Newly commissioned 2nd Lt. Walter Brinker expected a few big moments as he completed his time as a Texas State University student and Army ROTC cadet. He was on track to graduate from the College of Liberal Arts with a degree in Spanish and complete his officer's training.
Just over a month before graduation, however, he was surprised to be honored as one of the top Army cadets in the nation with the George C. Marshall Award.
"I didn't really appreciate how big it was until I met the other cadets (receiving the award)," Brinker said. "They were so brilliant and talented, I felt like I didn't deserve to be there, honestly. Meeting these cadets … you're seeing the future leadership of the Army. It's pretty humbling."
Out of 35,000 cadets nationwide, about 300 cadets are invited to the prestigious George C. Marshall Awards and Leadership Seminar each year. The top 15, including then-Cadet Brinker, are recognized as the best of the best. The award winners are selected for their outstanding leadership, scholarship and physical fitness.
Lt. Col. James Adams, professor of military science, said Texas State cadets have been selected for the seminar before, but Brinker is the first to earn top honors.
"Lt. Brinker is unique in the best sense of the word. His leadership, his judgment is exceptional," Adams said. "He's been a leader by example for the other cadets since he arrived. Since winning the award, if possible, I've been even more impressed with him."
Wearing a soldier's uniform was always part of the plan for Brinker. He was still in high school in Katy, Texas, when he decided to join the Army. Both his grandfathers served in the military, as well as his dad and an older brother.
"My parents literally had to sign me away. They had to sign a waiver allowing me to enlist at 17," Brinker said. "I didn't want to wait. I just wanted to get to it."
After eight years in uniform, he wanted to go to college and pursue an officer's commission to continue his military career. He applied to the Army's Green to Gold Active Duty Option Program, which was created to give enlisted soldiers a chance to achieve those precise goals.
"Once you're accepted, you get a scholarship and you're discharged from active duty to enroll in school full time," Brinker said.
At first, Texas State wasn't part of his plan, but after visiting a high school friend and fellow veteran on campus he knew he had found a new home.
"You hate to sound cheesy, but once I got here, I fell in love with the place. This campus is beautiful," Brinker said. "I've made great friends here; I met my girlfriend here. Texas State will always have a place in my heart."
Brinker had served three overseas tours as a special forces engineer, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, before he arrived on campus. Adams said Brinker's experience was a tremendous asset for the other cadets, especially since Brinker himself never presumed his prior service gave him an advantage or superior position.
"Anytime I was asked to share something from my experience, I was happy to, but the other cadets really embraced me as one group," Brinker said. "Honestly, I have to say I probably learned more from them than they learned from me."
Originally interested in studying political science, he changed his major to Spanish after taking one course to fulfill his foreign language requirement.
"I've never had anything less than a positive interaction with any of the professors in the Spanish program. Everybody here is invested in your success," Brinker said.
A week after graduation, the 2015 Texas State cadet cadre received their commissions. The retired officer who administered the oath of duty to Brinker was his dad, Lt. Col. Walt Brinker.
"Immense pride. I just feel immense pride to be here today," Lt. Col. Brinker said after uncovering the insignia on his son's uniform. Second Lt. Brinker joined his older brother and a younger brother in the officers' ranks.
The next stop for 2nd Lt. Brinker is Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he will serve as an instructor at an ROTC training course over the summer.
Then he's headed to the primary base for Army aviation, Fort Rucker, Alabama, to begin helicopter pilot training. The idea of becoming a pilot was sparked by his previous experiences overseas.
"In three tours of duty, I just gained a deep appreciation for the helicopters crews, the work they do and the role they play. They are mission essential for just about everything we do over there," he said.
Once he finishes flight school, he will be looking forward to the next assignment. Texas State was a great launching point to begin the next phase of his career, but his ultimate ambition is simply to continue serving his country.
"I've never really considered a career path that doesn't include the Army," Brinker said. "It's all I've ever wanted to do."