‘You Felt the Energy’
Sense of Pride and Accomplishment Marks VMI Corps of Cadets’ March in Inaugural Parade
LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 23, 2013 – It was, said Sgt. Maj. John Neel, “a moment in history” – a moment the 1,447 cadets who marched in the Inaugural Parade shared with the nation and the climax of perhaps the longest day in the cadetship of the classes of 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
“They were just into the moment and having fun and happy to be there,” said Neel, who, for the third time in his career, supervised the training of the Corps to march the 15-cadet front and to perform the “eyes left” and “align left” maneuvers.
“The biggest thing was as soon as we walked by that reviewing stand it just made everything real. I cannot believe I was that close to the president,” said Cadet Ashley Gernhardt ’13, 2nd Battalion operations lieutenant, Tuesday during a break between classes. “You felt the energy.”
Cadet Thomas Shumar ’13, who marched on the left side near the reviewing stand, recalled the moment with pleasure. “That was special because I got a really close look at the president and the vice president,” he said. “It was a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
That special moment followed a grueling day of hurry to be in the right place long before the right time, over and over again, just in case. The cadets had formed up for BRC at 4:30 a.m. after, in some cases, very little sleep. It was Gernhardt and her staff, for instance, who worked late into Sunday night assembling security badges for the Corps.
The cadets boarded 28 buses and departed post at 6:30 a.m., and most slept for much of the nearly 200 miles to Washington, D.C. They waited on the buses in the Pentagon staging area for nearly two hours to go through the Secret Service security check, eating boxed lunches provided by VMI’s Aramark dining services.
“The Secret Service was fantastic,” said Neel. “They were very understanding of our special needs, that we had weapons.”
After dyking out, the cadets boarded the buses once more, for more waiting, in overcoats, with sabers and rifles. At around 4 p.m., the cadets disembarked once more, this time at the National Mall assembly area, and formed up, ready to wait for the start of the parade and the long –1.6-mile – march to the reviewing stand.
Marching through unfamiliar streets, the last marching unit behind so many others, was itself a challenge, said Gernhardt. “You’ve never seen where you’re going to march before, so having to go past the obstacles and dealing with the constant accordion effect between the people marching in front of us – … it was both mental and physically exhausting.”
Sparse crowds became much more dense as the Corps approached the reviewing stand, with bright lights confirming their arrival.
“It was nice to see a lot of VMI folks. … We got cheers all along the route,” said Neel. “The people that we were parading for stayed there until the very last cadet. … It was really, really good.”
While the Corps experienced their moment in history among the lights at the reviewing stand, a member of the commandant’s staff, Lt. Col. Mitch Fridley, experienced a moment of his own in the darker streets nearby, trying to corral 28 buses snarled in traffic so they’d be ready for the exhausted cadets.
Though the buses were out of order and strung out over two streets, Fridley faced the cadets, standing in formation in the middle of the street, with confidence.
“The [cadet] bus captains did a great job,” said Fridley. “I said, ‘Here’s the location of the buses; make it happen.’ … It was pretty impressive. We crossed the reviewing stand at 1832 [6:32 p.m.] and at 1932 [7:32 p.m.] I was driving out of D.C.”
The buses headed for post, with one astonishingly quick stop at Manassas to pick up boxed dinners prepared, transported, and efficiently distributed by Aramark, to a famished and appreciative Corps and staff.
“That dinner was delicious,” said Neel. “I had a nice big roll with a big old piece of chicken in there. It was very tasty, very good.”
The buses arrived back on post between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., greeted by VMI physical plant staff ready to deal with the trash and recycling generated by the trip.
Some of the cadets hurried to bed, and some, like Gernhardt, worked on homework due in class the next day. Many shared their reflections and recollections of the day with friends and family, through Facebook and text-messaging, before settling in to sleep.
Members of the commandant’s staff reflect with satisfaction on a challenging, grueling effort that came off beautifully.
“This was a cadet-run operation,” said Fridley. “Getting people on and off buses, getting people formed up, making people look good when they march, that’s all cadets.”
“It was an 18-hour day, and we marched for about 45 minutes,” he continued. “And the cadets never lost their smiles and really seemed to enjoy it.”
“The Corps,” added Neel, “looked fantastic. We looked great. We looked really, really big. We were a great finish to the parade.”