Until last month, former Airman 1st Class Cynthia Schroll had a patent to her name, two books she authored, a resume full of academic and technical expertise, and a PhD in analytical chemistry. But there was one thing this wildly accomplished airman didn’t have: her commission.
That changed on May 30, when she pinned on her gold bars and became one of the Air Force’s newest second lieutenants.
According to a story posted online Tuesday by the Air Force Technical Applications Center, located at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, Schroll knew without a doubt she wanted to serve in the Air Force. With her raft of accomplishments — which included stints as a contract research assistant at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and teaching chemistry at the University of Cincinnati — her drive and her skill set, she would appear to be a shoe-in to become an officer.
But the timing doesn’t always work out, she said.
“My recruiter told me it could take up to two years to be accepted to [Officer Training School], and there was no guarantee that I would even be accepted,” Schroll, an Ohio native, said in the release. “I knew I wanted to be in the Air Force, so the best way for me to do that was to enlist.”
She began basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas in 2017, and was then picked for highly demanding and technical special instruments training, or SPINSTRA, at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas. SPINSTRA requires airmen to spend more than 85 training days learning electronic principles, applied sciences, computer and network phenomenologies, mathematics, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance fundamentals, until they become specialists in highly in-demand scientific applications.
While she was in tech school, she drew the attention of Chief Master Sgt. Michael Joseph, the command chief of the Air Force Technical Applications Center at Patrick, which is the Defense Department’s only nuclear treaty monitoring center.
“I had heard about her academic background and her impressive credentials, and I knew she’d be a great fit for AFTAC,” Joseph said in the release. “I paid her a visit at Goodfellow AFB and asked her to join our team.”
The Air Force said she dove into her job as a radiochemistry technician in the center’s Ciambrone Radiochemistry Lab with enthusiasm, and took pride that what she did helped the center’s senior scientists and national decision-makers. The lab quickly realized she was a “go-to” airman who could get things done.
Joseph and the center’s commander both knew that Schroll would make an ideal officer, and started looking for ways to get her into OTS.
But that was easier said than done, the release said. For years, the Air Force has had very specific processes for commissioning enlisted airmen, and Schroll didn’t fit into any of those categories. Leaders from the 25th Air Force, to which AFTAC belongs, realized something needed to be done and started looking for a way to make it happen.
“In the end, 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,” Joseph said. “It was a huge team effort, but well worth it.”
Schroll began her two-month OTS course at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama April 1 — and she soon found out how different it was from basic training.
“I didn’t realize how mentally unprepared I was until I got here,” Schroll said. “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."
On graduation day, her father, Stephen, her brother Brandon, and Brandon’s girlfriend, Traci, were on hand to pin on her bars and celebrate her commissioning. And when it came time for Schroll to give an enlisted airman her first salute and the traditional silver dollar — a military custom that dates back to colonial times — she chose Chief Joseph. For Schroll, there was really no other choice — Joseph had looked out for her all along, and went the extra mile to bring her story to higher-ups’ attention.
“I will forever be indebted to him, and it was my honor to present my silver dollar to him,” Schroll said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.