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Student leaders who are charged with molding the next generation of Army and Navy officers find that it takes a firm hand, an agile mind and an even-handed temperament.

"You don't have the leverage you do in a military setting where, if someone doesn't do the work you can take their pay," said Lt. Col. Barry R. Hendricks, professor of military science and director of ODU's Army ROTC program. "Trying to motivate your peers - your classmates - is not easy. You need to counsel and develop a leadership style."

Commanding respect and leading by example may come easier for this year's Army and Navy ROTC cadet battalion commanders, however. Wallie Lacks and Elizabeth Sokolowich are not your typical ROTC leaders. Both seniors, they already have several years of military service to their credit, a background not often found in student commanders.

At age 31, the father of a 16-month-old daughter, veteran of deployments in Bosnia, Albania, Zaire (now the Congo), Kosovo and Iraq, as well as having served in the personal presidential helicopter service with Marine One for Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Lacks certainly is a positive role model for his 130 Army ROTC charges.

A criminal justice major, he maintains a 3.91 GPA, is fit at a level that only comes from rigid self-discipline and expects nothing less from those he leads.

"It's very much like being a good parent or older brother. I tell cadets if I can do it at 31 and they're just 20 or 21, that they can change their attitude and step up," Lacks said.

The son of a Marine, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1993, just after graduating from Poquoson High School.

Recalling his own frame of mind at the time of his enlistment, Lacks said, "I was rambunctious...after 13-weeks at Paris Island I saw the light!"

Says Hendricks, "He's not your average college student. He brings experience in here. With that experience comes a respect that is its own leverage."

Lacks, however, prefers to downplay his military background in favor of his current day-to-day leadership. "Talk the talk and walk the walk is what it's all about. Show cadets what you are doing every day to be the best."

Sokolowich, also 31 and a biological sciences major, takes a similar approach to the 260 Navy cadets from Old Dominion, Hampton and Norfolk State universities in her charge.

"We have a lot of opportunities for them to take leadership roles," she explained. "I can see giving people the added responsibility helps them to step up."

Capt. John A. Brown, professor of naval science and head of the Hampton Roads Navy ROTC Consortium based at ODU, is certainly happy to have officer candidates such as Sokolowich under his command. He employs the strategy of pairing "straight stick" midshipmen, those fresh out of high school, with more mature cadets like Sokolowich who are part of the Seaman to Admiral program, which provides a college education and Navy commission for qualified enlisted sailors.

"That is absolutely a great tool for us," Brown said. "Midshipmen are more likely to turn to them more easily for advice and guidance. Also, it's an important mentoring role for our officer candidates to take on."

A former Navy nuclear enlisted person, Sokolowich is also married to a Navy "nuke" and has a 16-year-old step-daughter to raise while attending classes and leading cadets.

Both Lacks, with eight years of military service, and Sokolowich with 10 years in the Navy, say they can still relate to their fellow students' concerns by recalling their own military career tracks.

In Lacks' case it was the offering of deployment that kept him focused on his decision to pursue a military career. Sokolowich said she rarely had a moment's doubt about remaining in the military. "I knew it was my life from the first day. Still, that fourth year was the rough one, where you thought, 'Maybe I am done.' It's not always easy."

This article was posted on: September 29, 2005

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