Student, ROTC cadet has gained rich cultural experience at IU
Feb. 5, 2015
In a little less than four years, Blake Lemmons has had richer cultural experiences than most collect in a lifetime. He’s spent months in far-flung countries -- most of which aren’t popular travel destinations -- and has become fluent in Farsi and Dari, all while maintaining an exceptional grade point average as an IU student.
It’s all part of his relentless endeavor to stand out from thousands of other cadets in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, which trains, educates and commissions officers into the U.S. armed forces. “The military’s very competitive,” Lemmons, 22, explained. “It grades you relative to your peers and ranks you on everything.”
Since his entrance to IU in fall 2011, Lemmons, a Near Eastern languages and cultures major, has risen to the top of its ROTC program. He was most recently appointed as battalion commander of IU’s program, where he manages the other 25 senior cadets to make sure proper planning, preparation and training is executed effectively. Following his commission as a second lieutenant of the Army in May, he’ll head off to flight school in Fort Rucker, Ala., where he’ll be trained to fly helicopters. After a year and half there, he’ll serve four years of active duty.
Lemmons’ achievements haven’t been limited to IU’s ROTC program. In the Army’s 2014 national Order of Merit List, which measures the physical fitness, GPA and officer reviews of all Army ROTC seniors nationwide, he ranked third out of 5,617 cadets. “That’s basically my grade for the last three-and-a-half years,” he said.
Lemmons deserves that ranking, according Lt. Col. Tim Hoch, commander of IU ROTC. “All metrics that you can achieve in, Blake has not only done well, he’s achieved the highest,” he said. “Oftentimes, I’ll see kids who are pretty smart but may struggle a bit physically. What sets Blake apart is that he’s a phenomenal leader, his peers assess him highly, and he’s one of the most intellectually capable and smart young men we know. He’s everything we’re looking for in the Army.”
Though Lemmons has worked hard on maintaining his grades and physical fitness, he placed considerable emphasis on achieving cultural competency. “I chose to focus on languages at IU because it’s given me a better understanding of what we’re doing overseas,” he said. “I want to understand the complexities of approaching a culture I’m not familiar with.”
The summer after Lemmons’ freshman year, he traveled to the Republic of Georgia in Eastern Europe with the army’s Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency Program, where he taught English to children in Batumi, a coastal city on the Black Sea. “It really opened my eyes,” he said. “I realized then that I wanted to learn a lot more and expand my worldview.”
The following summer, he was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship from the State Department to travel to Tajikistan in Central Asia for nine weeks. “The goal there was total immersion,” Lemmons said. He lived with a host family in Dushanbe and spoke almost exclusively Persian. “It was definitely a challenging environment that really stretched me.”
Back in Bloomington, it’s not as easy for Lemmons to expand his cultural and language skill sets. “I’ve maxed out all the language courses I can take, so I have to make a very deliberate effort to stay fresh.” He reads the news in Persian and also meets regularly with Rahman Arman, professor of Afghan languages and a native Afghan, who has offered to help Lemmons master Dari, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan.
Lemmons says IU’s ROTC program has fueled his ambition. “The officers who lead us are incredible,” he said. “They’ve invested a lot of time and effort in me, and that’s certainly helped shape me into the leader I am.”
His peers in ROTC have been a driving force, too. “We’re just natural team players,” he said. “There are obviously different personalities that contribute different qualities, and we all work together really well.”
Despite his involvement in ROTC, Lemmons insists it’s not an all-consuming component of his life. “It’s important to have friends outside of ROTC, and your leaders want you to be well-rounded,” he said. “I hang out with people who don’t all study the same thing to keep that balance and diversify my interests.”
It’s too early to say if he wants to build a lifetime career out of the Army, Lemmons said. But he knows he wants to serve as a company commander, where he would lead four platoons, or roughly 200 soldiers. “It’s a huge honor to say that I can lead American soldiers,” he said. “And my success at IU isn’t about my talent, but other people investing in me. Hard work and opportunity have paid off in a lot of ways, but I’m the result of a lot of other people’s hard work, too.”