I spent most of my formative years of life as a scared little girl. I relied on my outgoing younger sister to help me make friends, or a friendly face at school to introduce herself and drag words out of me by force. The thought of standing up to give a presentation in class was enough to give me the vapors. In a social circle in which I was comfortable, there was nothing meek or reserved about me, but plunk me in a new setting and I immediately retracted into myself. I struggled mightily with self-confidence.
When I started high school, I was given the choice to take gym or JROTC. Given that I struggled with sports nearly as much as confidence, after a little encouragement from my parents, I opted for two years of JROTC over a year and a half of phys ed. And that's when I met the man who quite literally changed my life. I fully believe that at the age of thirteen, I encountered one of the most crucial turning points of my life, and I credit so much of who I am and where I am today with one person.
Command Sergeant Major Broadnax was not a large man, but he seemed at least seven feet tall. He didn't waste words, but he spoke volumes with a look, with a hard earned laugh, with the dreaded bark of just your last name--he didn't need to say much more. You always knew exactly what it was that you shouldn't have been doing. He saw things in young people that they didn't know they were capable of. He expected a lot from his students, and he usually got it.
He cornered me on my first day of class--a day in which I was overwhelmed with learning the military language, being issued a multitude of uniform pieces, trying to find my place in a whole new world among a new set of peers--and in his gruff way, asked me if I would be coming out for the drill team. A group of individuals who seemed unspeakably cool and unapproachable to me. I squeaked out a "yes", definitely thinking "no" in my head.
It took his penetrating gaze and my parents' bribe of ice cream to get me to turn up for drill team after school, but it ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. Sergeant Major didn't stop there. He encouraged me to compete in district wide JROTC competitions measuring military bearing and knowledge of customs, prototcol, current events. I went from being scared to give a book report to public speaking competitions. He chose me to be our student battalion's sergeant major, helped us plan our military balls, let us come into his office and talk when we needed a listening ear.
At the end of each school year, we had a change of command ceremony, when one student battalion commander would step down and pass the command on to the next year's commander. It was a beautiful summer day in May as I ended my sophomore year, imagining myself perhaps someday at the helm as I participated in the change of command, watching a friend take control of the battalion for the next year.
In all of the excitement of the ceremony, I didn't notice what should have been a glaring absence in the crowd.
After the ceremony was over, the guidance counselor approached. We were all asked to gather around, and were told that Sergeant Major had passed away the night before. Cancer. He hadn't wanted any of us to know he was sick. He didn't want us to worry. I honestly can't even remember him seeming ill. Missing class. Right until the end, to me, he was seven feet tall. It was so sudden. We all went to pieces in an instant. I don't remember anything else from that day except so many tears. He would have been 60 years old three weeks later.
I attended his military funeral, complete with 21 gun salute and a flag folding. We met his wife, his family, his church family at a beautiful church funeral that celebrated his life with joy and singing. Over the next few years, we continued to make pilgramages to Sergeant Major's grave. The grass grew over the mound of dirt. We all got older. Some of us entered college, some the military. Our trips to visit Sergeant Major dwindled. I commissioned in the Air Force and moved away. But I have never stopped thinking about that man and the immeasurable ways that he impacted my life. My eyes and throat sting with tears as I write this today.
I wonder what he would have had to say when I made the decision to join Air Force ROTC in college. When I earned a full scholarship. When I said my commissioning oath. I like to imagine that we would have kept in touch somehow. That I could have realized how much he shaped me as a person and thanked him for it.
On Veterans Day, I always think of my grandfather, my father, my husband. But I also think of a man unrelated to me. A man that I haven't seen for fifteen years. A man that I was never able to thank in person. I appreciate every man and woman who has served in our military, protecting our freedoms and safety. But in particular, I thank the man who didn't choose to rest after a prestigious career of military service, but instead entered the battlefield of public education. Who put so many of us on a very different path than we may have gone down had he never entered our lives. And I thank him for his service. To the United States. To the Army. To his students. To me.
Thank you, Sergeant Major. I miss you.