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Family is the tie that binds, and that bond goes just a little bit farther with the Rocky Top Battalion at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. The Army ROTC program currently has four groups of siblings attending the same school and working together to become future leaders.
Lt. Col. Justin Howe, professor of military science at UTK, attributes this unique environment to a family history of military service paired with a desire to affect change.
“I think [younger siblings] see their older siblings enjoy what they’re doing in an environment where they can achieve their goals and so they make the decision to follow them.”
Call to service within families is nothing new, with imitation considered the sincerest form of flattery. Many Cadets routinely choose to follow in the footsteps of a family member who served, encouraged by prospects of making a difference while being part of a team with like-minded peers.
Growing up, Abigail and Carson Freeman constantly heard their parents — especially their mother — encouraging them to make a difference.
“She always said the military is the easiest way to do that,” Abigail, a junior majoring in business analytics at UTK, said.
Both parents are also Army ROTC alumnus, who spoke positively of their college days and the leadership skills the program instilled into their lives. This made it easy for the Freeman siblings to decide to lead with Army ROTC.
“Our parents just always told us leadership skills were something good to have and you can apply them anywhere,” Abigail said. “We started looking more into ROTC and leadership and then being an officer and decided to take that route.”
Abigail was the first to go off to college — the recipient of a three-year Army ROTC National Scholarship — and she said she fell in love with the campus and how it just felt like home.
Carson, a freshman majoring in political science, echoes his sister’s sentiment about UTK, adding that he even got that feeling as a high school sophomore while tagging along on his sister’s college tour.
He also observed her success within the ROTC program.
“It always seemed like she was enjoying it a lot,” Carson said. “I started looking at it my junior year of high school and became more serious the closer I got to graduation.”
Carson received a four-year Army ROTC National Scholarship and easily decided on UTK because “it’s the only place that felt like home.”
While neither sibling has a firm idea of what their future holds just yet, Carson and Abigail recognize their Army careers could have them either working across the world from each other or exactly for the same unit.
“It’s crazy how our paths might cross,” Abigail said.
“Whatever I do, I just hope I make a difference and affect change in other people’s lives. I, personally, like helping other people and seeing a change … I think that’s something all leaders should have — the desire to want to help other people.”
Charlie and Gabbi McElyea’s desire to lead was influenced by their father’s service in the Navy.
Gabbi, a senior majoring in political science was especially affected as she watched her dad “go off and do his thing.” She wanted to be like him.
“I’m a natural go-getter, I’m very ambitious, and I love to lead and be the person that people can come to,” she said.
The moment she walked onto campus and met with the Rocky Top Battalion, “I just got the best feeling.”
“The cadre that I met with and all the Cadets, they just seemed like they were so invested in their time here and really seeking to get the most out of it as they could,” she said.
When the time came for Charlie — equally a go-getter and avid sports fan — to look at schools and ROTC programs, he, too, searched for that strong bond.
“I am very close to my siblings and so that was a big weighing factor,” Charlie, a freshman majoring in business analytics, said. “A lot of it was the University of Tennessee, which I just got the best feeling from.”
With one sibling at the beginning of their college and Army ROTC journey, and the other nearing the end, both Charlie and Gabbi love how their shared interests set each other up for success.
“I always know she’s got my back with anything I’m doing,” Charlie said. “I can just go to Gabbi and she’ll give me the advice that I need to help keep me on track.”
Gabbi is this year’s Rocky Top Battalion brigade commander and has added leadership responsibilities on her plate.
“Having Charlie there means I’ll always know I have a friendly face and somebody that I can just go and decompress with and vent to if I ever need to,” she said.
As the McElyea’s push forward toward their careers as future Army officers, both are grateful to have each other and a shared understanding of what the other is experiencing.
“Charlie just gets it,” Gabbi said. “It’s nice to always have that one person there who understands.”
The Allen sisters, Madison and Callie, both joined Army ROTC because they felt something was missing from their lives.
Madison, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, was looking to recover a year of academic and social connection that had been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I felt like I was missing something,” Madison said.
“When I got to Tennessee, I felt like I had a community, I felt like I had friends that were all wanting to persevere and watch me grow alongside them while pushing me to grow in my leadership.”
Callie, a freshman, is contemplating going into nursing. She is naturally shy and was searching for direction and personal growth.
“Back home I just didn’t have the right group of friends that would push me to be a better person and a better leader,” Callie said. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone because in nursing you have to lead and talk to people and be around people all the time…”
“In the program I feel like I’m getting outside of my comfort zone and just gaining more skills.”
Studying at the same school is exciting, but experiencing physical and leadership growth within Army ROTC together is an added bonus for the sisters.
They enjoy being on the same team.
“We work well together and it means a lot to do this with her at a higher level,” Callie said. “Seeing her do this, it makes me want to push myself to do better and have a higher standard for myself.”
Just like many of their peers, Seth and Lily Manor come from a family with military service. Their dad was in the Navy and their mom was an Army nurse.
Only a year apart and practically inseparable — Seth a sophomore and Lily a freshman — the decision for both siblings to lead and join Army ROTC didn’t come as a surprise.
“Growing up we both had pretty similar interests, and obviously those interests have shone through now that we’re both in ROTC and we’re both in the nursing program,” Seth said.
“I think it’s really cool to have someone that shares very similar values and priorities in life that you do. The best people to lean on and get input from are people that have sometimes been in the same situation as you because you know they understand what you’re going through.”
Both were CNAs in high school and chose the University of Tennessee because of its direct admission nursing program, both were Army ROTC National Scholarship recipients, and both chose the Rocky Top Battalion because “it felt like they actually wanted me to be here.”
“Everyone’s always willing to help each other out,” Seth said. “They really help you develop as a leader and a person.”
While both are grateful (and maybe sometimes a little annoyed) to be going through school and ROTC with a sibling, both Seth and Lily have different reasons for pursuing careers as Army nurses.
Seth’s is more rooted in following family footsteps, “especially with my mom whispering in my ear and telling me it’s a good profession.”
Lily’s reason stems from her own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was a CNA during COVID and we just got thrown into it,” she said.
“I was a 16-year-old working the floor and it was hard, but I feel like seeing all of that was more of my calling. I saw a lot of things that I wanted to do better in than other people at the time. I wanted to be a leader in that aspect and just do better.”
As Seth and Lily continue to navigate the next few years of college classes and Army ROTC, both are motivated to continue developing their leadership skills in preparation for where their Army careers will take them after graduation.
“I think it’s awesome that we share the same values of serving our country and serving other people as nurses,” Seth said.
“I kind of hope we cross paths once we commission … I think it would be awesome for a chance to cross paths, work at the same hospital, or just be at the same post.”
Following a strong desire to make a positive impact — whether the Cadets are related or not — Army ROTC is about creating bonds that transcend friendship and establish a foundational network of understanding and encouragement to guide Cadets in their Army careers.
There will always be a brother or sister there to offer support. Like the rest of the siblings in the Rocky Top Battalion, Charlie McElyea understands his situation is especially unique.
“In the Army everybody always says, ‘That’s my brother or that’s my sister,’ well that’s literally my sister and we’ll be going at everything together.”
About Army ROTC
Army ROTC is one of the best leadership courses in the country and is part of your college curriculum. Through classes and field training, Army ROTC provides you with the tools to become an Army Officer without interfering with your other classes. ROTC also provides you with discipline and money for tuition while enhancing your college experience.
Army ROTC offers pathways to becoming an Army Officer for high school students, current active-duty Soldiers, and for current National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers through the Simultaneous Membership Program.
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