AL ASAD, Iraq -- One hundred and sixty-seven years ago, an educational institution was founded in the rolling hills of Virginia. Through the years, many brave Americans have walked its halls, taking the first steps of journeys marked by personal sacrifices of which some even offered their lives in defense of their fellow citizens and country.
The Virginia Military Institute's mission is to produce educated, honorable men and women prepared for the varied work of civil life, imbued with love of learning, confident in the functions and attitudes of leadership, possessing a high sense of public service, advocates of the American Democracy and free enterprise system, and ready as citizen-soldiers to defend their country in time of national peril.
Nearly two dozen graduates of this prestigious institution are now serving in Army and Marine aviation units deployed to a remote desert airbase in Al Asad, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The soldier and Marine graduates of the institute explained how the VMI experience prepared them for the challenges of a combat environment.
"VMI gave me the foundation for being able to deal with a multitude of competing priorities," said a graduate with the Virginia Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. "Life at the institute is a constant risk-assessment where you have to balance your studies, extra duties and military training. Often you have to decide which thing, that day, is going to be least important and which thing has the greatest risk of coming back to haunt you."
Other graduates with the Virginia battalion explained similar benefits of attending a military institute.
"VMI prepared me in many ways, but simply put, VMI prepared me to accept each situation as it comes and realize that is just how things have to be sometimes," said 1st Lt. Gordon S. Larkin III, a pilot and maintenance platoon leader, 2-224 AVN. "I learned at VMI that if you make sure you 'Don't sweat the small stuff,' then when the big stuff comes you can handle it better."
As a place of learning, VMI provided its graduates with an undergraduate education of the highest quality -- embracing engineering, science, and the arts -- conducted in, and facilitated by, the unique VMI system of military discipline.
"It would take too long to describe exactly how VMI challenged me mentally, but suffice to say that it did," said Larkin, a 2001 graduate and Providence Forge, Va., native. "By making it through VMI and its many challenges, it gave me extreme confidence that, when needed, I can rise to new challenges and difficulties. If I work and study hard enough, I can learn to do anything that I need to. With that in mind, I feel that I was prepared for my current job."
The graduates' jobs range from pilots to intelligence officers in the Army and Marine Corps units here. Service in the U.S. forces is not a requirement of the institute's graduates, though it is encouraged.
"I wanted to serve," said Larkin. "There are many reasons why, but the most important reason is that I could not imagine not serving. I started realizing that if I did not go into the military, then I would go through life feeling that I hadn't done my part.
"However, I also love civilian life, which is why I joined the National Guard," he added. "We get the best of both worlds, and the worst sometimes. That decision (to join the military) was not easy, but very rewarding. I feel that as a citizen-soldier, I get the chance to share the military with many more people who would know nothing about it."
As members of the Virginia ANG, many of the VMI graduates at Al Asad worked in the civilian sector full time until they were called to active duty.
"After leaving VMI, I worked as a consultant," said 1st Lt. Todd M. Anthony, logistics officer, 2-224 AVN and St. Louis, native. "I felt that VMI had more than prepared me for the job. The job I am doing here is much different from my civilian work, but VMI has allowed me to excel in this environment as well. The multi-tasking skills that I learned in school and the ability to think through problems and prioritize have allowed me to be successful in the military logistics arena."