‘In every crisis there is opportunity’: ROTC cadets receive commissions despite pandemic
Maggie Eastland | Friday, May 21, 2021
Every year, several ROTC students in Notre Dame’s graduating class are commissioned as officers in the U.S. Navy, Army, Marines and Air Force.
Despite COVID-19 setbacks, the class of 2021 will be no different, sending many new officers into various branches of the military.
The soon-to-be officers include 16 Army, 14 Navy and nine Air Force cadets from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College and Valparaiso University, a crosstown partner school.
Among the 16 graduating Army cadets, 12 will be commissioned into the Army, two will enter the U.S. Army Reserves and two will delay commissioning as they pursue higher education.
Lieutenant Colonel George Lachicotte, department chair and professor of Military Science for Notre Dame Army ROTC, said this graduating class is different from previous years.
“They’ve had to go their last, essentially year and a half, or last 18 months through the pandemic,” Lachicotte said. “We’ve never had to deal with this. They’re the first class that didn’t go through what we call Advanced Camp … their culminating test in between junior and senior year.”
During Advanced Camp, cadets usually spend 30 days together at Fort Knox as a test of different mental, physical, military and leadership skills. After the camp, the cadets receive proficiency scores that play a large role in determining their overall score for their entire time at ROTC, Lachicotte explained. Those scores help the cadets receive their assignments in one of the 17 different army branches, he said.
The class of 2021 did not have the opportunity to participate in this camp, instead completing an abbreviated version last August.
Despite strict Center for Disease Control and University guidelines, Lachicotte said the senior class proved themselves as future officers.
“They’ve really had to show a lot of resiliency, a lot of creativity too, on how we can still train the future generations and prepare them,” he said. “From a mental resiliency and mental toughness standpoint, this is probably one of the tougher classes because they’ve had to deal with all that.”
One of the graduating Army cadets, Sophie Koeppl, attended Saint Mary’s College to study history and economics and play varsity basketball.
After graduation, Koeppl will commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and eventually be stationed as a civil officer, working on communications at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany.
Koeppl said she loved participating in ROTC, where she felt embraced.
Despite the extra distance to travel, Koeppl said she felt empowered as at Saint Mary’s student, especially when fellow cadets would come to cheer for her at basketball games.
“We’re building in number, and I love that for Saint Mary’s because I think Saint Mary’s builds really great and confident women,” Koeppl said. “I’ve seen a really growing acceptance rate of being a Saint Mary’s woman.”
She even served as Battalion Commander last semester, a position Koeppl said a Saint Mary’s student has not held since before her time in ROTC.
Koeppl and her fellow Army ROTC cadets were commissioned and honored in a combined year-end and award ceremony that took place May 11.
Even after over a year of fragmented COVID lockdowns and guidelines, ROTC graduates Evan Muller and Joseph Tanaka value their experience.
A total of 14 Navy ROTC graduates, including Muller and Tanaka, will receive commissions this year. Two will join the Marines and 12 will join the Navy.
Muller is a graduating Naval cadet who studied political science, Russian and international security at Notre Dame. After graduation, he will commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and attend Boston College Law School, which will eventually enable him to become a judge advocate that prosecutes, defends and advises commanders on the rules of engagement, humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict.
Muller said his mentor, Captain Cody Brockelmeyer, taught him important lessons about humility and service.
“Leadership isn’t about being the loudest or most outgoing person in the room. It’s about one’s ability to listen, learn, stay humble and have a strong sense of empathy,” Muller said in an email. “In the Marine Corps, officers eat last symbolizing putting others above yourself.”
Joseph Tanaka studied mechanical engineering at Notre Dame and will begin flight school at Pensacola to prepare for a future career as a Navy pilot.
Tanaka said witnessing his parents’ sacrifices and service in the Navy inspired him to join the ROTC program and emphasized the lessons of teamwork he learned in last four years.
“ROTC taught me the importance of a team and how great things are only accomplished through working together and making sure everyone in the team trust and cares for each other,” Tanaka said in an email.
Air Force ROTC
The nine Air Force cadets will commission as a variety of positions. Some will begin undergraduate pilot training or become Intelligence Officers, while others will enter weather, civil engineering, logistics readiness and contracting departments.
The Air Force ROTC cadets also conquered pandemic-related challenges.
Colonel Corey Ramsby, Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) Commander and professor of Aerospace Studies, said the graduating class built real-world skills thanks to the pandemic.
“This is a class of adaptation and innovation. They have had to re-adjust the way they view and solve problems,” Ramsby said in an email. “AFROTC training is extremely hands-on and having to adjust to virtual training, social distancing and ensuring everyone’s health and safety … has instilled in them exactly what the Air Force needs in its officers — the ability to assess and mitigate risk with the proper balance between mission and force.”
Ramsby also said this graduating class benefited from the period of reflection created by the pandemic.
“In every crisis there is an opportunity, and this class has seized many of them,” he said. “Ultimately, they have built an environment where everyone is valued regardless of ethnicity, religious beliefs, sex or any other biased attribute … I’m not sure we could have reached this point as quickly as we did without the forced introspection created by the pandemic.”