The below feature was written by Chris Floyd and originally appeared in the November edition of the Institute Report, published by VMI Communications and Marketing. Athletic Communications thanks C&M for allowing the republishing.
The Army ROTC program at VMI has consistently performed among the top ROTC units in the country. And for the second time in a decade, one of its cadets is tops in the nation.
The ROTC Cadet Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky, recently issued its National Order of Merit list, and VMI had its fingerprints all over it, with 35 Distinguished Military Graduates, 13 of whom were ranked among the top 10 percent of the country’s ROTC cadets. At the same time, two were ranked in the top 10, including John Luke Phillips ’17 who was chosen No. 1.
“He’s the epitome of the high-quality student, athlete, and leader that we look for in Army ROTC, as well as to represent Virginia Military Institute,” said Col. Michael Wawrzyniak, professor of military science and head of the VMI ROTC program. “From a personality and leadership mindset, he’s the right type of person to be recognized in this way.”
While this is a tremendous individual accomplishment, Phillips, who was joined in the top 10 ranks by Blaise Boullianne ’17, who stands fifth on the list, is quick to deflect the attention from himself.
“I was pretty proud that I was able to bring [recognition] to VMI,” Phillips said. “Certainly, it reflects well on our ROTC program. On top of that, it reflects well on the entire Institute, the professors who have taught me, the coaches who have coached me, the staff members. … There are a lot of good role models here, so it’s an honor to represent VMI this way.”
Wawrzyniak, noting that VMI’s Army ROTC in 2016 had one of its “highest number of commissions in recent years,” said the OML this year is not just a tribute to the cadets who fared so well, but to VMI and its ROTC program as well.
“It’s great recognition for VMI and Cadet Phillips,” he said. “It’s a great indicator for the program. The combination of quantity and quality puts VMI right up there with the top programs in the nation.”
Beginning last fall, Phillips and the more than 5,500 ROTC cadets across the country who would be eligible to commission in 2017 began the arduous assessment process to determine the OML. According to Wawrzyniak, the list is determined by a complicated formula that encompasses academic performance, ROTC performance, and extracurricular activities, including athletics. The cadets are also subjected to three written tests, and all of these scores are compiled to rank each ROTC cadet on the Order of Merit list.
In short, the process sounds very similar to VMI’s notion of the three-legged stool, a concept with which Phillips is very familiar.
“My dad taught that to me when I was a youngster,” said Phillips, whose father, John S. Phillips ’87, and grandfather, Thomas C. Phillips ’50, both graduated from VMI and served as colonels in the U.S. Army Reserve. “He would always talk about the three-legged stool. I grew up knowing you had to have a balanced life to succeed, so I try to apply that here at VMI. It’s worked out pretty well.”
Phillips has put in his share of work, too. A double major in biology and chemistry, he has achieved a 3.97 grade point average, and he is a member of the cross country and track teams, serving as one of the team captains this fall. At the same time, he is an S2 captain, working closely with the Miller Academic Center and the dean’s office to improve the academic environment in the Corps and assist other cadets in academic success.
“He’s just a grinder,” said Darrin Webb, VMI’s director of track and field and cross country.
“He doesn’t have to demand that he’s a leader,” Webb continued. “The way he carries himself displays that, and it’s very evident to anyone who meets him. He just kind of has it.”
One of the perks for Phillips and the other VMI cadets who finished in the top 10 percent of the rankings is that they receive their first choice for the branch of the Army in which they want to serve. One might expect the science major, who is taking pre-med courses and has expressed an interest in becoming a doctor, to choose a branch that reflects that interest. So, obviously, he chose armor.
“I knew I wanted to be a ... soldier before anything else,” said Phillips. “I don’t know if I want to make a career of it, but I want to serve in that capacity before moving on to other things.”
And whatever those things will be, for Phillips, Boullianne, and the other cadets who earned Distinguished Military Graduate honors, Wawrzyniak is sure they are going to be successful.
“I have no doubt that they are going to live up to this recognition and continue to excel in their Army journey once that starts next May,” he said.