Before the rifle is passed, both cadets have their hands on it, and the newest guard must wrest it from the veteran’s grip.
With a firm tug, the rifle comes free like meat off a tough rib.
It’s a ceremonial gesture, as is the one that follows: the outgoing guard makes a fist with the right hand — covered with a white glove that hides a class ring from The Citadel — and taps on the chest of the newest member of the Summerall Guards.
Ring-tapping is a sign of approval at The Citadel, South Carolina’s military college, founded in 1842 and located in Charleston.
Tapping the breastplate of a fellow cadet conveys pride.
After the new Summerall Guards — 61 of them every year — take their rifles on Corps Day, they perform publicly for the first time. They’re rising seniors, soon to be called first-class cadets, and they’re known for their silent precision drill.
On Friday the guards will march in the inauguration parade of Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States.
Some 8,000 people in more than 40 organizations will participate in the parade, according to the Washington Post. It will be the fifth time the Summerall Guards have marched in one, according to The Citadel.
Among the guards — clad in gray wool blouses, white trousers and black shoes — will be four men from different parts of Beaufort County. Marshall Bingham, Forrest Kimbrell, Kevin MacDonald and Devin Oliver are all seniors at The Citadel. They’ll graduate soon; then, they’ll serve in the U.S. Army.
But first they’ll welcome a new president to Washington.
It’s an opportunity they began working toward in November 2015, when they became “BVAs.”
BVA, BVAs and BVA-ing
Bond Volunteer Aspirant Training: the weeding-out process that stretches from November to February during which cadets — called BVAs — are tested mentally and physically and, toward the end, learn the guards’ famous precision drill — The Citadel Series.
The series is passed down from class to class — it’s never been written down — and while its performance is what the guards are known for, the unit is more than a drill team.
“The Summerall Guards are designed to be ... a showcase of The Citadel’s finest cadet qualities,” said MacDonald, who hails from Hilton Head Island and is the institution’s highest-ranked cadet.
“We take pride in the fact that we embody the core values of The Citadel and what the regulations and the standards look like,” he said. “It’s not (that) we’re better than anyone else, it’s (that) we’re proud of the fact that people can look to us and see what ‘right’ looks like.”
As a knob — a freshman — with a shaved head, MacDonald saw the guards around campus and looked up to them. Two years later, he’d shave his head again and work to join them.
In some ways, BVAs are like knobs.
They have to shave their heads.
When they see guards on campus, they have to greet them appropriately — “It builds humility and respect,” according to Oliver, a Bluffton native.
Guards can stop BVAs and inspect their uniforms or quiz them — answering incorrectly or failing to pass muster results in push-ups, he said, or “extra-hard” physical training, “PT.”
There are extra PT sessions for BVAs, whose workout uniform is a blue sweatshirt, drab green Dickies pants and black Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star tennis shoes.
Why Chuck Taylors? Maybe because their throwback design means they’re not as padded and are more uncomfortable. (Some BVAs put insoles in their shoes, Oliver said.)
“I guess I’ve always just been someone who likes the uncomfortable,” said Kimbrell, of Beaufort, when asked why he volunteered to be a BVA. “Putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation prepares you for other things in your life. ... This type of training can’t be found at hardly any place in the world — you’re talking elite military schools and extreme physical endurance.”
“You know, I kind of wanted to do it — not so much to make the Summerall Guards — to see if I could meet the challenge of BVA-ing,” Bingham, also of Beaufort, said.
Bingham was excited to get his rifle on March 19, 2016 — Corps Day.
“Teresa” is the gun’s name, he said. (“Jessie Pearl” is Kimbrell’s rifle. MacDonald has “Marie Christine.” And “Danielle Lee” was passed down to Oliver.)
The rifles stay with the Summerall Guards platoon, formed in 1932. Some of them sport drawings and inscriptions. And inside others — behind the butt plates, within the stocks — are scrolls that bear the names of past owners.
Some of those owners show up from time to time when the current guards perform, whether its a halftime show at a football game or a parade on St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras.
“The Citadel community is so broad, that there’s always a few guard alumni there,” MacDonald said, “who will find their way to us and, you know, either tell us how good we did or provide some constructive feedback.”
On Corps Day, after they inherit their rifles, after the veterans tap them on the breastplate, the newest Summerall Guards perform The Citadel Series publicly for the first time.
“As soon as they give you that rifle, (the feeling) goes from excitement to nervous,” Oliver said of all the eyes on the new guards as they execute the drill.
Among those eyes are those of the outgoing guards — they’ve taught the new crop the series, and its successful performance is as much as rite of passage for the incoming men as it is a reflection of their training.
The new guards execute the drill. They keep time in their heads, stepping with their right feet on even counts, their left on odd. They listen to the rhythm of hard-soled shoes on the grass and the rattle of the brass on their rifles to stay in step. They watch the front and rear guides, whose caps sport tall, black plumes that when flicked a certain way cue the next part of the series.
Family and friends watch.
And so do the outgoing guards.
They watch intently.
They kneel in the grass, within the perimeter of the performance area.
They are the only ones allowed inside.
Another Beaufort County man in the parade
Beaufort’s Christopher Wallace is a member of The Citadel Regimental Band and Pipes and Color Guard and will also march in the parade.
The Citadel Regimental Band and Pipes, Color Guard and Summerall Guards have been selected to participate in several presidential inaugural parades, according to The Citadel.
They jointly represented The Citadel together in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 parade and were to participate in President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 parade. Inclement weather forced the cancellation of Reagan’s 1985 parade.
The regimental band participated in President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 parade.
The Summerall Guards, which will participate in President-elect Donald Trump’s parade, also were invited to march in the inaugurations of President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and President George W. Bush in 2005.