The Hard Road

Nobody said it would be easy, and 2nd Lt. Charles Corte, ’23, would not have had it any other way.

That’s why the mechanical engineering major and former Alpha Company commander sought out a commission as an Air Force tactical air control party officer. Part of special warfare, a TACP officer is responsible for calling in air strikes from the ground for the Army or Marine unit in which he or she is embedded. “You’re basically a lifesaver… your job is not only to return fire, but also to call in an air strike while doing so.”

Though he grew up surrounded by Auburn fans—and without a significant military legacy in his family—the Alabama native knew he wanted a challenge beyond the traditional college experience. A recipient of the Air Force ROTC scholarship, Corte initially came to The Citadel with aspirations of being a pilot, but he soon changed his target from the skies to the ground after participating in an Air Force Special Forces preparation group on campus. Corte recalls his first workout: a 1,500-meter swim. Despite never having swum more than 100 meters, Corte was able to keep up. After that, he was hooked. Corte buckled down and continued to train, improving his running and taking up weightlifting. By his sophomore year, he knew special warfare was what he wanted to pursue.

The TACP position stood out because they “get the most time outside the wire,” said Corte, who has known since he was 10 years old that being behind a desk was not for him. “That was around the time Osama Bin Laden was killed. That was a big factor. The people behind the desk are doing an important job, but I want to be on the front lines.”

Getting there was not easy, though. Corte first applied in February of his junior year but was not selected. While he had put in the extra hours to get himself ready physically, it was his leadership, he was told, that he still needed to develop. “I thought I was going to go out there and get smoked. I’ve been through that; I can get it done. But it is also a constant leadership evaluation, which I did not expect. I hadn’t prepared for that. I was just not ready.” But six months later, when he was able to apply again, he made sure he was.

“The Citadel helps a ton because it gives you a chance to practice your leadership every single day. When I stepped into the role of athletic officer in the Air Force attachment, my job was to get people to do something that everyone hates: regimental PT. That helped me learn to motivate others—I had to have empathy and understand what will get them to push.”

With a constant drive to improve, Corte combined lessons from his day-to-day role as a cadet and a list of books he read on leadership to prepare for the physical and mental tests that would be the first two phases of the TACP officer pipeline. Corte learned to view stress in a positive light, which allowed him to stay focused under pressure. “When times were getting tough, I would take a deep breath and think, ‘You’re not nervous, you’re ready to go.’ I would just stay calm and help my team out the best I could.”

The work paid off. Corte ended up being one of the four candidates, out of the 15 who started, selected to continue through the TACP pipeline. There is still a long road ahead before becoming a fully operational TACP officer—the process takes around two and a half years, said Corte, but he is excited for the challenge. Eventually, he would like to go to Ranger School and end up at the 17th Special Tactics Squadron. He insists he never would have considered any of it had he followed the expected path, instead of choosing The Citadel.

“My life would not be the same. I would have gone to Auburn and then goofed off. I would not have gotten into the shape I needed to be in or learned the discipline that I needed to do this job. Being a cadet instills the sense of having to do something to a higher level. You have the whole school to support you with the necessary pillars. You might as well take advantage of it.”