Climb to the Top

April 4, 2023

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.”

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Photo of Amy Steward
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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