Recently I gave a presentation at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, which was established in 1842 as one of the first military academies inside the U.S. In addition to being ranked as one of the top regional universities in the South, it is a military academy in the true sense of the word. While on campus, the students are in uniform. Their goals and objectives are serving the Constitution in one of the armed services, and 30% of its graduates receive commissions. West Point directs its cadets to the Army, Annapolis to the Navy, but the Citadel directs its graduates to all of the branches of armed service.
A number of the cadets there know me from my leadership of their Civil Air Patrol or Boy Scouts of America unit, and they were familiar with “The Hayden Collins Radio Program.” With the presidential election approaching, I was asked to be the speaker at a special assembly with about 1,200 cadets in attendance. A number of the political candidates had previously spoken on campus, and they asked me to talk about the political spectrum that we’ve featured in “The Hayden Collins Radio Show’s Round Table section for the last year and a half. I knew they were expecting some political insight into the candidates, from a voice of reason.
For me, as I stood at the podium, I was looking at hundreds of very energetic, positive young men and women who are preparing to serve our country. It was an awe-inspiring moment. From my almost 30 years of service, I felt a connection to them as peers. When you speak in front of an organization whose core values are around your career and your future, you view in a different light the would-be commanders in chief who do not exhibit the honor and integrity that was in the room that day. I was aware that what I said will be remembered by a roomful of individuals who will be defending our Constitution.
So I said the only thing I could: Hello, let’s talk politics. That broke the ice, and allowed us a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere in their disciplined world. During the presentation and the question& answer period after it, we talked about why the candidates were presenting themselves in an awkward nature, instead of presenting themselves to the American people. Starting with an explanation of their political bases, we discussed the political spectrum – from the right-wing with the Evangelical base and how it affected Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, to the extreme left – and their geographic distribution around the country. The polarization of those two extremes and how it’s driving today’s politics, was one of the main topics. A question was asked about how to change this, and we talked about term limits to prevent career politicians, the current party control of primary elections, and the effect of news cycles in the perception of issues. Instead of a particular party’s position, we talked about political strategies and why they are pursued.
It was a Friday, and after my presentation the cadet captain invited me to attend the parade. The tradition called pass and review goes back to the beginning of our nation. It was the only way at that time for a general to review his command. All the brigades and companies lined up, and each company commander, battalion commander, and each regiment commander led his unit past the general to be reviewed before their assignments. For a soldier, you never feel the strength of your entire division until all the units are in one place. When you feel the strength as a company commander, with all the other companies, and you march your company past the general to review, and the drums are playing for you, for your men. In the past, those drums also guided troops in battle, and the soldiers ran to the sound of the drums, to the sound of the guns, and they did not hesitate. There is a bond of camaraderie that comes from serving together day after day, and that is part of the pride among those who serve when they are being reviewed for their progress among their peers and their leaders.
The Citadel is rich in tradition, and there I found one of the most unique traditions I have seen: some of the officer alumni of the Citadel are turning their swords over to underclassman to carry while they are in school, with the understanding they will be passed down. In doing so, the sword brings a tradition of service with it. During my tour of the Citadel I was educated on my own sword. Although it represents a company-level sword, I had thought it was an infantry sword. However when I described it to sword master, he told me it is actually a cavalry sword. I was impressed that this tradition of the types of swords assigned to the units, and the individuals who carry them, is also part of the cadets’ experience at the Citadel.
I have served as both an enlisted soldier and also as an officer. I have seen the difference that leadership and discipline make in a unit or a command. As I looked at the new class getting ready to graduate from the Citadel, I would be happy to have any of those second lieutenants reporting to me. From their training and from the examples of officer conduct and personal conduct that have been set, I know I would not be disappointed in their ability to lead, and the duty that they will live up to.
Most individuals who do not choose a career in military service, unless they have a very strong self-discipline, are likely to lack the talents and the skill set to make life or death decisions. A business graduate of the same age as the Citadel cadets could conduct issues fluidly in a business environment, where soldiers might respond more rigidly than flexibly, in making deals. That is exactly how it should be. When the time comes, and the order is given to take a hill, these cadets will charge that hill with the most appropriate plan and the best way to do it. Disciplined, not looking to make a deal. Would that young businessman expect to be able to pull out a credit card and try to negotiate – which hill, when, can this be outsourced?
As our country faces many questions regarding our next commander-in-chief, I feel confidence from my visit to the Citadel that its graduates’ training and traditions will serve us all well as they progress in positions of leadership. When the parade was done, I was again escorted from the parade ground, and left the Citadel with a fantastic handshake. It was first class treatment from beginning to end. I feel honored that the cadets who had served with me recommended me as a trusted source to speak there about the current state of politics, and provide that perspective to these leaders of the next generation.