Veteran Voices: Meet US Army Staff Sergeant Benjamin Weathersby ‘23
Staff Sergeant Benjamin Weathersby ‘23 is a US Army veteran, and certified sommelier, and undergraduate student pursuing a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in hotel administration at the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration.
Weathersby comes from a military family steeped in the tradition of service. Born in West Berlin to parents in the service, his Army career included tours in South Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Learn more about Weathersby in this Veterans Voices Q&A.
Tell us about your life before Cornell and military service. How did you come to serve in your branch of service?
My entire family comes from a proud tradition of military service, dating all the way back to the Civil War. Both of my parents were in the service when they met and as far back as three years old, I was telling people that I would be a soldier someday. Being a military brat meant a lot of moving around in my early years. I was born in West Berlin—before the wall came down—and we lived in New Jersey and Hawaii, all before I was four years old. After my parents separated, my mother, sister, and I moved to northern California where my mother’s family has been rooted since the Gold Rush. And though we still moved quite a bit, I did the rest of my growing up in the north valley between the Sierras and Coastal Redwoods.
I had always considered the military to be my calling—driven by my family’s history and patriotism, as well as a sense of duty. I think something deeply rooted was always telling me that serving the country was the only way to earn whatever opportunities came into my life. When I was in my senior year of high school I decided that I would join the Army, just as all but three of my familial predecessors had done. I enlisted in the Delayed Entry Program in October of 1999—during the Clinton administration—and I left for Basic Training on August 10, 2000.
What were your first days of service like? What surprised you the most? How did you grow during your first few months of service?
My first days in the military were simultaneously a shock to my system (which Basic Training is meant to be), a sense of relief at having at last taken the oath and donning the uniform, and pride in myself and those around me.
Basic has changed substantially since I went through it. When Private Weathersby first entered the service, all of our doctrine still centered around conventional warfare against Cold War era enemies. It was tough, rigid, and terrifying for a 17-year old kid. As an Army brat, I think I was a bit cocky—like I had been granted some sort of “legacy” status. The commander of my training unit and one of my drill sergeants even singled me out after recognizing my name. It turned out they had both served with one of my uncles in the 75th Ranger Regiment during the Gulf War. That fact quickly changed my cockiness to a sense of responsibility for carrying the weight of my family name.
The first reality check from the outside world was about halfway through training when we were rushed into a hasty company briefing and told about the bombing of the USS Cole. It was a poignant moment because outside of the operations in the Balkans during the late 90’s, we had all joined a peacetime army.
Following Basic I left Fort Jackson, SC for Fort Eustis, VA to attend Advanced Individual Training (AIT) and really learn the job I had enlisted to do. It was still a very rigid environment but with a few precious freedoms granted, like being allowed to go on day passes for a few hours on the weekend, and getting to live in rooms of between four and eight people (a drastic difference compared to the 40-person bays we lived in during Basic).
I had enlisted as a Weapons, Electronics and Avionics Technician for the Army’s brand new AH-64D Apache Longbow. It was so new that there were only three existing units that had the aircraft and one of those was the “Conversion Unit” at Fort Hood, Texas where they would send entire units to transition from the AH-64A Apache and train both the pilots and ground crews on the job. My AIT class was number 001, and the eight of us were the very first group to be “Longbow guys” from day one. They hadn’t even fully outfitted our hangar or classrooms with all of the required training materials and equipment. Our training was 10-months long and when combined with Basic, I spent almost my first full year of service in training.
Tell us about your transition to civilian life. What inspired you to pursue your degree at Cornell?
In 2012 I was in Afghanistan, during what would turn out to be my final deployment, and I was facing the decision of whether to get out or finish a 20-year career once I returned home. The process of weighing the pros and cons occupied my mind constantly, and after many weeks I still had not arrived at an answer. Then, one night we were on a mission, trudging through the darkness, en route to link up with an Afghan Commando unit before proceeding to a village to conduct early morning raids.
Since the standard procedure for those types of movements is to move along the route quietly, I was left with only my thoughts to pass the time, so my mind drifted back to the questions of whether to stay in or get out and what I wanted to be when I grew up. Do I stay in and continue into the Special Operations world, or do I get out? And if I get out, do I pursue my love of theater and music or see where my interests in the wine and beverage world take me?
I suddenly found myself face-down in the dirt with the wind knocked out of me, and my contemplative march through the night was abruptly cut short. A quick check confirmed I still had all my equipment, and I hadn’t been shot, so I chalked it up as a win-win and looked around, hoping I would solve the mystery with my mouthful of dirt.
The answer I found turned out to be the answer for which I had been searching. Unfortunately, I had been wrapped up in thought and thus, failed to notice that we were walking through a vineyard. It wasn’t the kind you’d imagine with beautifully trellised rows of vines, but rather, a field of gnarled tendrils reaching out to capture their next victim, which was me. After dusting myself off and rejoining the line of silhouettes ahead of me, I realized in that strangely peaceful moment of silent thought in the dark that the universe had lit the path for me to follow. Three days later, when we were finally back on our base, I typed “wine expert” into Google and learned what a sommelier was.
The many choices I’ve made in the nine years since that night are a long story for another day, but I can say without a doubt that I would not be a Hotelie if it were not for that comically and cosmically-timed event. And when the question inevitably gets asked of how a US Paratrooper left the Airborne and Special Operations world to join the wine industry and attend an Ivy League business school, I’ll always be able to chuckle and reply, “I just sort of fell into it.” What an ice breaker.