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Citadel News Service
31 Dec 2009

“Into the Wild:” One cadet’s journey of realizing leadership

Story by Matt Millard, ’09

I have one mantra in life, borrowed from Chris McCandless, who was made famous in Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild.” McCandless left college in the early 1990s to wander across the country in a Thoreau-like sojourn to find himself. His quest for a higher understanding about life cost him his life.

“It’s the experiences, the memories, the ultimate joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found,” McCandless said.

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Citadel cadets live this life every day and must look past the hardships to realize that it is the experience of being in such an environment that is so memorable.

When I arrived at The Citadel, I found myself immersed in a very strange world. I quickly noticed on the first day that everything was different from what you would expect of an ordinary college experience. There was a formality to the gleaming campus reinforced by the presence of the serious upperclassmen in their crisp uniforms. Even the sun, with scorching temperatures in the upper 90s, seemed unforgiving. I remember my father jokingly asking an angry-looking supply sergeant if we would be charged for the hole in the wall of my room. And I remember the sergeant’s sideways grin, seeming to record my name for future attention.

I knew it was going to be a long year. As I held onto the fleeting moments with my parents before their departure, I was mindful of the scanning eyes of upperclassmen I imagined were watching my every move. With these last goodbyes ironically staged next to a dumpster, I turned away from the sheltered existence I knew, only to step into a new world, a world few understand.

By the last day of that long, long year, my new classmates and I had grown considerably wiser and had managed to live through the grueling regimen of our freshman year. Recognition Day began early, at 0500. I remember it was, as usual, a hot day, but the last day in a year of exertions and untold experiences. The tense but exhilarating feeling gnawing inside of me was surely felt by the entire class of 2009. And in those last moments some 12 hours later, I remember my friends and I staring through teary eyes back at the eyes of the upperclass cadets—eyes that I had imagined were unrelenting only a few months earlier. Their eyes, too, were teary, and revealed that they shared our elation at having made it through the year.

The Citadel is undoubtedly an extraordinarily difficult college to attend. But as I write this in the last days of my senior year, I realize how hard it is to leave. It is what you learn from these experiences that makes life worth living. One of the most enduring of these experiences took place slowly, during my tenure as a cadet. I had come to The Citadel with the hope of becoming an officer in the U.S. Army.

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I chose The Citadel for its reputation of molding high school graduates into leaders. But one of the goals that I worked for three years to obtain was never to be realized. As a freshman, sophomore, and junior, I had voluntarily gone to extra Army physical labs, hoping it would pay off with an Army contract. The last time was just before Christmas break my junior year when an instructor, who asked me to stay after class, echoed what I had heard so many times before—the Army had denied my application. But I never quit trying. Even during my senior year, I frantically wrote letters to politicians, anxiously grasping at any opportunity. My face and voice must have worn on the administrative staff who had to deal with my medical waivers.

Before reporting to The Citadel, I was diagnosed with a genetic eye disorder that disqualified me. From the ash heaps of this dead dream, I realized that one of the ways I could serve others was by passing on the lessons of my tenure as a cadet and the life-lessons I have subsequently learned.

One of those hard-learned lessons is always to humble yourself. As a senior, I have been a company commander responsible for 100 cadets. Though commanders and seniors are permitted more privileges, such as rolling chairs (yes, even after four years, it does seem odd to call a rolling chair a privilege), I chose not to have one. Instead, I found the most decrepit chair in the battalion, so that another cadet would be able to have a newly reupholstered chair.

I was once forced to restrict cadet leave because the barracks needed to be cleaned. It was an unpopular move, and because I knew it would be met with resistance, I chose to perform the most humiliating job I could think of—cleaning the bathrooms. Emerging after the much-needed scrubbing, I found the cadets content and busy cleaning the barracks. The sight of the company commander on hands and knees scrubbing the walls of a bathroom was enough to galvanize everyone to do their part.

As a freshman, menial tasks like memorizing facts and shining shoes or buckles taught us that doing things the right way brings rewards, whereas taking the easy route leads to failure or dissatisfaction. As a squad corporal and sergeant directly in charge of a dozen freshmen, I made it my mission to make those cadets in my charge the highest performing.

Distinguishing between those freshmen who made a whole-hearted effort yet failed and those who succeeded but put little effort into their tasks became crucial to understanding people and their motivations. The Citadel has also taught me the valuable lesson that as you accept more responsibility you must be willing to sacrifice privilege.

“The world is run by tired men,” Marine Maj. Kevin Jarrard, a 1995 Citadel graduate, said at a dinner one night this year.
It is true that leading is both lonely and painful, but the rewards more than compensate for the inconveniences. Cadets learn this when they assume positions of leadership, and more so later as graduates when they enter the workforce, join the military or continue their education. To be successful leaders, it is crucial they have the skills to assess their own weaknesses and determine how to best address problems. When I first came to The Citadel, I was not fond of pushups. I am about 6’1” and have extremely long arms. I’m also on the skinny side. My frame makes for good running, but not for doing pushups. As a freshman, I quickly learned that I had better learn to embrace this symbol of cadetdom. To correct my weakness, I would do pushups in my room on my own and to keep myself awake while studying. Finding a way in which to push yourself further everyday makes you stand out. And when you’re successful, the challenge then becomes to serve others and not be self interested.

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At The Citadel, while academics are the highest priority, much of the life skills training for leaders occurs outside the classroom. Interactions with others—good and bad leaders, roommates, friends, administrators—provide valuable applicable knowledge. In my four years, I have learned to be diplomatic, moving beyond the petty arguments with roommates about keeping the room clean. Even the casual roughhousing we engaged in promoted bonding between my classmates and me. This comradeship is perhaps the greatest thing The Citadel has to offer. When I entered as a freshman cadet on August 13, 2005, I was unaware that in such a short period of time I would be responsible for so many others. As my other classmates and I advanced in rank and experience, we gained the necessary skills to become leaders and we learned how to relate to those around us.

The final lesson I learned came courtesy of a 1961 graduate, Col. John Lackey, a retired Army officer and the former assistant commandant of cadets, who taught a class on military leadership. In the three classes I took with him, there was always a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face as on every Citadel graduate’s face when they discuss how it was “back when I was a knob.” 

There exists good and evil in this world. The challenge in this world is for good to triumph over evil,” he said.
He explained to us that The Citadel teaches you to understand what’s wrong in the world around you and gives you the tools to meet these challenges so they become positive experiences.

The experiences I gained at The Citadel in a mere four-year stint are memories worth remembering for a lifetime. It was more than a traditional academic experience—it was an education in life that is invaluable. The challenge now is to serve others by passing these lessons on so that they may build still further on these ideals.

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