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Naval ROTC Midshipmen Commissioned Virtually

28 May 2020

From Scott A. Thornbloom

Around the country more than 1,400 Naval ROTC (NROTC) midshipmen, officer candidates and Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program (MECEP) Marines have just, or are about to commission as U. S. Navy Ensigns and U.S. Marine Corps Second Lieutenants.

Around the country more than 1,400 Naval ROTC (NROTC) midshipmen, officer candidates and Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program (MECEP) Marines have just, or are about to commission as U. S. Navy Ensigns and U.S. Marine Corps Second Lieutenants.

This year’s event is a bit different from normal. Because of school shutdowns, travel restrictions and social distancing due to the Coronavirus, all NROTC commissioning ceremonies at the 167 NROTC host universities and cross-town affiliates around the country were being held virtually. This allowed the midshipmen to participate from their family homes or personal residences.

On April 10, Rear Adm. Jamie Sands, commander, Naval Service Training Command (NSTC) who commands the Naval ROTC program, directed units to conduct a virtual commissioning ceremony.

“Due to the national impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic, I have directed all of our Navy ROTC commanding officers to conduct commissioning ceremonies and other related events virtually,” Sands said in a virtual address to NROTC units.

“While these time-honored ceremonies are, without a doubt important, the decision to execute them virtually is not taken lightly. It simply doesn’t make sense for us to bring together groups of our newest officers and their families in the middle of a pandemic. I made this decision to safeguard the health and welfare of our midshipmen, their families and our local communities,” Sands said.

In previous years, commissioning ceremonies have been conducted around the same time as university commencements. The commissioning is often held in a campus arena, on the football field or in one of many historic halls. It is a ceremony midshipmen take an oath to serve their country and often have their new rank affixed by loved ones.

This year each midshipman is being commissioned remotely, with each unit developing a process that meets their own situations and those of their midshipmen. While the locations and settings have changed, what remains is midshipmen still raise their right arms to recite the Oath of Office given to them by their commanding officer or special guest officer, just via computer and often across vast distances. In the case of Notre Dame University, 1984 Fighting Irish graduate, Adm. Christopher W. Grady, commander, United States Fleet Forces Command, commissioned 52 new Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force officers from his headquarters in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

“These are indeed unique circumstances. This once-in-a-century challenge is fundamentally changing how we do nearly everything in our lives, and this ceremony is no different. A few short months ago, we couldn’t imagine carrying out an important event like this in such a way,” said Grady, Notre Dame’s first and only four-star military officer in the school’s history. “I am grateful, however, that we are commissioning our newest ensigns and second lieutenants into the finest military force the world has ever known in the distinguished manner such an achievement deserves.”

 NROTC Units, like their host universities, had to adapt to finish courses remotely at the end of the academic year. 

“When we first heard about classes moving online, there were definitely some jokes thrown around in my ROTC class about how we’d see each other on Skype for graduation, and other comments to that effect, but eventually our new reality of graduating and commissioning online set in,” said Ensign Katherine Katula, 21, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who commissioned May 9 from her apartment in Madison. “I think we’ve adapted as well as we can – our staff did a great job of maintaining the spirit and decorum of the event. Loved ones and mentors are still involved, and in the end, we’re commissioning all the same.”

Katula’s commanding officer, Capt. Greg Zacharski, who issued the Oath of Office to Katula and her eight other classmates, from a computer at his UW-Madison NROTC office,  said, “Even as we find ourselves in unique circumstances, as required by pandemic mitigations, the mission of ‘force generation’ remains our prime focus. The commissioning ceremony arguably is of equal - and perhaps even greater - importance to the midshipmen than their undergraduate commencement.”

Zacharski called the event auspicious “which defines their entry into the profession of arms -- as a commissioned officer. The challenge for us has been to deliver a ceremony of appropriate solemnity, and professional decorum -- across a virtual medium. I believe we have achieved the requisite balance; and, because of the technology used at UW-Madison, we have been able to share this memorable and meaningful ceremony with a much wider audience of family, friends, and colleagues than our scheduled physical venue would allow. I remain proud of not only the resilience these new junior officers have displayed in these unusual times, but also of the leadership, confidence, and enthusiasm they are bringing to the Navy and Marine Corps.”

Ensign Steven Peterson, 22, a Mechanical Engineering Major from Marquette University in Milwaukee, was alone, except for his roommate, when he commissioned May 16 from his Milwaukee apartment.

“Although I am slightly disappointed that I couldn’t be commissioned in person with my family present, I think it is the smart and safe decision to move it and my friends and family still were able to watch live and participate virtually. This may not be the ceremony that my classmates and myself expected to be having at the beginning of this year, it was a great ceremony considering everything that is going on,” said Peterson who grew up in Crystal Lake, Illinois, but his parents now live in Whitehall, Michigan.

“My parents are a little disappointed that some of the events for my senior year such as graduation and commissioning have been affected, but they do understand that it is for our own safety. They are impressed by everything the unit and university are doing to keep us safe and also minimize the impact on these senior year milestones,” he said.

Peterson finished among the top one percent of NROTC midshipmen in the nation and has been designated as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO). He received orders to report to USS Sampson (DDG 102) in Everett, Washington. He said he has no reservations about starting his Navy career during the ongoing crises.

“I don’t have any concerns joining the Navy or going to my ship during COVID-19. The leadership seems to be taking the appropriate measures to keep everyone safe and to maintain mission readiness. I am excited to get to my ship so I can start to learn my job and begin my career as a SWO.”

Peterson’s commanding officer, Capt. Matthew R. Vandersluis, talked about the Navy’s many rituals and customs.

“These things can seem secondary when time gets short or we find ourselves in hectic times, but to me, they are the vital connective ‘tissue’ that holds our culture and values together. I can think back 30 years and remember my commissioning, my promotions, my crossing the line, etc. These events, new officer commissioning as the first, are the bedrock of our organization. It is from these that trust in each other is built and gives us the confidence to do extraordinary things for our country,” Vandersluis said.

The Naval ROTC program is overseen and supported by Sands and his NSTC staff at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, and Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Naval ROTC was established to develop midshipmen mentally, morally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, loyalty and Navy core values. The program provides college graduates an opportunity to commission as Naval officers who possess a basic professional background, are motivated toward careers in the Naval service, and have a potential for future development in mind and character, so as to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.

NSTC oversees 98 percent of initial officer and enlisted accessions training for the Navy, as well as the Navy’s Citizenship Development program. NSTC also includes Recruit Training Command (RTC), the Navy’s only boot camp also at Naval Station Great Lakes, the Navy ROTC program at more than 160 colleges and universities, Officer Training Command (OTC) Newport, R. I., and Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) and Navy National Defense Cadet Corps (NDCC) citizenship development programs at more than 600 high schools worldwide.

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