Earlier this year, Michelle Sieminski, of Shinnston, W.Va., an active guard member; Zachary Stickley, of Keyser, W.Va., a former substitute teacher; and Michael Garcia, of Fairmont, W.Va., a former Mountaineer mascot, were commissioned as second lieutenants in the West Virginia Army National Guard after completing Officer Candidate School.
“It is a pretty significant achievement,” said Jerry Wood, director of the WVU Center for Veteran, Military and Family Programs. “These three newly commissioned lieutenants are just one example of the talent that West Virginia University has and creates.”
Officer Candidate School, or OCS, is an option for graduates from four-year colleges or universities plus enlisted service members transitioning into officer roles and Direct Commission Officers with specialized skills and professional degrees. For the U.S. Army, OCS is a relatively small source of officers, with nine percent coming from OCS and the rest coming directly from ROTC, a service academy, direct appointment or other source.
“It’s extremely competitive,” Wood said. “You have to clearly be among the top of your peer group to get selected for the program and then you go through a pretty rigorous training program.”
The officers trained weekends through 15 months during the COVID-19 pandemic and were commissioned in August at Camp Dawson in Kingwood, W.Va.
“West Virginia has a proud history of service to our state and nation that predates our statehood. We carry forward that proud legacy of service thanks to the men and women who continue to raise their right hand and choose to be members of our organization,” said Brig. Gen. William E. Crane, West Virginia National Guard’s adjutant general.
“The last two years of my life, I’ve just felt like it’s been nonstop — just foot on the pedal, going full speed,” Sieminski said. The 26-year-old, who was adopted from Venezuela along with her two sisters in 2001, came to the U.S. right before she turned 7 and grew up in Charles Town.
Sieminski, BA ’17, Interpersonal Communication and Spanish, enlisted in the National Guard after her freshman year at WVU. “It’s just something that I always wanted to do,” she said.
She missed a semester for basic training in the spring of 2015, but was able to catch up on her classes and graduate on time while serving with the 154th Military Police Company out of Moundsville. In March 2019, Sieminski was stationed in Arizona where she worked with U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of Operation Guardian Support in 2018 when guard members were assigned to assist border patrol with immigration enforcement.
“That was actually one of the best orders I’ve ever taken and, if I could do it again, I definitely would,” Sieminski said. “I learned a lot about the cartels, smuggling across the border — smuggling drugs, smuggling people — all of it. It was just really interesting. That was back when Border Patrol was kind of big in the news and it was interesting for me to see what was being said and what was actually happening.”
Michelle Sieminski had already served in the military police and in a unit supporting Customs and Border Patrol before starting officer candidate school.
When she returned to West Virginia, the 154th had been disbanded. Sieminski was briefly attached to another unit before opting for OCS while working on her healthcare MBA at WVU.
“I knew I wanted to do more with my military career, especially if I decided to stay in for the full 20 years,” she said. “It’s one weekend a month. You don’t have to be away from your family for too long and it’s something that you can do alongside your civilian life and your family life.”
She recently started a new job as office manager for Behavioral Health — Community Care in Bridgeport. Eventually, she wants to open her own businesses, including a gym, and continue counseling veterans. Sieminski has a daughter, Harper, 3.
“I just knew that I did not want to come home and tell her that I didn’t make it or that I didn’t try hard enough – I didn’t push myself hard enough,” she said. “I just want her to know, and I tell her all the time, ‘You can do anything if you put your mind to it. There are absolutely no limitations, nothing you cannot accomplish as long as you work hard for it.’”
“If it’s what you want, you’ve got to work for it.”
The Right Stuff
Stickley, BA ’18, History, who turns 25 this month, went to the Morgantown campus after earning an Associate of Arts degree at WVU Potomac State College in Keyser. With his history degree, he originally planned to become a teacher but he quickly realized that was not what he wanted.
His family had military history, his dad a captain in the U.S. Air Force and his grandfather a U.S. Army veteran. While looking into joining the National Guard, Stickley learned about OCS, a program that “really pushes you on how to become a leader.” He went directly from basic training in January 2020 to OCS starting in August 2020.
These new officers in the West Virginia Army National Guard were commissioned during an August ceremony at Camp Dawson in Preston County, W.Va.: (From left) 2nd Lt. Michael Garcia, 2nd Lt. Michelle Sieminski, 2nd Lt. Zachary Stickley along with 2nd Lt. Alexander Baron. (Photo courtesy West Virginia National Guard)
“I never thought about quitting once,” he said. “It was definitely challenging at first, coming straight out of basic training and then being side-by-side with people who had been in the military for 16-plus years. That was definitely a little bit of a culture shock.”
Stickley said he would eventually like to make captain in the West Virginia Army National Guard and attend graduate school. In his civilian life, he works full-time at Jennings Randolph Lake.
“I’ve got a lot of long-term goals that the military will definitely help me accomplish,” he said.
Chasing a Challenge
Garcia has already gone onto achieve what he never expected. Take being the Mountaineer mascot.
“I never really had a beard. I’m blond. I never really thought I’d even be able to grow a beard,” said Garcia, BA ’15, Political Science, MPA ’17.
But he did and he applied himself to the task of representing 30,000 students.
“I thought, ‘This is, at least, going to challenge me to build up my resume a little bit and I’ll give it a go,’” he said. “I never thought I had a shot. If you talk to anybody that knew me from high school or even my freshman year, I was not a very outgoing person. This was kind of my way of trying to become more outgoing.”
Michael Garcia was the Mountaineer mascot from 2014-16.
Garcia, now 28, was selected as the 63rd Mountaineer, serving 2014-16. After graduation, Garcia was hired to work as a regional coordinator for U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a job he still holds.
“When I was trying out to be the Mountaineer, I think I had a purpose in life and, when I first started this job, I think I had a lot of purpose, too, but I kind of hit a rut and my way of getting out of that rut was joining the National Guard,” Garcia said.
His grandfathers were Army and Navy veterans and once he learned more about the military, OCS seemed like the best option for him. His OCS training began immediately after his completion of basic training, which he started in March 2020.
“I want to be useful,” Garcia said. “Officer Candidate School was a good way for me to push myself.”
Garcia sees some parallels between military life and college life.
“There’s a camaraderie in the military where you have people with shared stories, shared backgrounds. Everybody that’s gone through the Army has gone to basic training, so there’s a shared experience there,” Garcia said.
“It’s kind of similar to being at WVU. Everybody’s been to a football game, everyone’s been to similar places in the area on campus, and I think that’s kind of cool.”
While Garcia was training, he and his wife, Emily, welcomed their child, Mateo, who was born earlier this year.
“I’ve always felt, when I was in college, I was at my best when I was trying to be the Mountaineer because it was something that I really tried to work for, it wasn’t something I think I had any natural talent towards at all,” Garcia said.
“I worked hard for it and I felt like I was a better person because of it, and I think, in the last two years, being able to challenge myself in a new way, I think it always brings out the best in me and the Army’s done that. I can say that with confidence.”
Jerry Wood, director of the WVU Center for Veteran, Military and Family Programs, says that search for purpose and finding it in the military is something he hears often.
“So many young men and women enter into our military because of that desire to serve something other than themselves and, through that in essence it’s that purpose — ‘What am I here to do?’” Wood said. “By entering the military service, they fulfill that need of serving others and having a meaningful purpose in their life.”
A Parkersburg, W.Va., native, Wood retired from the U.S. Army in 2017, more than 30 years after enlisting. “My life’s mission is to support veterans and their families,” he said.
WVU honors and supports veterans and active duty service members in many ways, primarily through the Mountaineer Bunker. Supports include priority registration for veterans choosing classes, exclusive study rooms and lounges, tutoring services, the Veterans Club, and a Veterans Transition course, including an Adventure WV trip. Ahead of Veterans Day, WVU honored members of the military on Nov. 6 at Milan Puskar Stadium during Military Appreciation Day, presented by GoMart, when the Mountaineers hosted Oklahoma State.
Sieminski said in pursuit of her purpose she has found a lot of backing from people like Wood at WVU.
“I loved being able to be a citizen-solider and being able to do my school work and not have the military interfere with that but, then at the same time, being able to have WVU be so supportive when it did come to, ‘Hey, I have training this weekend and I have training this week when I have homework due or an exam,’” Sieminski said.
As a new officer, Sieminski was initially attached to the 115th Engineer Company out of Clarksburg before moving to the 150th Calvary Regiment as a medical officer.
Both Stickley and Garcia have been assigned to the 601st Engineering Support Company in Buckhannon and are scheduled to begin the Basic Officer Leadership Course, the next step in their military training, in early 2022.
Sieminski reflects on the richness of her experience in the National Guard.
“The Guard has given me a ton of opportunities — both education and civilian side — as well as military opportunities. It is a really close-knit community and there are just so many opportunities that are there if you do take that route,” she said.
“I don’t think I’d have half of what I have now, the opportunities that I have now, if I hadn’t enlisted.”