Motivating Youth to Reach for the Skies: DC National Guard fosters community engagement with Washington, DC ROTC program

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Deborah Ou-Yang
  • District of Columbia Air National Guard

The District of Columbia National Guard is helping motivate young people to reach for the sky – literally – by mentoring and giving them the opportunity to fly in an F-16. 

In March, five cadets from the Georgetown University Army ROTC program, also known as the Hoya Battalion, visited Joint Base Andrews, where they were fitted for flight equipment and flew in the backseat of F-16s from the 113th Wing, D.C. Air National Guard.

“The backseat ride in the F-16 was unbelievable,” said Anna Harpel, a sophomore at Georgetown University and ROTC cadet. “It was possibly the coolest thing I have ever done. The pilot let me take the controls for a bit and fly around. It was exhilarating.”

One of the country’s oldest ROTC programs, the Hoya Battalion is composed of five academic institutions: Georgetown University, American University, Catholic University of America, the George Washington University, and the Institute for World Politics. Its prime location in the nation’s capital presents unique opportunities like collaboration with the D.C. National Guard.

In a city that thrives on networking and relationship building, it is no surprise the cadet rides came about from a chance interaction.

While standing in the check-out line at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Sherrie L. McCandless, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, saw a person wearing a Hoya Battalion fleece jacket and initiated a conversation about connecting with youth in the ROTC program. He then introduced her to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gabriel Wolfe, a professor of military science at Georgetown University and director of the Hoya Battalion.

“I think of myself as a connector,” said McCandless. “I see someone with a need here and someone with a resource here and connect them. I’ve been a benefactor of the ROTC program, so I try to pay it forward. I believe we should perpetuate these kinds of opportunities for young people.”

Flying in the backseat of an F-16 at Homestead Air Force Base when she was an ROTC cadet at the University of Miami over 30 years ago inspired McCandless to pursue a career as a fighter pilot with the Air Force.

Of her experience, McCandless said, “It was a window into what happens in a fighter squadron and how critical the military family becomes. It is essential to trust your aircrew flight equipment technicians with all of your life support gear and everyone in maintenance who is responsible for hydraulics, engines, tires, and all the systems that actually get you airborne on a successful flight. That teamwork intrigued me.”

Prior to the flight, the students underwent a medical review and ejection and parachute training, learned basic survival techniques in the event of an emergency, and were fitted for flight suits. They then received a briefing on what to expect in the air from the pilots they were matched with before embarking on the hour-long ride.

“I was able to learn so much about aviation from all the pre-flight training and while in the air,” said Cecilia Caputo, a junior at the George Washington University and member of the Hoya Battalion. “Everyone was so knowledgeable and provided me with a lot of insight into their careers.”

When asked why they chose to join ROTC, Caputo and many of the other cadets cited a desire to serve their country. 

“I grew up translating in various countries for medical teams, which made me passionate about serving others,” said Caputo. “I decided to join ROTC to continue serving others. My grandparents served in Vietnam, and I had other relatives who served in World War II, so I wanted to continue their legacy.”

In addition to service, Lauren Utley, a freshman at the George Washington University, also joined the Hoya Battalion to find purpose and grow her leadership skills.

“I grew up as a classical ballerina so transitioning to ROTC was a hard, but exciting change. I am excited to become a future Army officer,” she said.

Utley gets to observe the work of Army officers firsthand during monthly drills with the D.C. National Guard. Through the Army’s Simultaneous Membership Program, she participates in both the Guard and ROTC program at the same time.

Some cadets, like Ken Gable, a graduate student at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies, were previously in the military. Gable is completing his degree and earning a commission as an officer through the Army’s Green to Gold program.

“I felt an urge to serve and wanted to be on the frontlines so I joined the infantry,” said Gable of his prior enlistment. He has also deployed twice as part of a psychological operations team. “Now, I hope to be the best military intelligence officer I can be and influence soldiers in a positive way and help them make the best of their careers.”

Gable plans to complete a 20-year career in the military – at which point service members are eligible to retire – and then, after retirement from the military, continue in government service.

Like any type of job, however, the military might be a good starting point but not necessarily a lifelong career for everyone.

Jacob Horwitz, a senior at Georgetown University who attended a military boarding school for high school and has always been drawn to uniformed service, plans to serve four to five years in the Army and then re-evaluate his professional goals and decide what career path he will pursue from there.

“I have always felt an intangible pull to the military,” said Horwitz. “I appreciate that the environment is a meritocracy and your results are based on your performance. Your background doesn’t matter. There is no other baggage tied to it.”

Regardless of what form their military careers take, cadets can benefit from a close relationship between the ROTC program and local U.S. military components.

“We see joint and multi-component relationships as critical to the development of future officers,” said Wolfe. “We aim to continue these connections so that our ROTC graduates are best prepared to lead in the nation’s future challenges and wars.”

McCandless agreed. “I believe in being a proponent of these types of opportunities for young people,” she said. “We should educate and connect to the community that we work in and ultimately serve. That’s the continuum of service.”