Cadet Sgt. Maj. Coston reflects on dismissal, defends approach to improving Corps

Command. Sgt. Maj. Matthew Coston delivering his speech during Recognition.

Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Coston delivering his speech during Recognition.

Since freshman year, Matthew Coston wanted to be the cadet regimental command sergeant major in Norwich University’s Corps of Cadets. As a senior this year, he applied for the job and got it.

“It was an awesome experience,” said the 21-year-old criminal justice major from Boston, Mass.

It also ended unexpectedly with his dismissal Feb. 3, an unusual event in the Corps of Cadets. In an interview, Coston reflected on his situation and defended his approach to improving the Corps and his passion for the job.

Coston was a vocal advocate for a new set of standards that all recruits would have to meet in order to be recognized as corps members.

But his hopes to see that happen were dashed, leaving Coston unhappy, and at the Rook Recognition ceremony he delivered a speech that landed him in some hot water.

Due to his remarks at Recognition and several other incidents, Coston was relieved of his position. Regimental Commander Cadet Colonel Ryan Sutherland moved quickly to find a new regimental command sergeant major appointing cadet Jacob Bergeron to the key post last week.

“Basically the regimental (command) sergeant major’s job is to advise the regimental commander (the cadet colonel), and to supervise and assist with training,” according to Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Bergen.

Bergen, as a senior enlisted advisor for the corps, is essentially the regimental sergeant major’s counterpart on the commandant staff’s level.

Coston’s job put him at the front of efforts to implement standards for an individualized Recognition, which meant passing a physical fitness test, proper room and uniform standards, and passing the rook knowledge test in order for each rook to be recognized.

He had high hopes for the plan, explaining that it would remove “those who can’t meet a simple standard” from the corps. It would progressively change the makeup of the Corps of Cadets, Coston said.

“In four years, you’ve got 100 percent of the corps proficient in all these areas.”

However, the new technical standards were cut at the last minute on orders of Norwich University President Richard W. Schneider’s orders, due to confusion about the procedure how they were implemented. That decision came after a week of deliberation among the commandant staff, Sutherland, and President Schneider.

Though the idea of individualized standards has not been ruled out for the future, many were disappointed that it fell through, especially Coston.

“We finally had a system to provide Norwich and the Corps of Cadets with viable recruits,” he said. “They had chance, a dying chance, but now the corps is not going to change.”

So, on recognition night, Coston’s strong feelings about the standard came out. “I asked the cadet colonel (Sutherland) if he minded if I gave a speech,” said Coston. Sutherland gave him the green light.

“I knew what I said was going to be somewhat controversial,” said Coston, adding that he understood that night wasn’t the right time to make his comments.

He said even as he delivered them he considered that they could lead to his dismissal – and was not surprised when he was. But, regardless, he delivered the speech.

He opened by congratulating freshmen who met the standard to become cadets, then asked them to give themselves a round of applause.

There were about “60 paws that shouldn’t be clapping,” he told the crowd, referring to the recruits who failed to meet all the standards set out at the beginning of the year.

Coston said that only those who passed deserved to be recognized, telling the failures that they needed to try harder. And then he relinquished the microphone.

“It was what everyone was thinking but no one really said,” he explained. He said that if the crowd turned against him, he would have stopped, but the upperclassmen supported him.

“It wasn’t like I was saying lies,” he said. Coston said he did not intend to offend anyone; rather the speech was meant to be motivating: “It was meant to push them more.”

“If the school wants the corps to have a standard, they have to apply it,” Coston said. “Everything here is merit-based,” he added. “You have to decide who doesn’t meet the standard.”

Coston is concerned about what new cadets will learn from the entire experience. “Sometimes your best isn’t good enough,” he said, “simple as that.”

Coston defended his efforts to better the corps and the way he went about things, arguing that he tried to give the corps what he believed they needed at that time.

“I did what I thought the corps needed,” Coston said. “I’m curt and maybe abrasive, and I don’t always have the best control (over) what words come out of my mouth, but none of that came as a surprise.”

He admitted that he tends to be more confrontational than others, and said he refused to be a “passive” command sergeant major, explaining that there are different approaches to enforcing standards.

He said that a sergeant major can either confront individuals who violate the standard and give them an opportunity to fix their mistake, or simply observe and report violations.

Going into the year, beginning with Leader’s Week, it was obvious which style of leadership Coston opted for. His brusque approach got him into trouble on occasion throughout the year.

Once, a rook told him how many days were left until Junior Ring Ceremony. Then Coston told the rook that he (Coston) was a senior, handed him his ring and told the rook to return it when he thought Coston deserved it.

Coston explained why he did things like that. “He’ll always have that story,” he said, and “he’ll never make that mistake again.”

“Coston’s passion for the standards is something that I think we can all admire,” said Sutherland, who is a 22-year-old senior computer security and information assurance major from Palmyra, Pa. “He’s very true to his values and that’s exactly what I wanted in a sergeant major.”

According to Coston, the passion with which he upheld the standard was because of “the level of care and respect (he) once had for this institution,” Coston said. After being relieved of his position, Coston said that passion is gone.

Sutherland asked cadet battalion commanders and regimental staff for input on choosing someone to replace Coston. With his subordinate leader’s recommendations in mind, Sutherland said that they narrowed it down to three names: On the short list was Thomas Banyacski, Jacob Bergeron, and Donald Gray.

All three candidates served as battalion command sergeant majors last year, and Bergeron, who was subsequently chosen, applied for the job this year. Previously he held a position with the inspector general, as chief of standards.

The position Bergeron leaves behind will also need to be filled, requiring further personnel changes.

As per Norwich Corps of Cadets (NUCC) Standard Operating Procedure, the regimental command sergeant major is responsible for a variety of programs that need planning and direction. They are vital in the operation of the corps.

The regimental sergeant major is also supposed to assess “training proficiency and NCO leadership development,” according to the SOP, and with next year’s promotions underway, it will be important for the new leader to coordinate the sophomore shadow program, which the sergeant major is also placed in charge of as well.

As for Coston, Sutherland plans to place him in a position as a physical training instructor (PTI). He hopes to make use of Coston’s “passion and motivation for improving the corps and improving the corps standards.”

However, Coston said he is “more interested in helping a friend that needs to fill positions with a competent person, than helping the Corps.” After the events of the past weeks and his termination, he said he has lost most of the motivation to improve the corps. Graduation cannot come soon enough for the soon-to-be commissioned officer.

Comments

  1. Rob Clark '93 says:

    How the Corps has changed and the administration hasn’t, some for the better and some for the worst. I was on the civilian integration committee in 92-93 when VC students were coming to the Hill. No cadet liked it but it was going to happen. We wanted them off the Hill as soon as possible to maintain the traditions of the MCV. Since then I have seen decline in the Corps traditions. This Cadet was trying to bring something back. The administration really needs to be changed to bring back a bit of the Old Corps. There is nothing wrong with tradition and class esprit de corps. It can still exist and have great academics at the same time. I hope that the NUCC experience improves in the future so new alumni can been identify with the classes of my time, if not I believe that the bond alumni will have in the future will grow wider. Good job Coston.

  2. Rick Price says:

    In 1992, I was the Cadet Company Commander of Kilo Company. I had always been a very dedicated cadet and I absorbed the Norwich culture of the day like a sponge. I loved it there. Back in that time, the program for Marine Option NROTC cadets was a little bit lean. We had good leadership and absolutely great guys in the program, but while the Army cadets had a robust tactical training environment, we would-be Marines learned our profession in classrooms. My friend Mike Myers and I decided to change that, and we volunteered at every chance to act as OPFOR for the army program. Whenever the opportunity arose, we and a small group of mostly Marine Option cadets would head to the field with the Army program and don whatever gear they could spare in order to eke out some field time for ourselves and hopefully enhance the army’s training as well. We had the great idea when we were seniors to liven up our capabilities with some fireworks. A freshman from another company who was heading to South Carolina on Winter Break was just the mule we needed. He came back with an array of fireworks, and Mike and I chose a few that we felt would be the best simulators for our purposes. They were, of course, not allowed at school. We used a few on one army FTX, and the rest sat in a drawer as our senior year drew to a close. One weekend, our trusty mule decided to cook off a smoke bomb in Goodyear. He was caught, and in a fit of honesty or a bid to ease his own punishment, he informed his inquisitors that “Captain Price and Major Myers have fireworks, too”.

    We were busted. We got tours, community service, and a week and a half of Close Military Confinement. We were assigned to various duties on Junior Weekend. Mike took the hard line and became a Private. I traded spots with my XO. It was made more painful because Kilo and the rest of 4th Battalion (Lima and Mike Companies) were forced to fold our colors that year due to low enrollment. I watched from the back of the formation. You should know that back then, cadets did not change companies very often, and your company was your home.

    My point in relaying this aging tale here is that I too was once a loyal cadet who felt that the school turned on him. I too felt bitter and unappreciated, and that Norwich had not only failed me, but failed itself. After all, I was GOOD. I had great intentions. I was selfless. I was for The Wick, for the Marine program, and for Kilo. Admittedly, my resentment lasted for a while. As I grew older and the scope of my responsibility grew, I realized that like Cadet Coston, I had put my school into an position where it had no choice. I was a leader who had made a poor leadership decision and I suffered appropriate consequences. The good news is that my ire subsided, and I still love that place. I return every five years and that old bitterness is just a funny story we tell over beers. I am glad to this day that I learned a lesion about consequences, and about how a thing can be greater than the sum of it’s parts.

    • Francis D. Koylenski, NU Class of 1971 says:

      It seems that age and experience often change one’s opinions of how judgement and treatment should be/should have been applied. The long view brings perspective on many things. Sharing stories like yours, and the honesty to consider all sides of an issue are some of the things that bind us to our NU brothers and sisters forever.
      I salute you.

  3. Tom Hickey says:

    So the Regimental Commander and staff determined a set of standards, which were then vetoed for procedural reasons at the last minute?
    That doesn’t sound like the Corps running the Corps.
    The Regimental Commander authorized his senior NCO to give a speech?
    If the speech was so egregious then the RC should be fired because he authorized it.

    Under President Schneider the stories never change. I graduated in 2005 and experienced commandant staff sharpshooting decisions and preventing cadets from practicing leadership consistently.
    President Schneider should demonstrate leadership by allowing cadets to make decisions within the corps. When I was a cadet we were told that the “real military doesn’t do things that way” consistently by commandant staff. Sometimes I think about how much I would enjoy sitting down with them now, after almost ten years in the service, and quizzing them on their military experience. I think their experience would be lacking.

    Class of 2005

  4. Nick Jacobs says:

    Hang in there Coston. You sound like a good kid…I see you have lost some motivation, and graduation can’t come soon enough, but this lesson will be the best one you can learn. I’ve been a cop for the last 10 years of my life, and what you’re going through, I have had to endure throughout my career. People don’t want to hear the truth, and everyone gets a prize for participating these days. It’s the way of the world, and liberal America. All you can do, is impress your teachings under a few, that you can take under your wing. I pull a couple rookies under my wing, from time to time, and show them how to be “real po-lice”. That’s all you can do kid. Keep ya head up, and enjoy your last days of freedom as a college kid!! Norwich Forever!

  5. This is what happens when you preach the common sense at Norwich. You get a mind of your own, and some influence, you make waves. You make those waves too rough and not everyone can weather it.

    Coston was a great r/CSM. Anyone who doesn’t think that, they probably never have faced confrontation in their lives. The very point of the r/CSM is to pump respect into the Corps. Coston was tough, but he did lead by example.

    The administration needs a reality check. Reasons like these are why they nickname the place Camp Cupcake.

    Damn. What a shame.

  6. Mark Maitag NUCC'94 says:

    To the editor:

    Whose decision was it to recognize the 60 Rooks that did not meet the standard, per se? What evidence supports Cadet Coston’s accusations? While I do not agree with Cadet Coston’s misplaced actions, I would be interested in learning about the recognition process that he felt passionately about, and who made the decision to recognize Rooks that may not have met the standard.
    Engaging decision/policy makers is the way to influence the process – not by engaging the victims of a decision.

    Sincerely,
    LTC Mark Maitag
    NUCC ’94

  7. Jeff McGowan NUCC'96 says:

    I really admire Cadet Coston’s drive and would encourage him not to lose faith. The Corps of Cadets extends way beyond your four years in University. Everyone wants the Corps to be in top shape and keen minded but we must bear in mind that the University is also a business. A non-profit corporation that has to take into account profits from student tuition amongst other sources (and also avoid lawsuits). Page 18 shows the 2012-2013 asset/liability comparison: http://www.alumni.norwich.edu/s/758/images/editor_documents/laura_/annual_report_2013.pdf
    Going by some numbers I found on line, there are 2300 total students at Norwich. 60% or 1380 make up the Corps of Cadets. I think in the 90’s, the Corps was in the 700-900 range. The conundrum here is that if you make things too hard, people won’t want to attend. Also, if you make it too easy, people won’t want to attend. Cadet Coston mentioned that there were 60 cadets that did not meet standards. That’s a 96% success rate.
    I would also encourage the administration to get out of the office more. I work for a phone company and we have the same structure as any other business. The thing is, when our leaders get down to the technician level and talk to the folks who actually work on the equipment that drives the business, they sometimes get a different picture than what a balance sheet says.

  8. Matthew Kaye NUCC '13 says:

    This is an ongoing issue at Norwich. I witnessed it to a small degree as a rook, and I noticed it even more as a senior after taking off two years for a deployment with the National Guard. To be perfectly honest, I’m embarrassed to have any association with this school and with this Corps. I have witnessed an alarming decline in the moral fortitude and leadership abilities of many of the commissioning seniors (note I say “many”, not all. There are plenty of excellent junior officers coming out of here, but they are a minority in my opinion.) I see decision making being replaced by strict adherence to Rules and Regs Vs. allowing cadet leaders to evaluate situations and make their own decisions in light of what is in the cadet/units best interests. This alarms me. Officers today are forced to make difficult decisions. My limiting their capabilities to SOP’s and regulations you deny them the opportunity to learn and grow as leaders. You completely undermine the leadership development process when you micromanage them (i.e. the commandants staff, who are, in my opinion as a lowly Army NCO, an utter disgrace to the Corps and the heart of many problems facing the university). Furthermore, I see the development of “military bureaucracy”. That ugly demon that plague the big Army day and day out, is now being taught at Norwich and encouraged by the commandants staff. What happen to C/CSM Coston is a classic example of that. This leaves me very disappointed, in fact, heart broken. The best I think we can do as Alumni is remember Norwich for what it was. Not what it has become.

    • Ryan Moore NUCC '11, RCSM says:

      I couldn’t disagree more with you Mathew. The Commandants Staff does an outstanding job at giving the leadership of the Corps of Cadets a say in all things to do with the Corps. After being selected for RCSM, the Regimental Cadet Colonel and I, more or less, got to hand pick who we wanted to help us run the Corps of Cadets that year. Further, ever week we hold a meeting with them to evaluate the issues in the Corps and I assure you, they understand our want and desire to train hard and keep a standard. I would argue that your attitude from day one, having been your classmate, fell short of what the Corps of Cadets really needed in future leaders. I do not mean to detract from all that you have done with your time in service with the Army. You cannot show up to a leadership school unwilling to learn how to lead. If we do not have a set of rules and SOP’s to govern our actions, than what are we? We certainly did not become the world’s greatest fighting force with no SOPs and Regulations. If Cadet Coston is the leader I know him to be, he learned a valuable lesson that day at Norwich, a lesson that can only be learned in an environment such as Norwich. Now, he is better equipped than before to step in front of his first Platoon of Marines and understand that maybe not all of them “deserve” to be there, but it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t his job to determine if they should be Marines, it is his job to find out a way to get to these Marines and prepare them for war. He is going to make a great Marine Officer. I am very proud to have been a part of the Corps of Cadets. Semper Fi

  9. Erving Buffum says:

    Take heart, CDT Coston, that your intentions were pure and sound. The lack of support from the administration in anything that doesn’t fatten their own coffers is older than the CT campus. The decline of the Corps began before your time, but stopping it at this point is more than one cadet can handle by their lonesome. Rookdom sets a precedent for the next four years of a cadets life, standards provide both quantifiable and qualitative means of measuring the worth of an institution (or else why would there be the mad dash during NEASC season ;)), and for those of us who fondly remember our indoctrination into the Corps, who can smile in the face of hardship and soldier on, we see the decline in cadet standards and standards enforcement as a sign of worse things to come of our dear alma mater.
    CDT Coston, rest assured that your efforts were not in vain. This article has made its rounds within the right circles, and has lifted the veil surrounding the Hill and exposed the inner workings of the Jackman Machine to those that will see, and from that will be born a Renaissance that will take our Corps from the meaningless tower of Babel its become and restore it to its rightful place as Military College of Vermont.

  10. Patrick Neal says:

    Sad, Norwich was always about overcoming obstacles…. As a class of 1990 grad our rook year was 1986. Sat at my 20th reunion with a Springfield cop, my best friend, a navy seal, an FBI agent, a high school principal and one of the most messed individuals I ever met (he has a bronze star). The highlight of my weekend was our class picture, man it was cold. Colonel Donovan, our Commandant of Cadets, was sitting there after the picture and asked me to help him out of his chair and help him inside. I said, “Colonel that would be the highlight of my day…” I walked the Colonel to his table because it was an honor to do so, It was, a kilo company rook with rank, got made better because I went to Norwich. It is not the four years, it is the rest of your life that matters. I am not talking about hazing, that is stupid, a bygone era… But lowering standards does nothing to help you in the end.

    PJ Neal
    NU 90

  11. Peter J. Moreno, Jr. says:

    I will start out by saying that I received an excellent classical education from Norwich University, and for that I am grateful. I have not been back to Norwich since I graduated (Magna Cum Laude 1995) and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Frankly, my experience in the core of cadets was not memorable; it was akin to what I would imagine prison to be like . . . constant harassment, overly harsh rules and regulations, and overbearing cadre. Before getting into the core issue here, I’m going to provide a bit of background. I arrived to Norwich from the U.S. Navy’s BOOST Program (Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training) on a 4 year NROTC scholarship. Within the first 30 days of being at Norwich, I came to a conclusion regarding the Corps of Cadet leadership — they were, in large part, “tools” and “bullies” . . . naive kids and in some cases “brats” that were placed in positions of authority that they should not have been in. This sort of thing didn’t go over well with me; in fact, it really pissed me off. So, knowing that I was not going to change the system I simply focused my efforts on studying, working out, and taking an active role in the NROTC battalion (for which I held leadership positions throughout, and was chosen as the NROTC Battalion Commander my senior year). In terms of leadership, I was also awarded the Chesty Puller Award for my leadership and tenacity; meanwhile, I was a buck private in the Corps of Cadets. BUCK PRIVATE . . . . I say again, a buck private.

    I can understand and appreciate what Cadet Coston has done. I admire his alleged controversial nature, tenacity, and what I would imagine to be his somewhat abrasive nature (according to the article). I like his approach and the story about his class ring (actions speak louder than words). I just hope that you are not a bully, Cadet Coston. Leaders and real men are not bullies, ever. Leaders do not humiliate their subordinates, they lift them up. Leaders ALWAYS hold their subordinates accountable. Leaders are firm and fair; leaders demonstrate justice, among other things. As long as you are operating along those lines, you sound like you are a decent young lad.

    Regarding individualized standards, this is a hallmark of any military organization. I am an advocate of individualized standards. In fact, it is imperative that individualized standards are met and adhered to across military organizations. The issue that Norwich faces is that it is an institution of higher learning that MUST generate money. As such, and unfortunately, making money and maintaining the status quo (with the parents that pay the bills) trumps individual standards. And for that reason, Norwich University President Schneider put the kibosh on the program “due to confusion about the procedure and how they were implemented”. That is, very simply, the reality of the situation. I know, Cadet Coston, this is a disturbing revelation. I understand your frustration Cadet Coston. At the same time, I will tell you that you and the Cadet Colonel have failed in your ability to imbue your subordinates with the pride and motivation required to meet the standards, despite “operation kibosh” by the University President. So, in the end, it’s not just about the young undisciplined cadets that have failed to meet the standards, it is about your lack of leadership (and that of your superiors). Remember, Cadet Coston, you have to figure out how you are going to overcome this same obstacle when you become a commissioned officer. You will inevitably have some “problem children” (leadership challenges). Yelling and screaming and talking trash is not going to get it done . . . in the event that you subscribe to that approach. If not, belay my last.

    President Schneider: I’m sure you realize that you have scores of NU Alumni from the ’91 to ’95 era that have never returned to Norwich. This lack of esprit de corps must be troubling for the administration, especially given what Norwich is supposed to exemplify.

    Yours Truly,

    Peter Moreno
    Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Marines
    NU Class of ’95

  12. Tom Hickey says:

    LTC Moreno-
    Pretty harsh to blame cadet lack of leadership. I would go as far as to say inaccurate and misplaced. Norwich tends to focus a majority of its attention on rooks, while adopting a zero tolerance approach to mistakes or experiments by upperclass cadets. This is key- those cadets are still learning leadership and need to experiment and make decisions. The cadet student body is also extremely transient. The commandant staff is responsible for longterm management and stability.

    Certainly, I am positive that some measure of responsibility lies with the cadets, however, the ultimate responsibility is with the commandants. Unfortunately, commandants tend to shirk their responsibility to allow non-rook cadets the opportunity to make mistakes and learn. By adopting an approach that fires and replaces cadets, the commandant staff consistently fail to educate cadets. Once out of a position of authority, very few cadets get a chance to learn and apply new lessons.

    As leadership in my cadet days, perhaps one of the “tools” or “bullies” you mentioned. I experienced first hand the administration’s approach of blame first, solve later, if at all. One notable and extreme example was spending 25 minutes convincing a commandant to take my report of a member of my company possessing child pornography seriously (which he eventually did).

    Tom Hickey
    NU Class of 2005

  13. Sandro Cohan says:

    The long standing traditions of the corps of cadets are a thing of the past. Those privileges that cadets worked tirelessly to earn we’re gone the minute Schneider was hired. A trade off was made those that had a memory of the old ways still continue to donate in record numbers. The numbers in the corps continue to shrink while the numbers of civilian students continue to increase. Without the support of the old corps and online education the school would be struggling to stay open. Education has changed and certainly military leadership has needed to become gentler because of the numbers. Norwich which was once respected amongst military colleges is now behind others such as the Citadel and VMI. It is a different dynamic now and I am not quite sure if they are still true to its mission.

    On the other hand this young gentlemen failed to maintain discipline and failed an order whether it can be considered right in you and many of the old guards eyes you failed and you should own responsibility for that. If Rooks failed the qualifications to be recognized it is because you failed them as a leader and those under you including Cadre failed in developing these young men and women. You either lead them all to achieve the standards or fail even if one is left behind it’s not about your standards but about developing future civic minded individuals to be positive members of society. Essay ons!

    Sandro Cohan
    The Old Guard

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