On Jan. 6, Michelle Pelfrey will retire after 15 years as an administrative assistant in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Military Science.
I have been at UTC since the ROTC program was reactivated in 2007. Not many administrative staff can say they have met and interacted with high-ranking military officials and generals, have first-hand and up-close encounters with a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, HIMARS, Hummers and Apache helicopters and got to ride on a Black Hawk.
These were experiences that I’d never have had if I didn’t work here at UTC.
The ROTC program was phased out by 1997 due to finances and other cutbacks. There was a great deal of effort put forth by so many; the Army, the Tennessee National Guard, leaders from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and UTC to re-establish the program.
I was hired by Major Ben Smith, now a retired Lieutenant Colonel, who brought me on as his administrative assistant. In the beginning, we just had blank space since we didn’t already have a department on campus. Our time was filled those first few weeks with buying furniture, getting all the equipment necessary to run a department and setting up our base camp at Stagmaier Hall.
Thinking back to the early years, I called everybody sir as a cover; I didn’t want to be caught looking at their uniform to find their rank. So I just said “Sir” to everyone to cover for my lack of knowledge.
I remember having to learn the NATO alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie. When I started here, I wasn’t a military person, and these people seemed to be talking in this very punctuated new lingo. I needed to understand what they were saying.
I had to learn tons of documents with names like Form 104-R and a DA Form and CC Cadet Command Forms. You learn all these things over time, but they were so foreign to me.
Our first big event was the reactivation ceremony which took place on Oct. 13, 2007. In preparation for that—and I call it my first official assignment from the boss—was to take pictures. Major Smith said, “Go around and do a recon of the area where General B.B. Bell will be going. The walkways, the buildings he’ll be entering and everything.” To think that there was an active duty four-star general in Korea; those pictures were going to him and his advance team so that when their boots hit the ground here on campus, they knew exactly where he was going to be and the distance between the buildings.
The reactivation ceremony included a lot of high-ranking military and campus and local dignitaries. The ceremony was fantastic and we had our cake-cutting ceremony over in Founders Hall. I have the pictures; you can see they cut the cake with a saber. It was really something.
From there, the program continued to gain momentum.
I have been the only constant here. I have had different leaders overseeing the program; they are put here on orders and usually rotate every two to three years. They’re given orders just like it’s a duty station, and they come here to teach and train and produce officers and college graduates.
When their time is up, they move on. It’s called a PCS—permanent change of station—and they move on to their next duty station. Then we get somebody new, which is a challenge; it takes a little while to get used to the University and its policies and procedures and how to find things. So just about when they get settled into a good routine, it’s time to change out again.
My greatest joy has been seeing our UTC students graduate, commission as Second Lieutenants and share in their success stories. We have graduated and commissioned 109 Second Lieutenants in the 15 years I’ve been here, with Scott Finks being the very first. It’s like the world is theirs to conquer. They are embarking on this career and who knows where it will take them.
I could tell you unequivocally one very proud success story was seeing one of our cadets, (now Captain) Joey Royster—he graduated as a Second Lieutenant in 2014—as the commander of the Old Guard in Arlington. There he was on TV front and center at President Bush’s funeral. You could see him as a mature leader in a role that was so vital; all eyes were on him and the cameras loved him. They zoomed in and he was moving with such precision. It just made me immensely proud.
It has been an honor to be here all these years, but for me, it’s time to retire and begin new adventures. I’m a Chattanooga native, and will remain here in Chattanooga, hopefully available for special events or projects at UTC. You’ll see my husband and me on campus at basketball games supporting our MOCS. I will continue to volunteer at the Medal of Honor Heritage Center; that just seemed like a logical place to give my time and look forward to other volunteer opportunities in the area.
I have been able to help guide students along their career path, graduate them and see them launch off into a military career. Having them come back as successful officers in the Army and back here to where it all started at UTC gives me so much pride.
I am so thankful I have had this opportunity.