The virtual classroom became a special opportunity for cadets to learn from the military service of Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets alumni.

Since 2004, the corps has hosted a Gunfighter Panel each semester, bringing to campus graduates recently returned from a combat deployment to speak about their experiences in the military, lessons learned and leadership challenges faced, and how Virginia Tech and the corps prepared them for life after college.

Rather than cancel this semester's event because of COVID restrictions on gathering, this panel was the first to feature five alumni who are currently deployed with military units around the world. Via a Zoom webinar with the entire cadet regiment, they offered advice and answered questions.

The participants at the Feb. 11 event were:

  • Army Lt. Col. Ian Jarvis is the deputy G34 (Protection) with the 8th Army stationed in South Korea. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in sustainable biomaterials from the College of Natural Resources and Environment.
  • Army Capt. Matt Balach is the ground liaison to the 374th Airlift Wing in Japan. He graduated in 2007 with a degree in history from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
  • Army Maj. Brian Alberts is the support operations officer for the 173rd Infantry Brigade Company Team (Airborne) in Italy. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in history.
  • Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony LaVopa is the commander of the USS Hurricane based in Bahrain. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in civil engineering from the College of Engineering.
  • Iowa National Guard Maj. Nick Nelson is the liaison officer to the Kosovo Force. He graduated in 2007 with a degree in history.

Their collective message to cadets was to use the experiences offered at Virginia Tech and the Corps of Cadets to be ready to lead on Day One of their military careers.

Alberts told cadets he deployed to Afghanistan six months after commissioning as a second lieutenant. He found himself trying to adapt to leadership while battling blistering heat and rocket attacks. “It really is a sobering experience,” he said.

But he was able to draw on the lessons learned in the corps, such as how to enforce standards and how to build relationships to help get his footing. “I wasn’t as green as I thought,” he said.

Today as a support operations officer, Alberts provides logistics and sustainment to 3,000 Army soldiers on three continents. “You don’t really fathom having that much responsibility coming out of the corps,” he said.

That isn’t to say that leadership is easy, the officers said. It’s filled with difficult decisions, problems to solve, and high-stress moments.

“Being stressed out is OK because those are character building moments,” Jarvis said. “They help build your sense of humor, and a sense of humor is a pretty important leadership skill.”

Be ready to think outside the box, LaVopa said. “The military needs more people that can think outside the norm, get out of the normal ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ and be creative.”