Senior Sarah Gardner holding a Champion High School flagpole and sporting her ROTC camouflage uniform. (Amy Steward)
Senior Sarah Gardner holding a Champion High School flagpole and sporting her ROTC camouflage uniform.

Amy Steward

From Rookie to in Command: Sarah Gardner Sets the Standard for Women in ROTC

by Amy Steward, Editor-in-Chief

April 4, 2023

Senior Sarah Gardner holding a Champion High School flagpole and sporting her ROTC camouflage uniform.

In a country club full of military uniforms, Sarah Gardner — sporting a tiara and heels — still commands the room.

It’s a cold January night, and this high school senior is at the annual Boerne Military Ball, an event she’s spent the past four months planning for the school district’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (JROTC). A quick glance around and the balance in the ballroom is obvious: most attendees are men, whether students or instructors, and the rest tend to be plus-ones or the rare booster parent. Formal gowns only occasionally break up a sea of dark blue dress uniforms.

Gardner stands at a podium, the most notable exception to the norm in her blond curls and black evening dress. Every eye in the room is turned to her — not out of obligation, but of respect. As cadet colonel and group commander, she outranks them all.

“Will everyone please rise for the presentation of the colors and the singing of the national anthem. If you are in uniform, we ask that you stand at attention. Otherwise, please place your right hand over your heart,” says Gardner, commencing the ball. Everybody silently follows her command, just as they always do when she gives orders.

For the rest of the night, no matter if she’s presenting awards, directing photographers, or just dancing with friends, there’s no doubt Gardner is in charge. But getting to that position was no easy task; for starters, she’s the only ROTC woman in the entire school district’s class of 2023. She also joined the program later than everybody else after moving to the San Antonio area from Virginia.

“I didn’t start in ROTC until I was a sophomore, which is kind of unusual,” said Gardner. “I moved here and I needed an extra spot so I was like, okay, I’ll try ROTC. Whatever. I had no plans on going into the military. I never even wanted to go in the military, because in my mind, I was like, I’m going to wind up dead knowing my luck. But I thought, it’ll be fun for high school. If nothing else, then I won’t have to take it next year. But I liked it.”

Sarah Gardner didn’t just ‘like it’ — joining ROTC on a whim not only inspired her to pursue a career in the Marines, but it pushed her to become one of just 5 female commanders in her program’s entire history.

Climb to the Top

Members of the ROTC program on vacation together during spring break. Most cadets form lasting friendships in the program, and Gardner said throwing a football around with her friends on the beach was “like something out of a movie.” (Amy Steward)

People who meet Gardner immediately get a sense of her devotion to ROTC. Her classmates refer to her as “ROTC Sarah,” and most days she’s seen donning a Texas A&M University sweater, where she plans to join the Corp of Cadets. That’s because soon after joining the ROTC program, she fell in love with it and everything it stood for.

“ROTC, we’re like a really dysfunctional family, but it’s kind of like we are a family,” said Gardner. “Nobody is a family like ROTC is. Nobody is. It’s like, oh, you’re the new kid? We don’t care. You’re super weird? I’m like, literally everybody here is weird. We all have problems. We’re all terrible. Pick up a rifle. We’ll go do drill team, have fun, it’s fine.”

In high school ROTC, officer rankings mimic the military. Students can become a cadet lieutenant or cadet captain, for example, or in Gardner’s case a cadet colonel, a position which only one person holds. That’s because of each program’s method of organizing their senior staff: Boerne ISD has the “Top 4,” who are the four cadet officers in charge of running everything at both high schools alongside the instructors. The To 4 are: group commander, two deputy group commanders, and command chief. The deputies each oversee certain delegated responsibilities; the command chief acts as assistant to the group commander; and as the group commander, Cadet Colonel Gardner is the head of everything. It’s the most sought-after position, and the kind of thing that people compete for starting freshman year.

“I never thought I was going to get group commander,” said Gardner. “I remember I was talking to a guy last year when I was going to apply for group commander. He literally laughed in my face and said, it’s never going to happen. You’re never going to get it.”

It was one of the most disheartening feelings, because she’d wanted the position ever since she learned what it was. In her time in ROTC, she worked her way up the ranks to try and give back to cadets and the community as much as possible. Being so close to the top but thinking she’d never reach it was heartbreaking.

“I finally found something I love to do and people were telling me I couldn’t do it,” said Gardner.

In fact, she entirely gave up on the idea. There were already whispers it would be one of the guys who’d gunned for group commander for years. That is, until she overheard her former major, Major Steven Laughery, discussing the future of the program.

“He was talking to our old master sergeant [Master Sergeant Jody Russ], and he was like, this girl right here? This girl right here is on her way to becoming the next group commander. It just blew my mind,” said Gardner. “He actually thinks that I can do it. And if he thinks I can do it, then I can do it. I’m going to go for it. And that was the only reason, because I think that if he had not said that I probably wouldn’t have even tried. And it wasn’t until he said that that I was like, I actually have a shot at this. I was like, okay. We’re gonna give it hell.”

So, her junior year — just a year and a half after moving to San Antonio and joining ROTC — she applied for the highest-possible position. And she got it. Gardner says that giving her group commander acceptance speech to the other cadets was one of her proudest moments.

“I really liked that speech. A couple of my friends were crying afterwards,” said Gardner. “I talked about how ROTC will definitely change your life and change your perspective on things.”

Dealing With Command, Both Good and Bad

The Top 4 for Sarah’s tenure as group commander together at the ROTC Military Ball. From left to right: Jake Rodriguez, Sarah Gardner, Riley Williamson, and Riley Neel. (Amy Steward)

Now that she’s a cadet colonel, there’s nothing that happens in ROTC that she isn’t aware of or organizing.

“There’s definitely days that I’m like, this is great, and days that I’m like, this is terrible,” said Gardner. “But I feel good about the work I do with ROTC.”

One of her favorite things is ROTC’s service requirement, because it means that she and other cadets are out volunteering most weekends. They’re most commonly seen at varsity football games in the fall, presenting colors for the national anthem or running school flags for each touchdown, but they also appear at public events and service projects all around town, including Boerne’s Christmas tourist favorite.

“I’m on a first name basis with the lady who runs Dickens on Main,” said Gardner. “The amount of people I know around the community of Boerne is just wild.”

However, Gardner’s love for what she does doesn’t stop her from facing issues.

“I would say somewhere between 70, 80% of the program is probably men. Which makes sense, I mean, because it’s military-based. The military is mostly men,” said Gardner. “Holding your own in that kind of male-dominated environment, you kind of have to stand up for yourself.”

She recalled several instances of people not taking her seriously, whether because of her gender or her late start, including some problems with freshmen cadets.

Last year, while a student aide in a freshman ROTC class, a student informed Gardner that one of her cadets kept calling her names behind her back that were derogatory to women. 

“And I was like, well, as soon as he gets confident enough to say it to my face, then we’ll have a problem,” Gardner said.”I don’t really care what you say behind my back.”

While just one of the problems she’s dealt with, that interaction helped her establish a rule she sticks to: there’s no point living life based on what other people say, because most of them are silent when it comes time to take any action.

“You learn to take care of yourself and not worry about what other people think. You do the best you can do,” said Gardner.

Semper Fi and Looking to the Future

When her high school days end in a few months, Gardner plans to join the Corp of Cadets at Texas A&M and become a Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyer for the Marines, something she’s inspired to do both from her time as ROTC cadet colonel and as a life-long Marine dependent.

“I’ve always grown up in a Marine Corps culture. My dad was in the Marine Corps for thirty years. I’ve been a Marine Corps brat since the day I was born. I have a teddy bear that has the Marine Corps emblem on it. It says ‘the few, the proud’ on the back. I still have it. I like the idea of going into that because I’ve seen that culture and I know that I like it,” said Gardner.

In fact, she and her family joke that she’s been devoted to the Marines since even before being born — they had to induce her mom’s labor so Sarah could be born in time for her dad’s orders to move to Japan.

Despite her childhood on Marine bases, she considered joining the Air Force for a while. Every high school ROTC is affiliated with one of the branches, and Boerne ISD’s program is funded by the Air Force, so all of Gardner’s instructors are retired airmen. However, she decided she loves the loyalty and intensity of the Marines –– like their motto, semper fidelis, which means always faithful –– too much not to be a part of it.

“My instructor came to me and asked because I’m a Marine Corps brat, ‘Why is it that people will be in the Air Force for twenty years, and they’ll get out and go get a civilian job, and then one day you’ll find out, oh, Ted was in the Air Force for twenty years. And you’ll be like, oh, I never knew that. But if somebody goes to the Marine Corps and they’re there for like two years, they get semper fi tattooed on their forehead?’ Because they’re proud of it. I want to wake up and be proud of what I do every day,” said Gardner.

Gardner, center, and other members of BISD’s ROTC program during a competition last February. (Boerne AFJROTC Instagram)

She’s also inspired by the story of how her dad became a Marine, and cites it as one of the main reasons she loves the branch.

“My dad wasn’t a bad student,” said Gardner. “He played football in high school. But he was really overweight. He didn’t want to go to college. It wasn’t that he wasn’t smart; it’s just that he didn’t want to spend four more years in school. And he went to the army, and the army was like, ‘Hey, you’re fat. Come back when you’re not.’ They treated him really poorly. He was kind of out of hope. 

“Then, he got a call from a Marine Corp recruiter, who was like, ‘Would you like to join the Marine Corps?’ My dad said, ‘I don’t think you understand. I’m almost 300 pounds.’ And the recruiter was like, ‘Well okay. Come into my office and we’ll talk.’ So my dad went. He wasn’t expecting much. But the guy was like, ‘I’m not going to treat you like you’re stupid. Obviously, you need to lose weight. However, I’m going to help you.’ 

“This was all during my dad’s senior year, so his recruiter would get him up in the mornings and go on runs with him. He’d plan out his diet for him. He helped him through that. My dad lost a whole bunch of weight — enough to get into the recruit program. 

“My dad’s actually really smart. He’s good at science and really good at math. So when people see his ASVAB scores, they always ask him, with those scores, why would you put yourself through the Marine Corp? That’s a lot of physical exertion. Why did you do that? You could have been in the Air Force or another branch. He always says, well, they didn’t want me. I went where I was wanted. Where people wanted me and cared about me.”

In the Marines, Gardner wants to be a JAG lawyer, a type of lawyer she didn’t know existed before her time in ROTC.

“They always show in the movies that if you go into the military you’re going to be a war hero and you’re going to get shot at and you’re going to die,” said Gardner. “That’s why most moms when they hear their kid’s going to go in the military think it’s a one-way ticket to a flag-draped coffin. And it’s not. I learned there’s other jobs out there in the military that aren’t shooting a gun on the front lines.”

As someone who’s fascinated by law, criminal justice, and government — she plans to major in political science in college — Gardner feels that military law gives her a chance to explore as much of it as possible.

“What’s really great about being a JAG lawyer — and this is why I think it’s better than civilian law — is that in the civilian world, you would pick a path. You would be an environmental lawyer or a family court lawyer or a criminal lawyer or something like that,” said Gardner. “But in the military, you kind of do it all. You kind of do whatever they tell you to do. You could be talking to generals about the rules of war. You could be on a base doing family law. Or arguing the point on something with some company that’s suing the military. You get to do all sorts of different types of law. I really like the idea of not being set.”

Leaving a Legacy

Sarah Gardner, left, and Eliza Jones, right. Jones is next year’s deputy group commander. In an Instagram post commemorating her new position, Jones credited Sarah as “her best friend and her inspiration.” (Amy Steward)

This week, Sarah Gardner passed the reigns of group commander onto Jack Osborne, officially ending her tenure as leader of all the cadets in the Boerne area. Three of next year’s Top 4 are women — which is something the program’s never seen before — and all four of them were shaped by Gardner some way or another.

For now, she does everything she can to teach the students she leads to be so much more than just what people expect of them, as well as guide them to finding something they love the way she found ROTC and the Marines.

“In the back of my mind with everything I do in high school is what somebody told me as a freshman,” said Gardner. “She said, do everything. Try everything. Any club you have even a hint of joining? Join it. Try out for that team. Join that club. Do everything you want to do, because high school is a time that you’re allowed to make mistakes. You’re allowed to spread yourself around and find what you love to do.”

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Amy Steward, Editor-in-Chief

Hi there! I'm your editor, Amy Steward, and this is my fourth and final year with the newspaper. I've been doing journalism-type-things for as long as...

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    M. GilletteApr 4, 2023 at 6:51 pm

    I’m so proud of Sarah! What a great story about a great Charger! Best wishes Sarah and Semper Fi