As a college athlete, standout student, and one of the first Army ROTC Cadets from Benedict College to branch aviation in over 30 years, Corey Witter knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without family.
After losing his mother to breast cancer at the age of 14, Witter’s older brother, Jahleel, stepped in as his legal guardian, giving Witter the assurance and guidance he needed to focus on accomplishing his goals and join the military.
“No matter what you go through there’s a lot you can do even with limited opportunities.” Witter said. “You have to make the most of what’s been handed to you and then go from there. It always works out.”
From the get-go, Witter’s family determined their strength would not be sidetracked by hardship – and they certainly experienced their fair share of obstacles.
Sandra, Witter’s mom, battled chronic illness her entire life, including diabetes, heart problems and kidney issues. She was unable to work because of her health limitations.
Seeking family support, Sandra moved herself and her two boys from Beaufort, South Carolina to Kansas in 2002 where her younger sister, the boys’ aunt, was located.
For nine years they lived together with their aunt’s family until her death in 2011.
“We moved back to Beaufort because my aunt passed away from breast cancer,” Witter said.
Mourning the loss of her sister, Sandra took a realistic look at her illness battles and knew a move back to Beaufort had to happen. It was a difficult transition for the boys, but they needed to be close to family.
“She’d be in and out of the hospital from all of the things she had, and she had so many different things going on health-wise,” Jahleel said.
It wasn’t long after their move home to Beaufort that the family received news that Sandra had breast cancer.
She began treatment immediately.
Witter, who was 12 at the time, remembers his mom’s positive outlook regarding the internal battle her body was fighting.
“Even though you could see she was sick, you would never know with how she acted,” Witter said. “She was probably one of the strongest people I have ever seen in my life as far as trying to be positive even when everything around you isn’t positive.”
Jahleel saw his mom’s strength as well, but being six years older and involved in her daily healthcare, he remembers a much different side of the story.
“She told me something along the lines of, ‘I’m not going to be here forever, so you’ve got to make sure that you look out for your brother. All of the things that you know, I need you to be able to do when I’m gone because you’re all I have and I want you to be there for your brother,’” Jahleel said.
As time progressed, Sandra’s cancer went terminal.
Witter recalls her continuously sunny outlook, even as time was running out.
“After she stopped chemo, we had to basically accept that it was going to happen. It wasn’t like when somebody all of the sudden passes away, this was different in that you knew it was coming for months in advance.”
Naturally quiet, Witter didn’t broadcast his emotions or allow others to know what was happening at home.
“When I was at school, I didn’t necessarily talk about anything that was going on,” Witter said. “Maybe one or two people knew, but nobody else really knew what was happening.”
Sandra Witter passed away October 30, 2014 with her boys at her side.
The boys were just 20 and 14-years-old.
Life happened quickly, and both boys had to step up to the plate.
Jahleel took on a full-time job and became Corey’s legal guardian.
“I told him I would do what I can to make sure everything was good, and that’s what I did,” Jahleel said.
“He focused on his grades and school, and I focused on taking care of everything.”
Witter seized this opportunity and threw himself into excelling in his studies and extracurricular activities. On top of being a straight-A student, he played football, basketball and track.
“I like being occupied. I’m not really the type of person that likes to sit around,” Witter said. “When I don’t do a lot, it just feels like something is missing or like I should be doing something else.”
While balancing his activities, Witter also began looking ahead to life after high school. The military was something he’d been interested in and was “always towards the top of the list” when it came to future careers.
His sophomore year, he tested the water by joining his high school’s Air Force JROTC program.
“I signed up just to see what it was like – like a test.” he said. “I stayed in because I ended up liking the structure and the vibe and it felt like it fit me.”
The program pushed Witter out of his reserved shell and presented leadership opportunities that continued to grow his interest in joining the military.
“He was always devoted to the goal. It’s one of the things that stands out even today. He’s more focused,” Jahleel said.
After graduating from Beaufort High School in 2018, Witter made the decision to attend Benedict College, a historically black college (HBCU), on a full academic scholarship. He also joined the school’s track team as a decathlete.
He focused on his studies and athletics until fate stepped in one morning during track practice.
Anthony Robertson is the Benedict College ROTC Coordinator, he’s also an Army ROTC alumnus of Benedict College. He noticed Witter and his teammates warming up and walked over to speak with them about the ROTC program.
“He came up to me and a couple other people one day, and I was listening, but it was going in one ear and out the other. I wasn’t really interested whatsoever,” Witter said.
Robertson confirms that Witter’s attention seemed elsewhere. But, to his surprise, Witter showed up outside his office a few weeks later.
“He said, ‘You’re in charge of ROTC?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am,’ and he said, ‘I would like to join,’” Robertson recalls.
After meeting Robertson that morning on the track field, he was convinced ROTC wasn’t for him, but fate began to work their way into his daily life.
“I started thinking about what I was going to do after I graduated college and then I started seeing Cadets walking around campus in their uniforms,” Witter said.
He stopped some of the Cadets to talk about the program and their experiences.
“I just felt like it was a good opportunity; it would be stable income – a guaranteed job,” he said.
Witter found himself in Robertson’s office just days later signing up to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).
“The rest is history. He was serious, he was all the way locked in,” Robertson said. “He was a great athlete, he was a great student, his GPA was high, he was a Campus Cadet with the Campus Police Department, and so the bench point for greatness started right then.”
Witter cut his hair, enlisted in the Army National Guard, and took a semester off to attend Basic Advanced Individual Training.
Back from training and officially enrolled in Army ROTC, Witter began to look at his future options. Already a Criminal Justice major, he thought joining the Military Intelligence branch would partner well with his current studies…until he was introduced to helicopters.
“We had a brief on aviation that was really interesting and that changed my whole mindset about what I wanted to do,” Witter said.
Robertson also pushed Witter to think about pursuing the aviation branch and flying helicopters.
“I encouraged him to do some research on it, and I also encouraged him to research the percentage of African Americans who fly helicopters,” Robertson said.
Of the 144 Army ROTC Cadets who branched aviation and will commission this year, only six were African American.
After his research and decision to branch aviation, Witter began studying for the Selection Instrument for Flight Training (SIFT).
The SIFT is a measure of multiple aptitudes, focusing mainly on S.T.E.M.
The SIFT is the first hurdle Witter had to cross to qualify for aviation service. Weeks of studying led to the exam day, and then Witter had to wait.
“After studying and testing he came back with the highest score the ROTC program had ever seen,” Robertson said. “He did everything else right in the ROTC program, so he’s going aviation.”
“I knew Corey had what it takes to be great…He fits everything that embodies being a college student, an ROTC student, he serves in the national guard,” Robertson adds. “He’s a shining example, who I encourage students to pattern themselves behind.”
Witter’s future was confirmed this past fall when he was selected for aviation. He’ll be heading to Ft. Rucker, Alabama to learn how to fly Chinook helicopters after commissioning.
“There’s a lot of things you can do in military, but I feel like flying is one of the biggest things that you can do and it’s one of the greatest opportunities that I’ve seen so far and one of the most interesting,” he said.
Witter also finds the civilian career options for aviators appealing as he plans to one day fly airplanes for a major airline.
Even as Witter knocks out goals toward his future, his brother, Jahleel, is still very present in his life.
“He comes first that’s just how it is,” Jahleel said. “When I made the promise to my mom that I would take care of him, I meant that on all aspects of anything that I could possibly do to make things better or his life easier, it’s what I do.”
Witter took his brother’s promise to heart, and it resonates with him today, remaining a prime focus for his leadership intentions as a future officer in the Army.
“Him putting his life on pause, it was a really big sacrifice for me, and that’s what drives me,” Witter said. “I’m not an aggressive leader but having the experiences that I do – most people haven’t had their parents die – so carrying that with me will help me understand how to treat people and understand their experiences.”