KILLEEN — The American flag was flying high at Texas A&M University Central Texas on Saturday at the commissioning ceremony for twelve newly minted second lieutenants, including one cadet who not only fulfilled her dream to serve in the U.S. Army as an officer, but now represents the first generation of her family to graduate from college.
Jennifer Alvarez’s heart was beating fast right before the ceremony, when she knew her longtime Army mentor would pin on her gleaming gold bars and she would take the oath of office.
“I’m super excited and a little nervous,” Alvarez said, smiling broadly. “I’ve dreamed of this day since high school.” Alvarez earned her bachelor’s degree in applied arts and sciences in business management and she will be a cyber security officer.
She knows the profession she is entering is a serious one.
“I want to make sure I’m the leader the Army needs, that I show empathy and caring while getting the mission done,” Alvarez said.
Lt. Col. Steven Rakel, who was Alvarez’s JROTC professional military studies commander, pinned on the bars and then Master Sgt. Alfonzo L. Branch Sr. gave the first salute.
The multipurpose room at Warrior Hall on campus was filled to the brim with proud families and service members in uniform.
Lt. Col. Marty Deckard administered the oath of office to the cadets, followed by the audience clapping as the new officers stood proudly at attention.
Many cadets chose mentors to pin on the bars.
Rakel has been a mentor to Alvarez during the last decade since he was her JROTC instructor.
“When she first came to me I knew she was a special person,” he said.
He said Alvarez recently made a trip to Floresville near San Antonio to speak to his new class of cadets. “It was the first time they heard a story about someone enlisting in the Army and later becoming an officer,” he said. It took her only five years to be promoted to sergeant.
“She explained to cadets that it was important to be enlisted before striving to become an officer,” Rakel said. “It’s critical to understand the people who are going to be under your leadership.”
Rakel said he gave the oath to both of his daughters when they graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy. “It had the same feeling, like a third daughter,” Rakel said. “It was such a heartfelt moment.”
The word that comes to Rakel’s mind when he thinks of Alvarez is “challenge.”
“She likes a challenge, which is why she signed up to do a before she knew how to swim,” he said. “Now what’s next for her is success in her service. The Army couldn’t be making a better choice.”
Alvarez began classes at Central Texas College in 2014, transferring to TAMUCT after having applied and being accepted into the Army’s “Green to Gold” program. The program offers enlisted men and women the opportunity to earn their commission as officers upon completion of their bachelor’s degree.
Alvarez was one of 125 cadets accepted out of the 1,455 soldiers who applied that year.
Another new lieutenant on Saturday was Jennifer Omeire, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in applied arts and sciences in business management. She started the program as a sergeant.
“It’s an awesome feeling; I’ve worked really hard for this,” Omeire said.
Her goal is to be a positive leader.
“It’s important to get to know your soldiers personally,” she said. “Soldiers want to know their leader knows them and it helps them feel involved and part of the team. It’s good motivation.”
Omeiere’s mother pinned on her bars while her three children watched.
“There’s been countless hours, sleepless nights, missed birthdays because I had a test,” Omeire said. “It comes with sacrifice but it’s all worth it.”
She’s heading to Kentucky for training then to Fort Jackson as her first duty station.
Joining the officer corps is no easy feat, and it is not meant to be.
“We have a lot of 4.0 GPAs because we want the cream of the crop,” said Capt. Steven Thompson, assistant professor of military science at TAMUCT.
During the program they learned about leadership, tactics, being a good citizen and how to motivate soldiers, Thompson said.
They start out leading their peers.
”If you can lead your peers, you can lead anyone,” he said. “An officer has to find in each soldier a motivating factor.”
The next step for the new second lieutenants is a basic officer leadership course, in which they learn what it means to be an officer and they master a specialization.
“They learn a lot about planning,” Thompson said. “They learn to plan for the next five minutes, six months, two years out, all while managing their troops and the budget.”
After passing the leadership course, the new officers will be qualified to lead troops, usually anywhere from 30 to 50 soldiers.
“First they’re put through the wringer, with lots of late nights,” he said. “The last car in the parking lot is going to be an officer.”
Every soldier has their own reason for reaching for the second lieutenant bars.
“Most soldiers want to do something better for themselves, their family and society as a whole,” Thompson said. “They’re patriots.”
It all comes down to one sentence for Alvarez.
“I just love the Army,” she said.
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