In the living room of his family farm in Titus, Alabama, 24-year-old Jesse Benton stood dressed in his U.S. Army uniform. His fiancée and family surrounded him.
All eyes were on the screen where a Zoom meeting was about to begin. When the image of Lt. Col. Antwan Brown appeared, Benton moved to a corner of the room where an American flag hung in the background.
After three long, arduous years, he was at the end of his journey with The University of Alabama Army ROTC. In the program’s first virtual commissioning, Benton, along with 23 classmates, was pinned with gold “butter bars” recognizing him as a second lieutenant in the Army.
Because of the coronavirus, the ceremony had to be virtual. Though it wasn’t the ceremony he had always imagined, it was just as special and unique in the history of UA’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
“When we first found out that our ceremony was canceled I was disappointed because my classmates and I went through years of rigorous training to get to this moment together,” Benton said.
“But The University of Alabama really stepped up and made this virtual service honorable. They pushed for our family and friends to be there like they would be if we held the ceremony in person, and so to be surrounded by my family at home on that day was a dream.”
Brown, professor of military science and chair of the department of military science, said the commissioning ceremony is the graduation ceremony for ROTC cadets and officially promotes them into leadership in the U.S. Army.
“We wanted to make it as memorable as possible because they will always remember their gold bars being pinned on them,” Brown said. “Retired Maj. Gen. Janet Cobb, who’s the 54th general to come out of UA and the first woman to make general officer out of the Capstone, was the guest speaker.”
Brown said all 24 commissioned officers will now report to jobs within the Army.
In July Benton will report to the Alabama National Guard 20th Special Forces Group Support Battalion based in Gadsden. There he will learn his job as an ordnance officer.
But before that, he may make an appearance on national television. Benton was selected as a semifinalist for a national commissioning ceremony representative of all 274 ROTC programs in the U.S., Brown said.
Benton wrote a bio about himself, which was selected out of all Alabama schools, he said. He now moves to the national level for consideration.
“My story is I come from a tiny, one-stop-light farm town and from a long line of military excellence,” Benton said.
His mom was a colonel in the Army, and his dad was a chief warrant officer five. He has a brother and an uncle who are a colonels as well as an aunt who is a lieutenant colonel and another uncle who’s a master sergeant, among others in the Army.
“When we had the virtual commissioning ceremony right there in my living room, my mother, father and fiancée pinned me with my gold bars and my brother who is an E5 gave me my first salute,” Benton said.
Benton, Brown and all members of the U.S. armed forces look forward to another special occasion this month, National Armed Forces Day, which falls on May 16 and is an opportunity to thank and recognize U.S. service members.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.