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VMI's First Coed Class Confronts Gruelling 'Rat' Training Schedule

By Peter Finn
The Washington Post
LEXINGTON, Va.

To a bloodthirsty roar fit for the Roman Colosseum, the Virginia Military Institute's first coeducational class entered the school's Rat Line Wednesday afternoon, and a history-making group of 30 young women and 426 young men stoicly stood their ground and soaked up the first of what will be six months of ritualized abuse.

At 1 p.m., the rats, as freshmen here are called, were lined up facing one another on either side of the barracks' courtyard, and they began to bellow: "Bring them on! Bring them on!"

From the second-floor balcony of the barracks, a nearly delirious crowd of upperclassmen created a relentless din of anticipation, and their shouts of "You're Dead!" echoed like rifle shots.

A slow ominous drumming began, and the so-called cadre - a select group of nearly 100 upperclassmen who will train the rats - marched in, trying hard to project a machismo as tight as their top buttons. The cadre's line halted between the two lines of rats, half turning left and half right to face the blanching freshmen.

Michael Lorence, a cadet who serves as regimental executive officer, looked down from the second floor, and, in a voice that tried to summon every ounce of school tradition, he said: "Rats, look at the men who stand before you. They are your cadre. They represent the essence of VMI From these men, you will learn everything you will need to know to survive here. You will not fail them."

Lorence then unleashed the upperclassmen, who burst into the lines of rats and began screaming.

Yulia Beltikova, VMI's first Russian student, was the first woman to be "flamed," as students call such in-the-face haranguing. She showed no emotion and firmly shouted back, "Yes, sir," to her questioner, whose gesticulating hand cracked the air beside her ear as he roared at her.

At first, the cadre seemed tentative around the women, skipping many of them to shout instead at men. But the hesitation soon faded, and the cadre became equal opportunity barkers.

"Maybe they were a little self-conscious," said Maj. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, the school superintendent. "I was watching that very closely, and it didn't last."

The courtyard ceremony lasted but eight minutes before the cadre began to hustle the various companies of rats to tasks that would exhaust them before nightfall. The freshmen had to get their fatigues for training, move stuff into their rooms and learn to drill. All the while, they had to run or walk double time, with cadets shouting: "Let's go. Let's go. I don't have time to waste."

VMI officials at one point asked the cadets to slow things down because the barracks courtyard and stairs were slick from a drizzling rain and rats were slipping on the concrete as they tried to keep up.

In one of the day's standard events, freshmen also got their so-called Rat Bibles, pocket books that contain VMI arcana and the VMI honor code. It states, "A Cadet does not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do."

Rats, with their noses in the books, were forced to repeat the line until it began to sound like a demented kindergarten rhyme and they were blue in the face. Those who faltered were forced to do push-ups. One young man, apparently a Californian, was forced to do push-ups shouting, "East Coast rules. California sucks."