Air Force Maj. Lenard Soriano presented a cadet with a 20 mm shell from an F-16 aircraft that he milled into a bottle opener to thank him for organizing his retirement ceremony.
“Are you 21 yet?” Soriano said. “Use it to open your beverage of choice.”
Soriano, an assistant professor in UCLA Air Force ROTC, retired from the Air Force after 20 years. At a ceremony marking his service Friday, he said he tried to use his extensive military experience to prepare the ROTC cadets he instructed.
Soriano joined UCLA’s ROTC in 2014 and took a yearlong command tour in Afghanistan after his second year teaching. He said that deploying as a commanding officer was the highlight of his career.
“When I talk to the cadets, I tell them it’s all about command. That’s what you’re really preparing for,” he said. “When the organization is completely yours and you’re responsible for the climate, it’s a huge responsibility, but it’s fun.”
He said he decided to retire in part because he saw how prepared his students were to fill his shoes.
“I do know that I’m leaving the Air Force in great hands, and that was really reassuring,” Soriano said. “When you put twenty years of your life into something, you really worry about things, and when you see cadets working out there, you know those guys are going to be great.”
Soriano said he tried to help his cadets develop leadership skills so they could compete with other cadets in their field of choice.
Nick Echeverry, a fourth-year electrical engineering student, said he found Soriano intense and intimidating at first, but thinks the students needed an intense leader to prepare them for their military careers.
“Once, we were in charge of (a training day) and we really messed up and he threw questions at me, but I really learned a lot,” Echeverry said. “We applied (what we learned) as upperclassmen and now we know when things are going wrong and how to fix them.”
Courtney Tomas, a fourth-year psychology student, said she thinks Soriano was genuine and honest with the cadets about their strengths and opportunities for improvement.
“He was kind of scary at first,” Tomas said. “But he gave it to us straight, and told us how it was going to be.”
Tomas, who is a wing commander, the highest-ranking cadet in the program, said Soriano is working to get her and Echeverry a flight on the F-16 supersonic fighter aircraft as a reward for exceeding his expectations.
“I don’t know of any other cadre member who has done that,” Tomas said. “He really cares about us.”
Soriano said he has been impressed with several of the cadets he has taught, including two he taught in his first class at UCLA.
“(One cadet) was one of the quieter ones and then she took the wing commander role and just really shined, and another (cadet), when she took command, she was very aggressive,” he said. “People were saying maybe she’s a little too aggressive, but that’s really what got her to where she was.”
Soriano said one of the cadets he taught was accepted into a highly competitive special operations position after she finished the ROTC program.
“Her standards were through the roof and she held herself to that standard and she held everyone else to that standard and, (like the other cadet), was figuring out that balance,” he said.
Col. Timothy Reynolds, professor and chair of UCLA’s Air Force ROTC unit, said he thinks Soriano had an important perspective because he had an enlisted background and had command experience as an officer.
“Cadets are eager to learn about what it’s like to be on active duty,” Reynolds said. “They get my perspective as an instructor, but he’s got a lot of experience in his background in terms of deployments.”
Soriano said his success in the Air Force is a result of the people around him who gave him support.
“You’ve all heard a lot of great things about me today and all of them are 100 percent true, but one thing is, I didn’t do it all by myself,” he said. “In fact, it was all in the strength of the airmen, and the cadets and the faculty around me.”