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Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Even at 13 years old, Isaac Duh Nei Lian knew what he wanted to do with his life.
He told a Jacksonville, Florida, television news team, “I want to be an engineer and a soldier," during its coverage of Duval County Public Schools' English for Speakers of Other Languages program.
Duh Nei Lian, who later moved to Phoenix with his family, took that next step to becoming a soldier Friday on the Grand Canyon University Quad. He was among nine cadets appointed to lead enlisted personnel as second lieutenants in the Army during the University’s Army ROTC Thunder Battalion Commissioning Ceremony. It’s when cadets recite the Oath of Commissioned Officers, accept the gold-bar rank on their uniform during a pinning ceremony and receive their first salute to welcome them as new lieutenants in the Officer Corps.
It hasn’t been a smooth road for Duh Nei Lian, a refugee from Myanmar (formerly Burma). When his family immigrated to the United States, religious and ethnic tensions were simmering in his home country. Arriving here at 11 years old, he escaped those tensions, but he discovered new ones as he worked hard to adapt to a new culture and language.
Joining the Army is his way to give back to the country that has provided him and his family so much hope.
“I always wanted to be in the Army since I was a kid,” he said, as family and friends congratulated him and his fellow newly commissioned officers. “This is my privilege to give back to the country. This country has provided me with so many opportunities. It has provided me education, freedom.”
What he has learned the most?
“Service, which I’m very interested in, and also leadership, something I had to develop,” said Duh Nie Lian, who earned his degree in Christian studies and will serve in the infantry.
His grandmother, dressed in Burmese attire, stood next to him and smiled, as did his pastor and other family members, including his father, Simon Sawn Lung.
“We’re very proud of him,” said Lung, whose own grandfather served in the military in Burma. The biggest change he has seen in his son, he said, is how much he has matured during his time at GCU. “He’s very responsible.”
That kind of family support wasn’t what speaker retired Maj. Sven “Sveno” Olson received when he told his parents he felt God calling him to join the military: “My mother’s response surprised me, ‘Um, no, I don’t think God told you that.' My dad’s response even surprised me more – not only, ‘No, we’re not signing anything to allow you to join the military, but 'hell no, you’re not joining the military.' … When I commissioned, they weren’t there.”
It wasn’t until he was deployed to Iraq that he finally felt his family's support. His parents, who never attended a military graduation or promotion, gave him a camera and a prayer ring.
They told him, “Take pictures of what you see and send it to us. We don’t want to just see it on the news. Just take pictures and tell us stories.”
“That camera did two incredible things,” said Olson, who also teaches at GCU and is an officer for the Department of State. “It allowed my family to see what I see through that lens … and I discovered I had a gift for photography.”
The photos Olson took in Iraq were distributed by the Department of Defense and ended up on shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Today.”
Olson also spoke about one of his most difficult challenges. He emerged from a seven-day coma after a scuba diving accident and learned that he was a blind quadriplegic.
He met that news with optimism, he said, putting on his full “Sveno-shine” for the doctors. He said his dad was legally blind and was one of the first people doctors experimented on with laser surgery, which resulted in perfect vision at age 55.
His dad, he said, would teach him everything he needed to know about being blind and shared one of his favorite quotes from his hero, Gen. Colin Powell: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
“I wasn’t upset for a fraction of a second. I actually had this incredible sense of peace that just washed through my body,” Olson said.
Doctors gave him no hope of recovery, but over the next seven months, he made a full recovery. During that time, he got another message from God – to work with youth. That is what he dedicates himself to at GCU.
He told the cadets, “I want you to be your best for the world. When you are your best for the world, you are serving. … You’ve proven yourselves worthy of this gold bar, Now prove to everyone here who believed in you up to this moment that they were right to believe in you.”
Unlike Olson, whose family did not support him early in his career, Gaige Graham attended Friday’s commissioning ceremony supported by 35 family members and friends.
Graham, named the Honors College’s Outstanding Senior of the Year, is the first in his family, along with his brother, to serve in the military.
“I always wanted to serve, and I wanted to get my law degree. The Army gave me an opportunity to serve and be a lawyer.”
The toughest part of his journey in the ROTC – it stands for Reserve Officers' Training Corps – was going to Advanced Camp, a 35-day, notoriously rigorous training camp at Fort Knox, Kentucky, during which cadets are mentally and physically tested.
And then there was the daily physical training at GCU, nestled between sleep and his classes.
“We start PT at 5:30 every morning. That’s pretty tough when you do that four and five times a week and have to go to class right after,” said Graham, who graduated with his bachelor’s in government and is headed to law school at the University of Wyoming. He plans to serve in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Graham spent part of his time at GCU as a student worker for ROTC Coordinator Trish Shipley, who called Graham “one of her sons” and gave him a compass with Proverbs 3:6 engraved on it: "In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths."
She cried during the commissioning ceremony, knowing Graham and the other newly commissioned officers’ journey has just begun.
“My military career was amazing. I know these students are going to embark on something incredible. I know the caliber of young people they are,” she said. “Their faith is going to drive them.”
The following GCU graduates became 2nd lieutenants in the Army:
Isaac Duh Nei Lian, Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies with an Emphasis in Philosophy, active duty, infantry
Gaige Graham, BA in Government with an Emphasis in Legal Studies, Army Educational Delay Program to attend the University of Wyoming College of Law with plans to serve in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps
Sara Oropesa, Bachelor of Science in Health Care Administration, active duty, ordnance
Maria Rosales, BS in Exercise Science with an Emphasis in Sports Performance and a double minor in Psychology and Army ROTC, active duty, field artillery
Kristian Swiney, BS in Business Administration, active duty, signal
Justin Hegna, BS in Finance and Economics, active duty, signal with a detail in armor
Victor Karimov, BS in Justice Studies, active duty, medical services to lead a forward resuscitative surgical detachment
Wesley Carey, BS in Business Management, active duty, signal with a detail in armor
Naithien Detty, BS in Applied Management, quartermaster
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.