PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
In December 2018, the Air Force published a story about an airman first class with a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. The article went somewhat viral within Air Force circles, with many social media users questioning why someone with a doctoral degree would choose to enlist rather than earn a commission.
The simplest answer to those viral questions can be summed up in one word: timing.
Coupled with timing, the Doctor-Airman also found herself in the proverbial “right place at the right time” with one particular mentor who helped propel and facilitate her acceptance to Air Force Officer Training School.
Airman 1st Class Cynthia A. Schroll traded in her stripes for gold bars May 30 after completing the required eight-week training program at Maxwell AFB, Ala. On hand to pin on her bars were her father Stephen, her brother Brandon, and Brandon’s girlfriend Traci.
But first, let’s rewind a bit in order to better understand the path on which she traveled to get to where she is today.
Prior to enlisting, Schroll earned her doctorate and worked as a contract research assistant at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. She also taught chemistry at the University of Cincinnati—both jobs she thoroughly enjoyed. Yet despite her success in the civilian world, the analytical chemist wanted more in life – she wanted to serve.
So in 2017, the Ohio native left for Air Force Basic Military Training at Lackland AFB, Texas, and was selected to undergo special instruments training, or SPINSTRA, at Goodfellow AFB, Texas. Airmen selected for this technical training must meet stringent criteria on multiple portions of the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery and spend 85+ training days learning electronic principles, applied sciences, computer and network phenomenologies, mathematics, and the fundamentals of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. It is a rigorous course that develops Airmen to become in-demand scientific applications specialists.
Upon graduation from tech school, Schroll was assigned to the Air Force Technical Applications Center, the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring center at Patrick AFB, Fla., to work as a radiochemistry technician. She immersed herself into her new role as a junior Airman in the Ciambrone Radiochemistry Lab and took pride in the job she was performing for AFTAC’s senior scientists and national decision-makers.
When some of her co-workers asked her why she didn’t pursue becoming an officer, she said it all came down to timing.
“My recruiter told me it could take up to two years to be accepted to OTS, and there was no guarantee that I would even be accepted,” Schroll explained. “I knew I wanted to be in the Air Force, so the best way for me to do that was to enlist.”
She performed well at her job, and quickly became a “go-to” technician in the lab. She also caught the eye of AFTAC’s command chief, Chief Master Sgt. Michael Joseph.
“When A1C Schroll was at tech school, I had heard about her academic background and her impressive credentials (she has written two books and has a patent to her name) and I knew she’d be a great fit for AFTAC,” said Joseph. “I paid her a visit at Goodfellow AFB and asked her to join our team. Once aboard, the commander and I wanted to see what we could do to facilitate her acceptance to Officer Training School, so I got to work.”
One of the hurdles Joseph faced was the long-standing established processes for commissioning enlisted members, and Schroll did not fit into one of the categories that could quickly access her as an officer.
According to Joseph, leaders from 25th Air Force and up the chain realized this was the right thing to do and began making inquiries on how to make it happen.
“In the end,” said Joseph, “it came down to numerous phone calls and email messages between (Air Force Personnel Center) Command Chief Ken Lindsey and his team and the leadership here at AFTAC who collectively worked out the details to bring ‘concept to reality.’ It was a huge team effort, but well worth it.”
Schroll departed for Maxwell AFB on April 1 and was assigned to the 24th Training Squadron, Class 19-06. Referred to as the Phantom Squadron, Schroll and her 15 flight mates fell under the instruction of 1st Lt. Claire M. Krokker for the duration of the two-month course.
“When OT (officer trainee) Schroll arrived on day one, I had no idea about her educational background,” said Krokker. “It wasn’t until about a week into training that I learned she had a Ph.D., and had been a university professor. Even so, I treated her like any other OT and held her to the same standards as everyone else.”
Throughout her training, Schroll found herself comparing enlisted basic training to the OTS program.
“I didn’t realize how mentally unprepared I was until I got here,” she said. “I came in thinking that being a recent BMT graduate would be an advantage. But the two programs have completely different philosophies – BMT is all about indoctrination and disciplined followership; OTS is all about risk management and stepping up as a leader. The only real similarity between the two courses is you march everywhere for pretty much everything!”
Differences aside, OT Schroll labored through the intensive training atmosphere that included demanding academics, exhaustive physical fitness requirements, detailed leadership exercises, and precision drill sessions.
She served as her flight’s Defense Support to Civil Authorities officer and performed flight leader duties for a week. She also learned not to despise running.
“This was one of those areas where mentally I always held myself back by thinking that I would never be a great runner,” Schroll said. “I managed to prove myself very wrong by beating my personal best run by almost a full minute, and I plan to keep up with my running routine when I get home because now I know I’m capable of more.”
As graduation loomed in the near distance, she kept a goal she set for herself at the forefront of her mind.
“My motto for coming into this program was to strive to thrive and not simply survive,” she explained. “To me that meant making the most of all my personal interactions. I may be considered ‘prior service’ on paper, but I’m a very junior prior service member in the grand scheme of things. There were people in my class with 10-plus years of military experience, and I learned so much from them.”
One person who had a significant impact on the junior Air Force scientist was 1st Lt. Ashley M. Dalessandro, a former technical sergeant with 12 years of enlisted service before she earned her commission through the Interservice Physician Assistant Program.
“From the first time I heard her speak, I knew I wanted to be friends with her,” Schroll said. “She always sounded so confident, intelligent and of good heart. She was dubbed the flight’s ‘Silent Assassin’ because she didn’t necessarily comment on every topic, but when she did, she was thoughtful and insightful. She’s been my wingman throughout this whole experience. There are some people you hope you remain friends with in life. Ashley is that friend to me.”
Dalessandro was instrumental to her so much so that Schroll asked the newly-minted first lieutenant to administer the oath of office to her on commissioning day. Humbly, Dalessandro agreed, saying, “it was an honor to be a part of such a momentous occasion.”
When the day finally arrived to be sworn in as a second lieutenant, Schroll’s family traveled from Dayton to witness the monumental event. It was a day fraught with high emotions, especially for Schroll’s father.
“I can’t even put into words how proud I am of Cynthia,” said Stephen, choking back tears. “I wish her mother could have been here to witness it. Since she passed in 2014, I’ve worn her wedding ring around my neck as a reminder of our bond, and I know she’s with us here in spirit. Cynthia is just like her mom. She embodies everything her mother was – smart, happy, successful. I tried not to break down during the ceremony, but I just couldn’t hold back any longer. I’m just so overjoyed!”
After taking the oath of office, officer trainees follow a tradition steeped in history. It is believed that as early as America’s colonial days of the 1800s, new officers were assigned an enlisted advisor who showed the young officers the ropes, taught them regimental rules and regulations as well as the ins and outs of military life. Since a lieutenant’s monthly ration was far greater than an enlisted member’s, oftentimes the officer would give a silver dollar to his junior advisor. Thus began the tradition that continues to this day.
Without hesitation, Schroll knew exactly who to select to receive her first salute and the coveted silver dollar: Chief Joseph.
“My plan was to wait until late 2019 to submit an OTS package for consideration and go through the same board process other prior enlisted members do,” she stated. “That said, I am extremely fortunate to have people well above me in the chain of command like Chief Joseph looking out for my best interests and willing to go extra lengths to bring my story to the attention of those in positions of influence. I will forever be indebted to him, and it was my honor to present my silver dollar to him.”
Joseph said the honor was all his.
“During my almost 30 year career, I have been fortunate enough to receive a few ‘first salutes’ from young officers I have helped in some way earn their commission,” the senior enlisted leader said. “Each one has been a humbling experience and I was honored to do my small part in helping them fulfill their dream. I have no doubt Lieutenant Schroll is going to reach great heights as an Air Force leader. She’s definitely got what it takes.”
Schroll has set short-, mid- and long-term career goals for herself. For some, they might be considered lofty and barely achievable; but for this young lieutenant, her sights are set high.
“I’m returning to AFTAC and I’m really looking forward to getting back to the lab in a different role. I know it’s going to be a different, and perhaps awkward, dynamic to go from an E-3 to an O-1 at the same organization, but from a short-term perspective, it’s a unique opportunity to excel.”
She continued, “Mid-term, I’d love to become an OTS instructor and future squadron commander. What could be more rewarding than helping shape future officers and leading our enlisted force?”
As for her long-term goal, she has her eyes on being part of Air Force history.
“I would love to be in uniform for another 28 years so I can be serving during the Air Force’s 100th birthday in 2047,” she said. “That will require a one-year age waiver since I’ll be 63 years old, so I better be a rock star between now and then so they’ll approve it!
The day following the commissioning ceremony, Total Force Officer Training Class 19-06 formed at Maxwell’s Welch Field for the Graduation Parade, a pomp-and-circumstance event complete with marching formations, ceremonial music, the oath of office, and the always-exhilarating fly-by. Schroll’s class witnessed an Air Force C-130 Hercules zoom over their heads, which was immediately followed by the traditional hat toss.
After the ceremony, Schroll reflected on her monumental achievement in a way those who know her best have grown accustomed.
“Dream big, take small steps and relish every moment. Set your sights far beyond what you think is possible, and plan out the little things you will need to get there,” she said.
Hearing her daughter’s sage words, her father injected, “Cynthia’s going to change the world. She’s going to leave it better than she found it. I know that’s what her mother would say.”