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CMU alumni find purpose in the military, honoring their school and country

Meet three grads who represent the many CMU students and alumni who have achieved great things through their service

Contact: Heather Smith


​​​​​​By Terri Finch Hamilton, '83
Reprinted from Centralight, winter 2015


A retired brigadier general with a wall full of medals who volunteers his time to help veterans and their families.

The first female head of the national guard in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

An Army Reserve officer of the year, whose stroll past the recruiting station on Mission Street in Mount Pleasant changed her life.

They're a diverse trio, but they're all Chippewas who turned to CMU to earn degrees while serving their country.

These three alumni represent myriad other CMU students and alumni who have achieved great things in the military, giving of themselves in one of the most selfless ways – by serving their country.

They talk about battles and duty, service and sacrifice, and how CMU prepared them for life in the military and beyond.

When Michael Ferguson, ‘77, gave the commencement address at the University of West Florida last spring, he was characteristically blunt and funny at the same time.

“Thanks to the Viet Cong for being bad shots most of the time,” he told the crowd, his honorary degree graduation cap tassel swinging. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

Ferguson has a wall full of military honors and medals and lots of stories to go with them.

The retired brigadier general spent 26 years in the U.S. Army.

He commanded a brigade in Korea, did overseas tours in Hawaii, Germany and Japan, and battled in one of the most famous and harrowing conflicts of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Ferguson has received more than 30 military awards, including the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Distinguished Service Medal.

“I’ve been in more than my fair share of crises,” he says from his home in Pensacola, Florida. “What doesn’t kill you will help you survive and grow.”

Ferguson was honored last spring with a Lifetime of Service award by the Association of the Army of the United States of America.

It all started in 1956, when young Michael applied for a spot at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point through a competitive exam for sons of deceased veterans.

Ferguson’s father died in combat during World War II while serving as a heavy machine gunner in the attack on Cologne, Germany.

Hundreds applied for 13 spots. Ferguson got one.

“That was the beginning of the rest of my life,” he says.

He was sent to Vietnam after graduation and served there twice, including in the harrowing Tet Offensive, when North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam.

Early on during an attack, a mortar round landed just a few feet away from Ferguson, rupturing his eardrums and killing the advisor next to him. Ferguson, known for being cool under fire, carried the advisor’s body to a bunker and began directing counter fires.

Wounded later during another rocket barrage, Ferguson dragged several other wounded soldiers to a bunker and started coordinating a reprisal.

“We were surrounded, until we fought our way out,” he recalls. “Any time you survive, that’s a highlight in your military career.”

Ferguson attended the prestigious National War College, a senior-level course in national security strategy, while he was pursuing a master’s degree in business administration from CMU’s Global Campus.

“You have to tailor your program to make it possible, and Central Michigan does that,” he says. “These men and women going to war have to squeeze things in. Kudos to Central Michigan for making it work out for soldiers.”

Ferguson says his business degree from CMU helped him immensely with his evolving career.

After his storied 26-year military career, Ferguson retired at age 49 and decided to go to law school on what remained of his GI Bill.

He went on to a successful 20-year career with Pensacola law firm McDonald, Fleming & Moorhead, much of it in business law.

“That business degree from CMU was a stepping stone,” he says. It also helped him when he started work as a National Football League agent.

Ferguson was an attorney for players such as Emmitt Smith, Emory Smith and Danny Wuerffel, as well as designated counsel for numerous professional sports teams.

His Army background has served him well, he says.

“Plan. Prepare. Inform. Supervise. You need that matrix no matter what career you pursue,” he says, “whether you’re a business attorney, an NFL agent or anything else.”

These days, Ferguson is a volunteer advocate for veterans, current service members and their families, as North Florida’s senior civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army, a three-star level position.

Almost daily, Ferguson meets with active duty or retired members of the United States Army, helping them with everything from housing and education for their families to helping veterans adapt to civilian life.

“How do you continue to contribute?” he asks. “Give back to others.”

As a freshman at CMU, Caitlin Hinterman, ‘04, often walked past the Army recruiting station on Mission Street. Some days, when the recruiter was outside taking a break, he’d call out to her, “Hey, want to join the Army?”

One day, she took him up on it.

“I didn’t have plans for that summer, so I joined the Army,” Hinterman says. She laughs. “My family said, ‘Really, Caitlin?’

“I just get these ideas,” she explains

It may have started as somewhat of a whim, but Hinterman, now Capt. Hinterman, has stuck with the Army Reserve for 14 years.

Last spring, she was named Transportation Corps Reserve Officer of the Year.

It’s a prestigious honor, worthy of a fancy awards dinner.

But Hinterman couldn’t make it. She was too busy packing parachutes and jumping out of airplanes.

She spent several weeks last spring at the rigorous Aerial Delivery Materials Officer Course, where she honed those skills.

“It was incredible,” she says.

And sobering.

“Lives are in your hands,” Hinterman says. “If you don’t pack the parachutes right, soldiers die.”

Her title now is special projects officer, which means she could get tapped at any time to do just about anything.

That included crafting a plan to transport a Logistics Support Vessel, the Army’s largest powered watercraft, across the country.

“I’m not just sitting at a desk doing one job,” she says. This suits her just fine.

“I always was athletic, always up for a challenge,” Hinterman says. “And I hate to fail at anything.”

After simultaneously earning her bachelor’s degree and ROTC commission from CMU in 2004, Hinterman became a transportation officer.

She deployed to Tikrit, Iraq, in 2007, then to Kuwait in 2010, where she held the position of plans officer for the Port of Ash Shuiaba.

But Hinterman the adventurer calmed a bit two years ago when she had a baby girl, Camille.

“It’s a game changer when you have a child,” she says. ‘Before I had her, I would say ‘Sure, I’ll go’ to anything. Now, I don’t want to leave her for a second.

“Before I had a child, my understanding of people with families, well, I didn’t quite get it,” she says. “I’d say things like, ‘Well, you better find a babysitter, because you’re going.’ I had to make the mission happen and that was the only thing on my mind.

“Having Camille opened my eyes, big time,” Hinterman says. “Now, there’s a softer side to Caitlin. I can say, ‘I’ve been there. It’s hard. I know.’”

Capt. Caitlin Hinterman, Officer of the Year, is a great role model for Camille.

“Anything she wants to do is up for grabs,” Hinterman says. “If anybody tells me I can’t do something, I say, ‘Well, watch me.’ Already, she seems pretty resilient, too.”

When Hinterman retires from the military in a few years, she plans to pursue a career in community recreation, using her degree from Central.

But she says she’s already used her CMU knowledge – lots of times.

“In my recreation classes, the professors would assign us to be in charge of a team or in charge of planning a fundraiser,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to. I was shy. I didn’t want to tell people what to do.

“That was my start in how to plan things, how to run things, how to supervise a team,” she says. “When I was a lieutenant, I had to take a platoon of 25 people to Iraq. I used the same things I learned at CMU – supervising, putting a plan into action, delegating, making a team cohesive.

“Who I am now, it all started in 2001 when I walked into CMU,” Hinterman says. “Everything has been a building block to the next step, to all I’ve been able to do.”

The U.S. Virgin Islands hadn’t experienced a hurricane in 100 years, so when Hurricane Hugo smashed into the islands in 1989 with 200 mph winds, residents were both battered and shocked.

Deborah Howell, ‘95, a lifelong island resident, was in the Virgin Islands National Guard. She helped with relief and rebuilding efforts as stunned island residents struggled without power for four months. They needed water, food, shelter and comfort.

Helping when disaster strikes is part of what drew Howell to join the Army right out of high school.

But this was personal.

“It’s even more touching when it’s your neighbors,” Howell says from her office in St. Croix. “It’s people you know. You see the pain in their eyes. You realize a simple bag of ice makes a big difference for them.

“This is why we serve.”

It’s kept Howell serving in a career that recently propelled her to her prominent role as Adjutant General of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Guard. She’s in charge of the day-to-day coordination and management of the Army and Air National Guard there.

Howell is the first woman in the position.

“It’s not the ‘first’ part of it that’s important to me,” Howell says. “But it lets the young girls in our predominantly black community know that somebody like me can do this. I can be a role model for achieving beyond the norm. That’s important to me.”

Howell rapidly rose through the ranks of the National Guard, serving as a field service company commander and a troop command battalion commander.

She spent 1994 and 1995 as a researcher in Washington for the Army National Guard before returning to the Virgin Islands force. By 2001, she was the chief of joint staff, essentially the second in command.

“At the beginning I thought, ‘I’m just going to do this for 10 years,’” she says. Suddenly, she says with a laugh, 32 years had passed.

Howell retired in 2010, but when the governor tapped her, post retirement, to be the new adjutant general, she couldn’t refuse.

“Once you get in and realize the difference it makes in people’s lives, it’s hard to leave,” she says.

When she decided to pursue a master’s degree in business administration while working in Washington, D.C., Howell turned to CMU’s Global Campus.

“The program was very exciting,” she says. “Our classes were in the Pentagon.”

One of her instructors was Alexis Herman, who would go on to be U.S. Secretary of Labor.

“The whole degree is a lot more than you pay for,” Howell says. “It’s not just the book work, but the whole experience that surrounds you. I loved the discussion, hearing different views.

“I’ve been able to apply a lot of the principles that I learned,” she says. “I could go back in my mind and remember discussions we had, and draw on them.”

Howell says inspiring mentors guided and challenged her throughout her career: “People were always seeing a bit more in me than I saw in myself.”

Now, she’s paying that forward.

Howell is a church youth group leader, a Rotarian and spent time as a Girl Scout leader.

She visits local high schools to encourage students. You’ll often find her at a local youth sporting event.

“I’ll sit on the side where nobody is cheering,” she says. “I’ll be their champion.”


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