From the belly of a nuclear submarine to the battlefields of Afghanistan, NC State graduates are setting a standard for military leadership.
The university has produced more than 60 generals and flag officers, a figure that trails only service academies and institutions with corps of cadet programs among U.S. colleges and universities. Some of those leaders returned to campus this past weekend for military appreciation events.
While their stories differed, they cited common campus elements that helped them develop: committed faculty, public service, exposure to a diverse community and a rigorous curriculum.
“I feel that everything I do reflects NC State in some way,” said Air Force Capt. Taylor Francis, class of 2004. “I feel like when people look at me they see a representation of NC State.”
As a Caldwell Fellow and a Jefferson Scholar, Francis volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in the Dominican Republic and collected textbooks for donation to Moldova. He also interacted with friends and mentors from widely varying backgrounds.
“That opened my eyes to the world around me and to different cultures and different perspectives that I hadn’t perceived before,” the Manteo native said.
Maj. Gen. Greg Lusk, adjutant general of the North Carolina National Guard, said he learned to thrive under stress at NC State. A 1983 graduate, Lusk recalled an ROTC instructor who routinely gave lengthy lectures on exam days. That left students only a few minutes to take eight- and 10-page tests. The time crunch forced Lusk to learn to prioritize.
“All those are valuable lessons that apply in so many stressful situations that you find yourself in throughout life, so I’ll never forget that,” he said.
Though their time on campus was separated by more than 40 years, retired Army Gen. Dan McNeill and Navy Lt. Megan Bittner both credited NC State for teaching them to be true to themselves.
McNeill, class of 1968, commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan before retiring in 2008. He said that his professors at NC State taught him the courage of conviction. He remembered one professor who, after the death of her husband over winter break, was in class on the first day of the spring semester.
“You have to believe in what you’re doing,” he said.
Bittner, part of the first class of women to serve on a nuclear submarine, applied similar lessons she learned as part of the Wolfpack. While undergoing leadership training at the Navy Power School, she said she thought often of NC State and the lessons about integrity she learned in the chemical engineering program.
“It wasn’t anything new, it was just echoed in a different way…different stories, but the exact same foundation as NC State,” said the 2010 alumna.
Marine Maj. Dwayne Lancaster and retired Navy Rear Admiral Bennie Suggs both cited faculty support as a transformational force in their development.
“At NC State, I learned that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character (produces) hope,” said Lancaster, class of 1998. “There were a lot of individuals that were very committed to me through that time of suffering, whether it was calculus and physics or chemistry 101, but they also helped me to persevere.”
Suggs, now associate vice chancellor for alumni relations, said he came to NC State in 1965 with an unfathomable dream: to fly jets.
“Quite frankly, I couldn’t even fly a paper airplane,” he said. “But I had professors and advisors and mentors that believed in me.”
NC State’s military line includes retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; current Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno; Maj. Gen. William C. Lee, generally considered the father of the airborne; and Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, who was vice chief of staff of the Army in the mid-1980s.