With help from their rivals, even the pandemic won’t stop them.
In solemn silence, nearly a hundred University of Virginia Reserve Officer Training Corps members on Monday will start their 24-hour vigil in ritual remembrance of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who never returned.
The ceremony, honoring the killed, missing in action and prisoners of war, will end with a traditional three-volley rifle salute, referred to colloquially as a 21-gun salute. This year the salute will be performed by Virginia Tech ROTC’s Gregory Guard honor guard team, which agreed to help after the pandemic forced the scheduled honor guard to cancel.
“If that’s not proof of cats and dogs living together, I don’t know what is,” laughed USAF Col. Michael S. Hough, commander Air Force ROTC Detachment 890, which includes cadets at James Madison University and Liberty University.
“In this COVID era, the virus makes some things challenging and the salute is among those,” Hough said. “Originally, we were going to have the Air Force Honor Guard in attendance to perform the salute, but they cancelled because some of their members tested positive for COVID. I reached out to Virginia Tech’s program and they said they’d do it.”
Beginning on Monday at 3:30 p.m., cadets from Detachment 890 will join with UVa’s U.S. Army ROTC cadets and U.S. Navy ROTC midshipmen in the ritual near Cabell Hall.
Alternating two at a time every 15 minutes, they will walk rite at UVa’s McIntire Amphitheater until 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, ending the ceremony with an address from retired USAF Lt. Gen. Tad J. Oelstrom and the honor guard’s volley.
The traditional rifle salute involves seven rifles firing three volleys in unison. The long guns are loaded with blanks, cartridges with powder but no projectile, and are loud, but safe.
Although the rifles will not fire live ammunition, they are functional weapons and as such must be properly stored and securely locked, Hough said. Because UVa does not have the proper facilities to store and train with the weapons, its cadets cannot perform the salute themselves.
Virginia Tech’s long-established ROTC corps of cadets has the facilities, however.
“I had reached out to the Gregory Guard before we heard from the Air Force Honor Guard that they would be able to come. That’s a pretty big deal, but we kept in touch with Virginia Tech, just in case,” Hough said. “Luckily, the corps at Tech was willing to fill in at the last minute.”
The ceremonies are not usually controversial but last year a decision by UVa officials to nix the rifle volley was met with widespread community outcry from veterans.
Originally, university officials cancelled the volley due to concerns about the sounds of gunshots on Grounds and the impact they could have on students worried about gun violence. Officials later decided to reinstate the salute after area veterans and alumni who served in combat explained the meaning and imagery.
Last year, retired Marine Col. James T. O’Kelley Jr., of American Legion Post 74, a decorated veteran who led Marines at Ca Lu during intense fighting in the Vietnam War’s 1968 Tet Offensive five miles southeast of Khe Sahn, said the volley reminds him of those he lost.
“It brings things together. It’s the past and it’s the present. It’s about honor and respect,” he said. “For me, it reminds me of the men I lost in combat in Vietnam and it gives me chills. I went into combat at Ca Lu with 225 Marines and I came out with only 163. When I hear the volleys, I see their faces.”
UVa President Jim Ryan said he was pleased that the volley would return to the ceremony, which has been held for more than a decade.
“As the son of a Korean War veteran, I have always believed in honoring the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces,” Ryan said. “I am grateful to our ROTC program for the 24-hour vigil and Veterans Day ceremony they put on each year, and I’m glad we’re able to bring the 21-gun salute back as part of the ceremony.”