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The group stands atop the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.

The group stands atop the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.
The group stands atop the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.

By Deputy Commandant of Cadets Lt. Col. Don Russell, U.S. Air Force (retired)

“Holy cow! Holy cow!”

This was the collective sentiment as Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets (VTCC) students, faculty, and alumni rounded a tall hedge and saw a cratered landscape overlooking the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and the English Channel.

The view stirred emotion. It was the site of courage, leadership, and sacrifice the morning of June 6, 1944, when the Allies invaded Normandy and began the liberation of France.

This cloudless morning in May was tranquil as the VTCC group had the battlefield to itself, before the arrival of late-waking tourists. It was one of the first battlefield stops of a week-long trip to France, the capstone of a new initiative called the VTCC Global Scholars Program.

The VTCC Global Scholars Program was created to advance the Corps’ vision of global, ethical leaders and to build its own education abroad program. Twelve upperclass cadets were competitively selected for a 15-week special study course on the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. The program’s intent is applied history, to open wider discussions about current leadership and national security challenges, to immerse cadets in international culture, and to honor veterans and alumni.

Last spring, cadets and instructors met for a three-credit hour seminar and discussed various aspects of the invasion. Readings, faculty presentations, and documentaries provided context.

Cadets chose one of 12 special topics for which they became the subject-matter expert. Later in the semester, cadets presented on their topics and led discussion about leadership, decision-making, and historical relevance to today’s tactical, operational, and strategic challenges. These topics directly corresponded to a dozen planned stops in Normandy, where again the cadets led discussion about that aspect of the invasion. It blended classroom academics with unbeatable field experience.

The end result was a world-class leader-development opportunity funded almost entirely by the Corps. Alumni generosity helped to pay for lodging, flights, and ground transportation for the group. For many of the cadets, it was their first time abroad or first time to Europe.

The contribution of Gordon Rudd ’72 was instrumental. After graduating, Gordon served 23 years as a U.S. Army officer and taught history at West Point. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University and is a professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps’ School of Advance Warfighting. Rudd generously donated his time and expertise and knows Normandy like few do.

In May, the cadets and Deputy Commandants Lt. Col. Don Russell and Lt. Col. Chuck Payne departed for France. They would be in country for six days — four in Normandy and two in Paris. From a hotel in Bayeux, the group ventured to Omaha and Utah beaches, Pointe du Hoc, airborne landing zones, and obscure locations that, 72 years prior, were scenes of tide-turning battles.

Corps alumnus Gary Obermeyer ‘86 and his wife, Patti, joined the group, as well. Gary Obermeyer is assigned to U.S. European Command and explained current perspectives on Europe’s dynamic security environment.

Cadet Bridger Johnson, Class of 2017, a political science major in Army ROTC, summed it up well: “I believe studying history can help leaders develop in a personal and professional sense. If you study the experiences of another person, you can take the knowledge of the experience as your own, as if you lived that life as well. Exposure to past experience is what makes this trip crucial to us as developing leaders.”

Cadet Kavi Muraleetharan, Class of 2017, a mechanical engineering major in Air Force ROTC, added, “Studying operational and leadership scenarios concerning adaptability, effective training, communication, and trusting subordinates, I learned lessons I could apply to cadet leadership and to my skills as a future officer.” Muraleetharan is this year’s drum major in the Highty-Tighties.

Cultural immersion was an equally important objective. Cadet Judith Skinker, Class of 2017, a civil engineering major in Navy ROTC, said, “I loved staying in Bayeux and then traveling to Paris. We got the whole experience, the small town and the major city.”

Regimental Commander and math major Mike Schoka, Class of 2017, summed it up: “I can say with confidence that this class was the most meaningful course I have taken in all my semesters at Virginia Tech. I had the opportunity to build good friendships with other cadets who all genuinely care about developing themselves as leaders. I think this environment was key to the growth of all as global, ethical leaders.”

Help This Program Continue

Resources willing, it is the intent to continue and grow the VTCC Global Scholars Program. You can help support the program through a donation to the Commandant’s Priorities fund.

The cadets, including Bridger Johnson '17, visited 1st Lt. Jimmie Monteith’s grave site.

Bridger Johnson

Connecting with Monteith

The 12 cadets connected more closely with the actions of 1st Lt. Jimmie Monteith during their trip to Normandy, France. Read the story.