DUE WEST, S.C. (courtesy erskine.edu) — A retired lieutenant colonel, a lieutenant colonel who has completed many high-level assignments, and a major who has served as a helicopter pilot are just three of the many Erskine alumni who have made a commitment to a military career.
Lt. Col. Tim Ellis ’86 spent 13 years on active duty and 17 years in the Army Reserve/National Guard. He served as an Armor Officer in the United States and Europe, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007, and received the Legion of Merit upon his retirement.
Lt. Col. Michelle “Shelly” Roberts ’04 began what she calls her “adventure of service” early in her Erskine career. She has completed “22 years, four deployments, multiple state mobilizations for natural events, and a plethora of unique assignments and missions.”
Maj. Freddy Wojtkowski ’05 joined ROTC in high school, so he was already in the Army National Guard while at Erskine. His assignments have included deployments to Iraq in 2005 and 2009. He now serves as the 59th Aviation Troop Command Brigade S1 in Columbia.
Each of these alumni entered military service by a different route. All received advice or encouragement at Erskine as they considered embarking on a military career. They found that their chosen majors, while not directly related to military life, benefited them. All three have grown in dedication and in appreciation for the value of the service they signed up for years ago.
“Dr. Harry Stille and Mr. Ralph Lundy routinely advised me on taking the challenge of becoming an officer, on what it took to seek high levels of responsibility, and the rewards of doing so,” says Ellis, crediting a professor of physical education and a soccer coach with inspiring him during his Erskine days.
Commissioned through Army ROTC as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve, Ellis majored in physical education and completed the ROTC program of study at Erskine, which included classroom instruction and field exercises. “The education courses definitely helped me develop techniques of organizing and evaluating training as a leader,” he says.
For Ellis, assignments in which he was commanding tank units were his most gratifying. His description is in keeping with his physical education major. “Leading a group of soldiers in tactical training and live fire exercises—culminating in the unit being recognized as the best trained in the battalion and receiving the Top Gun trophy two years in a row—was like being the head coach of a championship team.”
Roberts, an elementary education major, did not enter ROTC until after graduation, but she also received a nudge toward military life while at Erskine. She jokingly “blames” Wojtkowski for introducing her to the National Guard, which sounded like “a good challenge,” she says. “Within months I met with a recruiter, raised my right hand, enlisted, and was off to Basic Training the next summer.”
She also remembers the influence of an education professor during her senior year, Dr. Lawrence-Davis, whose husband was “the professor of military science (ROTC) for the Southern Guards Battalion, ARMY ROTC,” where she was commissioned the next December.
“After I graduated from Erskine, I went directly to graduate school and a Reserve Officer Training Corps program where I earned a master of education and an officer commission,” Roberts recalls. “The adage ‘life comes at you fast,’ is indeed what happened to me as a second lieutenant. Three days before I graduated from Officer Basic Course, I received deployment orders.” After training, she served for a year on the ground in Kabul.
Returning to the United States, she became a trainer “for the next brigade rotating into Afghanistan,” she says, and her education degree “came in handy as we developed new programs of instruction based on real-world combat experiences.”
Roberts also made good use of her education courses during her second deployment to Afghanistan. Serving on an embedded training team, together with the only female general in the Afghan Army at the time, “we developed and opened the first women’s education and training center for the Afghan National Army” which “became the standard for other educational centers built within the country.”
Wojtkowski “didn’t see it as a serious commitment” when he joined ROTC in high school. He wanted to play soccer at Erskine and signing up assisted him in achieving that goal. “But I stayed because I felt that I was doing an important job that was actually making a difference in my community,” he says.
Already a member of the National Guard when he was an Erskine student, Wojtkowski says his professors were helpful to him, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. His major in sports management made an impact—in a roundabout way—on his military career.
“While my studies didn’t directly correlate with my career path in the military, [my major] did allow me to land a job with the state parks service in South Carolina,” he explains. “That led me to getting my master’s degree, which really pushed me toward becoming an officer as a degree is a requirement to become an officer in the military.”
After graduating from Erskine in January 2004, Wojtkowski was deployed to Iraq as an enlisted member of the Signal Corps in 2005 and 2009. He continued his education and training, which included graduating from Palmetto Military Academy in 2013 and attending flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama. He was commissioned to fly CH-47 Chinook helicopters for the South Carolina Army National Guard as a member of the 59th Aviation Troop Command and went on to serve in several leadership roles.
Looking back over his military career, his year in Afghanistan stands out for Ellis. “The year I spent in Afghanistan gave me additional confidence that I could perform under stress, in the most difficult conditions, with people’s lives at stake,” he says.
“It taught me an appreciation for what we have here in the U.S. and not to take it for granted. It also taught me that people of different faiths can work together with mutual respect to achieve basic human freedoms.”
As for the recognition he received upon retirement, Ellis says, “Being awarded the Legion of Merit demonstrated that our country did not take my service for granted, and I am grateful.”
Among her many roles, Roberts recalls serving as the executive officer to the Adjutant General of South Carolina, “where I saw true servant leadership at work,” as well as her work as Chief of Intelligence for NATO Headquarters-Sarajevo and her recent two years on assignment at the Pentagon. But it was earlier in her career, when she served in Kuwait, that she took to heart the motto of her unit: “Wherever my country calls.”
Wojtkowski recalls chasing adventures—flying helicopters, “volunteering for special training missions and extended tours.” He signed up “while I was trying to get my life started,” and says, “The military worked with me to be able to do that and as my life changed, I was able to adapt my military commitment with it.”
Summing up the satisfaction he has gained, he says, “I just completed my 23rd year and have now been a full-time National Guardsman for the past seven years. This wasn’t where I saw myself 23 years ago, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
All three alumni are thankful for the support of their families and friends.
“I couldn’t have achieved such a long military career without the support of my family,” Ellis says. “Their perseverance through long deployments, training exercises, and multiple moves was exemplary.”
Roberts believes “incredible amounts of support and prayers from family and friends” have brought her this far. “My team and I got into some pretty sticky situations on my second deployment, and now looking back, I think the only reason we made it through and made it out was because someone, somewhere, prayed us through it.”
“I would not have been able to serve in the way that I have if it wasn’t for my wife Sara,” says Wojtkowski, who met and married Sara King Wojtkowski ’05 at Erskine. “At one point 10 years into our marriage, I was gone for more than half of it! My road has been a very winding one, but with her help, I always find my way back home.”