Citadel cadet Carrie Graves marches to the beat of her own drum

CHARLESTON — At 4 foot 11 inches (and three quarters), Carrie Graves stands out in a crowd.

She is distinctive because this diminutive cadet is a sophomore at The Citadel and an active Catholic. She is also in a place where females are a minority, Catholics a surprising yet silent majority, and spirituality often takes a back seat for cadets struggling through their first years at the mentally, physically and spiritually demanding military institution.

But this unusually confident 19-year-old who is finishing her sophomore year has what it takes. She has God.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was her first year, the grueling knob year, that she says helped her become closer to Christ.

“When I was growing up, I was just going through the motions,” Graves says of being Catholic. “When I got here, the knob year was the hardest thing I ever went through, and I was in the chapel every day.

“As a knob, you have so much to do and so little time to do it,” she said. “You have cadets pushing you to do your best in everything you do, and you feel like you don’t live up to their standards.

“It was the most exciting year of my life,” she said. “I have made lifelong friends. You have to depend on your classmates; they know what you’re going through. It’s just as hard for them as it is for you.”

She prayed especially hard during those times and found comfort in prayer. How did she pray?

“I sorta talk to God like he’s sitting there with me, like one of my friends,” she said and leaned her head back laughing. “Sometimes I say, ‘you’ll never guess what happened to me today.'”

As someone who actively sought out faith as a support, Graves found that there were no other girls in the Catholic campus ministry at The Citadel, so she joined the choir. She didn’t find any other female cadets, but she did befriend two freshmen, Brian Mather and Steve Snow.

Knobs are required to attend a religious or ethnic service every week. In their second year, attendance at services drops off. The three friends took over the campus ministry to try to get more cadets back into the Catholic fold. They formed a parish council. They held Monday night meetings, Tuesday night rosaries, Wednesday night Bible studies in the battalions and Thursday night Rite of Christian Initiation classes and Knights of Columbus meetings.

Graves is now forming a Columbiettes group, the ladies auxiliary of the Knights. Thanks to her, five women will receive the first degree of Columbiettes through St. Peter Church in Beaufort. The group affiliated with St. Peter’s Columbiettes because they have to have 25 people to form on their own. It would be the first woman-only group at The Citadel.

“It could really have an impact,” says Father Jeffrey Kendall, campus minister. “Girls at The Citadel is still a new thing, and that is still being worked out in the life of the corps. A lot of female cadets are Catholic but so many are involved in sports or scholarships that they really need someone who can bring them together and encourage them in Catholic activities.”

Graves seems to be the one.

“Carrie is very much of an advocate,” says Father Kendall, Citadel campus minister and pastor of Christ the Divine Teacher there. “She’s a spunky little fighter, and she has causes, but they are all causes benefiting a larger group of people.”

Catholicism is foremost, however.

“She’s very faithful,” said the pastor. “She’s always at Mass. She is part of the team that leads a rosary prayer service. Before the Holy Father announced luminous mysteries they would get together in the chapel and turn off all the lights and light candles. Talk about luminous mysteries, they were ahead of the curve.”

Aside from her faith-filled activities, Graves is the human affairs corporal for the piping band. She has learned to play the bagpipes since starting college.

She is originally from Pensacola, Fla., where she was baptized at the age 8.

“All I remember thinking is ‘this means I have to go to church every Sunday now,’ she said. “But I’m glad I was older when I got baptized because I can remember it.”

She chose The Citadel because she wanted to go to a military college and study law. Her major is political science. She stays with the school because of its standards.

“I believe in everything The Citadel stands for and the honor system,” she said. “There’s no honor system enforced and upheld by students themselves in any other institution.”

But it has been tough and she has learned many unexpected lessons. For a tomboy who was excited about the prospect of always being in pants, Graves soon found out she received more respect from cadets when she started wearing skirts.

She also has garnered a lot of respect from her best friend who is also her beau. Mather, 20, is a sophomore. He is a cradle Catholic from Chapin who was on Our Lady of the Lake and the Diocese of Charleston’s youth councils for retreat planning. He is a fourth degree deputy grand Knight for The Citadel’s Knights of Columbus council 6900.

“I look to God for inspiration,” he said. “I look to him as my guardian and my protector. I don’t think I could have done anything that I have done without God in my life.”

That includes meeting Graves.

“We met because of our faith,” he said. “We got to know each other more because of our faith. I really see that she’s a very strong Catholic woman. A lot of people would have bowed under the pressure. Some people tend to neglect their faith with all the responsibilities. Only about two or three other girls come to Mass.”

Graves will have to leave The Citadel during her junior year so she can work and save money for continuing her education. It’s a difficult decision, but she faces it with confidence and focus.

“That will be very unfortunate,” said Father Kendall. “It’s a great loss.”

But Graves has many reasons to return. Petra Lovetinska, one of the first female cadets at The Citadel, handed off her brass from her uniform to her in her senior year. Graves plans to do the same for someone else.