Subscribe to get tough, fair journalism seven days a week.
Subscribe today

A purpose-driven grad

Valedictorian Tristan Briggs receives his medal at McNary High School's commencement ceremony Friday, June 6. He's flanked by co-valedictorians Katharine Brown and Alyssa Andretta. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)
Valedictorian Tristan Briggs receives his medal at McNary High School’s commencement ceremony Friday, June 6. He’s flanked by co-valedictorians Katharine Brown and Alyssa Andretta. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

AFJROTC Lt. Col. Tristan Briggs’ sense of purpose permeates most things he sets his mind to.

It’s one of many reasons he takes such pride in the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Program’s color guard, and chose it over other options like the rifle team.

“I respect those things, but I leave it to them. I prefer the more purpose-driven activities. The color guard has a more subtle purpose, but it’s there,” Briggs said.

One of the other reasons is he takes pride in the color guard is that he helped build the team from the ground up when the JROTC program settled into a new home on the McNary High School campus two years ago. Briggs graduated Friday, June 6, as a valedictorian. He’s headed to the U.S. Air Force Academy this summer on a full academic scholarship.

“Tristan came into the program already focused on the goal of making it to the academy. All we did was help him achieve that goal by providing him opportunities to develop himself as a leader, a community servant and citizen,” said Maj. Bob Garcia, one of two teachers in the McNary AFJROTC program. “Getting into any of the (military) academies is quite an achievement, and having a cadet get accepted is something we are very proud of.”

Briggs got as early a start as one could hope for. He decided he wanted to be a pilot in middle school and then joined the Civil Air Patrol’s (CAP) Salem Composite Squadron, based out of Salem Airport, as soon as he could. CAP members assist in search and rescue and disaster relief missions supplying eyes and ears in the sky and provide learning opportunities for youth with an interest in aviation. Briggs got his first taste of color guard duties with the CAP.

“Our CAP team has won the state title the past three years,” Briggs said.

Through scholarships offered by CAP and Daughters of the American Revolution, Briggs is on the path to earning his pilot’s license before heading to the USAFA boot camp.

“I’ll be able to fly anything less than 200 horsepower single-engine planes with any number of passengers, but I can’t be paid for it,” he said.

Briggs said managing his time between schoolwork, CAP and AFJROTC was a challenge throughout his years at McNary, but his determination, and purpose, was there even before the joining the Celtic ROTC program, which had an unexpected effect on his approach to life.

“I was a much more serious person before I joined the ROTC. I was very much a black-and-white kind of person, these things are right, these things are wrong and there’s nothing in between. Becoming part of the ROTC family taught me that not everyone is perfect, and I’ve made friends with people who I never would have even talked to before,” Briggs said. “People are scared of the program a bit. We get uniforms and march around, but it’s really about caring for each other. Everyone in the program is there for a reason and that’s to become better citizens. We all live the integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.”

After visiting the USAFA campus, he came back with tales of an ROTC program on steroids. It makes him both anxious and excited for boot camp.

“Starting June 26, I’m up at 4 in the morning and doing push-ups in a hall that’s six-foot-six inches wide. I’m 6-foot-3. All while officers are running up and down the halls screaming at anyone still in bed at 4:01,” Briggs said.

As far as plans after college, Briggs is still a bit undecided. He briefly considered commercial piloting, but that overarching sense of purpose made him move on just as quickly.

“It’s kind of like being a bus driver and I wanted to do something more,” Briggs said. “If I like the academy well enough, I want to go career. But, if not, I will find some way to help others.”

Garcia said it is Briggs’ attitude which made him all the more remarkable in his time with the JROTC.

“Despite all his accomplishments, Tristan remains an unassuming young man who is always looking out for his classmates, at all times respectful to his teachers and constantly seeking ways he can make a difference in his community and nation,” Garcia said.