Members of the University of Montana's Reserve Officers’ Training Corps came out for a night of tradition, unity and fun on Friday.
Dining Out is an annual formal gathering that merges generations and military branches.
"I feel like Dining Out reflects the spirit of the ROTC and the Grizzly Battalion," said a second year cadet, Trevor Rubel. "We are very serious and professional in what we do, but we're also up to having a good time and we're regular people too."
An exclusive event to the Grizzly battalion and their honored guests, Dining Out is intended to build cohesion among cadets outside of class and early morning physical training.
The shared memory of Dining Out can bind military battalions near and far. For senior cadets, like Jacob Huber, it can be taken to their next unit.
"It’s a time to get together and get dressed up military style before some of us seniors graduate," Huber said.
John Keefe, a retired colonel in the U.S. Marines Corps, said he considered the men and women attending the banquet as a part of him.
"There's a strange thing, I look at these guys as my brothers," Keefe said. "Some of them are older, most of them are younger, but we are brothers in arms and I learn something from each of them every time we are in contact."
Keefe smiled as he talked about serving his country for 23 years. Though the banquet had the title of Mess Night then, the purpose was the same – unity and fun.
Leaning against Colonel Keefe, his wife Sheyla added, "There's more cooperation between the services now then there has been before and this has bettered the inner service cooperation."
Keefe's first war was Korea and his second and third terms of service were
in Vietnam. Today, his fours sons have all served the US military. Two followed in his footsteps as a marine, one went into the air force and one joined the navy and is now stationed in Dubai.
As he watched young men and women in the entry way of the dining room, the colonel said as for where their careers might take them, "You kind of keep your fingers crossed and never expect the worst."
As for his own sons, Keefe added with a laugh that he is the only one in the family to receive the Purple Heart and that was okay by him.
"It was a cold and stormy night," he said jokingly raising his eyebrows as he began to talk about a sniper outside his wire in Vietnam.
"We were trying to get him for weeks. In the end he got away clean and got me in the leg – but it was close," Keefe said laughing as if he had lost a checkers match with an old friend.
Stories like this weaved throughout conversations during the night, tying the men and women together with their common cause of keeping each other and America safe.
Dining Out customs can be traced to old Viking traditions celebrating victorious battles and acts of heroism. It is believed this tradition possibly filtered into England through the Norman invasions.
The American and British armies grew closer together during the World Wars, and the US military begun to adapt many British traditions as their own.
Regardless of what year it is, one can expect several things when preparing to attend a Dining Out – the first of which is toasts.
Out of respect, the first toast is made to the Commander and Chief, one to the battalion, one for fallen comrades, and of course one for the ladies – these are just a few among the many.
Another tradition is an empty table in honor of those who were lost in battle. The table clothe is white, symbolic of their purity to the call of joining the military. Salt is placed next to an empty plate representing the tears from loved ones for the fallen. An empty chair stands alone.
A moment of silence is held before the event continues.
Mixed into the night is a healthy dose of humor. Normally a Mr. Vice ensures the evening goes well, sitting at a table in front of the audience directing the night's events (mainly entertainment).
This year however, there was a Miss Vice. Jenny Hayes, a cadet in her junior year, performed the duties on Friday.
Miss Vice was in charge of designating rules for the evening, one including asking her loyal cat, Sir Reginald Fluffy Pants (a teddy bear with a blown up picture of her cat on its head), if you could go to the bathroom before exiting the main dining room.
Another job of Miss Vice was to guarantee correct use of the Grog – a tin keg-like barrel containing a mixture of select drinks.
A bottle of "Jack Daniels" reflecting the strength of the military was poured into the container. Along with tomato juice for the blood that was shed, sand from the bottom of boots, caffeine for the sleepless nights, sweat for the labor and dry ice for the fog of war. And pickles – just for fun.
Miss Vice tasted the array of drinks and responded to her well-dressed audience, "No way in hell this is fit for human consumption."
However, consumed it was – by many. It should be noted that alcoholic beverages were not actually used this year, though that strays from tradition.
Those who didn't follow the rules presented by Miss Vice were sent to the Grog. Anyone in the room could stand and accuse another of disobeying the night's rules, though that put a target on their own back.
Retired First Lieutenant Jim Peterson spent 16 years in the military and remembers his version of the Grog bowl.
"There are times in my younger days when I had two cups and could not stand up," he said. "A big part of tonight is about cadets learning some of the social norms, but also to have fun, which is why there's a Grog."
The Keynote speaker was retired Brigadier General Joel Cusker, a Distinguished Honor Graduate from the Montana Military Academy. General Cusker's military background spreads from UM to being in charge of the Central Corps Assistance Group, where he trained soldiers in the Afghan National Army.
With an extensive past as his backdrop, he addressed the audience with three main expectations. First, as a soldier, you can never deviate from the character required to live the U.S. army values.
"By strict adherence to values, by greatness in character, a leader gains command over self and by goodness of character gains command over soldiers," General Cusker said, quoting Major George Patton. "Those two moves of command create the ability to accomplish the extraordinary."
The second expectation he listed was always recognize that the little things matter. Small details can be the difference between life and death, Cusker said.
Lastly, he said that as a leader, one must remain optimistic.
"When things are at the worst, that’s when you must truly be at your best." Cusker said. "And that’s really when it is the most difficult to be at your best."
As the event continued, between laughter speeches and Sir Reginald Fluffy Pants, the future of each cadet and their role in serving their country was repetitively acknowledged.
Though the job is hard, Cusker said it was one worth having and one he would miss.
"I'm confident your State Nation will expect more from you than those who have gone before you," Cusker said in closing. "Let me assure you, as daunting as your challenges are, I would trade these retired stars with you in a heartbeat for the chance to do it all over again."