VERMILLION, S.D. (KELO) – This past Memorial Day, we took time to remember the brave individuals who gave their lives to defend our country. A nationally recognized ROTC program in South Dakota is preparing the future generation for that same duty.

Cadet Colby Rickford joined USD’s Army ROTC two years ago.

“To protect people at home, and in our country, I think that’s a great honor, so it’s a privilege for me,” Rickford said.

He’s currently a National Guard Soldier from Gayville, South Dakota.

“He’s just a great student, great community leader and going to be a great asset to the South Dakota National Guard,” Wencel said.

Photo courtesy of University of South Dakota ROTC

He is just one of thousands of cadets who have come through and built on USD’s Army ROTC Program’s 100 year history. Recently the program ranked 37th on the National Order of Merit List.

“We’re each ranked on a national level, and that kind of comprises the physical fitness scores, the GPA of all of our cadets, and then all of our evaluation scores,” Wencel said.

Assistant Professor of Military Science, Douglas Wencil, says last year they ranked 137th on the list. He says they jumped significantly despite being considered ‘under-strength.’

“Just showing that, ‘Hey, we’re one of the top 15% in the nation,’ hopefully brings a few more cadets in the program,” Wencil said.

Cadet Rickford says his time in the program, while challenging, is ultimately rewarding.

“You have PT in the mornings, which doesn’t really affect your time for school; you can still make it to class on time, you get a good workout in the morning. We have FTX’s that we go to once a semester those are really nice, you get a lot of experience and training there so you’re really prepared for what you’re going to do after you graduate and become a commissioned officer,” Rickford said.

“I see them every day: we come in and we do PT three times a week, and they put in hard work during PT,” Rivera said.

Cadets in the program receive guidance from experienced officers like Nicholas Rivera.

“Then they come in the classroom and work hard in the classroom and then when we go do our field training exercises they’re always leading from the front and working hard,” Rivera said.

Rivera has been serving in the Army for 18 years.

“I’ve been deployed to Afghanistan where I’ve been on a combat outpost, shooting artillery in support of our infantry brothers and sisters out there, and I’ve also been to Germany working in a rotational unit and working with our NATO allies and stuff like that,” Rivera said.

On campus, he serves as the program’s Senior Military Science Instructor.

Photo courtesy of University of South Dakota ROTC

“It allows me to pass on some of that knowledge and experience that I’ve had over my 18 years of being in the Army to that next generation of leaders that we’re trying to develop here,” Rivera said.

And help build up the cadets to work as a team. Rickford says his class has become like a family.

“There’s a lot of people you can depend on and you grow to know and they become friends for life and they’ll do anything for you and you’ll do anything for them,” Rickford said.

Recruitment is also key to growing a strong program. Professor of Military Science Adam Kirschling says one of their main goals is setting cadets up for success in their future military careers.

“It just comes down to being an opportunity – even if you’re not sure you want to be in ROTC and contract to be committed as a second lieutenant. Still come out as a freshman; USD actually has a really nice program where they’ll offer a half room just to do MS one year your freshman year with no obligations to contract with the Army,” Kirschling said.

Photo courtesy of University of South Dakota ROTC

Cadet Rickford recently became a contracted Cadet. This comes with a three year scholarship and he enters the Army as an Officer upon graduation. He says he plans to stick around after graduation and keep rising in the ranks.

“Hopefully to Colonel – Lieutenant Colonel, maybe. We’ll see how it goes,” Rickford said.

And join those brave individuals who put their lives on the line to defend our country every day.

“It’s duty to your country. It’s duty to yourself. It’s an opportunity, really to give back to what the United States has given to its people, so it comes down to loyalty: it’s an opportunity for leadership, and our motto is ‘Leadership in excellence,’ and that’s what we’re looking to seek,” Kirschling said.