‘Meaningful, and had a purpose’

For some college students, 4:45 a.m. doesn’t even mean the end of a night on the town.

But Blake Lemmons and Tyler Sykes were just starting their days. Together with the other Army ROTC cadets at Indiana University, it was time to work out — hours in the weight room, on long-distance runs or other training.

“Waking up that early as a college student isn’t a lot of fun, especially when a lot of your friends are just going to bed,” Lemmons said. “But knowing that discipline and that initial sense of sacrifice is for something worth it, that was cool.”

Lemmons and Sykes have spent the past four years preparing for their careers after college. They balanced the hours of studying, intensive lectures and the heavy courseload of a typical college student with the early-morning wake-up calls, physical training and mental preparedness of an ROTC soldier.

Now that they’ve graduated from the ROTC program, the two Center Grove-area natives are getting ready for their next challenges — becoming officers in the U.S. Army.

“Walking in graduation and raising your right hand, swearing that oath to protect the country, it’s the most hard moment of my life,” Sykes said. “At some point, there will be men and women underneath you whose lives are in your hands. That’s a huge responsibility that you take, and you have to set your goals to ensure those men and women remain safe.”

From the time they were boys, Lemmons and Sykes have followed similar paths.

They played on the same third-grade basketball team. As eighth-graders at Center Grove Middle School Central, they were on the same 1,600-meter relay team that won a county title in 2007.

Sykes played football and ran track for the Trojans in high school, while Lemmons played volleyball.

And their friendship drew them toward the ROTC program at IU.

Sykes had come to IU with plans to focus on business. His ideas shifted when he thought about the type of career he would have in that industry.

“I figured that maybe I don’t want to spend my life sitting in a cubicle. Maybe I wanted to find some more concrete short-term and long-term goals,” he said.

Through Lemmons, he learned about what ROTC offered. He enrolled in the program during the second semester of his freshman year and thrived in the structure and discipline it offered.

“I found my passion,” he said. “I’ve always had some intrinsic ability to lead, and I’ve been able to rally people behind me, and I wanted to put that to some kind of good use.”

Sykes had grandfathers, uncles and great-uncles who served in the military, and it was something he had been interested in his entire life.

Lemmons didn’t have the same background, but his father had taught him to respect and admire the military. Serving in the armed forces was something he made a priority throughout his life.

Specifically, Lemmons had a fascination with flying.

“In some ways, I guess, I’m an adrenaline junkie. I like the idea of going fast and traveling long distances at once,” he said. “The technology the military invests in is amazing, top-notch, state-of-the-art stuff.”

He was initially drawn toward the U.S. Air Force; but looking at the potential for job opportunities, he decided the Army was the best fit for him.

In order to fly with the Army, Lemmons needed to be an officer as opposed to an enlisted soldier. So when he enrolled at Indiana University in 2011, he did so because of its strong ROTC program.

Lemmons’ goal is to fly Apache attack helicopters.

“The guys on the ground are always happy when an Apache shows up, because that means they’re getting help from above,” he said.

But ROTC responsibilities didn’t supersede their work as students.

Sykes studied business management in the university’s Kelley School of Business.

“Trying to find a balance to graduating and finishing up a pretty difficult course load in business classes, then also the additional responsibilities of being a cadet, it was extremely time-consuming,” he said. “But the big takeaway was figuring out ways to manage time and prioritize what’s important.”

Lemmons studied Middle Eastern languages, mastering Farsi and Afghan Dari as part of a language scholarship through ROTC.

“I was looking for a major that would impact my military career, and I thought that language, specifically Middle Eastern languages, would do that,” he said.

Through his language program, Lemmons spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years living in Tajikistan, a country northeast of Afghanistan. He lived with a family for two months, immersing himself in the languages of the region and its culture.

“Getting that on-the-ground experience really set me apart in the ROTC program,” he said.

The ROTC program establishes an educational foundation for freshman and sophomore students, only requiring eight or nine hours each week of drills and training.

As students progress through college, though, that responsibility increases to 30 or 40 hours per week.

“(ROTC) was very formative in my college career. The discipline and respect and leadership it develops makes you a confident individual,” Lemmons said. “There’s a lot of pride in it, too. Comparing what we do to the average student, we take a lot of pride in it.”

As seniors in ROTC, both Lemmons and Sykes took up leadership positions in their unit. Lemmons was battalion commander during the second semester, meaning he was responsible for 140 cadets.

Sykes was chosen to be one of two company commanders. They were in charge of organizing all of the training and activities for the cadets under them, serving as a steppingstone into the active Army once they graduate.

“That was a really cool opportunity to work closely with all of the seniors in my class to lead the program. It was an honor to have that spot,” Lemmons said.

For the time being, both Lemmons and Sykes are awaiting their next assignment.

Lemmons will start flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama in September. His training will last for 1½ years before he’s completely ready to fly helicopters.

In November, Sykes will leave for Fort Benning in Georgia to start the Basic Officer’s Leadership Course. The training course is designed to produce the Army’s commissioned officers.

He has been directed toward the engineering branch of the Army, though he’s unsure what his exact duties will be.

They have remained in Bloomington for the early summer. Lemmons is working as a recruiter for ROTC, while Sykes is taking an intensive, 20-hour per week course in Turkish language.

With their college careers and ROTC training completed, Lemmons and Sykes feel prepared for the next responsibility. The past four years have been difficult, and both realize that their future path will only become more challenging.

But with their training and experience at Indiana, the two graduates are ready to succeed.

“You make some sacrifices. You give up some sleep and some social life, but it never felt like a burden,” Lemmons said. “I loved any military work I could do because it was meaningful and had a purpose.”

The Lemmons File

Who: Blake Lemmons

Age: 22

Parents: Matthew Lemmons and Robin Lemmons

High School: Center Grove High School (2011)

College: Graduated from Indiana University in May with a degree in Middle Eastern language

Plans: Will attend flight training at Fort Rucker in Alabama starting in September

The Sykes File

Who: Tyler Sykes

Age: 23

Home: Center Grove area

Parents: Kimberly and Tony Sykes

High school: Center Grove High School (2011)

College: Graduated from Indiana University in May with a degree in business management

Plans: Will attend the Basic Officer Leaders Course at Fort Benning in Georgia starting in November

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.