When he was 2 years old, Robert Burns played with his green army soldiers and lined them up for war. Now, as Bruin Battalion commander, he does exactly what his sister said he was born to do: lead troops.
Burns, a fourth-year geography student in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program, is among the few members who will enter active duty as an infantry officer after graduation.
ROTC is a college-based officer training program designed to recruit commissioned officers of the United States Armed Forces. Several ROTC cadets said they grew up surrounded by former soldiers, and their family ties to the military shaped their personalities and belief systems.
Burns, who said he comes from a long line of public service, has also chosen to serve the country as his relatives before him did. His first and middle name still carry the legacies of both his grandfathers, who served in World War II.
Despite his considerable familial ties to the military, Burns said his family members who served never pressured him to join. Instead, he sought the challenge and adventure they experienced.
Still, the lessons his grandfathers taught him molded him into the person and the leader he is today, he said.
“My mom’s father was the man of the house and I sometimes find myself embodying the things I saw him doing when I was a kid,” Burns said.
Burn’s sister Madeline Markos said Burns pored over history books for hours as a young child, particularly inspired by freedom fighters.
Burns said his tendency to forge his own path came from the freedom his parents gave him to make his own mistakes and learn from them – the kind of thinking he has taken into his military career.
Deloris Comford, a third-year Chinese student and cadet in the Air Force ROTC program, said some of her fondest memories of camping in the backyard and acting out Nerf gun wars with her cousins helped her build up military values of integrity and discipline.
Comford, who is adopted, also comes from a long line of military officers. Her foster father is a retired officer in the Army, and both her grandparents served as Air Force officers.
Comford said she feels obligated to give back in the form of service, after the military covered her tuition and gave her a stable home.
Comford’s uncle George Comford adopted her when she was 12 years old, and she grew up in a strict household that she said helped her appreciate the sacrifice service requires.
Nicole Tom, a fourth-year Russian studies and political science student and fellow Air Force ROTC cadet, said she got used to moving around as a member of a military family. Growing up, she made pit stops across the country with her father, a bomber navigator.
Tom was born in Merced but lived in several states before settling in Westwood when she was 18 years old. She said the four years she has spent at UCLA is the longest time she has ever stayed in one location.
Tom added her father’s work ethic motivated her to join the military, but she had very little idea what to expect because her father kept his family and professional lives separate.
Her father, Brian Tom, said he thinks Nicole’s experiences as a military kid – traveling often and making friends on Air Force bases – shaped her perspective on military life.
“She saw it was an exciting life that was always changing,” Brian Tom said. “When Nicole first told me she wanted to join the Air Force, I was excited and proud. But I also wanted to be sure she was making the choices best for her and not just following what I did.”
When Tom was 13 years old, she dressed up in her father’s military garb for Halloween, sleeves and pant legs hanging loose on her limbs, Tom said.
Tom said she wouldn’t have traded her upbringing for anyone else’s, and is forever thankful to the military for instilling within her values she is proud to hold close to heart.
“It’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s true,” she said. “I want to do something bigger than myself. I want to go out and make a difference, and I want to make a change.”
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