At D-Day Memorial, 4th Class Cadets Hear from Ones ‘Whose Lives were Touched’
LEXINGTON, Va., Sept. 16, 2013 – Sometimes, to figure out where you are going, you have to look at where others have been.
That is one of the big reasons why Virginia Military Institute bused its 4th Class cadets to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford Sunday afternoon. The hope is that they start to get a look at the bigger picture of what VMI, and its emphasis on the citizen-soldier, is all about.
“This event is important to help the rats understand why we do what we do [at VMI],” explained Cameron Armstrong ’14, the regimental executive officer charged with overseeing the Rat Line. “We do this so eventually we become great Americans and great soldiers.”
“A lot of times, [the rats] get focused on the Rat Line, and they don’t see the greater picture,” added John Bolen, Jr. ’14, the S3 lieutenant in charge of operations for 1st Battalion. “Up to this point, they’ve just been getting trained by cadre. They survived that initial push, and now they’re starting to get acclimated.”
How can a visit to a World War II museum help the cadets understand VMI?
For one thing, while the cadets rotated between nine stations, getting brief history lessons about what happened that June day in 1944 when Allied forces landed on the coast of France, they are bombarded with numbers. The death toll that day was 4,400 allied forces, including almost 3,000 Americans. All of those names are memorialized on plaques that adorn the marble walls.
“You look at the names, and you realize they’re regular people,” Armstrong said. “They’re people who did what they needed to do when their country needed them to do it. That really brings it home and gives it a lasting impact.”
But tucked in a corner near the English Garden is another plaque. This one does not have names, but it does have more of those numbers. It tells visitors that more than 4,000 VMI alumni fought in World War II, and 185 of them never made it home.
“VMI alumni played a role in this campaign,” Bolen said. “This helps the rats appreciate where they’re going in a greater context.
That’s the second thing organizers hoped the 4th Class cadets took back to Lexington. Many of the men who fought and died on D-Day were just like them, young Americans from all walks of life who chose first to embrace the citizen-soldier ideal at VMI.
“Once they start hearing the stories and the history, they realize that cadets just like them did these amazing things,” said Armstrong. “That connection is irreplaceable. This gets them focused on something bigger than themselves.”
The cadets were not forced to follow a tour guide around. They didn’t have to listen to a history professor lecture on the war as they moved through the nine stations. The speakers on Sunday had been soldiers themselves or were the offspring of veterans. They had all been touched by D-Day in some way.
“It’s living history,” Armstrong said. “There’s an air of credibility you get when you hear it from someone who was there, or their father was there. It’s not just words on a page.”
“If you read it in a book, you just think of it as something you have to remember for a test,” said Bolen. “You don’t really come to appreciate it. But when you hear about it from people whose lives it actually touched, it adds a human dimension you can’t get in a classroom. It doesn’t sound like World War II was 200 years ago anymore. You realize how recent it was.
“You see the greater purpose of ultimately why you are here,” he added, “to selflessly serve this nation. That’s what this place commemorates.”
One of the first statues one sees when entering the D-Day Memorial from the parking lot is called Valor, Fidelity, Sacrifice. Its plaque in honor of the soldiers who landed on those beaches reads: “That you yourself are free and here today is but a portion of their rich and enduring legacy.
Sunday’s trip surely will be one that the Class of 2017 will treasure.
“You know the criticisms of our generation: we’re removed; we’re obsessed with technology; we’re always on our phones,” said Bolen. “The Rat Line takes all that away, and it gives them a greater appreciation. You can see it on their faces. They’re not just droning through this; they are captivated by what they are hearing.”–Chris Floyd