Tommie Traditions: Cadets Learn the ‘Rules of the Mess’

Each Monday night on campus, like clockwork, one can find a swarm of blue- and camouflage-uniformed Air Force ROTC cadets seated in the John Roach Center auditorium listening to presentations and learning about new aspects of military training. This past Monday the atmosphere in the room was alive with excited whispers and eager faces. Dining Out, the annual AFROTC formal military ball, will take place this weekend.

Senior psychology major James Bott, the cadet in charge of planning the event, stepped to the front of the auditorium to speak. It was his job to inform the freshmen about the customs related to Dining Out and refresh the memory of the upperclassmen about the Rules of the Mess.

Rules of the Mess? Younger cadets looked inquisitive. Like countless generations of cadets before them, they had just been introduced to one of the Air Force’s oldest traditions and Detachment 410’s most popular annual events and its complex but fun set of protocols.

Military Ball program

Program from the 1954 AFROTC Military Ball.

The event draws between 300 and 350 guests each year, ranging from retired Air Force generals to cadets’ younger siblings. This year, attendance falls within that range, said Major Gregory Voth, commandant of cadets at St. Thomas’ AFROTC Detachment 410. In the past, the number was not always so high.

“More families are participating,” Voth said. “I don’t remember it being a 300-person event when I was a cadet.” Despite growing numbers of attendees, not much has changed since the event’s inception.  “The structure of it, the flow of events, the basics, really have stayed the same and don’t change,” he said. The reason for this is its long and robust history, both at St. Thomas and in the Air Force.

The History of ‘Dining Out’

The concept of a formal military banquet in the United States goes back as far as George Washington and his Continental Army, but became popularized with the Army Air Corps in World War II. Originally only for officers, it has since evolved into an event similar to military balls hosted at Air Force bases across the country for active-duty service members and their families. For college AFROTC programs nationwide, Dining Out is intended to both serve as a training tool for cadets to learn logistical, organizational and planning skills, and for cadets to simply have fun giving their families a peek into life as a cadet.

Cadets, too, view it as both a rewarding exercise in planning and plain old fun. Planning for the event begins as early as a year before the event itself, said Bott, who oversees five cadets and the coordination of countless participating clubs.  Bott portrayed the preparation as a balancing act with hiring a DJ, securing catering, renting facilities, ordering party favors, constructing seating charts, inviting a guest speaker and finessing many other details.

Cynthia Horsmann, the liaison between St. Thomas and Detachment 410, finds the experience to be valuable, especially for students like Bott, who are most involved behind the scenes. “The cadets who are in charge of it learn a tremendous amount,” she said. “There are so many details to work out. The cadets have all really stepped up to the challenge and done a fabulous job.”

Horsmann, who has helped organize the event since fall 2006, sees both change and continuity from year to year. One of these elements is the location, which has changed many times throughout its history.

St. Thomas’ first Annual Military Ball was held at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul on May 30, 1949. A decade ago, the event was held at several venues off campus, such as hotels and the former student center on campus. Today, Dining Out is held in the Anderson Student Center’s Woulfe Alumni Hall, with room for plenty of festivities, including saber and rifle drill team performances, a solemn POW/MIA remembrance ceremony, and at the end of the night, dancing.

That’s where the fun (and the Rules of the Mess) come in.

‘Rules of the Mess’ and the Grog

Before the evening begins, cadets are given an official list of rules to follow during the dinner and plan of events. They range from imperative to … well, ridiculous. “Thou shalt not sit before the dinner bells are rung,” reads rule two. “Thou shalt express thy approval by tapping thy spoon on the table. Clapping of thy hands will not be tolerated,” says rule 13. “Thou shalt not laugh at ridiculously funny comments unless the president first shows approval by laughing,” says rule 12.

The "punishment" for not adhering to the rules?

Drinking from the grog, a disgusting concoction of unappetizing ingredients, like olive juice, sardines, pickle juice, marshmallows, hot sauce and chocolate chips. Senior mechanical engineering major Jay Denny refused to reveal this year’s ingredients, calling them “classified.”

photo (26)

Freshmen cadets prepare to drink from the grog at the 2013 Dining Out. (Pictured, from left to right: Madeline Szempruch, Samuel Fillmore, Gregory Timm, Tyler Krpan, Kendra Gross, Samuel Wasberg)

“The general idea is calling out offenses for protocol, but it diverges from there pretty liberally to other shenanigans … or just because,” added Voth. Freshmen cadets are generally apprehensive about “being grogged” for the first time. Freshman mechanical engineering major Caleb Smith summed up his class sentiment when he said, “I’m nervous because I just really don’t want to do it.”

Bott, too, plans to avoid the grog at all costs. “Knock on wood, I am one of the few people I know of who has never been grogged,” he said with cautious amusement.

Despite the unpleasantry and humor of the grog bowl, which is typically a toilet, Dining Out is “great for camaraderie, fun and a huge blow off of steam. It’s a big stress relief and really good reward for passing the year in ROTC,” said sophomore exercise science major Tyler Krpan.

“The evening is entertaining,” agreed Voth, who has both attended as a cadet himself and supervised in a cadre role. "It’s lot of fun to see as cadre, stepping back and watching the group of [cadets] that have come from being freshmen … with no military background or little military background now into this training environment and to see how close and tight of an organization you become as cadets. It’s just plain entertaining to watch cadets dance and goof around.”

The atmosphere of anticipation remains high among cadets. Sophomore electrical engineering major Molly Amundson said she was extremely excited. “I can’t wait,” she said. “[Dining Out] is so much fun! I can’t wait to dance and see my family.”

While used as a training tool for cadets, the event continues to serve as a gathering place for students to celebrate their accomplishments and, in a way, “show off” their hard work, said Horsmann. “I’m sure the cadet in charge will be glad [the planning] is over!”

Bott took time to make one thing clear: despite the months of planning, Dining Out is a big deal, and a much-needed opportunity for cadets to enjoy themselves while being steeped in tradition.

“It’s one of the defining moments of the year where cadets are able to come together with their family and celebrate the fact that they’ve gone through this whole year in this program. They are able to show off how much they’ve learned, how much they’ve grown, and just be around their Air Force family of cadets.”

And, most likely, head to the grog.

Major Gregory Voth is a ’00 alumnus of UST.