After serving her country for 24 years in the Air Force as a pilot, Col. Carmella Lawson is glad to be coming home to Blount County. She didn't expect it to become reality so quickly, however. Lawson was stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois when she found out in July that William Blount High School needed someone to take over its Air Force JROTC program due to the retirement of Col. Tom Shaughnessy. She had an interview on July 14. By the end of the month, she had submitted her retirement papers at Scott and stepped into the classroom to lead over 200 students this academic year.
ROOTS ARE RIGHT HERE
"I got to come home," she said with enthusiasm as she talked at William Blount's Ninth Grade Academy last week. "I went to Porter and my parents still live in Rockford in the same house I grew up in." She was born in St. Louis but moved here when she was 2. Her dad is retired Chief Master Sgt. George Vitzthum, who served as the second commandant of the Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base. Lawson's mom is Carole Vitzthum. Lawson graduated from Heritage High School in 1985, so having a graduate of a Blount County school back here to lead this program generated lots of good vibes. But she's also getting attention for another reason. Lawson is the first female to lead the JROTC program here in Blount County.
Master Sgt. Brian Kaufman, who is also at William Blount, said she might be the first female in the state of Tennessee to lead an Air Force JROTC program. Calls to verify that weren't returned late last week. Lawson isn't focused on that. This Air Force pilot, who spent time in Japan and Germany and saw more than 70 countries, is now putting what she knows into these students, who may or may not end up in the military.
THE MAIN GOAL
What they decide to do isn't as important as getting them ready to do it, Lawson said. "Not all of them are looking at military careers," she said. "The mission of ROTC is not to recruit. There is absolutely no military obligation and we are not here to recruit. We are here to develop citizens of character." The program is cadet-led, which helps develop leadership qualities and responsibility in these teenagers, Lawson said. They have to come up with six goals this year and two of them must be community related. Raising money for the Ronald McDonald House and also for a digital marquee at William Blount are two of the projects they have this year. In addition, these students are responsible for the Veterans Day program at William Blount, for raising and lowering the flag each day, for campus beautification, in addition to learning the drills and ceremonies they must carry out. Then there is all of that physical fitness to challenge them. Students who take JROTC can use it for their wellness credit.
A LONG HISTORY
Lawson was in ROTC both as a high school student and also at the University of Tennessee, where she earned a degree in engineering science and mechanics. But she never used that degree since she went immediately from college into pilot training for the Air Force. Attention was focused on Lawson back in 1989 when she graduated from UT. She was the first female from there to go to pilot training. Local news agencies reported on the huge accomplishment.
Over the course of the academic year, Lawson will have 235 students in JROTC. She said that includes close to 100 freshmen. She splits her time between the main WBHS campus and the Ninth Grade Academy. She met husband Larry while they were both at UT. They have three children. Lawson is one of those moms who joins the PTO, volunteers as a Scout leader and also with church youth groups. "I love kids," she said. As for being a role model for girls because of what she's accomplished, Lawson said she hopes they see what's possible with hard work and determination. That goes for both genders. "I don't think about the gender thing that much," Lawson said. "For me, it's about being able to do your job. I just try to be good at what I do."
A GREAT FIT
Master Sgt. Kaufman said Lawson has brought a lot of energy to this program and the students are reacting to her in a very positive way. She is fitting right in, he said. Jennifer Moore is assistant principal at William Blount. She said this has been a great hire for the county. "We are thrilled to have Col. Lawson join our staff and lead our AFJROTC program," she said. "Her record of accomplishments in the Air Force is extremely impressive and her enthusiasm and commitment to excellence will ensure that our ROTC will remain in high regard and continue to set the standard for excellence in Tennessee." It seems Lawson is right where she's supposed to be. "Teaching kids was actually something I have wanted to do," Lawson said. She took retirement preparation classes in the Air Force and was told to write down her post-retirement dream job. "My dream job was JROTC instructor. I emailed that instructor and said, Guess what? I got my dream job."
BY MELANIE TUCKER - The Daily Times