VMI Commissions New Officers: History Made as They Enter Six Military Branches
LEXINGTON, Va. May 16, 2023 — Approximately 170 Virginia Military Institute cadets, commissioned into the armed services in Cameron Hall Monday, May 15 in the annual Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Joint Commissioning Ceremony. The historic day marked the first time VMI cadets were sworn in to all six branches: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard. The ceremony was livestreamed for family and friends who could not attend the event in person.
The five commissioning officers who administered the oath of office were Gen. Gary M. Brito, commander, Training and Doctrine Command, U.S. Army; Maj. Gen. William J. Bowers ’90, commanding general, recruiting command, U.S. Marine Corps and VMI alumnus; Rear Adm. Brendan R. McLane, Naval Surface Force Atlantic, U.S. Navy; Lt. Gen. Philip A. Garrant, deputy chief of space operations, strategy, plans, programs and requirements, U.S. Space Force; and Adm. Steven D. Poulin, 33rd vice commandant, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).
Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins ’85, superintendent, welcomed those in attendance and thanked the ROTC departments, faculty, staff, family members, and guests who supported and encouraged the cadets throughout their time at VMI. He noted that the ceremony was the culmination of four or more years of hard work on the part of each cadet, and a memorable moment in each of their lives, as well as the beginning of a life of service to the nation.
After Wins recognized veterans and current military members in the audience and thanked them for their service, he noted that over 100 years ago, the United States entered World War I, and by the end of the war, 1,800 VMI alumni had served.
“At the time, that conflict was referred to as ‘the war to end all wars.’ Sadly, that has not been the case. Conflicts continue, and since our founding, VMI graduates have stepped up to defend our nation each and every time. We must have a strong military led by highly educated and skilled officers, men and women of character dedicated to defending the freedoms that we continue to enjoy. The traditional concept of the battlefield is no longer confined to specific geographical areas. The nature of warfare is expanding into cyberspace, professionals from all services now wage combat with drones, robotics, satellites and precision guided missiles from ships, planes, and remote locations. As technology accelerates, these weapons become increasingly sophisticated, which demands adaptability, competence, wisdom, and courage from the very best leaders. You have developed the foundation based on these skills during your years of study here at VMI,” he said.
More than 35 years ago, Wins made the decision to commission. “And just like you, I was sworn in as a young officer and became part of a great team of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and service families. You too will come to cherish the same experience,” he stated.
Wins congratulated each cadet on attaining their commission and told them the Institute could not be prouder. “The profession you have chosen will challenging, but don't lose focus. Take heart knowing you are following in the footsteps of many alumni that have gone before you to live a life of service to our nation. Our country is fortunate to have citizen soldiers and leaders like yourselves. Good luck to each of you in the years ahead and please stay in touch.”
He introduced the five officers participating in the commission by stating, “These five outstanding officers illustrate one of the great strengths of the United States military. Members of our professional offices come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and universities from all across the country. We are honored by their presence and very grateful to welcome them to deliver the commissioning of today."
Army Gen. Brito Commissions 109
Brito was introduced by Col. Scott Brannon, professor and department head of military science at VMI. Brito opened his address by asking the future Army officers, “Are you ready to lead?” To which he received a loud, and enthusiastic affirmative reply.
He started by thanking the cadre of the Army, Navy, and Air Force programs at VMI. “Your professionalism and commitment to deliver world-class training and leader development made today possible for all of our future officers.” He also thanked the families for entrusting their sons and daughters to VMI and to the military.
Brito shared with the cadets that the military exists to fight and win the nation's wars, all around the world. “The Army needs you to be the best you can be. It needs your energy, your passion, and your drive. It needs your commitment, and now more than ever, it needs you to lead, to be innovative and caring for the young men and women under your charge.”
He revealed that he has been in the Army for over 36 years and a lot has changed. “What has not and should never change is that the Army is in the people business. Even though the force has modernized at a rapid pace, people are still our greatest strength, the most important component of what makes the military the successful and well respected.”
Brito highlighted that this year marks the 50th anniversary of an all-volunteer U.S. military, which is the envy of the world.
He closed by offering a few basic pieces of advice to the commissioning officers. “Every day, wake up choose a ‘can-do attitude.’ Control your character, your reputation, and your fitness. Trust your noncommissioned officers, and build relationships with them. Take care of your troops and they will take care of you. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Always seek self-improvement and never stop learning; Show respect and promote decency. Have fun and enjoy the journey. Maintain a health work/life balance.”
He then administered the oath of office to 109 cadets, commissioning them as second lieutenants.
According to Capt. Colin J. Reynolds, assistant professor of military science, four commissioning cadets stand out as exceptional leaders: Janine H. Colantonio ’23, Austin R. Gonzalez ’23, Garrett E. Petruskie ’23, Richard “Brad” Wagner ’23. “They are each a distinguished military graduate, a distinction reserved for the top 20% of all cadets in the nation, and they each excelled in academic, physical, and military proficiency,” said Reynolds.
Colantonio, from Berryville, Virginia, served as Company D commander, majored in psychology, and graduated with distinction. “I am very thankful for the Army department and the Ranger Challenge team who helped build me into the person I am today,” said Colantonio. She was pinned by her sisters, Kristin Colantonio and Jennifer Ager, and received her first salute from her rat, Susan Hickman ’26. Colantonio reports to Fort Moore, Georgia, for Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course.
Gonzalez, who served as Company H commander, majored in international studies with a minor in Spanish, was this year’s recipient of the Colonel Thomas St. John Arnold Award, and was a distinguished graduate. He is from Haymarket, Virginia. "I do not believe there is any place on earth that could have better prepared me to enter the Army as a commissioned officer. I thank the Institute and the Army ROTC Blue Ridge Battalion for being some of the best teachers I have ever known," said Gonzalez. He was pinned by his parents, Michelle and retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Robert Gonzalez, and received his first salute from his father. In June he reports to Fort Novosel, formerly known as Fort Rucker in Dale County, Alabama, for Army Aviation Basic Officer Leader Course, followed by Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school.
Petruskie, a civil engineering major from Colonial Beach, Virginia, served as regimental S7 captain, in charge of morale, welfare, and recreation. “VMI has given me the knowledge and the confidence to lead as a commissioned officer,” he said. His father Dr. Brian Petruskie who was a captain in the Texas National Guard and Reserves swore him in, and he received his first salute from his 91-year-old grandfather, George Allebach, who was a corporal in the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War. Petruskie will report to Basic Officers Leader Course in June as an armor officer.
Wagner, from Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, served as Company A commander, was operations sergeant as a 2nd Class cadet, and a cadre corporal as a 3rd Class cadet. He served as an EMT as both a 3rd and 2nd Class cadet. He majored in economics and business with a concentration in global business and graduated with distinction. "I am very blessed and honored to share this experience with all the other great men and women in my class. For it is them who have made this experience truly worthwhile and hold so much value," he said. He was pinned by his dyke, Lt. Andrew Ladi IV ’20, and received his first salute from Sgt. Maj. Tom Sowers. He is commissioned as a finance officer in the Minnesota National Guard, and reports to the 247th Financial Management Support Detachment, part of the 347th Regional Support Group as a platoon leader in June.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Bowers ’90 Commissions 15
Bowers ’90 was introduced by Col. Travis Homiak ’95, commanding officer of Naval ROTC. Bowers talked about the oath of office which the cadets were about to take, specifically, the part that refers to “bearing true faith and allegiance” to the U.S. Constitution.
“Bearing true faith, especially to Marines, comes intuitively - ‘Semper Fidelis’ - we’re always faithful to our country, our Corps, and to each other. Allegiance means being part of something bigger than ourselves, being part of the ideals of what this country was built on, the Constitution.”
He described the preamble of the Constitution as “the greatest mission statement ever written,” and went through “the five Ws” of the preamble: who, what, when, where and why.
“The Who is ‘We the People of the United States.’ The Why is ‘In order to form a more perfect union.’ The What is ‘to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare. The Where is wherever they are, all over the world. They will be global representatives of this country, for our allied partners, and for the citizens of the world. When: for all time."
Bowers conceded that it is a tall order, but encouraged the cadets that what they have accomplished at VMI prepared them well.
“You've demonstrated academic excellence, leadership, and the ability to lead and gain the respect of your peers. You've shown grit, determination, and resiliency. You’ve overcome adversity, and most importantly, lived under an uncompromising honor system. You all have what it takes to lead the young men and women volunteering to serve our country in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
He then administered the oath of office to 14 cadets, commissioning them as second lieutenants.
Homiak cited two outstanding cadets entering the Marine Corps: Jack Mion ’23, and Blake Smith ’23.
“During their time as cadets, they challenged themselves academically, physically, and in leadership roles – excelling across all three areas. They took full advantage of what VMI offers in terms of a unique educational and leadership experience. It will be exciting to see them develop as junior officers. No matter what course they choose to take, I’m certain that they will have a huge impact,” said Homiak.
Mion, a civil engineering major from Glenville, New York, served as executive officer of Company G.
"It has been a very eventful and fast four years here at VMI. The Institute turned me into the person I am today, for which I am forever grateful. I developed as a leader, earned a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps, and made many friends along the way. I will miss this place but am excited to see where this next chapter takes all of us. RAH '23!" he said.
He was pinned by his father, retired Marine Corps Sgt. Farren Mion, and his mother, Kathy Mion. He received his first salute from his father. He will report to The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia in October.
Smith served as regimental commander, the highest-ranking position a cadet can earn. He is from Crozier, Virginia, and majored in economics. He was this year’s recipient of the General Douglas MacArthur Cadet Award, presented to a 1st Class cadet who emulates and practices the qualities exemplified by MacArthur and has demonstrated the most soldierly performance, considering academics, athletics, and leadership.
Navy Rear Adm. McLane Commissions 20
Homiak also introduced McLane, who shared that he is the grandson of a 1936 VMI alumnus. He told those about to be commissioned, “This is a great moment that you will remember for the rest of your lives. Savor it and be grateful. You are joining an elite force in a time when our nation needs you the most.” He quoted President John F. Kennedy by saying, “Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”
McLane continued by telling the future ensigns, “You have all voluntarily joined a select group, and assume a great deal of responsibility. Everyone commissioned here today has volunteered to serve, and that service comes with hard work, responsibility, and obligation. Consequently, in order to guarantee the freedom of our citizens, you give up a great deal. In return, you will receive the priceless gift of adventures you will tell stories about for the rest of your lives. You will work hard and have the satisfaction of a job well done. Remember all those who have gone before you and who served with honor. You are answering the call of this great nation.” He thanked them for their dedication and willingness to serve. He then administered the oath of office to 20 cadets, commissioning them as ensigns.
Homiak cited two outstanding cadets entering the Navy: Alex Feher ’23 and London Yerasimides ’23.
“Each represents the best that the Institute and the Naval ROTC program have to offer. I am proud to see them achieve their goal of graduating VMI and commissioning into the Naval Services,” Homiak said.
Feher, from Midlothian, Virginia, served as vice president for investigations for the Officer of the Guard Association, midshipmen battalion commander, made an outstanding score on the Navy physical readiness test. He performed in the pipe band and the Commanders jazz band. He majored in biology and minored in chemistry with a 3.82 GPA, and was a distinguished graduate. He was this year’s recipient of the Lieutenant Mark R. Wilson, Sr. Midshipman Award.
Yerasimides, from Prospect, Kentucky, served as Company F commander. She was captain of the swimming and diving team, served on the midshipman battalion staff, made an outstanding score on the Navy physical readiness test, and received one of the three Intercollegiate Sports Awards. She majored in psychology and minored in national security. She was a distinguished graduate with institute honors, and a 3.82 GPA.
“VMI has given me the unique opportunity to learn my own leadership style, but also gave me room to fail and learn from my mistakes. The Navy ROTC has given me the tools in order to be a successful Naval officer and allowed me the freedom to find my own path,” she said.
She was pinned by her father, stepmother, brother, and sister. She received her first salute from her rat Sarah Woosley ’26. She will report to San Diego, California in August for her first school to become a Surface Warfare Officer.
Space Force Gen. Garrant Commissions 21
Garrant was introduced by Col. Nichole K.A. Scott, commanding officer of Air Force ROTC.
Garrant began his talk by asking the cadets, “Will you be able to meet the expectations and requirements to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office you are about to enter?” He explained that like all uniformed services, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Space Force each have a set of core values to help execute those duties, which he shared with them.
“They are character, which lays the foundation of trust and teamwork; connection, all members are connected with a common purpose greater than ourselves; commitment to ourselves and our profession; and courage to persevere despite adversity, and take on challenges. Courage empowers us to take necessary personal or professional limits, make decisions which may be unpopular, and admit our mistakes.”
Garrant administered the oath of office to 21 cadets, 18 into the Air Force, and three into the Space Force, commissioning them as second lieutenants.
According to Scott, three cadets have stood out. Josephine Freeman ’23, Fatoumata Diallo ’23, and Philip Argauer ’23.
“Freeman has been a standout leader, resulting in being a Distinguished Graduate. Her maturity, tenacity, dedication, and fierceness have led our detachment to the next echelon. She has held multiple roles from Wing Exec, responsible for 233 cadets to Squadron Dir of Ops, to holding rank. She's done this while earning a double major, and the Dean's List every semester. She was hand-selected as a cadet chaplain, studied abroad in Morocco, volunteered at the library, and is a VMI color guard leader. She will be commissioned as a space operator into the U.S. Space Force,” said Scott. Freeman is from Warrenton, Virginia.
“Diallo, from Secaucus, New Jersey, is also a Distinguished Graduate. She majored in French and international studies. She was hand-selected as the Delta vice commander to train 184 Air Force ROTC cadets. She commissioned as an intelligence officer into the Air Force,” shared Scott.
“Argauer was selected in the first round to be a helicopter pilot, and only a few in the nation were chosen for this highly competitive program. He has held numerous leadership positions in the Air Force ROTC and in the VMI Corps of Cadets. Argauer is also a Distinguished Graduate,” Scott said. Argauer is from Vienna, Virginia.
Coast Guard Adm. Poulin Commissions Four
Poulin was introduced by Capt. John J. Driscoll ’92, chief, office of cutter forces, USCG and VMI alumnus.
Poulin shared that he is proud of the tradition of the USCG and pleased that VMI has begun commissioning officers into the branch and looks forward to growing the relationship with the Institute.
“For 233 years, the USCG has protected ports, both at home and abroad, in peacetime and in conflict. The United States is a maritime nation, and so our faith is inextricably linked to the sea. That makes the Coast Guard a unique instrument of national power. We are a military service, we’re a proud contributor to the joint force, and we fight alongside our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. We’re also a law enforcement agency, a regulatory agency, and a lifesaving agency. We uphold the rule of law and enable the nation’s economic prosperity,” he said.
Poulin administered the oath of office to four cadets, commissioning them as ensigns. This is the first year in VMI history in which cadets have received active-duty direct commissions to the USCG, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, unlike other military branches that fall under the Department of Defense. The USCG does not offer a ROTC program like the other branches, but instead offers Auxiliary University Programs (AUP) for cadets interested in commissioning upon graduation.
According to Command Sgt. Maj. Suzanne Rubenstein, director of cadet activities and VMI liaison for the AUP, all the USCG cadets have done remarkably well this inaugural year. Aidan Simmons ’23, an international studies major from Aldie, Virginia, who also served as the AUP unit commander, and Sarah Robertson ’23, a computer science major from Richmond, have been instrumental in keeping the AUP running smoothly.
“It is such an honor to be the first Coast Guard cadets in the Joint Commissioning Ceremony. I feel immense pride knowing that all our hard work over the last few years has paid off,” Robertson said. She will be sworn in by Lt. j.g. Madeline Cordle '20. She will be pinned by her mother, Sharron Robertson, and her rat, Avan Johnson ’26. She will receive her first salute from Joyce Ellis '24. Robertson will be a deck watch officer on the USCGC Douglas Denman in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Simmons served as 2nd platoon lieutenant for Company G, team lead for the Rat Disciplinary Committee, cadet in charge of the boxing club, and won the championship in his division at the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association National Tournament held recently in Cocke Hall.
“This historical event shows that VMI is constantly advancing its structure and programs to accommodate for cadets and the world around us,” said Simmons.
He was pinned by his family, along with boxing club coach, Joe Shafer, and received his first salute from retired U.S. Army Master Sgt. Darrin DeCoster. He reports to Sector Maryland-National Capitol Region, which protects the Chesapeake Bay region, as an enforcement management officer.
Later in the afternoon under a light rain, the Memorial Parade was held, commemorating the bravery and sacrifice of all alumni who died on the field of honor. Reading all 591 names were Angelina Garcia ’25, Harrison Henneberg ’25, John Kennedy ’25, and Thomas Reagan ’25. A wreath was laid at the foot of the monument, Virginia Mourning Her Dead, as well as at the three barracks arches, followed by the firing of a three-volley salute. A stirring echo rendition of “Taps” was played, followed by the pipe band leading the Regimental band in an emotional delivery of “Amazing Grace.” The Corps then marched from the Parade Ground down Letcher Avenue toward Barracks, rendered an eyes-right salute to Wins and Col. Adrian T. “Bogey” Bogart, III ‘’81, as they marched past the monument.
Photos by H. Lockwood McLaughlin
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