Families have played a big role in ROTC commissioning ceremonies for the past 50 years, often called on to perform the actual “pinning” before the newly commissioned U.S. Army second lieutenants receive their first official salute.
Friday’s event — which saw the pinning of 19 students on the even of their commencement services this weekend — was even more of a family affair, with children stealing the spotlight on stage on multiple occasions and a father-son connection to bookend the morning’s event, held for the first time at the Hobson Performance Center in D. Rich Hall.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, a 1988 Campbell University graduate and current head of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command at Fort Knox in Kentucky, delivered the keynote address Friday, and less than two hours later, his son Kirkland Vereen became the 19th and final second lieutenant to recite the Oath of Commissioned Officers. In his address, Maj. Gen. Vereen brought up the importance of family support for the students.
“I know this is a proud day for all of you and to all of your families,” Vereen told the students. “And I thank you for pressing your way here to support your sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters or even just your friends. Your support is important for these outstanding future leaders.”
For William Fernandez, a Detroit native who will be heading to Italy for specialized training after graduation, Friday was less a celebration of him and more a celebration of the family who supported him in his education journey.
“I’ve been thinking about this moment for a few days — who I’d thank and what exactly I’d say — and it forced me to remember all the leaders in my career who had an influence on me, specifically a sergeant major I worked for a few years back,” Fernandez said. “At his retirement ceremony, he shared with us his regret. He said that after 34 years of service, his biggest regret was putting the military before his family. Remembering that, I forgot how much of an impact that had on me in the moment.
“It made me realize that only one person deserves the spotlight today. My wife, Sandra, was willing to take on additional responsibilities to allow me to focus on the things necessary to get me here today as a second lieutenant. So I ask my peers and everybody in attendance to save their applause for me and give that to my wife instead, because she truly deserves it.”
Jacob Gallagher received his oath from his brother, U.S. Army Capt. Matthew Gallagher, who brought with him on stage a dusty, slightly tattered U.S. flag that he had carried with him through deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq and had used in re-enlisting ceremonies for Jacob twice before.
“My brother wrote me a letter when I was in basic training and he was deployed, and he told me, ‘If you’re not sore, if you’re not tired, if you’re not bleeding, cut or bruised, if you’re not hot or if you’re not cold, then you’re not living the infantry way of life,’” recalled Jacob, who broke his back during jump training just weeks before starting college. “‘That’s what separates you from everybody else — you do what you do, and you do it with a smile.’ I’ve always kept that mentality with me.”
Fernandez and Antonio Cabe were joined on stage by small children during their pinning. Sonny Gonzalez invited his wife, mother and four children on stage for his. And Bailey Haggins — who called the day extra special because she had initially dropped out of college before joining the Army — called it a “blessing” to be surrounded by her family on the big day.
When Kirkland Vereen took center stage, it was his father who delivered the oath and a host of family members who joined him for his pinning. His grandfather, a retired sergeant, gave him his first salute as a commissioned officer.
“I thank my family for their relentless support, not only for the last four years, but since birth. You guys are a blessing to me each and every day, and I appreciate every single one of you,” he said before turning to his fellow second lieutenants. “It’s game time, baby,” he told them. “I look forward to seeing y’all at the top.”
In his address, Maj. Gen. Vereen told the students that he expected them to become leaders in their military careers.
“Whether you’re going to be on active duty, the Army Reserve or National Guard, it doesn’t matter. What we expect you to do is lead,” he said. “And in some cases, to lead in the absence of clear orders. That’s your challenge. Your soldiers are anxiously awaiting your arrival across our military installations. And in some places overseas, they’re waiting for you. So don’t disappoint. Your journey is only beginning.”
He said the American soldier is something no other country can replicate.
“When it comes to our army, they can replicate our equipment, they can replicate our uniforms, and they can even replicate our doctrine,” he said. “But the difference maker in combat is our soldiers on the ground. Being resilient on the battlefield, leading the way.
“So understand your assignment,” he told the students. “You are going to be vital to our army’s success.”