KILLEEN — Almost 10 years ago, when Jennifer Alvarez was a 15-year-old Junior ROTC cadet at Calvin Nelms High School in Houston, her senior instructor, Lt. Col. Steve Rakel, told her that to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice your gift.
Rakel, now 61, in his 43rd year of service in the Air Force and a recent three-time participant in the Iron Man Triathalon, remembers delivering Steve Prefontaine’s motivational message, and he acknowledges its impact on both of their lives.
Like all good teachers, Rakel remembers his students, and he keeps up with many of them. But he remembers Alvarez as among the most rare and special students he has ever had.
“I had done a few triathlons myself,” he began. “So I decided that we should do one for students at the high school level, and Jennifer was one of the first to sign up.”
In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly special about that, he admitted. But the story behind the story, he suggested, was his first glimpse into Alvarez’s work ethic and character.
“She had no experience competing as an athlete,” he said. “But she had never learned to swim. And that’s a major competitive element in a triathlon.”
Rakel recruited the help of his high school’s swim coach, and between the two teachers and a relentless training schedule, within just three months Alvarez was swimming proficiently enough to compete among the other athletes.
Still, when she competed, Rakel insisted on swimming next to his trainee, who would have to go from one end to the other of the Cinco Ranch Subdivision Lake.
“She had a tendency to swim to the right,” he laughed. “And she was nervous, but determined, because the water was unfamiliar to her. So I asked for permission to buddy swim, and stayed right there in the water with her while she did the hard work of an athlete.”
On Saturday, Rakel will make the drive from his home in Houston to see Alvarez again when, prior to her graduation later that evening, she graduates from Texas A&M University-Central Texas and receives her commission, taking the oath of service as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
In fact, during the portion of the ceremony that follows the oath of office, when family members approach the officer candidates to affix their official bars onto the epaulettes of their dress uniforms, it’ll be Rakel who does the honors for Alvarez.
Naturally, Alvarez admires the mentor who has taught her so much, but more than anything she is grateful for the inspiration he provided more than a decade ago.
“He spoke words of faith to me,” she said, her dark brown eyes shining softly with nostalgia. “There were times during JROTC when he would put me in a leadership role and we had to face adversity of some kind. He would always tell me that he admired how I worked with others to come to a solution and that I had the abilities of an officer.”
A year after her graduation from Calvin Nelms High School in 2011, Alvarez enlisted, stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri where she began her basic training. A non-traditional start for those who might be considering a leadership role as an officer.
Alvarez explains her reasoning, saying she considered it her obligation to know the life of enlisted men and women first before presuming that a commission was in her future.
Stationed at Fort Hood since 2014, she was assigned to 1st Cavalry Division as an Information Technology specialist, also known as 25 Bravo, by then having two mini-deployments to both Germany and South Korea on Operation Combined Resolve.
Within three years Alvarez had earned her sergeant’s stripes, uncommon for those in her occupation where the number of promotion points required extra effort.
She 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, she explained, offers enlisted men and women the opportunity to earn their commission as officers upon completion of their bachelor’s degree.
“The year I applied, there were 1,455 enlisted men and women throughout the U.S. Army who applied for this program,” Alvarez said. “Only 125 are accepted. I was one of those.”
Encouraged by her parents, Francis and Magdalena Alvarez, to pursue college, she and her brother, Jonathon, are the first in their families to obtain a college degree. But if bragging rights among siblings matters, it just might be that Alvarez has accomplished the perfect educational trifecta.
Preparing for her last semester at TAMUCT, Alvarez visited the advising office at CTC, wondering if she’d had the right credits to be eligible for her associate’s degree.
Now, in just a few days, Alvarez will graduate from Central Texas College on Friday, become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army on Saturday, and graduate from TAMUCT that evening with her bachelor’s degree in business management.
And so this young woman, with her entire life before her, will begin a new career after graduation as a second lieutenant assigned to Fort Gordon as a cyber security officer and grateful for the A&M-Central Texas ROTC Program.
“It’s been an experience I will never forget,” she said. “I’ve made lifelong friends during tough times and I believe this program and the university have taught me life lessons outside the classroom that I’ll be applying to my experience being a leader among others who are in service to the country.”
Cadet Roberto Mendez, A&M-Central Texas ROTC MS III, a junior and business management major, agrees wholeheartedly.
“Alvarez is going to make a phenomenal officer,” he observed. “She’s a scholar. She’s an athlete. She’s a leader. She gives of herself. She volunteers to help develop the new cadets, and puts in real time mentoring them along. She believes in the value of everyone she leads.”