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Salome Clarke ’17, now a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, leads Cornell students during the Watch Fire ceremony in 2017.

Vietnam veterans honor Cornell ROTC: ‘They had our backs’

Cornell’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) – known as the Tri-Service Brigade – has received the Certificate of Patriotism from the Vietnam Veterans Association’s New York State Council, the council’s highest honor.

At the same time, the national Vietnam Veterans of America, headquartered near Washington, bestowed its highest honor, the Achievement Medal, on the brigade May 10.

The Tri-Service Brigade was nominated by the local Vietnam Veterans Association’s Chapter 377 of Dryden, New York, to illuminate the strong 30-year bond between the students, who will become future U.S. military officers, and the region’s veterans and their families.

“The ROTC’s brigade has many programs honoring Vietnam veterans, and the cadets and midshipmen have a profound impact on all of us,” said Gary Napieracz, the association’s Dryden chapter president. “We veterans see the Tri-Service Brigade as brothers and sisters, because they will become active military and someday, veterans.”

ROTC cadets and midshipmen gather with members of the Vietnam Veterans Association around the 2017 Watch Fire at Myers Point in Lansing.

For three decades, the brigade – comprising Cornell’s Army, Marine/Navy and Air Force cadets and midshipmen – have worked with the Vietnam veterans’ chapter to organize the annual Watch Fire (which honors prisoners of war and those missing in action) at Myers Park in Lansing. For years, each September, the ROTC members and the veterans together piled the wood, lit the fire, honored the soldiers and sailors, and then cleaned the site.

Napieracz noted that when the pandemic cancelled the annual Veterans’ Day parade in Ithaca last November, the brigade sent personal letters to local veterans thanking them for their service. And, on Vietnam Veterans Day (March 29, 2021), the midshipmen and cadets all made personal phone calls to all chapter members.

“They had our backs,” Napieracz said.

The military is embedded into Cornell’s history and land-grant mission. Cornell is home to about 70 undergraduate student veterans and current servicemembers and more than 400 veterans work or study at Cornell.

During World War I, for example, Cornell provided 4,598 commissioned officers, more than any other institution, including West Point. Cornellians earned at least 526 decorations and citations during the conflict, including several who received special distinction.

The state council’s Certificate of Patriotism was signed by Nicholas C. Valenti, the central district director; Ned Foote, president of the association’s New York State Council; and by Napieracz. The certificate of the Achievement Medal was signed by John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Today, Cornell is the only Ivy League institution to host ROTC programs from the Army, Navy/Marines, and Air Force/Space Force. Participation extends beyond Cornell and the Tri-Service Brigade’s combined 165 participants includes students from Ithaca College, Cortland State, Binghamton University, Elmira College and Wells College.

Cornell ROTC students stand at attention to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action.

The Tri-Service Brigade commanding officers are Lt. Col. James Tully, Army ROTC; Lt. Col. Bryan Mundhenk, Air Force ROTC; and Capt. Anthony Roach, Navy/Marines ROTC.

Brigade Commander John “Jack” McSorley ’21 said that hundreds of cadets, midshipmen and alumni deserve credit for awards, including Turner Brown ’19, Dan McCormack ’19 and former brigade commanders Shauna Hwang ’19 and Katie Offner ’20.

Beyond the classroom, the students learn from the veterans. “The Vietnam veterans served over 50 years ago, and as they get older, they’re still finding ways to serve the community,” McSorley said. “I've absorbed a lot about leadership and handling difficult situations from talking to Gary Napieracz.”

On May 28, the graduating Cornell seniors of ROTC will be commissioned as military officers.

“I've relied on Gary for his wisdom, experience and all-around advice,” McSorley said. “I sincerely appreciate our friendship and wanted to express that and show him how much I value his mentorship.”

On that day, Napieracz will get a special honor: Giving Jack McSorley – the newly commissioned Naval ensign – his first salute.

Media Contact

Lindsey Knewstub