“Humbling” is the word cadets most often used to describe the experience of standing vigil at Virginia Tech’s Pylons.
Starting at midnight Wednesday, Nov. 11, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets’ Echo Company cadets will begin the vigil at the Pylons. Two cadets will be posted as guards and will change every hour for 48 hours.
The tradition has been repeated annually since the late 1980s.
“Traditions such as the Veterans Day vigil are important because we are able to remember those who have come before us who have given far more to our country than we have,” said Cadet Bernie Cieplak, a junior in Naval ROTC majoring in networking and cybersecurity in the College of Engineering.
Cieplak stood guard from 5 to 6 a.m. last Veterans Day. “It is a humbling experience to be a part of a tradition that forces you to look beyond yourself and to pay respect to all U.S. veterans, from the American Revolution to the present day,” Cieplak said.
Vincent Stevens, a senior in Air Force ROTC majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering, took two shifts last year, from midnight to 1 a.m. and from 9 to 10 a.m.
“This tradition in particular is one of the most special in the Corps of Cadets because it honors those who have come before us,” he said. “It gives each of us a chance to symbolically guard those whose names are inscribed on the Pylons and cenotaph, as they guarded us before.”
The Pylons carry the names of 438 Virginia Tech alumni who died in the line of duty during a time of war. At the center of War Memorial Court is a cenotaph inscribed with the names of the university’s eight Medal of Honor recipients.
Graci Bettendorf, a senior in Army ROTC majoring in animal and poultry science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has participated each of the last three years. The most memorable shift was her first as a sophomore: late at night while it snowed.
“After the first 15 minutes, my hands and feet were numb, and I was forced to think about why I was there,” Bettendorf said. “You stand close enough to the Pylons that out of your peripheral vision you can still see the names of the people that have come before you at Virginia Tech and died in service of their country.
“So, as I stood there, in the cold, my hands frozen to my rifle, surrounded by those names, I understood why it was so important for Echo to do this every year,” she said. “It was a time I was forced to be silent and reflect, and the weight of the people around me was crushing and wonderfully humbling.”
Cadet Claudia McCarthy, a junior in the corps’ Citizen-Leader Track majoring in building construction in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, took two early morning shifts last Veterans Day.
“During that time, I found myself feeling extremely honored and humble to be given the time to be able to reflect and give honor to those who have lost their lives in our armed forces,” McCarthy said.
Audrey Reeves, an assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said events like these participate in creating a sense of connection between our lives, the nation and historical events that have shaped it.
“These are ways through which the power and authority of the state becomes apparent and tangible for us,” Reeves said.
It’s also a reminder, through the cadets’ ceremonial uniforms and disciplined movements, that the government stands ready to deploy military force, she said.
“It embodies preparedness, that the state is ready to fight if necessary,” she said.
Cadets, meanwhile, often reflect on the cost of that fight.
“While you stand unmoving on the Pylons without the usual daily distractions of your cell phone, friends and homework, you are given an excellent chance to reflect on what it means to be an American and what it means to be free,” said Cadet Grace Hall, a senior in Air Force ROTC majoring in aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, who is organizing this year’s vigil.
“As your fingers and toes get cold and your legs get tired from standing for so long and you begin to feel bad for yourself having to be outside in freezing temperatures for an hour, you remember the far greater suffering which those who have served have experienced,” Hall said.
In addition to Echo Company’s Veterans Day vigil, cadets from Alpha Company will stand guard duty at the Ut Prosim Pylon on Monday, Nov. 9. This 24-hour vigil is to remember Ensign Sarah Mitchell ’17, who commanded Alpha Company her senior year and whose name was added to the war memorial on Nov. 9, 2018, as well as all Alpha Company alumni who have fallen in combat.