USC ROTC/veterans gala: 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band performs

The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band performs at Tuesday’s gala. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)


USC veterans, service members and ROTC students celebrated at 15th annual gala

A 100-year-old World War II veteran, a Vietnam War Green Beret and a groundbreaking Black female pilot were among those honored.

March 21, 2024 By Greg Hernandez

USC alumna M’Lis Ward seemed to sum up the feelings of many of the more than 500 members of the university’s veteran community on Tuesday night when she said: “We stand on the shoulders of the heroes of this very room. We share their blood as members of the Trojan Family.”

Ward, the first Black woman to serve as a flight instructor in the U.S. Air Force and to work as a captain flying for a commercial airline as a pilot for United Airlines, was the keynote speaker at the 15th annual USC Veterans, Service Members and ROTC Students Gala.

“We owe it to these brave men and women to attend life with the same honor and integrity they have their entire lives,” Ward said to attendees gathered in a ballroom at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. “We salute them for all that they have done.”

USC ROTC/veterans gala:
M’Lis Ward visits with USC President Carol Folt during the event. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

Ward’s comments came after a moving ceremony during which USC President Carol Folt surprised a group of military veterans in attendance with medals for their service. Folt read a short bio of each veteran as they stood at their table. Former USC Board of Trustees Chair Edward P. Roski Jr. then placed a medal around each honoree’s neck. Roski, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, conceived the annual gala dinner 15 years ago.

“Each one of them is a remarkable profile in bravery and service and dedication,” Folt said at the start of the presentations. “In their own special ways, they honor the university and our nation.”

USC veterans: Heroes spanning World War II to the Gulf War

USC ROTC/veterans gala: Pete Teti
Pete Teti, 100, served on a hospital ship that took him to Africa, Europe and Asia. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

Among those honored was Pete Teti, a 100-year-old World War II veteran. His U.S. Army service on a hospital ship took him to Africa, Europe and Asia, where he played a vital role in evacuating and caring for the wounded. He returned to USC after the war to earn a master’s degree in graphic arts, which led to a more than five-decade career as a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I’m flabbergasted with amazement,” Teti said later, as he enjoyed his dessert. “I never expected anything like it. There are many people in this room who mean a lot to this country.”

Chapman Cox was another medal recipient. The 1962 graduate of the USC Navy ROTC program served on active duty for three years as an officer in the Marines during the Vietnam War, and later served in the Marine Corps Reserve before retiring as a colonel. He then had various roles under three U.S. presidents, including assistant secretary of the Navy, assistant secretary of defense, and president and CEO of the United Service Organizations Inc.

“I was very surprised and honored,” Cox said of receiving the medal. He traveled from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the occasion and said the real highlight had been “seeing the midshipmen again. I was in a midshipmen battalion when I was here.”

Mutual admiration among generations of USC veterans

Decorated U.S. Army Gen. Albert C. Zapanta received a medal at the dinner to go along with the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Bronze Stars (five) and 30 other awards he has received for his service during the Vietnam War. The Green Beret also received a Joint Service Commendation Medal for the Gulf War, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, and Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti before he retired after 36 years of service.

USC ROTC/veterans gala: Edward P. Roski Jr. and Albert C. Zapanta
USC Life Trustee Edward P. Roski Jr. congratulates Albert C. Zapanta. (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

Zapanta was a member of USC’s Army ROTC program when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial psychology. After receiving his medal, he said that he was most excited and proud to be sharing the evening with current ROTC students.

“For me — as a fellow who served his country — to be with a bunch of young people who will pick up the baton, just makes my day,” Zapanta said.

Among those young people is senior William Durban of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, a USC Navy ROTC member who watched with admiration as Roski placed the medals around the necks of the decorated veterans.

“It’s very inspiring,” Durban said during a break in the program. “It’s really cool to see all that they’ve done and to know I’ll be continuing on that USC legacy. I’m very proud to be joining a long line of military professionals who have really served the country in the greater world.”

Trailblazing on the court and in the air

Ward told the audience that she has led a “charmed life,” which began the day she stepped onto the USC campus. She attended the university on an ROTC scholarship and made the Women of Troy basketball team as a walk-on — the same legendary team that won back-to-back national championships in 1983 and 1984.

It was as a member of the ROTC drill team at USC that she began to dream about becoming a pilot.

During her career, Ward noticed that she was often the only Black woman in many situations in the Air Force and at United Airlines. She shared with gala attendees that she would wonder if others assumed she was a “minority hire” and possibly unqualified.

“I was really putting myself at a disadvantage, because no person in no situation should ever intimidate you,” she said. “I was creating that environment where I felt like I had to work harder than everyone in the room just to be equal.”

Ward then shared this hard-earned advice: “Whether you are a junior lieutenant or a flag officer, confidently march into every room knowing that you belong, and you can and you will make a difference. If you’re going to work twice as hard as everyone, do it to be better than everyone in the room. Not because you must, but because you can.”