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A Learning Experience

By Capt. Jamie McGrath ’90, deputy commandant for 3rd Battalion

Several times during my Navy career, I tried to return to the Naval ROTC unit at Virginia Tech, knowing I wanted to help give others the opportunity that the Corps of Cadets had given me.

These attempts were unsuccessful, but not all bad. Instead of returning to Virginia Tech, each attempt resulted in a different amazing opportunity. I taught prospective nuclear power officers at Naval Nuclear Power School; served as the Naval Forces Europe liaison to European Command in Stuttgart, Germany; coordinated global exercises for the joint staff; and served on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College.

Jamie and Kiki McGrath during a hike near Blacksburg.
Jamie and Kiki McGrath during a hike near Blacksburg in 2020.

But when the opportunity arose for me to return to the Corps as a deputy commandant, I jumped at the chance to return and serve the organization that served me so well.

Many people have asked what it is like to return to Blacksburg, Virginia, after almost 30 years. It is definitely different from being a student.

Living all four years on campus limited our experience with the broader community. The New River Valley and Southwest Virginia is a beautiful place to live, and my wife, Kiki (Clos) ’90, and I have learned so much more about the area compared with our time here in the late 1980s, like an apple orchard in Pembroke or a general store in Paint Bank.

People also ask if we recognized campus from all the changes since we left. The truth is, the campus does not look all that different.

Yes, there are more buildings, and buildings where there used to be parking lots, and the Corps residence halls are A LOT nicer than Brodie and Rasche, but the feel has not changed. The Drillfield, War Memorial Chapel, Burruss Hall, Lane Stadium, Cassell Coliseum, and the renovated Upper Quad remain focal points of this beautiful campus.

Even on a rough day, walking campus still calms my soul. As always, Hokie football is still worth getting up early for on a Saturday morning or staying up late on Saturday night (six overtimes to beat North Carolina!)

Our return to Blacksburg in 2019 went as Kiki and I expected _ for about six months. We experienced all that the Corps does in the fall, from New Cadet Week to the Caldwell March, football games, and the Old Guard pass in review, homecoming and parent’s weekends. Each event was a learning experience for us as we viewed it from the staff’s perspective instead of the cadet or alumni perspective.

Spring semester began normally enough, with Senior Banquet and Military Ball. But spring break occurred, and nothing has been normal since because of COVID-19.

Jamie and Kiki McGrath as cadets in 1990.
Jamie and Kiki McGrath as cadets in 1990.

When students did not return, all our plans were upended.

Mentoring cadets is much more difficult when they are not on campus. Cadet leadership lost the opportunity to lead. The Class of 2020 lost out on the pomp and circumstance of change of command, graduation, and commissioning. The Class of 2023’s freshman training ended abruptly without resolution. Uncertainty reigned.

The commandant’s staff spent the spring and summer trying to determine how the Corps would run during the fall semester. What precautions must be taken? What training could still occur? What objectives would need to be adjusted?

As a Corps alumnus, fellow alumni bombarded me with questions, asking what fall would look like. Unfortunately, I had fewer answers than I would have liked. But once the decision was made for students to return, the cadet leadership proved yet again why this program is so great.

Given some basic guidelines, the cadre used their imagination and executed a most unique New Cadet Week and Red Phase training plan. They, working with the commandant’s staff, devised ways to meet all the Corps training objectives in new and creative ways while maintaining COVID-19 safety protocols. They maintained a resilient chain of command that adapted as some cadets were isolated or quarantined as part of those protocols.

So, while the past year has been far from what I expected, one thing has shone through – the Corps’ resiliency.

It is an honor to serve the Corps of Cadets and these future military officers and civic leaders as they prove daily what it means to live up to the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Jamie McGrath (center) works with cadets during a rehearsal for a ceremony at the Pylons this fall.
Jamie McGrath (center) works with cadets during a rehearsal for a ceremony at the Pylons this fall.