A discussion of leadership with the commandant of cadets at The Citadel
The position of commandant for the South Carolina Corps of Cadets at The Citadel is one of great honor and responsibility. For more than 170 years, commandants at The Military College of South Carolina have worked to uphold the culture and core values of the Corps which are Honor, Duty, Respect. Many great men have fulfilled this role, all of whom had careers with positions of leadership in U.S. military service.
The newest commandant is Captain Eugene F. Paluso, U.S. Navy (Ret). Paluso returned to his alma mater in the summer of 2014 to lead the Corps where his career began. A member of the Class of 1989, he graduated from The Citadel with a degree in mathematics before receiving his commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. He served as a Navy SEAL, eventually becoming the commander of Navy Special Warfare Group 3 consisting of 700 SEALS and support staff. He has led men and women in combat at all levels around the world. His service awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal ,Meritorious Service Medal (2), Joint Commendation Medal (2), Navy Commendation Medal (5), Joint Achievement Medal, and the Navy Achievement Medal.
The following conversation is between Capt. Paluso (EP) and Logan Hester (LH), the 2014-15 Regimental Public Affairs Officer for the Corps, majoring in civil engineering at The Citadel.
LH: Looking back on your time as a cadet, can you recall what made you apply to The Citadel for college?
EP: I went to a military high school my junior and senior years, basically to force me to get my act together. I quickly realized at that high school that if I didn’t go to a college that had the same environment with similar academic opportunities, I probably wouldn’t get where I wanted to go...and I wouldn’t be here today.
I only applied to military colleges. I came down here for a pre-knob visit, had a great weekend, and really enjoyed Charleston. I also really enjoyed The Citadel’s focus and how it compared to my high school. After that, my decision was very easy. I guarantee if I didn’t come here, I’d still be trying to get my college degree.
LH: When did you know that you wanted to go into the Navy and become a SEAL?
EP: The high school I went to was a Navy Junior ROTC boarding school and by my sophomore year of high school I knew that I wanted to do something in the Navy. When I started at The Citadel, I wanted to become a Navy pilot, but this was right after the movie “Top Gun” came out, so everyone wanted to be a Navy pilot. Around that time, I was fortunate enough to meet a SEAL who was visiting Charleston and briefly got to talk to him about what SEALs do. I decided right then and there that I wanted to try something that was different from everyone else. I began doing research and by the beginning of my junior year I knew that I wanted to become a Navy SEAL.
LH: How did attending The Citadel prepare you to be a SEAL and naval officer?
EP: Well the easy answer is that what I learned here about being a leader prepared me to be a naval officer. I’ve talked a few times about the similarities between becoming a SEAL and being a Citadel cadet. If you compare knob year (freshman) and the bond that develops between cadets with BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALs) training, the experiences are similar from the standpoint of building lifelong relationships. Officers and enlisted all go through the same BUD/s program, so you know that every SEAL shared that same experience, which is very similar to knob year.
On a grander scale, this Citadel ring on my finger represents more than just me as an individual, my company, or my graduation class. It represents this institution, just as the trident on my chest represents all SEALs. This trident may be on my uniform but it doesn’t belong to me, it represents all SEALs, the Navy and the United States of America. This ring might be on my finger, but it really belongs to The Citadel and everything it stands for. This school prepared me to become a leader, which was the foundation of my career as a naval officer. Learning how to take care of people is learning how to lead people. People are your greatest asset; that’s what you learn here at The Citadel and that is what gives you the leg up on everyone else when you leave this place.
LH: What was your favorite aspect of serving in the Navy?
EP: [laughs] I had an awesome job. Of all the training that I’ve done, the places that I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, and the things that I’ve been fortunate enough to do — my favorite part is the people with whom I served. They are, and were, some of the best people in the military. It goes without saying that it is a very selective group, but it extends beyond the men who wear the SEAL trident; it includes the many dedicated people who support them.
That’s probably the thing that I’m going to miss the most. I’ll miss the deployments and some of the things that I got to do because the world’s still not a 100 percent stellar place. There’s always going to be work that needs to be done by the SEALs and all branches of service, but it’s the people that I will really miss.
LH: What made you decide to apply for the position of commandant of cadets?
EP: I told my boss that I needed to spend more time with my family. After all of the deployments and time spent away from home, it was time to slow down. I told my boss that I planned to retire in June of 2016.
Shortly after it became known that I was going to retire, I was returning from an overseas trip and landed in the airport. When I turned on my phone after the flight I had dozens of texts, e-mails, and voice messages from my Citadel classmates and from some SEAL buddies suggesting that I apply for the position of commandant of cadets. I went home, talked to my wife, and then told the admiral that this is what I wanted to do, but that it would mean I would retire in 2014 instead. Obviously my wife supported it and the boss was supportive, so I applied. I called Colonel Leo Mercado (the former commandant of cadets from 2009-14) to ask for his thoughts on the job, and the rest is history (thank God).
LH: In your first few months as commandant, what has surprised you the most?
EP: That’s actually a more difficult question to answer than I thought. I will tell you that what surprised me the most is how much some things haven’t changed, like the way the campus looks and the barracks. But you, the cadets, are all very different; you grew up in a very different time. A lot of the people who graduated high school in the 60s, 70s, and even the early 80s, came here for the same reasons. So it’s a very different generation now that helps maintain many of the deep-rooted traditions that make The Citadel what it is, such as our core values of Honor, Duty, Respect, and even our ceremonial dress parade.
But the college has also evolved as it should in order to produce prepared leaders. For instance, I have been very pleasantly surprised by the Krause Center for Leadership and Ethics. Recently I explained to the Corps that the tradition of passed-down leadership, which was the only way to learn leadership when I was a cadet, was good and bad. There was no formal strategy and program for leadership studies. I am glad that has changed. It’s going to make the future graduates so much better than we were.
LH: What has been the most challenging aspect of this new position for you so far?
EP: I would say the most challenging thing about this job is the number of things for which the commandant’s office is responsible. In the Navy, it was easy because there was a unit, a mission, and the assets for that mission. Here there are 2,300 cadets. We are responsible for their well-being, their education and every aspect of their life while they are here. And then there is all of the other insular stuff that goes along with the different clusters within the Corps.
I am learning how to make sure our team is on top of everything. Every hour of each day in the cadets’ schedules must be well coordinated. Every cadet is different. Whether it’s a discipline issue, an academic issue, or a family issue, each case deserves attention. Getting my hands around the magnitude of what the commandant’s office is responsible for has been pretty challenging. I came straight off of active duty and the job I did for 25 years, then jumped right into this. It’s definitely a shift for me.
LH: What is your favorite aspect of being commandant?
EP: Being back on this campus, in this place, and being able to interact with the Corps. This is a very (hopefully you all realize this) special place. This is where it all started for me; I would not be sitting here or have been successful as a SEAL without The Citadel. I came here because I needed to come to a place where I would learn structure and self-discipline. Being able to come back here and give back is pretty awesome. And getting to live in the city of my choice certainly adds to the experience.
LH: The Citadel was named the fourth fittest school in the nation in 2014. How do you plan to move it to number one?
EP: We are absolutely going to become the fittest college in the nation. It’s not whether we can; we’re going to. Some of the facilities need upgrades and we’re working on that. I would love to get to the point where there are no seniors worried about passing their PT (Physical Training) test to get their rings or to walk at graduation. You seniors have three years to get ready for that, but ideally students should be in their top physical condition when they show up as knobs.
I think we need to do a better job making sure students who are chosen to attend The Citadel know exactly what the physical requirements are as soon as they decide to commit. Then what we need to do is maintain fitness, and I think that regimental PT is going to help with that. When I visited The Citadel before taking the job as commandant and talked to cadets, one of their main concerns was a need for increasing the physical fitness standards. It’s one of the four pillars — it can’t be hollow.
LH: What are some of your other goals for the Corps of Cadets?
EP: I want everybody to follow the rules and regulations, and the standards, so that they can graduate from here and be the alumni that we expect them to be. We need all of the alumni to continue to hold themselves to the standards they learned here and set the example for cadets.
Leaving here with the leadership education and experiences is what sets us apart.
I told the Corps that no matter what their majors are (engineering, business, computer science), they are all majoring in leadership as well. This is the goal for the Board of Visitors, the administration, TAC (training, advising and counseling) officers, faculty, all of us: seeing cadets graduate with an excellent education, a diploma in hand and The Citadel experience that will make them a leader.
That’s why so many graduates come back here to work. We don’t come back here just because it’s a job; we come back here because there are 2,300 cadets that want the exact same thing and the success that all of us have enjoyed in life. This school wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Corps of Cadets, if there weren’t 2,300 cadets who wanted something different out of their lives. I want to be a part of that.