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25 years ago, Shannon Faulkner left The Citadel in tears; but she changed the corps

Shannon Faulkner, shown here in a screen capture from YouTube in 2018, was the first woman to join the Citadel Corps of Cadets in 1995.

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By LYN RIDDLE | The State | Published: September 15, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Even though 25 years have passed since she became the first woman to join the Citadel Corps of Cadets, people still ask, “are you THE Shannon Faulkner?”

It happens so often her friends say “THE” is her first name.

Faulkner spent two years battling through the federal courts to win a place in the corps, but she left the Charleston, S.C., military school the same week she enrolled, in a driving rainstorm, sick and emotionally broken.

The few days she spent at The Citadel in 1995 set up all that was to follow, from the four women who came the next year — two of whom graduated — to last year’s first female regimental commander, the highest rank a cadet can hold.

Faulkner ignites deep emotion in The Citadel world.

Several male graduates who attended when she did declined to talk publicly about her specifically or about women at the school in general, saying they don’t see why it couldn’t have remained all male. One said he didn’t want to talk because he didn’t want a brick thrown through his window.

Chris McDaniel, a Kentucky state representative who was a junior at The Citadel when Faulkner enrolled, said 95% of the people who were there then did not want women admitted, but many have eased their opinion.

“Views change,” he said. “If you can’t embrace them, you’re going to be stuck fighting the old fights, and that’s not healthy.”

Col. John Dorrian, the Citadel’s vice president for communication and marketing who spent 25 years in the Air Force, said, “The Citadel is 100 percent better” for having admitted women.

Asked about those who disagree, he said, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I gave you mine.”

That rainy day

Faulkner’s story has been oft told. She applied to The Citadel without specifying her gender, was accepted, and once the school learned she was a woman, rescinded her acceptance. She sued, saying her civil rights had been violated because The Citadel was a public school.

The court allowed her to enroll as a day student in January 1994 while the case was adjudicated. That fall, treasured South Carolina writer Pat Conroy called her. A Citadel graduate, Conroy was shunned after he wrote “The Lords of Discipline,” loosely based on his years at the school, during which the first Black student enrolled.

Faulkner remembers Conroy telling her The Citadel would find her weakness and use it to bring her down.

She attended for three semesters before the court ruled in her favor.

The week before she was to join the corps, Faulkner was at a grocery store near her Upstate home in Powdersville when a man came up behind her, grabbed her arms and told her if she enrolled, he would enjoy watching her house burn down with her parents inside.

An idle threat, she thought, unlikely to be acted upon. She and her parents had already received a steady stream of menacing calls. Their house had been vandalized.

Her first day at The Citadel, Aug. 15, 1995, as Faulkner was in formation, eyes forward as commanded, she heard the same voice from behind uttering a specific threat. She won’t say specifically what the man said.

That was the beginning of the end.

The workouts dehydrated her, the lunchtime Beefaroni nauseated her, and by day’s end she was in the infirmary. There, she heard a nurse say she was faking. She lost 14 pounds in four days and only briefly made it out of the infirmary before she called her parents to come get her.

She knew how bad it looked for the cause of gender rights.

“I did the best I could at the time,” Faulkner said in a recent interview. “The rain hid my tears.”

Her grandmother, who Faulkner said was always her champion, had another view: “The city wept.”

On campus, some cadets celebrated, whooping and hollering in a rain-slickened quad. But McDaniel, who did not see the celebration, said his abiding memory is of a ranking staff officer dressing down the corps.

“That is not who we are,” McDaniel remembers the officer saying.

The college paid Faulkner’s lawyers more than $4 million defending its all-male policy.

‘I wasn’t living’

Faulkner went back to Powdersville in a fog.

“I wasn’t living,” she said. “I was existing.”

For a couple of weeks, 50 to 200 letters arrived every day, so many they wouldn’t fit in the mailbox. Most of the writers, she said, offered support. In all, they filled two trunks, and she’s held onto them.

She spent close to a year with her boyfriend in Norfolk, Va., where he was stationed in the Navy. Returning home, she enrolled at Furman University then Anderson University, majoring in education.

She’s worked in Greenville County schools since graduating. Faulkner taught English in a high school, then middle school and now is a Title 1 planner, working more with parents than children from low-income families.

“I make sure they have what they need,” Faulkner said. “It’s been very rewarding.”

She also kept up her friendship with Conroy. After he died in 2016, a symposium in his honor was held at The Citadel, and Faulkner was invited. It was the first time she had been back to the school since that rainy day.

She wondered whether they had forgiven her.

The women who followed her

The Citadel graduated the first woman corps member in 1999. In all, 590 women have graduated from the corps since then. The 2020 numbers are still being finalized, Dorrian said.

He said the number is impressive considering about 900 women apply to all U.S. military schools each year.

“Engaging them is a competitive process that we successfully approach with strategy and fervor,” he said.

Sarah Zorn, now a lieutenant in the U.S. Army stationed overseas, was the first female regimental commander, appointed in 2019. Dorrian said Zorn has been an outspoken proponent of her time in the corps, and her leadership brought a lot of attention to the program.

“We call it ‘the Sarah effect,’” he said.

The percentage of women in the corps lingered around 10% each year and is now almost 13%, Dorrian said.

He said a major change the school made to accommodate women was adjusting the haircut requirement for incoming freshmen, which was a pixie-like cut. A survey indicated one in three women who were accepted but did not enroll decided on the basis of the haircut requirement.

The new policy, implemented in 2018, is in line with that of the military — tie the hair up or cut it in a bob.

Dorrian said the corps is a better training ground for future military leaders because women were admitted.

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, just under 17% of active duty military are women, with the most diverse being the Air Force, followed by the Navy at about 20%. The Army is 16%, Marines 9.

“I attended when the corps was all male,” said Dorrian, who graduated in 1990. “We prepare them better for a life in business and in the military.”

Rediscovering herself

Faulkner said it took at least seven years for her to overcome the trauma of The Citadel experience. She rediscovered what she describes as her funny, sarcastic self.

“I’m just glad there was no social media back then,” she said

She acted in productions at community theaters in Anderson and Greenville counties until the COVID-19 pandemic shut them down earlier this year. Always in comedies.

“I enjoy making people laugh,” she said.

At 45, she helps care for her parents and enjoys her brother’s children. She’s never been married or had children of her own.

She’s writing a book, most likely fiction, something she considered doing six months after she left the school, but Conroy advised her against it. She remembers him saying it would be too difficult for her to write and no one would want to read it. Conroy’s work is her guide, using real life to make memorable fiction.

She said she has no hard feelings toward The Citadel and considers it a good school. One of her commanders reached out to her not too long ago, she said. He wanted to share his guilt over her leaving, believing that it was his responsibility to see that she made it. She assured him he did nothing wrong.

Faulkner takes no credit for the many successes of the women who followed her, but she does consider herself a trailblazer.

“I opened the door,” she said.

©2020 The State (Columbia, S.C.)
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Sarah Zorn accepts the Regimental Commander’s sword from Dillon Graham during a change of command ceremony in May of 2018.
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