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In Virtual Ceremony, UTSA Graduates Future Army Leaders

Credit: UTSA Army ROTC Roadrunner Battalion
Graduating seniors in the UTSA Army ROTC Roadrunner Battalion prepare for their virtual commissioning ceremony.

The University of Texas at San Antonio Army ROTC Roadrunner Battalion held its spring commissioning ceremony virtually on Friday. Thirty-four cadets took the oath to become commissioned officers — the largest class in the program’s history.  

They graduate in an unprecedented time, when remote leadership has become vital to the Army’s success.

UTSA Army ROTC became an independent ROTC battalion and commissioned its first class in 1982. Since then, UTSA has commissioned more than 850 cadets. It is the third largest Army ROTC program in Texas and serves as host university for cadets from Texas A&M–San Antonio, Alamo Colleges and Wayland Baptist University. 

Of the 34 cadets who were commissioned, 26 are UTSA students who, five were from Texas A&M–San Antonio, and three were from Wayland Baptist. Among the class were six distinguished military graduates (top 20% in the nation).

The 2020 commissioning ceremony was atypical in many ways, but the tradition and symbolism still held. The soon-to-be Army officers joined in using Zoom from their homes, the walls behind them hung with American flags. 

Hundreds of friends and relatives tuned in via Facebook Live and Youtube. Battalion cadre addressed the online assembly from the Patriots’ Casa at Texas A&M San Antonio. 

All the while, an IT team coordinated the many video feeds, spotlighting cadets individually as they took the oath of enlistment and donned their second lieutenant bars for the first time. 

Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, the event’s keynote speaker, couldn’t help but point out the technical effort behind the reimagined ceremony. 

“My usual opening remarks would be to thank all of the family and friends who traveled so far to be with us today,” she said. “However, instead, I will thank the IT specialists who are connecting us.”

As commander of U.S. Army North, headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, Richardson has been at the forefront of the Defense Department’s COVID-19 response. Army North is responsible for homeland defense and support to civil authorities — like FEMA — in emergencies. Since the coronavirus outbreak, it’s helped with logistical and medical requests around the country — including hard-hit areas like New York and Seattle.

“These second lieutenants will enter the Army and wrestle with the unexpected challenge of leading troops in a persistent COVID-19 environment,” Richardson said. “Seven of you are branching Medical Service Corps. Our frontline heroes for this operation happen to be our Medical Corps and our Medical Service Corps: commanders, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and medics.”

The virus has upended nearly every aspect of American life, including military life. The uncertainty of the times bled through nearly every speech.

UTSA battalion commander Lt. Col. Kristen Shifrin urged senior cadets to fall back on their training and find the necessary confidence within themselves. 

“The environment that you're entering into… it's unknown,” she said. “You'll need to be adaptive and agile.”

Credit Photo courtesy of UTSA
The Spring 2020 Army ROTC Roadrunner Battalion graduating class.

Leadership From Afar

The spring semester was a crash course in remote leadership for senior cadets in UTSA’s Roadrunner Battalion. The university went online abruptly in March, forcing the program to adopt new strategies in order to stay connected. 

Under normal circumstances, as cadets progress through the ROTC program, they’re given more and more responsibility for the students who come behind them.

“I’m the Charlie Company commander. I'm in charge of just about 96 MS-1s and MS-2s, which are basically freshmen and sophomores within the program,” explained Jack Rust, a graduating senior who’s branching Field Artillery.

ROTC cadets normally do physical training three or more times a week, on top of classes in military science. To make sure trainees kept pace with the program at home, Rust and other seniors had to take their leadership skills online.

“I'll tell you, it's been incredibly difficult just to keep track, to communicate, to supervise,” he added.

“We use applications like BridgeTracker, which is a fitness application, to log workouts three days a week. Then we use Discord and other communication apps like GroupMe, in order to make sure that everybody's still following the program that we put in place. Just virtually instead of physically.”

The lessons cadets have learned about remote leadership will likely apply in the near term. Most new graduates will join their units in the late summer or early fall, when coronavirus is projected to hit its second wave.

“There’s kind of an air of uncertainty,” said Sara Anderson, a Texas A&M graduating senior and the Roadrunner Battalion’s first female Armor officer. “But we're just moving towards that end goal, that mission.”

She added she believes the virus will likely be around for a while. Social distancing and avoiding face-to-face interaction is something everyone will continue to adapt to.

Anderson’s headed to Fort Benning in September, then on to Colorado. She said she’s not sure whether she’ll get to see the other cadets in her cohort before she leaves. 

“The Army is definitely a team sport,” she said. “So as leaders, learning how to communicate effectively, even though there might be a significant amount of distance between us… I think it's improved us all.”

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.

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Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.