VMI Cyber Corps

Alumni and Friends of VMI:

Cyber Corps Numbers: 576

Col. Bissell To Retire: Much contained in this week's update deals with yesterday's graduation, events at VWIL and the VMI football program. All well and good. However, there is one event that came to my attention that I cannot let pass without comment from yours truly, the Cyber Corps Commander. I recently learned that Col Mike Bissell will be retiring from VMI at the beginning of the next semester. As you know Col Bissell headed up VMI's assimilation efforts and now heads up the VMI Protocol Office. His performance as head of assimilation was nothing short of outstanding. With VMI in the media spotlight he helped guide the Institute through shark infested waters. The manner in which VMI handled the assimilation helped bring credit and notoriety to the Institute. In comparing VMI's success in assimilation to that other other all-male colleges, I believe that no one did it better.

Col Bissell's other accomplishments are too numerous to recap here. As a highly decorated officer in the U.S. Army and later the Commandant of the Corps of Cadets, he served his country and his alma mater in an exemplary manner. On several occasions he visited the VMI alumni chapter here in the Pittsburgh area and provided his insights at alumni social gatherings and recruiting functions. It was through these visits that I came to know him.

At the end of the day I am honored to be a fellow alumnus of Mike Bissell, but more importantly I am blessed to have him as a friend. Godspeed Mike in whatever future endeavors you undertake.

Congratulations Class of 1999!: By the way, if anyone can obtain a transcript of Liddy's speech, please forward it and I'll include it in the next update.

A historic VMI graduation / First women earn degrees from once all-male school

Sunday, May 16, 1999
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

LEXINGTON -- For the first time, two women graduated yesterday from Virginia Military Institute, overcoming VMI's harsh system and critics who predicted the introduction of women would leave the once all-male school in ruins.

Just past noon, cadets Chih-Yuan Ho and Melissa K. Graham strode onto the stage at VMI's Cameron Hall to take their diplomas and their place in history as the 160-year-old school's first female graduates.

A mighty cheer went up from the crowd. A dozen female cadets bounded out of their chairs to bellow their support.

"I came here not because I wanted to be the first female cadet," Ho said after the ceremony. "It just happened."

The soft-spoken Graham, nonetheless, said she is proud to be, with Ho, the first women to graduate from VMI.

"There are all kinds of emotions I'm feeling right now," Graham said. "I'm sad, because I'm going to miss my roommates; I'm proud, excited."

Ho and Graham graduated alongside 217 male cadets after convicted Watergate burglar and radio talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy gave a short commencement speech.

Liddy, while arguing that women should not have combat roles in the military, declared that the issue of women at VMI is closed.

Throughout the auditorium, VMI alumni and administrators agreed: Since 1839, the school has sent thousands of young men to the nation's boardrooms and battlefields; now it should send women into the work force as well.

"I'm proud to be here today," said Steve Fogleman, a 1971 VMI alumnus who led the fight to keep women out. "Everybody who walked across that stage was as entitled to a VMI education as I was, and I hope they get as much out of it as I got. They've earned it."

After half a decade of court battles, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 declared VMI's all-male policy unconstitutional. The school admitted its first female cadets in 1997.

Ho, from Taiwan, and Graham, from Burleson, Texas, were able to graduate this year because they transferred to VMI from other schools and had amassed class credits.

Like all graduates, though, they had to endure VMI's notorious "rat line," a system of verbal, physical and mental abuse aimed at freshmen.

While Ho said the rat line wasn't as tough as she thought it would be, Graham said it almost caused her to quit, as many who enter VMI do.

"Probably a month after we started was the hardest time," Graham said. "I thought about leaving, actually. You work hard and you keep going and going and it feels like nothing's going to change."

Graham said she sought advice from her upper-class mentor, known as a "dyke," and he encouraged her to tough it out.

"He told me he knew I couldn't quit something I started," she said. "And I don't think I could have left. But I seriously, seriously thought about it. That would have been a mistake."

Micah Wei, a Richmond senior who also graduated yesterday, said there was some unease among his classmates because they entered VMI in 1995 as an all-male class, yet left as a coeducational group. Ultimately, he said, each male cadet made his private peace with the situation, partly because of the integrity and ability of Ho and Graham.

"The two female cadets who walked with us were two of the most exemplary female cadets we have," Wei said. "They're the standouts of the group."

About 50 female cadets remain at VMI, and recruiters expect another 40 to arrive next year.

Cadet Kelly Sullivan hailed Ho and Graham as role models for any high school girl thinking of attending VMI.

"Any woman that wants to accept the challenge of VMI should take it, but know that it is very difficult," she said. "We have two strong women here today who led the way for us. It's emotional for us to let them go."

VMI Superintendent Josiah Bunting said the school has reaped benefits from the publicity surrounding its fight against admitting women and its subsequent effort to assimilate them. Donations from alumni are pouring in, he said, and the number of applicants to the school is at an all-time high.

So far 1,143 applicants, including 83 women, are seeking admission next year, an increase of 8.3 percent from last year.

Bunting, who once argued that admitting women would soften VMI, yesterday said the opposite. In its effort to not let coeducation alter the school, VMI has grown more arduous, he said.

"VMI has become even more self-consciously demanding. If anything, it's gotten tougher than it was before," Bunting said.

Ho, a psychology major who said she enrolled to follow in the steps of a Taiwanese general who graduated from VMI, plans to serve in the Navy and attend dental school.

Graham, also a psychology major, is to be commissioned in the Army and serve in a field artillery unit.

After the graduation ceremony, Liddy, who served in the artillery, reiterated his beliefthat women have no place in combat and said Graham should rethink her plans: "There's such a thing as counter-battery fire, and she's liable to have her guts splattered all over her."

Graham, exhibiting some of the toughness that carried her through VMI, suggested that Liddy, with his background, had no business offering her advice. "Knowing what he has done in the past, I'm not surprised by what he said," Graham said.

Mission accomplished

The Free Lance-Star

STAUNTON—The dorm was swarming with media when Amalie Charbonnet arrived at the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership on a sunny August morning nearly four years ago.

Charbonnet and her new teen-age classmates maneuvered through the throng as they and their parents hauled suitcases, boxes and plastic crates to upper-floor rooms.

Momentarily blinded by flash bulbs, the young women put on their best faces as the cameras recorded them unpacking bags, choosing beds and tacking up posters of hardbodied men.

Interest in the VWIL (pronounced “vee-will”) program at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton was high; at the same time, a court battle raged over whether such a curriculum could permit Virginia Military Institute in nearby Lexington to continue denying women admission.

Starting college is tough enough. The widespread attention to VWIL cadets that August day only made the transition more unnerving.

“There was all kinds of hugging and crying and goodbyes. And it was all in front of these cameras,” Charbonnet, one of three King George County students to enroll in VWIL’s inaugural class, said recently.

A week from today, the 21-year-old and other members of the program’s first class will graduate, leaving behind what was briefly a focal point in a national debate over the future of publicly funded, single-sex schools.

Of the 42 young women who started VWIL in the fall of 1995, about half stuck with it. Today, about 125 students are enrolled in the program, which Mary Baldwin officials say they plan to continue even though VMI is now open to women.

State officials invented VWIL as a potential remedy to admitting women to VMI. Such a parallel program, they argued, would give women equal access to a single-gender, military-style environment such as the one revered at VMI for more than 150 years.

Just months out of high school, Charbonnet and her classmates were viewed hopefully by the VMI faithful, if only because a successful female corps could help preserve their own all-male tradition.

Some called the young women pioneers. Charbonnet laughs at that now.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go,” she said. “My dad just gave me an application and said, ‘Here, fill this out.’”

Her father, a Navy man, had taught Charbonnet, Kim Primerano and Jenn Atkins as director of King George High School’s Navy Junior ROTC program. Primerano and Atkins also enrolled in VWIL and will graduate in a week.

Even with her exposure to the military, Charbonnet felt uneasy about joining the experimental program: “I didn’t know what to expect.”

That first year was tough for VWIL cadets. There were 6 a.m. wake-up calls and four-mile jogs in near-freezing temperatures. And they were treated, in some ways, like second-class citizens during their trips to VMI for class.

The female cadets weren’t allowed to visit VMI’s upper campus during their trips there for ROTC training. Instead, the young women were bused to a building across the street and down a hill from the main campus, prohibiting much of a view of the school that they might possibly help keep all-male.

Charbonnet thought about quitting. She called home constantly and returned to King George at every chance.

“I wanted to get out,” she said.

Now, she figures her distress was more about being a college freshman than about being a VWIL cadet. At the time, though, it wasn’t as clear.

She was not alone. Many of VWIL’s cadets were going through much the same. And there were the two other cadets from King George High there, Primerano and Atkins.

“We all kind of had a hard time, I guess,” Primerano said. “But I don’t start something and quit. That’s not me.”

Charbonnet decided leaving wasn’t for her, either.

The next few years proved better.

In June 1996, the Supreme Court ruled 7–1 that VMI must admit women or forfeit state funding, ending a seven-year fight between the school and the U.S. Department of Justice. VMI and VWIL were similar, a majority of the court conceded, but not the same.

Suddenly, the media’s attention shifted.

Would VMI open its Spartan barracks to women?

Or would it try to keep them out by going private?

How about these VWIL cadets?

Did they want to abandon this experiment and go to VMI?

VMI enrolled its first coeducational class in the fall of 1997. The three young women from King George say trading their rooms for VMI’s barracks never crossed their minds. VWIL afforded them a part-time military experience. If they wanted the real thing, they might have looked to West Point or Annapolis.

The debate then moved to other matters, such as whether VMI’s new female cadets should have shaved heads and more private rooms than their male classmates.

Meanwhile, members of VWIL’s inaugural class relished the opportunity to build their program themselves and create their own traditions—outside the spotlight.

Their new hierarchy mimicked VMI’s own, where freshmen are called “rats” and are told by upperclassmen how to walk, eat and study.

At VWIL, freshmen were dubbed “NULLs”—as in “null and void”—and were given orders such as being able to walk only on curved steps at the hilly campus. Upperclassmen, meanwhile, established their own privileges, including being able to take shortcuts across the grass.

“It was great being the first ones,” Primerano said.

Upperclassmen also established penalties for breaking the rules. Sanctions ranged from marching around the school’s track on Saturdays to being confined to a dorm for the weekend.

Cadets also held themselves to a strict honor code, even when they could get away with breaking some of the rules. Just last October, Primerano turned herself in for oversleeping and missing a 17-mile run. Her punishment: Counseling.

All three King George cadets also became leaders among their VWIL peers. Atkins and Charbonnet were platoon commanders, while Primerano was second-in-charge of the entire corps.

And there were opportunities the female cadets say they probably wouldn’t have found elsewhere.

Charbonnet spent part of a summer aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Spain and also went along on anti-drug operations in the Caribbean.

Primerano endured a Marine Corps boot camp, but came out smiling. She also voluntarily cropped her hair to a one-inch spike because it kept getting in the way during training.

Atkins, like many of the cadets, kayaked, scaled a rock face and rappelled for the first time during VWIL’s freshman wilderness orientation.

“You really learn a lot about yourself, about what risks you’re willing to take,” she said.

Charbonnet and Primerano also roadtripped to Charleston, S.C., for a Citadel football game and to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Strands of purple, green and red French Quarter beads hang from a doorway in the dorm apartment they share.

Much of their four years together is chronicled in photos. On a nearby wall are collages made of dozens of snapshots, including a boot-camp picture of Primerano with her spiked brown hair.

“You look good,” Charbonnet said, teasing her roommate as they sat together on the back of a couch recently.

“Yeah, I do,” Primerano shot back.

For a second, they were silent. Then the two exploded in laughter and fell backward over the edge of the sofa.

Soon, these cadets will go their separate ways.

Charbonnet, who majored in math, is joining the Navy for four years. She’ll head for Rhode Island, then to San Diego, where she’ll join the USS Hewitt, a destroyer whose missions take it to Japan, Australia and other Pacific ports. She’ll be commissioned as a Navy ensign—the equivalent of a second lieutenant—and probably will go on to graduate school.

Primerano will be closer to home, for a while. The biology major is joining the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant, with a tour of duty that starts at the Quantico Marine Corps Base.

Atkins will head for Army training in Fort Lewis, Wash. The business major will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the reserves while she earns a master’s degree in finance at either Virginia Commonwealth University or Mary Washington College.

But before that, the cadets will be back in front of the cameras.

The media will return. Classmates will click snapshots. And proud parents, video cameras in their hands, will eagerly seek to capture a last salute to VWIL’s first.

© 1999 The Free Lance–Star, Fredericksburg, Va.  
[CAPTION FOR ATTACHED PIC: Photo by Suzanne Carr / The Free Lance-Star
Amalie Charbonnet (left) and Kim Primerano (center), both from King George, were among the first students to join the Virginia Woman’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College four years ago. ]

McCombs: Crazy like a fox? /
New VMI football coach believes he can succeed

Friday, May 7, 1999
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer


The question followed him everywhere. Virginia Military Institute's new football coach heard it during his morning stops for coffee in town, and he heard it during his trips around the state.

Cal McCombs carries himself confidently, dresses neatly and speaks clearly and logically with a distinct South Carolina accent. He doesn't look like or act like a man who's lost his mind. Yet more than one person has asked him: "Why in the
world would you do this?"

McCombs smiled.

"People said I was crazy," he said. "Beat everything I'd ever seen."

VMI, the second-smallest school playing Division I-AA football, has become known as a coaching graveyard. The Keydets haven't had a winning record since 1981 when they finished 6-3-1 under Bob Thalman. Thalman's final three teams at VMI went 8-24, and his successors

-- Eddie Williamson (1985-88), Jim Shuck (1989-93), Bill Stewart (1994-96) and Ted Cain (1997-98) -- were a combined 33-118-2.

"It's been regarded as a very tough job," said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry. "It's been regarded as, 'Why would you want to go there?' "

After 15 years as an Air Force assistant, during which the Falcons went 120-64-1 and appeared in 10 bowl games, McCombs took a leap of faith and accepted VMI's job offer. This is a guy who, though only 5-9, high-jumped 6-7 at The Citadel. At VMI, McCombs has an even higher bar to clear.

Four months into the job, the 53-year-old redhead hasn't lost his smile or his optimism. He hasn't lost any games either, of course, so perhaps reality hasn't set in.

"At VMI, everybody will tell you can't win because of this and this and this," McCombs said. "I guess I'm just crazy enough to say I don't believe all that stuff."

DeBerry said: "I know it's a tough job. Cal knows it's a tough job. But if anyone in America can do it, it's Cal McCombs. They don't know what a gem they got."
. . .

Mike Bozeman knows. When Superintendent Josiah Bunting III and Athletic Director Donny White dismissed Cain a week before VMI's final game last season, Bozeman, the school's highly successful track coach, immediately thought about McCombs.

It wasn't the first time.

"He came to mind when they hired Jim Shuck," said Bozeman, a classmate of McCombs at The Citadel. "I've always felt like he would be the right guy here . . . He would have been able to come in here at any time and done a pretty good job. But the way it's worked out, the timing is perfect for both him and VMI."

Many in the VMI family have held that only a VMI graduate -- a person who has survived the Rat Line's rigors -- can truly understand the often-controversial school. Cadets past and present have embraced McCombs anyway, despite his ties to The Citadel, VMI's biggest rival.

"Cal McCombs is like a breath of fresh air," said White, a VMI alumnus.

Raised in Belton, S.C., a mill town near Clemson, McCombs grew up planning to work in the textile business, as his father did for 45 years.

"I wanted to be the manager of one of those plants down there," McCombs recalled. "But the more I got involved in athletics, the more I thought coaching wouldn't be bad."

A two-sport star in high school, McCombs accepted a small academic scholarship to attend The Citadel, where he eventually earned a full football grant-in-aid. He has a master's degree in physical education from the University of South Carolina.

His résumé suggests he's perfectly suited to coach at a military school:

• Seventeen years at The Citadel: four as a student-athlete (track and football), 13 as a football assistant under head coaches Red Parker, Bobby Ross, Art Baker and Tom Moore, respectively.

• Two years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

• Fifteen years at the Air Force Academy, the last nine as defensive coordinator. The Falcons ranked No. 11 nationally in total defense last season. They ranked third nationally in scoring defense in 1997.

To succeed as a military-school coach, DeBerry said, "I think you need to be understanding of the military, which Cal has a great respect for. The school is run on a master schedule, and you have to run your program within that."

McCombs' staff shares his values. His assistants include four military-school graduates: his son, Will McCombs, and Joe Lombardi from Air Force; Jack Baker from VMI, and Mike Priefer from Navy. Three other assistants have coached at military schools.

"I believe in this type of education," McCombs said.

Of the three coaches who immediately preceded McCombs, none graduated from a military school.

"I think there were problems along the way with all those staffs as far as understanding the [VMI] system, which, when times got hard, made them reluctant to support it," Bozeman said.

Tight end Tom Boyer, a rising senior from Douglas Freeman High, said the players have adjusted easily to McCombs.

"He understands we have the military [obligations]," Boyer said, "and he's giving us time to have that done."

McCombs said: "To me, the school comes first. The football program is not bigger than the school."
. . .

At Air Force, DeBerry wins with players shunned by most Division I-A programs. The Falcons are smaller than most opponents but compensate with an option offense and attacking defense that emphasizes speed and quickness.

McCombs, not surprisingly, has installed DeBerry's system at VMI, which has struggled to compete in the rugged Southern Conference with players who often had no other Division I-AA scholarship offers.

But X's and O's alone won't resuscitate the Keydets. Attrition has been an ongoing and devastating problem at VMI, and recruiting efforts haven't paid great dividends. White expects that to change.

"With Cal McCombs' experience and Cal McCombs' personality," White said, "I believe he'll be able to recruit and retain good players, because he'll be someone people want to play for."

McCombs signed a five-year contract that includes a $90,000 annual salary. Of VMI's four previous coaches, only Shuck lasted five years. White promises that the school will be more patient with McCombs.

McCombs, for his part, says he wants to be at VMI when he retires.

"When you're winning and you're having fun like I did at the Air Force Academy, time gets away from you," he said. "I go from 38 to 53 overnight. When we get things going here and have a good time with the players, shoot, I'll go from 53 to 70 overnight."

McCombs easily could have celebrated his 70th birthday in Colorado. But he and his wife, Lynn, accepted White's invitation to visit VMI over Thanksgiving weekend. What McCombs saw piqued his interest.

"Here's a very prestigious school, here's a class school, here's a school that hasn't won [in football] in 18 years and that has been successful in other sports," McCombs said. "Why can't we get it done in football?"

The Keydets open Sept. 4 against the Richmond Spiders at University of Richmond Stadium. Also on the schedule are William and Mary and Southern Conference powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.

"I know it's a tremendous challenge," McCombs said. "I had the best assistant-coaching job in America -- and I believe that with all my soul -- and I left there to come to VMI, which hasn't won in 18 years. There's no way I would have taken this job if I didn't think we could win."


McCombs file

• Who: Cal McCombs, hired in December as Virginia Military Institute’s football coach. Native of Belton, S.C. Born Aug. 4, 1945.

• Family: Wife, Lynn; daughter, Layne; son, Will.

• College: Bachelor’s degree in physical education from The Citadel; master’s in physical education from South Carolina. Starred in football and track at The Citadel.

• Coaching: Graduate assistant at South Carolina, 1969-70; assistant at The Citadel, 1971-83; assistant at Air Force, 1984-98.

• Quotable: “If the job can be done [at VMI], Cal McCombs can do it. They got the right man for the job.” -- Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry.

Friday, May 7, 1999

LEXINGTON -- At VMI, Cal McCombs will try to do what no football coach has done since Bob Thalman: lead the Keydets to a winning season. He'll try to emulate Thalman as a person, too.

"I've got so much respect for that man," McCombs said.

McCombs has known Thalman for nearly 30 years. McCombs, in fact, accepted a job on Thalman's first staff in January 1971. Two days later, however, The Citadel offered McCombs an assistant's job. He and his wife are South Carolina natives, and he's an alumnus of The Citadel. His heart was in Charleston.

"So I called Coach Thalman and told him the situation," McCombs recalled, "and he said, 'Cal, I can understand if The Citadel is where you want to be. I'll harbor no hard feelings.' "

Thalman, who is retired and lives in Chesterfield County, downplayed his decision to free McCombs from his commitment.

"A guy who wants to go serve his alma mater ought to do it," he said.

In 14 seasons under Thalman, VMI went 54-94-3 and won two Southern Conference titles. The Keydets went 6-3-1 in 1981 and followed that with a 5-6 mark. They haven't won more than four games in a season since.

Thalman believes McCombs can revive VMI's program.

"The thing I like most about him is his attitude," Thalman said. "They used to call me Mr. Positive, and he's a lot like that."

During McCombs' 15 seasons as an Air Force assistant, the Falcons appeared in 10 bowl games.

"They believed they could win," Thalman said. "There's magic in believing."

McCombs spent 13 seasons at The Citadel before moving to Air Force. It took him 28 years, but he's finally a Lexington resident.

"Looking back, if I'd come to VMI [in '71], I'd have won a Southern Conference championship," McCombs said. "Because we never won one at The Citadel."

-- Jeff White

That's it for this week.

RB Lane '75

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