It was a hero’s welcome and celebration for a Bay Ridge man.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 21-year-old Gavin Thurlow, who completed his Yale’s Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program and came out with the rank of second lieutenant, couldn’t have his ceremony at the historic Battell Chapel.
However, friends, family, neighbors and elected officials gathered outside of his Bay Ridge home on 71st Street for the official Yale Air Force and Naval ROTC Joint Military Commissioning Ceremony on Zoom.
“The ROTC is a four-year commissioning program,” Thurlow said. “After going through certain levels of training, I come out and I am the rank of second lieutenant. That’s pretty much the endgame of the whole commissioning program.
“I was in the Yale ROTC Program, however I attended Sacred Heart University. It’s called a cross-town program where they accept students from other schools. I did have to apply to it, then I was accepted and able to start.”
Despite his planned ceremony not taking place, Thurlow said that spending the day in his home neighborhood was a special alternative.
“That was absolutely the best route I could’ve taken for it by a long shot,” he said. “The reality is that when you are at conditioning and you have this big ceremony in a chapel. all students doing the same thing as you, that’s an experience that’s hard to replace.”
Thurlow then came up with the idea of a celebration from his home during the virtual ceremony.
“My mom jumped at the idea and said we should do it outside and tell the neighbors to come out and see,” he said. “I’ve lived on this block my whole life. My grandmother grew up on this block and my mom was raised in this house that I was raised in. To be here as the third generation of my family on the block and for them to be able to see it, there’s nothing that you can complain about. It was great. It wasn’t the ceremony that I expected, but to still have that experience where people can join in and celebrate it, there’s nothing better than that.”
Councilmember Justin Brannan showed up at the ceremony with his mother Mary Brannan, who taught Thurlow all the way back to pre-kindergarten.
“That was funny,” Thurlow said. “Originally, I reached out to Max Rose. He’s a veteran. I met him before. I invited him. My mom said you should also invite Justin Brannan. And then I realized, wow, he’s the son of my preschool teacher. I asked him right away if he wanted to come to the ceremony and watch me join the Air Force and it would be really cool. He replied right away saying that he’d be coming and that he’d be bringing his mom.”
“My mom taught Gavin in Pre-K at Our Lady of Angels,” Brannan told this paper. “Now he’s graduating from Yale as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force! This is such a crazy time – so getting to see Gavin graduate from Yale right there in front of the house he grew up in was very, very cool. For a minute, things felt normal again. It was a big day for Gavin and his family – but also a big day for Bay Ridge. Everyone is so proud of him and the man he has become. And he’s just getting started!”
U.S. Rep. Max Rose also showed up at Thurlow’s home after the ceremony and talked to him and his brother, who will go through ROTC too.
“Gavin is a real inspiration and it was my honor to join him and his family for such a milestone in his life,” Rose told this paper. “He’s dedicated himself to serve our nation, and for that we will forever be grateful.”
Thurlow was also thrilled to have his family with him.
“It was mainly people on the block and a family ceremony,” he said. “My grandpa is a Vietnam veteran. My uncle is a Desert Storm veteran. I’m the third generation of my family to be a part of the armed forces as well. To have my grandfather out here and still be able to do the ceremony and have him see me continue this tradition of service to this country was a privilege to have and an experience I’ll never forget.
“It’s such a unique time. This is something that hasn’t happened. To be in the neighborhood and still be able to have the ceremony and people watch it alongside my family in such a tight-knit caring community, this was the pinnacle of that. Times aren’t perfect but we are still going to do everything we can.”
Thurlow was still a bit disappointed to miss out on the historic ceremony.
“Yale’s tradition of having people graduate in the Battell Chapel in the school has been a tradition for 100 years since ROTC started in World War I,” he explained. “It was upsetting for us to miss out on that. It’s something a lot of us look at and something we dreamed about for years. It was tough to miss out on that.
“For this program, it’s difficult. It’s four years of waking up early, taking time out of your college schedule and doing something that is so unlike other students. To go through this program and have to go through these experiences and not be able to be at Yale celebrating is difficult. I definitely miss my friends.”
Although it had been a difficult road, the feeling of accomplishment was exciting for Thurlow.
“While I was at school, I was balancing doing Division 1 track and field and cross country while also working and doing ROTC at the same time so to balance all of those and come out on the other side of it and be at the point that I always wanted to be was truly incredible. There’s no other way to describe it for me.”
Trying to help and be a part of a greater cause has always come naturally to Thurlow, thanks to his family.
“I come from a family of firefighters and veterans, so growing up here in Bay Ridge in a post-9/11 world, there’s a certain sense in my family that we want to jump in and help,” he explained. “Growing up, that was always a big feeling I had, whether it was seeing something on the street or someone that needed help, seeing where I could volunteer when in high school. It just felt like the right next step to go on and see if I could do something with my education where I can step in and help in a world where there’s always a mission.”
Thurlow also credited Xaverian High School, from which he graduated in 2016, as an inspiration.
“It was really important in my life and development,” he said. “Coming from a Catholic family, it offers you the chance to be in an environment where it’s similar to where you’re growing up and give Catholic teachings. It offers you a comfortable environment, but in that environment that’s where your ideas on everything are pushed. How much the teachers want to help you and be a part of your life is important. Those people showing me how much of a difference you can make went a long way. I realized I could bring my experiences to other people.”
This September, Thurlow will be working as a contract specialist in Colorado Springs.