TAMPA, FL - It's graduation season at colleges across the nation, and for the cadets of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, it means the start of their Army career. But what is supposed to be a joyous occasion and a proud moment for new Second Lieutenants has taken a turn into disaster at one ceremony, prompting the Army to review safety for commissioning cadets.
Over thirty new officers were supposed to be commissioned at the University of Tampa.
"This is our favorite time of the year," said Lt. Col. Anthony Olson, the commander of the 'Spartan Battalion' ROTC Detachment. "It's always an honor to see these men and women grow and learn and start their careers. But it's a shock when we have a mishap."
The Spartan Battalion had been mishap-free for over three years — but their luck ran out at the commissioning ceremony weeks ago. One lieutenant fell off the stage right after being commissioned, breaking his back and bringing an immediate medical discharge. Another didn't place the coin in his hand properly for the handshake. Instead of it being transferred harmlessly to the enlisted man who gave him his first salute, the silver dollar went flying into the crowd, striking a retired Sergeant Major in the head, killing him instantly.
"Pa always said that the most dangerous thing in the Army was a new second lieutenant," said Jane Hester, the man's daughter. "I just can't believe he was killed by one right after he was commissioned. Couldn't he at least wait until he reported in?"
But those weren't the only problems. The training cadre were able to convince the CENTCOM Commander — Marine General James Mattis — to make an appearance, and to offer words of encouragement to the new officers.
"My fine young men and women," said Gen. Mattis, "congratulations on your achievement and for your dedication to our country." He continued his speech, but as he looked out into the crowd, however, he saw something he didn't like — one lieutenant who had fallen asleep.
"I told them to pay attention to the General. I gave them a safety brief on it," said Olson. "With all the men General Mattis has killed with his bare hands, I figure he wouldn't have any problems with killing a second lieutenant. Turns out I was right."
Soon after noticing the snoozing cadet, Mattis threw down his speech notes, reached into his dress blue jacket to grab a Ka-Bar fighting knife, and jumped into the front row on top of Cadet Ted Eldridge.
"I honestly was just going to scare him," said Mattis, "you know, make the knife across the neck motion and say 'This is what the enemy will do if you want to take a nap'; that sort of thing. Turns out I got a little too close to the neck. Guess I'm just getting old."
One Second Lieutenant, having been commissioned earlier in the year, returned to the university to see Eldridge earn his shoulder boards.
"That shit was fuckin' bananas," said 2nd Lt. Jed Eckert. "I'm sort of bummed having come all the way from Italy -- instead of my bro getting commissioned, he gets killed by a General. In hindsight, I guess it's a great story to go back and tell my platoon to reinforce the importance of staying awake on post."
Officials at the Department of the Army were upset over the losses to the officer corps. A KIA and WIA in addition to one cadet being brought up on murder charges was regretful -- but one other mishap was "completely understandable," according to Sergeant First Class Ian Poloquin of Army Public Affairs.
General Mattis speaking, shortly before he leapt into the crowd to kill a cadet
The incident that didn't surprise the Army were seven cadets who got lost trying to find the theater across from the University of Tampa.
"We gave them clear instructions. Go across campus and across one street and there's the theater," said Olson, "but with land navigation, it's definitely a struggle for some."
The seven never made it to the ceremony. Disoriented and confused, they struggled to make their way to the theater, and at one point, attempted to cross the Hillsborough River next to the campus. Their bodies have not yet been found.
To minimize the losses in preparation for fall commissioning ceremonies, the Army has started a review of policies for safety and risk management protocol. Initial suggestions included the requirement for all cadets to wear their reflective belts as soon as they get dressed the morning of the ceremony, extensive risk management paperwork requirements, and the use of enlisted guides to help navigate the new lieutenants to the ceremony. They've also done away with the silver dollar coin, and will require a plastic poker chip instead.
"We think these steps will help keep the cadets safe, and the use of enlisted guides is one of the best changes to minimize risks," said Poloquin, "and besides, it's what already happens in the Army throughout the world."