Lieutenant, at last

UND ROTC cadet commander makes the grade after inauspicious beginning to military career

Jake Wessling

Last Saturday was a special day of achievements for 2nd Lt. Jake Wessling (above), who was commissioned as an Army officer in the morning and graduated with his mechanical engineering degree in the afternoon. However, over the span of five years as a student-soldier in UND’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps, there were days that either milestone could have been considered a long shot. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Jake Wessling answered his first subordinate salute as an Army officer on Saturday.

Later the same day, he shook hands with UND President Kennedy after receiving his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

It was a day of achievements for the freshly minted second lieutenant. However, over the span of five years as a student-soldier in UND’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps, there were days that either milestone could have been considered a longshot.

In fact, Wessling’s quest to become a military officer was nearly over before it started after he suffered a severe case of rhabdomyolysis, or heat exhaustion, his freshman year. The military takes heat-stress injuries among its officer candidates seriously, to the point that a soldier may be ineligible to commission.

A challenging academic discipline in mechanical engineering also took its toll on Wessling, so much he considered quitting the major his sophomore year.

But Wessling, a native of Maple Grove, Minn., who played varsity football on the defensive line and raced motocross bikes as a kid, persevered in both cases. He moved up the ROTC ranks to become UND’s battalion cadet commander this past semester, and graduated with a 3.0 grade point average in mechanical engineering.

Jake Wessling

Karnie and David Wessling pin second lieutenant rank to the dress uniform of their son, 2nd Lt. Jake Wessling, during a commissioning ceremony Saturday morning at the UND ROTC Armory. Jake was among 16 Army cadets commissioned the same day. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Long time coming

On Saturday, Wessling joined 15 other UND Army cadets at a commissioning ceremony on the drill floor of the UND Armory. There, his mother and father, Karnie and David, pinned second lieutenant bars on his dress uniform lapels.

“It’s been a longtime in coming,” Wessling said. “I’ve been fortunate to have great opportunities for leadership here among my peers, going back to my freshman year.”

The young cadet’s freshman year started out with all the promise you might expect from a motivated individual who dreamed of being a leader of soldiers.

Then, in April 2014, while competing in an ROTC “Ranger Buddy” skills competition at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, the path suddenly got a lot harder.

“We were excited and we wanted to compete,” Wessling said about himself and his teammates during the last event of the day, a nearly 11-mile rucksack march. “We felt great and we were running by people and were doing really well.

“It was the about the last mile from the finish line that I started to shut down – but I kept pushing.”

Jared Glass and Jake Wessling

Sgt. 1st Class Jared Glass (left) shakes hands with 2nd Lt. Jake Wessling after offering the new officer a first salute. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Fine line

Wessling was overheating. About 100 yards from the finish, he started losing some brain function; he dropped, tried to get up again and dropped again.

It was determined that his body temperature, at the time, was  104 degrees, just three degrees shy of life-threatening heat stroke and the likelihood of severe brain damage.

He would spend the next two days in the hospital with his family by his side.

“I blame myself for drinking too much water and flushing out my system,” Wessling said. “It happened, I recovered as quickly as I could and I certainly learned from it.”

But the military wasn’t as quick to move on, Wessling explained.

Higher U.S. Amy medical commands requested more information about Wessling’s ordeal because there’s such a fine line between heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

“If I would have had heat stroke, I would have been done,” he said. “I would not even have gotten the chance to commission – and maybe not get into the military.”

UND Army ROTC Ranger Challenge championship team 2017

This past fall, Wessling (above center) captained UND’s Ranger Challenge team that captured the title as the best battalion in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota for the first time since 2012. He’s joined in the picture by teammates and UND Army ROTC support staff (back row, left to right): Sgt. 1st Class Jared Glass; Cole Marshall, freshman; John Kavanagh, freshman; Justin Mayer, junior; Joe Gutoske, junior; Tanner Aho, sophomore; Jared Coil, junior; and Lt. Col. Jason Murphy, professor of military science. (Front): Aliza Deming, top senior; Ben Nelson, senior and 8th-ranked cadet in nation; Wessling, senior captain; Nicole Gannucci, sophomore; and (kneeling) Colten Demant, freshman.

Home support

Wessling credits local physicians, such as Dr. Charles Christianson at the UND Family Practice Center, and other local specialists, for helping him fully recover and provide documentation that proved his body temperature never rose to a level that put him at risk for brain disease.

Wessling also thanks the UND ROTC staff for their constant support and “can-do” attitude through it all.

“It was bad – don’t get me wrong,” Wessling said. “I just had a really severe case of heat exhaustion.”

Once cleared to resume ROTC activities, Wessling never looked back.

This past fall, Wessling captained UND’s Ranger Challenge team that captured the title as the best battalion in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota for the first time since 2012.

“That was an amazing experience,” he said.

Duty calls

As important as the military training has been for Wessling, he equally appreciates his time in the classroom. Despite challenges, Wessling’s drive to succeed and assistance from past and present mechanical engineering faculty advisors, such as Peter Letvin, Matthew Cavalli and Jeremiah Neubert, as well as senior student mentors, helped him get through.

Wessling’s hard work in the classroom was rewarded recently when his interdisciplinary team of student engineers took first place out of 90 projects senior engineering design projects. He teamed with Rooney Villegas (mechanical engineer), Justin Nelson (electrical engineering) and Zeinab El-Rewini (computer science) on the project.

“I got the sense here that they don’t just teach engineering,” Wessling said. “They teach leadership, too, and what it is to be a person and a leaders outside of an educational setting.”

Wessling now has his sights set on his first military assignment in July, when he goes to Ft. Sill, Okla., for field artillery officer training. After that, he’ll be sent to Ft. Drum, N.Y., to serve with the 10th Mountain Division.

“I’ve changed for the better since I’ve been here at UND,” he said. “I’m not the perfect soldier or the perfect student but that’s okay, because it’s the mistakes that have helped me grow.”