For twin Syracuse University juniors and ROTC cadets Robert and Michael Thomas, military service was never a question.
Sons of a Gulf War Coast Guard veteran, the brothers from Amsterdam, N.Y., considered enlisting straight out of high school, and even met with a military recruiter who told the then 17-year-olds they could enlist before their 18th birthday, as long as they had parental permission.
“I remember our dad very politely telling the recruiter he wasn’t going to sign anything,” said Michael of his veteran father.
Instead, the twins pursued the ROTC scholarship, a rigorous national scholarship awarded to just 4,000 students per year.
“We grew up around service and with a lot of discipline and structure,” said Robert. “We also always enjoyed academia, so ROTC was a natural fit.”
The brothers completed their applications and listed Syracuse University among the seven schools they would most like to attend. They were both accepted but, initially, Robert was set to attend school in Arizona, with Michael planning to head to California.
“Literally one day before the ROTC scholarship deadline to select a school, Robert asked me if I wanted to go to ’Cuse together,” says Michael. “It was an easy yes.”
Today, both Thomas brothers are pursuing degrees in the College of Engineering and Computer Science , with Michael in the aerospace engineering program and Robert recently switching from mechanical to civil engineering following a summer internship with the Army Corps of Engineers in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“With the Army engineers, I was able to see firsthand the projects on base,” says Robert. “The internship put my ROTC experience and my Syracuse engineering coursework together for the first time and really helped me decide that I want to pursue civil engineering.”
The brothers have also embraced ROTC leadership opportunities. Robert recently served as team captain for the Ranger Challenge at Fort Dix, while last summer, Michael was selected to participate in the Cultural Understanding and Leadership Program through the Army Cadet Command.
“The program focused on understanding and experiencing other cultures throughout the world,” Michael says. “I spent three weeks in Senegal, where I was able to train with the Senegalese Army at their military academy, as well as volunteer throughout the country. It was an eye-opening experience to be able to interact with military officers, cadets, and the locals of another nation. The experience really put into perspective just how lucky I am to be an American and to have the opportunity to attend such an amazing university.”
The Thomases balance the demands of ROTC and their coursework with the support of Syracuse’s faculty and staff, who the twins say are not only understanding and encouraging of their schedules, but also willing to accommodate where needed.
I love that at Syracuse I can challenge myself as an ROTC cadet, but I still get the college experience.—Robert Thomas
“I love that at Syracuse I can challenge myself as an ROTC cadet, but I still get the college experience,” says Robert. “Attending school with my brother challenges me to be better, but we also always have each other’s back. Even if it’s just someone to talk to or to work things through with—knowing I always have him is reassuring.”
At Syracuse, the brothers push each other everywhere from the classroom to their physical training for ROTC.
“We are always competing. Who can run the fastest, do more pushups, get better grades,” the brothers say.
The brothers’ drive and ambition are only bolstered by their involvement in ROTC.
“We walked into air assault training at Fort Drum after our freshman year and our cadre member said to us ‘don’t fail, don’t come back without your wings,’” said Robert. “We pushed ourselves together those two weeks and got our wings. It really encouraged us to want to finish this training and become Army officers.”
Looking ahead, both Robert and Michael say that while they will someday pursue graduate degrees, for now they are excited about commissioning and serving in the Army.
“We have both always wanted to serve,” says Michael. “That has been our goal. To not only achieve it, but to achieve it together at a prestigious college like Syracuse is something really special.”