"They are as different and diverse as they could be"
All boarding military schools belong to the Association of Military Colleges & Schools of the United States and their students wear uniforms, go to class in the morning, play sports in the afternoon, study all evening, and march around. However, by spending a little time exploring them and getting to know their cadets and faculty, you'll learn that while they may all seem the same, they are as different and diverse as they could be. Each one has different processes and ideas, different directions, and even when they do something similar, they each have their own individual take on it.
Coed - Roswell, New Mexico
Each year at Homecoming, the NMMI cadets hold an evening ceremony, called Silver Taps, to honor alumni who have passed on. During the event, the entire Corps of Cadets (student body) is assembled in Hagerman Barracks. The campus lights are turned out, and they line the outside walkways holding candles. Each candle represents a specific alumnus. As the names are read, each candle is extinguished. Three buglers end the ceremony, by playing Taps, the notes echoing throughout the the campus.
"Alumni are so attached to the school - it's where we grew up," says Rebecca Davis, an alumnus and current faculty member. "There is always a part of you that is running late for formation." During her second year as a cadet, Rebecca held her uncle's candle for Silver Taps. When they were cadets, both her uncle and father held candles for alumni. She explains that "it is hard to describe how moving it is - moving is too weak of a word."
Rebecca graduated from NMMI in 2010. After completing her graduate work at the University of Glasgow, she returned to campus as the Academic Counselor. She expressed to me that if I'd told her at graduation that she would one day be living across the street and still hearing the bugle calls, that she would have never believed it.
"Alumni are so attached to the school - it's where we grew up"
Many of the faculty once walked the NMMI halls as students, which helps bring a sense of continuity and build a bond between students and the staff. During her senior year, Rebecca was inspired by her teachers to study education and continue to impact the lives of students.
All Boys - Mexico, Missouri
At the closing of each school year, after all of the diplomas and awards have been given, and after they have packed their rooms and turned in all of their equipment, the cadets assemble in the front of campus for one more formation. Many tears are shed as the entire Corps of Cadets marches out on the field in front of campus, surrounded by their families and the academy's faculty and staff.
The Battalion Commander (highest ranking cadet) orders the cadet officers to ground their sabers and allows them a few minutes to say their final goodbyes. Then he calls the Corps to "Present Arms" where they salute as the flag is slowly lowered for the last time.
Mr. Gary Stewart, an alumnus and current Associate Director of Admissions, fondly remembers the Final Formations he stood in. Each year as a cadet, he slowly advanced in rank and moved from the rear of the formation to the front. His senior year, while grounding his sword, he stabbed it into his foot. Already overcome with the emotions of the day he did not even notice his injury until he felt a wetness in his shoe. His last act as a cadet was receiving a tetanus shot in the infirmary.
"I want the next generation of boys to have the same opportunities that MMA provided for me."
Gary returned to MMA after thirty years in the corporate world. During that time, he maintained a relationship with the academy, serving on the Board of Visitors. He "decided to come back to give back" as Gary wants the next generation of boys to have the same opportunities that MMA provided for him.
Coed - San Antonio, Texas
Most, if not all, of the military schools have an Honor Code (you can read more about my personal experiences with the Honor Code.) However, TMI makes their code a part of every action on campus.
Because I believe that integrity is essential,
I promise not to lie, cheat, and steal.
The school year starts off with Honor Chapel, a chapel service focused on integrity and honor. It is here that the entire faculty and student body come together to recite the Honor Code together.The service ends with the students and the faculty signing their names into the Book of Honor. This signing is affirmed with each turned-in assignment, as the students mark the word "Pledge" at the top of each page to symbolize the code.
Each year, the faculty nominate students - who are then voted for by the cadets - to pick a representative from each grade to protect the code. These representatives are the guardians of the Honor Code.
In the day-to-day, the representatives help council and answer questions for other students about the code. They hold hearings during their limited free time, during which potential violators of the code are asked to come and tell their side of the story. "It is amazing the maturity they demonstrate" says Matt Ridewood, an alumnus and co-sponsor of the Honor Code.
All Boys - Harlingen, Texas
Marine Military Academy is the only military school based on the Marine Corps Core Values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. As such, MMA is a hardworking school. Students do get a little downtime, as do the staff. Colonel Glen Hill, the academy's President, rewards his hardest-working cadets with a relaxing and fun steak dinner at his home.
Each month, the outstanding cadet in each company is selected to attend a BBQ at the President's home. Some outstanding cadets even get selected more than once - a great accomplishment since there is stiff competition to be chosen.
Col. Hill and his wife enjoy spending time with the cadets and getting to know them better. He asks them questions about where they are from, what they would do if they were the president of the academy, and what they like doing. They also talk about the cadets' future and how to become successful young adults. The evening is always ended with a contest to see who can make the most creative banana split. Many of the cadets are not familiar with banana splits and the results can be very interesting. "MMA is their home for most of the year and we want them to feel welcome" says Col. Hill.
Six months before retiring from the United States Marine Corps, Col. Hill was handed a phone by a friend and had a conversation with the academy's Chief of Staff. He was persuaded to come down and interview with the school. Being fascinated with the cadets, Col. Hill agreed to try military school for a year. Twenty years later he is loving every day of it. He is still fascinated by the cadets and enjoys being involved with them and helping develop them into future community members and leaders.
All Boys - Salina, Kansas
The front door of each school's main building experiences a great deal of use. At St. John's Military School, that door belonged to Vail Hall, which was destroyed by fire in 1978. Searching through the wreckage of the building, an alumnus found the old original handle of the front door. The handle was remounted on a block of wood and began its new life one Sunday morning in the Handle Ceremony.
Cadets had once grasped the handle to enter the building. Now, during commencement, all new graduates grasp the handle to enter their new lives outside of the academy. Captain Brian Bell, the school's Dean of Admissions, spoke to me about the importance the handle holds for the Corps of Cadets. "They see it and feel the significance it holds. First they graduate, then they pass the handle."
CPT Bell was drawn to St. John's, in part, to be a role model for the cadets. "Apathy and selfishness are in vogue and this school gives a real sense of self. Cadets become a part of something larger than themselves."
Coed - Front Royal, Virginia
Aviation cadets who solo (complete a takeoff, a short flight, and a safe landing alone) are treated to a tradition of aviation in which their shirt tails (more often their t-shirt) are cut off and displayed in the ground school. Their instructor signs it, also writing the aviator's name, the date, airport, and a hand-drawing picture. This harkens back to early aviation, when communication between trainees and trainers was difficult and the instructor would tug on the pupils shirt tails to get their attention. Removing the shirt tails signified that the student was ready to fly on their own.
R-MA has an impressive flight program during which many of their cadets not only learn to fly, but can earn their Private Pilot's Certificate (which is commonly referred to as a a pilots license.) As part of the two year process, cadets first complete ground school, then flight instruction, followed by their first solo.
Each year, around thirty students solo for the first time, while around four students earn their Private Pilot's Certificate. Each step of the process earns the cadet recognition as their achievement is announced and their wings are awarded in front of a school-wide assembly.
Laura Abraham, R-MA's Flight Director, is one of two flight instructors at R-MA. She is very proud of the successes of the cadets in the program as well as long after graduation. Laura has former students who have gone on to become air traffic controllers, to attend the service academies (Coast Guard, Naval, Air Force, and West Point), and even some who have become commercial airline pilots.
Coed - St. Petersburg, Florida
AFA is very proud of their long history and Naval tradition. As the only Naval JROTC-based military school, cadets at Farragut seem to speak a different language than even the other military boarding schools.
"Working with teenagers is much harder than working with sailors, but is so much more rewarding"
- Attention on Deck - Calling attention when an officer walks in the room
- Bulkhead - Wall
- Deck - Floor
- Grinder - Drill field
- Overhead - Ceiling
- Quarterdeck - Main entrance to Farragut Hall
- Scuttlebut - Campus gossip
Farragut also focuses on its strong engineering program, offering Project Lead the Way (PTLW) classes, aviation, scuba, and year round scuba.)
Former Senior Naval Instructor Captain Tom McClelland says that AFA can be a feeder school to the Naval Academy. As an Honor School (top 20% of all Navy JROTC programs), Farragut can nominate students to the Naval Academy. While most cadets do not move on to the military colleges, opting instead to attend traditional four-year universities, cadets have attended the Merchant Marine Academy, Air Force Academy, and Coast Guard Academy. Traditionally, eight to ten percent of Farragut's graduates attend a military college or join a college ROTC program.
Capt McClelland has been involved with Farragut since 1998, when he followed a friend's direction and decided not to "get rich and become a beltway bandit, but instead accept the harder challenge of working with teenagers." He says that he has thoroughly enjoyed all of it, especially getting to know the cadets and their families. "Working with teenagers is much harder than working with sailors, but is so much more rewarding" he adds.
All Boys - Gainesville, Georgia
While RMA is one of the larger military schools, it has a great tradition in its community culture. Colonel William Gallagher, the academy's president, is very proud of the culture his school provides.
COL Gallagher explains: "traditions build culture and culture is bigger than any one person." At Riverside, the students are bound together" by their shared experiences, discipline, daily routines, and ceremony. Three times each day, the entire school "comes together as a full community with everyone wearing their team uniform to share in a meal."
Many who hear the words military school discipline think of something harsh and tyrannical, which COL Gallagher says "leads to misconceptions of a 19th century workhouse out of a Dickens novel. In truth, the discipline system is based on mutual respect for others and helps develop cadets with the self-discipline to be on time for things, work hard, look sharp, and treat each other with respect."
"Ceremony is associated with life changes; they are serious and dignified. Ceremonies mark a milestone and reinforce the importance of life," says Col Gallagher. His son went to New York University and the only ceremony there was graduation. At Riverside there are constant milestones with both small and large ceremonies associated with them.
COL Gallagher is in his second year at Riverside, but is not new to education. Since retiring from the Army, where he found his interest in training and developing young adults, he has taught in middle schools, high schools, technical colleges and universities. Working at the high school level provides him with the "biggest potential to change lives." He explains that "teens are at a major crossroads in their life" and parents should look for an educational "system that graduates the kind of young adults that you hope your son will become."
This was the most fun article to research and interview for. Everyone was so proud of their schools and gave me so much information about what makes their school stand out above the others. Please get in touch with these fine schools and share their stories. Lets help them to provide their unique traditions to a whole new generation.