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Headshot of Rachel McCarthy in her ROTC uniform

Senior Rachel McCarthy led UNC’s Air Force ROTC detachment as wing commander this fall, but her path to becoming the highest-ranking cadet in ‘Blue Heaven’ wasn’t a traditional one.

Carolina was not part of senior Rachel McCarthy’s original plan.

The Rochester, New York, native grew up with her eyes on the United States Naval Academy, where her dad and brothers graduated. But as college application deadlines neared, she decided she wanted a more balanced college experience. With the encouragement of her mom, a UNC alumna, she applied to UNC.

It was a dreary, rainy day when she toured the campus. It didn’t matter. “After visiting and being around the students –– seeing how much pride they took in the school –– I knew that I wanted to come here,” McCarthy said.

During her first year, she took an international relations class that was cross-listed as a peace, war and defense course. It quickly became her favorite class of the semester, and she decided to pursue the major.

“I was talking to my parents about it. And they said, ‘You kind of need a plan because peace, war and defense is a very unique major,’” she said. “And that’s when my dad suggested that I should at least try out ROTC.”

She took her dad’s advice and joined UNC’s Air Force ROTC detachment 590, although she didn’t expect it to stick.

“I went in thinking, ‘OK, I just need to prove to myself that the military isn’t what I want to do,’” McCarthy said. “And then I ended up really liking it and being good at it.”

As a sophomore, McCarthy worked to fit the first two years of the military course curriculum into one year to catch up, and she also had to navigate the difficulties of enrolling during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But her greatest challenge came between her sophomore and junior year during field training in Mississippi, where she was evaluated on what she had learned in her early military courses.

“I actually didn’t do very well at field training. I was ranked low,” said McCarthy. Although the physical fitness assessment and leadership reaction courses proved challenging, she still passed and channeled her discouragement into a renewed fervor to be even better, both as a cadet and as a leader in charge of training younger cadets.

“I thought, ‘All right, that wasn’t my greatest moment,’” said McCarthy, reflecting on her field training score, “‘but I can train my cadets to be better than me.’”

She did that and more.

During her first semester back, the cadets she was responsible for won awards for the top academic performance and best physical training performance.

And McCarthy wasn’t done. She, along with every member of her class, ran for the highest leadership position: wing commander. The only woman in her class, she was excited about the prospect to lead, but it was up to her fellow officers to choose.

They chose her.

This year McCarthy has a full schedule. In addition to her responsibilities as the fall semester wing commander, she also works for Carolina Housing in the package center on campus, and she hopes to soak in all the traditions of being a senior. Her most anticipated item on her to-do list? Creating a time capsule filled with notes of encouragement to new cadets.

After graduation, McCarthy will serve in the Air Force for at least four years as part of her commitment to ROTC. She was chosen by the Air Force to serve as an intelligence officer, her first-choice position, and will complete her initial skills training at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, in 2023.

Her parting advice to any Tar Heel who is curious about a pathway to a military career?

“Just show up, try it out. Because you might end up really liking it. You just might end up being the wing commander.”

By Jess Abel ’19


Published in the Fall 2022 issue | Tar Heels Up Close

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