CFF Student Volunteer Becomes U.S. Army Officer

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Napalm Explodes behind Cobra Attack Helicopter

Napalm explodes behind a Cobra Attack Helicopter hovering in front of thousands of spectators at an air and ground show at McEntire Army and Air National Guard Base in 2009. (Photo by WSM)

Maggie, Celebrate Freedom Foundation's Cobra Helicopter

Maggie flies over the tree tops and performs a flyover as thousands below cheer at 2012 Celebrate Freedom Festival in Finlay Park, Columbia, S.C. (Photo by WSM)

U.S. Army Demonstration Team Cobra Helicopter

A U.S. Army Demonstration Team Cobra Helicopter roars past thousands of spectators attending an air and ground show at McEntire Army and Air National Guard Base in 2009.  (Photo by WSM)

Black Hawk Helicopter Hovers

As thousands of spectators attending the 2009 Air and Ground Show at McEntire Army and Air National Guard Base, a Black Hawk Helicopter hovers as the pilot demonstrates the aircraft's maneuverability.  (Photo by WSM)

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CFF Student Volunteer Becomes U.S. Army Officer

By Stuart Morgan


The Celebrate Freedom Foundation educates children, promotes patriotism and honors veterans.

But CFF has also inspired at least one of its student volunteers to become a U.S. Army officer.

That young lieutenant now sees the Foundation from a different perspective.

“I had always been interested in becoming an Army officer,” said 2nd Lt Thomas J. Suddes, USA, who volunteered to help the CFF from the summer of 2009 through the spring of 2010 while attending the University of South Carolina. “I knew I could get a job after graduating from USC, but I wanted to do something more meaningful.”

2nd Lt Thomas J. Suddes, U.S. Army

Jack Lovelady, President of the CFF, asked Suddes to assist the Foundation when he was a student.

Suddes helped the CFF organize and create its SOaR™ Program and implement the new pilot program in Richland County schools. SOaR™ (Student/Opportunities and Rewards), a highly successful educational outreach program which focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is dedicated to enhancing the performance, success and personal growth of youth.

He spent some time at the CFF hangar in Columbia, helping the organization’s volunteers — mostly veterans — prepare CFF’s Vietnam Era AH-1 Cobra helicopter, Maggie, to fly again. In her new role, Maggie creates excitement and helps generate interest in aviation whenever she is flown at special events, including air shows.  Suddes also worked with the CFF’s Killer Bees, a group of volunteers — again, mostly veterans — who maintain CFF’s historic military vehicles at the Foundation’s motor pool.

He had always been interested in becoming an Army officer.

Suddes considered Army ROTC at USC. In fact, he also attended seminars on all the military academies at the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, and considered seeking an appointment to West Point.

Larry Russell, Executive Director and Chief Information Officer for the CFF, said he remembers Suddes well.

“I remember him as a young USC student, who absorbed everything we threw at him,” Russell recalled. “He had a heavy course load, and he wasn’t at the hangar as much as I’m sure he would have liked to have been.

“I don’t remember talking with him about joining the military, because we focused on him graduating from college,” Russell said. “But something good must have rubbed-off that steered him toward serving his country in the Army.”

“ ... something good must have rubbed-off that steered him
toward serving his country in the Army.”

Larry Russell, Executive Director, Celebrate Freedom Foundation

Suddes said volunteering to help CFF was the first time he had worked with veterans.

“It was really my first taste of the Army,” 2nd Lt Suddes recalled. “What stood out most to me was the comradery of the guys. CFF’s volunteers came from different units, served during different periods, and they had many different careers since retiring from the military. But because of their service, they had this bond. They could sit around and talk to each other as if they’d known each other their entire lives. That really stood out to me.”

Suddes graduated from the University of South Carolina in December 2012, receiving a dual degree in Economics and Political Science with a focus on International Affairs. He considered various career options during his senior year at USC, but walked into the local Army recruiter’s office in downtown Columbia shortly after graduating to begin the Officer Candidate School (OCS) process.

“Due to the Army downsizing, getting into OCS was no easy feat,” 2nd Lt Suddes said. “It took several weeks to complete the process and meet all necessary requirements. However, six weeks later after the standardized testing, background checks, medical exams, PT tests and board interviews, I was accepted into the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School.”

Suddes graduated from basic training at Fort Jackson on June 6, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant on Aug. 29, 2013, after graduating from OCS at Fort Benning, Ga.

After graduating from the Ordnance Basic Officer Leadership Course (ODBOLC) at Fort Lee, Va., on March 5, 2014, he became an ordnance officer.

“The Ordnance Corps is the second oldest branch of the Army, after only the infantry,” 2nd Lt Suddes explained. “Its mission is to support the development, production, acquisition and sustainment of weapons systems, ammunition, missiles, electronics and ground mobility materiel during peace and war in order to provide combat power to the Army.”

For ordnance officers, there are three major areas of concentration: maintenance, munitions, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal.

“EOD is what interested me,” 2nd Lt Suddes said. “EOD officers are responsible for indentifying, rendering safe, and disposing of all unexploded chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, IED, and conventional weapons systems. I didn’t even consider EOD in the realm of possible careers for myself until all the duties of each Army branch were explained at OCS. However, once I knew about it, I was hooked.

“The entire reason I joined the Army was because I want to help American forces to the best of my ability,” he added. “This means adapting to the current operational environment. The fact is that tactics used by terrorists in Afghanistan and around the world include the utilization of IEDs. In order to counter this threat, the United States needs well-trained soldiers who understand these weapons. I wanted to become an EOD officer, so I could aid in disposing of weapons such as IED’s that pose a threat to American soldiers.”

“The entire reason I joined the Army was because I want to help
American forces to the best of my ability.”

2nd Lt Thomas J. Suddes, U.S. Army

2nd Lt Suddes said competition is stiff for placement in Army specialization courses such as EOD School, and that nothing is guaranteed as a result. He also said that you never complete training in the U.S. Army.

Before 2nd Lt Suddes is assigned to his first unit, he will attend Explosive Ordnance Demolition (EOD) School — including an additional nine weeks of training at Fort Lee and another six months of training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

“It’s going to be challenging,” 2nd Lt Suddes admitted. “EOD is known for its high fail rate, and understandably so.”

He has learned much about U.S. Army since his first day of basic training at Fort Jackson, but described his experience in the Army as “back-to-back military schooling” so far.

So, 2nd Lt Suddes said he is looking forward to his first assignment and command.

Since joining the Army, the newly-minted officer has learned some important lessons.

“You can’t worry about things that are completely beyond your control,” 2nd Lt Suddes said. “In the Army, you need to wake up every morning prepared to work as hard as you can. If you make a mistake, you learn from it and move on. If you have this philosophy, you can handle any challenge the Army gives you.”

Now, he also sees the CFF and its volunteers from a different perspective.

“I understand and appreciate the veterans who volunteer to support the Celebrate Freedom Foundation,” 2nd Lt Suddes said. “All of the military acronyms that they used now make sense. But more important, I believe that the mission of the CFF is as important now as it was when I volunteered to help the organization five years ago. Education — particularly STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is vital for our nation’s future.

“As a nation,” he added, “it’s imperative to support all of our troops wherever they are deployed — active, guard, reserve, from ‘day one’ recruits to retired veterans. This might seem more self-serving since I’m now in the Army. But as a leader, it’s also important to remind the troops why they fight so hard and so far from home, and that it takes support and patriotism from all Americans. This is why the mission of the CFF is imperative for our country.”

2nd Lt Suddes asked to say something to the CFF’s volunteers, some of whom served with the 1st Calvary Division in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

“For the guys at CFF who hoped that I’d be flying a helicopter, it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting a Stetson anytime soon,” he said, referring to black hats worn by soldiers who serve or have served in the 1st Cavalry Division.

“However, EOD units are spread throughout every Army unit,” 2nd Lt Suddes added. “So, it is still possible that I could be assigned to the 1st Cavalry someday.”  

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