The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, proudly stands as the home of the Volunteers. The nickname originated when a large number of volunteers from the state of Tennessee fought in the War of 1812. But it wasn’t until the start of the Mexican–American War in 1846 that the state clinched its nickname, and it did so thanks to UT’s Rocky Top Battalion.
When the secretary of war called for 2,800 troops, 30,000 Tennessee volunteers responded—and UT’s First Infantry Company, known as the Dragoons, led the charge. This is the foundation of UT’s Army ROTC program. It’s one of the oldest military programs in the country, predating that of any other state university. Its rich history and proximity to home inspired high school senior Avery Burnham to pursue a scholarship to attend the university and commit to a life of service.
Building a legacy
Born and raised in Knoxville, Burnham grew up with a military influence and an appreciation for the service from an early age. Both his grandfather and uncle served in the Marine Corps and were two of his first role models. Although Burnham respected the military, he didn’t always aspire to commission. In middle school he wanted to become a police officer and thought JROTC would help him build the stamina and discipline to enroll in the academy. But he almost didn’t make it out of his first week. Starting out as a shy cadet, he was reluctant to cut his long punk-rock hair and commit to stepping out of his shell.
As Burnham spent more time training, his love for the military grew and he started to see a future in the army. Various service projects demonstrated the deep bonds and sense of unity that cadets, soldiers, and veterans experience. Each year, Burnham’s unit would run the Mountain Man Memorial March in Gatlinburg, raising money for families that have lost loved ones in combat. Participants wear the name of a fallen soldier on their own uniform to honor their sacrifice. During Burnham’s sophomore year, his unit wore the names of five graduates from his high school, South-Doyle, who had died in the line of duty. That moment made a big impact.
“A lot of people will look up to that professional athlete or a businessman, but I look up to the soldier,” he said. “They’re the ones in my eyes who should be getting all the big bucks. There’s just such an honor and prestige I feel with joining the service, and I want people to look up to me like that.”
Burnham quickly set himself apart from his fellow cadets, excelling in both the classroom and Army JROTC. He was named battalion commander his junior year, the first time in South-Doyle history a junior held that title. As a current senior, he’s earned the rank of cadet lieutenant colonel, and he serves as captain of the Academic Team and Exhibition Team and co-captain of the Rifle Team. Outside JROTC Burnham is just as impressive, leading as president of the National Honor Society and captain of the South-Doyle cross-country and long-distance track teams.
The senior army instructor for South-Doyle, Major Marcus Vartan, praised Burnham’s selflessness and his ability to support his fellow cadets and teammates. “Avery’s a brilliant young man who works hard and retains information so well. He always takes time to sit down with all of our cadets and teach them the right way, with patience and respect,” he said.
Vartan recently took over the role of senior army instructor from his predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Woodcock, who retired earlier this month after 17 years at South-Doyle. Colonel Woodcock praised Burnham as his top cadet in all his years of instructing, and Burnham credits a lot of his success to Woodcock’s guidance.
“Woodcock was always there and gave me opportunities to realize my potential. He was really encouraging, and I soaked all of that in,” Burnham said. “I grew up in a single mother household and my dad wasn’t around much, but Woodcock filled that role for me. I wouldn’t be the same person without him.”
A dream realized
All of Burnham’s hard work led to an unforgettable surprise that changed his life this past October. Earlier in the fall, Burnham had applied for the national high school ROTC scholarship. The highly competitive process attracts roughly 8,000 applicants yearly and requires review from four separate Army Lieutenant Colonels. Burnham applied with the hopes of using the scholarship to attend UT and join its renowned Army ROTC program.
Instead of an award letter, Burnham received a surprise Zoom call from Lieutenant Colonel Justin Howe, professor of military science and the director of Army ROTC at UT. Burnham was under the impression that something was wrong with his application. But not long into the call, Howe announced Burnham’s scholarship award and congratulated him on his many achievements.
“What struck me when I met Avery was his confidence, commitment, and character,” Howe said. “These are the qualities of successful servant leaders and what we teach our cadets.”
The surprise caught Burnham completely off guard. “I was speechless, and it was just an amazing feeling. I felt all that worry ease away and turn into excitement. And then it just clicked that now I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do—I get to serve,” Burnham said.
The four-year scholarship offered to Burnham covers tuition and mandatory fees and includes a book allowance and a monthly tax-free stipend. A three-year version of the scholarship offered at UT includes $12,000 to help offset the cost of the first year. Access and affordability are huge priorities for UT’s Army ROTC program; nearly 90 percent of its third- and fourth-year cadets are on scholarship.
“We’re looking for the broadest and most diverse population out there,” said Howe. “We are always very sensitive to financial needs, and we want to do everything we can to make sure cadets are successful.”
As Burnham prepares to begin a new journey at UT this fall, he’s looking forward to studying civil engineering and continuing his growth in ROTC.
The national high school scholarship is just one of many pathways to joining UT’s Army ROTC program. Current UT students and transfer students can enroll in an Army ROTC basic elective course if they have two or more years remaining toward their degree, and campus-based scholarships are available for students as they work through the program. Visit UT’s Army ROTC website to learn more about the program.
Maddie Stephens (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)