Hill, the highest point in Charleston, overlooking the marshy Ashley River. The regimental band, including Josh Saavedra, practices Sousa's "El Capitan" march before filing onto the parade field. The parades are open to the public, and many tourists plan their visits to Charleston for a Friday so they can catch one. To the backdrop of cannon fire and sabers drawn, cadets file past retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Rosa, Citadel's president.
Saavedra is preparing to graduate next month with 25 of his closest friends. They helped pull him through his nine months as a knob. The groups he's joined, from the soccer team to his company, contain relationships he would never trade.
"The one thing they wanted to emphasize is you can't do it alone," Saavedra said.
"For the last four years, it's been us."
Almost 500 miles away, in Lexington, Va., the experience is much the same.
It's not even 7 a.m. at Virginia Military Institute and cadets are dragging themselves out of bed and pulling on uniforms. Students are rarely out of uniform - they are even issued VMI bathrobes. It's the same routine, Monday through Friday, when 1,500 of them swarm out of the turreted castle that is the signature architecture of this campus in the shadows of House and Coates mountains. Cadets line up by platoon to the tune of a blaring trumpet. Stragglers run as they try to make it to their spots before the end of the song, and the trumpet player mercifully lingers on the final notes.
Each company marches downhill to breakfast along a winding campus road, passing statues of World War II Gen. George C. Marshall, perhaps VMI's most famous graduate, and Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who taught artillery tactics at the school in the 1850s. During the Civil War, the entire corps of cadets fought at the Battle of New Market, where young men would fight and 10 would die to ensure a Confederate victory.
Young men and women walk in step to the morning drum beat of the regimental band, who stand at the curb and watch the companies file by. The commandant of cadets, Col. Tom Trumps, stands on raised brick steps, saluting the students marching past him.
The rats, or what freshmen have been called since the 1850s, are last.
"Inside, rats," one of the upperclassmen barks. "Straight to the tables."
It's not the coffee that wakes students during mess hall breakfast. It's the screaming.
VMI history. The alma mater. School rules. No question is off limits, and the upperclassman sitting at each table expects rats to know the complete Rat Bible, the school handbook, by heart, and immediately shout out the answers.
The first nine days of freshman year is known as Hell Week. And for the six months after that, freshmen follow a list of can'ts - they cannot walk any path but the "Rat Line," a route that forces them along the farthest routes to where they need to go. They can't talk outside their rooms. Go off campus. Watch TV or use cellphones.
"All little things to an outsider, but to a member of the rat line with no privileges, no life, constant barking, that's how it's built," said Col. Trumps, the plain-spoken commandant. "You have one privilege, and that's to strain."
VMI is grouped into nine companies and two battalions. Fourteen upperclassmen cadets from each company, known as the cadre, keep an annual 500 new VMI rats in line. Each rat receives a "dyke," or an upperclassman mentor the first year. In exchange for their protection, the rat cleans his or her room before breakfast and does other small chores.
Freshmen are rats for about six months until the fourth-class breakout, when rats are acknowledged by their classmates and accepted into the VMI fold.
All students must adhere to a discipline and honor code: "I will never lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do." Those words are bond to an entire campus.
"VMI is not a school where we pat you on the back for doing the right thing," Trumps said. "You're expected to do the right thing."
When sophomore Matthew Ray of Raeford heard rat stories from a former cadet, he wanted to be able to tell the same tales.
"He told me it sucked," Ray said. "I happened to find those stories really funny, and I wanted stories like that."
Ray grew up in a military family - his father is a master sergeant in U.S. Army Special Operations Command - and Ray is currently serving in the National Guard. At VMI, he is an Army ROTC student studying mechanical engineering. He says the military training he receives outside of VMI gives him an advantage.
He has big dreams for his military career after college. "Make it a career, hopefully make four-star."
VMI's four ROTC programs - Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy - have a high success rate. About half of VMI students accept a military commission, and 18 percent make the military a career. Women were accepted into both VMI and Citadel in the 1990s. Today, 10 percent of VMI cadets are women.
As cadets close out another day, students fire a 105mm Howitzer. The blast rattles windows and reverberates for miles. The school flag is lowered as taps play and cadets, faculty and staff scattered across campus all salute.
It's about the time that students at "regular" universities, including nearby Washington and Lee, would be heading to the bars or out socializing.
"We ask ourselves every day, 'Why did we go here? Why didn't we go to a regular college?' Ray said. "But at the end of the day, we wouldn't dare leave it."