Military graduates, spouses honored at special ceremonies
More than 300 military members of Liberty University’s Class of 2015 participated in the fourth annual Military Graduate Recognition Ceremony, held Friday night at the Vines Center.
Dr. Ben Gutierrez, Liberty’s vice provost for Academic Administration, welcomed the crowd of graduates and their hundreds of family members and friends, and later invited the service members to stand with their respective branches of the military — the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps — as each was recognized in the playing of the “Caisson Song.”
He saluted the 5,400 members of the military who will receive their diplomas at Saturday’s 42nd Commencement — both those present and those not able to attend the exercises due to their military obligations — for their commitment and determination to complete their degrees, whether on campus or online, in the United States or in active duty overseas. Military students and spouses represent more than 30 percent of the graduating class of approximately 17,500.
As in previous Military Recognition Ceremonies, Maj. Gen. Robert F. Dees, U.S. Army, retired, delivered the charge to the graduates. Dees recently accepted Dr. Ben Carson’s offer to serve as his national security advisor during his run for the presidency.
Dees exhorted the graduates to shine brightly in a darkening world.
“I challenge you as parting graduates, as Champions for Christ, to remember what you learned, what you experienced within the light of the lamp of learning at Liberty University, so that when you encounter darkness, when you encounter difficulties in your life and in your service, ‘You will not be tempted to doubt in the dark what you knew to be true in the light,’” he said, quoting Robert Preston Taylor, an Army chaplain who was captured and imprisoned in the Philippines during World War II.
In celebrating their graduation ceremonies on Saturday, he encouraged graduates to savor what Gen. Robert E. Lee called, “The quiet satisfaction that comes from a duty well performed.” He closed by quoting Psalm 21:31, which declares that “Victory comes from the Lord.”
“God bless you and your families and this great nation which you serve so faithfully,” Dees said. “You guys are awesome. You have underwritten the freedoms that we enjoy with your very lives. Without you, we would not be the land of the free and the home of the brave. God bless you.”
“I know that these graduates appreciate you, Dr. Gutierrez, President (Jerry) Falwell, and the entire leadership of Liberty University, for making this experience possible, including Emily Foutz, and her Military Affairs office,” Dees said. “They are recognized across the entire United States for taking care of and reaching out to military members of Liberty University.”
Dr. Steve Keith, Col., U.S. Air Force, retired, offered a prayer of dedication for the graduates.
“We thank you for America tonight,” he prayed. “We thank you for our country, for freedom and liberty. We thank you for these graduates, the defenders of that liberty and that freedom. We thank you for the hard work they have put in academically while defending our country. And we dedicate them to You tonight, with new knowledge and understanding, going throughout our world to defend that freedom. We pray an extra portion of strength, wisdom, and courage as they leave this place later this weekend to go back to their respective places of service.”
The ceremony concluded with the awarding of commemorative coins — engraved with images of the Bible, the American flag, and a graduation cap — honoring their service in the military and completion of their respective degrees. The coins were presented to each graduate in attendance by Liberty administrators and faculty members who have served in their respective branch of the United States Armed Forces: Lt. Cmdr. James L. Long, U.S. Navy, retired; Lt. Darren C. Wu, U.S. Navy, honorably discharged; Lt. Col. Jeffrey C. Tuomala, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, retired; Capt. Robert F. Ritchie, U.S. Air Force Reserve, retired; Maj. Gen. Robert E. Dees, U.S. Army, retired; Lt. Col. David R. Dinsmore, U.S. Army, retired; Lt. Col. Stephen M. Parke, U.S. Army, retired; 1st Lt. Keith R. Anderson, U.S. Army, honorably discharged; Dr. Steve E. Keith, Col., U.S. Air Force, retired; and Lt. Col. Robert B. Young, U.S. Air Force, retired.
Appropriately, Friday was also Military Spouse Appreciation Day, a day recognized across the United States. Liberty’s first Military Spouses Graduate Recognition service was held earlier in the day at Towns-Alumni Lecture Hall. Kathleen Dees, wife of Maj. Gen. Dees, gave the charge to the military spouse graduates, challenging them to represent Christ to a world without hope.
“You can do this because the Christ of hope lives within you,” she said. “You are loved and appreciated by Liberty University and a grateful nation.”
That ceremony also featured a keynote speech from Dr. Ronald Hawkins, Liberty’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, and special music from Charles Billingsley, the Thomas Road Baptist Church worship leader who inspired the crowd with renditions of “God Bless America” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
At Friday morning’s Army ROTC Commissioning ceremony, rising senior Army Cadet Aaron York, a criminal justice major from Harrisburg, Pa., was the first recipient of the Major Michael J. Donahue Award. Named in honor of the former Liberty faculty member and alumnus who was killed Sept. 17, 2014, in a Taliban attack on a U.S. military base outside Kabul, Afghanistan, the award will be presented annually to the second- or third-year Army ROTC cadet who has provided leadership and inspiration to others through his or her unmatched selflessness, work ethic, and integrity.
Donahue, 41, was a paratrooper for the XVIII Airborne Corps based in Fort Bragg, N.C., serving in combat operations for Operation Enduring Freedom. He planned to return to Liberty to complete his doctorate in education and serve as an assistant professor of military science after finishing his third deployment.
Cadet York will receive a $1,000 scholarship toward his senior year college expenses. Additionally, 24 Army cadets and four Air Force cadets were commissioned to the rank of second lieutenant during special services on Friday morning and afternoon, respectively.
Commissioned to the rank of second lieutenant, U.S. Army:
Stephen Antonio, Field Artillery
Brett Brunco, Infantry
Ryan Chancellor, Quartermaster Corps
Demetria Clark, Medical Service Corps
John Cotton, Infantry
Jeremy Daniel, Signal Corps
Jonathan DeMaria, Transportation Corps
Michael Flickinger, Corps of Engineers
Jeremiah Fowler, Ordnance
Terrence Gifford, Corps of Engineers
Joseph Inglett, Aviation
Christopher Jackson, Field Artillery
Blair Kopfstein, Corps of Engineers
Daniel Krautter, Medical Specialty
Joshua Lindsey, Chemical Corps
Robert Mathis, Quartermaster Corps
James Metzger, Corps of Engineers
Ryan Polachek, Chemical Corps
Kent Rasmussen, Infantry
Isaack Rono, Ordnance Corps
Micah Nevard, Infantry
Danielle Sopkiw, Nurse Corps
Grace Tumminello, Aviation
Dylan Vining, Infantry
Commissioned to the rank of second lieutenant, U.S. Air Force:
Joseph Daniel Fowler, Pilot Trainee
Kyle Stephen Kessler, Pilot Trainee
Joshua Stephen Philipps, Cyber Warfare Trainee
Travis Walker Wilson, Pilot Trainee
Note: The three pilot trainees are graduating from Liberty’s School of Aeronautics and will be attending Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, this fall for undergraduate pilot training.