Wilder walks Gonzalez down aisle, Cedeno recounts day

Clare Kirwan, Head Editor-in-Chief

“I’m getting married in July.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“Will you give me away?”

“Yes. Where? When? What? Do you need me to do the rehearsal, what do I need to do?”

This conversation is that of Commander Sergeant Major (CSM) Russell Wilder and senior Yeilianiz Gonzalez (Gonzo) who asked Wilder to walk her down the aisle at her wedding this summer.

“It was an honor, a privilege, to be able to walk her down the aisle. It was all in Spanish, [but] I’m taking Duolingo, so I could tell he was saying ‘who gives her away?’ I just said ‘me’ because the words sounded short, and it was right,” Wilder said.

Wilder is the CSM of the JROTC program. The majority of students in the program continue with it all four years of high school, coming into their own and forming close bonds with other members.

“[Gonzo] started out really quiet. She hardly ever said anything. Now she’s up here giving briefings. We got her out of her,” Wilder said. “She was on my radar team, she was on the drill team, she was always with me. I just treated her like a daughter, like I do all my cadets. I really love my cadets like they’re my own kids and I want to do good [by them].”

Many students in the program come from difficult home lives. Wilder and Colonel Roy McCutcheon work to try and create a safe environment for the cadets when they come into school.

“We have so much fun. When we say we’re family, we’re not lying. We really accept them and treat them like family and I think that’s what [got Gonzo to ask me] because we are a family,” Wilder said. “They look at me like their dad or their grandfather. You know how kids are with their granddad. You don’t want to upset them, right? That’s how they look at us. They don’t want to upset us because we’re the granddaddies.”

Wilder has acted as a father figure for many of the cadets and leaders in his program over the years, but to have Gonzalez ask him to give her away was a new experience in its entirety.

“[What she said to me] really broke my heart. [She said] Sergeant Major you’ve done more for me in four years than my father [has done] my entire life,” Wilder said.

Gonzalez’s decision to ask Wilder to wasn’t a hard one. Her relationship with Wilder has deepened over the years.

[What she said to me] really broke my heart. [She said] Sergeant Major you’ve done more for me in four years than my father [has done] my entire life.

— Sergeant Major Russell Wilder

“Since freshman year he’s been my mentor. My [relationship] with my mom and dad and my household is complicated. I didn’t have someone to look up to, but the CSM helped me a lot with my mental health and confidence. He always supports me,” Gonzalez said. “When I asked him he was really happy and excited, he made a big deal out of it.” 

Wilder did not shy away from his fatherly duties on the day of the wedding.

“I did the father daughter dance with her, man it was so nice. I kept telling her thank you Gonzo, I’m just so honored. She was a beautiful bride,” Wilder said. “I told him I said you better be good to her, otherwise we’ll find you. He’s a really good guy [though] and he worships the ground she walks [on].”

As evident in Wilder’s conversation with Gonzalez’s now husband, Wilder is very protective of his girls, and holds them to a standard he would hold his own children to.

“The top six [in JROTC] are all female. Something I said when [I] got here [was], my program is going to go, my radar team is going to train, my drill team is going to perform. We’re going to win and we’re going to be good. If it’s heavy females [in leadership, it’s] heavy females, [if it’s heavy males, it’s] heavy males, I don’t care. I don’t alienate [people] because ‘Oh, you’re female you’re not good enough’ [that’s] bull crap. My females [will] dog dudes in a minute,” Wilder said.

Junior Thaneisha Cedeno acts as the Command Sergeant Major of the Battalion and is one of the top six. 

I’m the battalion commander’s right-hand man. I assist her with anything she needs me to do for her and for our CSM and colonel. I am also in charge of promotion boards, which is where cadets go in front of a board in order to rank up,” Cedeno said. “I am in charge of the company commanders and first sergeants. [They] run the companies to make sure they’re doing their job in the blocks and giving all necessary curriculum that we need to teach as well as reminders of any upcoming events, any team tryouts and more. I also play a big role as the “motivator” of the battalion. I always push cadets to be the best version of themselves and make sure they’re trying out everything that the program offers.”

Gonzalez is also a member of the top six. She is the history operations and written officer. The operations officer is in charge of planning every single thing that JROTC does. Every event, every training session, every trip, is planned by Gonzalez.

“I don’t have a lot of support in my household. I have sisters and we’re united but we don’t express our feelings [to each other]. Here, we’re a family a family. The top six is very united, they’re always supportive. If anything is bothering you they will help you find a solution. They’re my sisters,” Gonzalez said. 

Cedeno is a close friend of Gonzalez, growing her relationship with her over the past two years. She was honored to be a part of Gonzalez’s special day.

“It was super sunny. It was the perfect day to have an outside service. Then, once you walked in, the decorations were gorgeous. The colors of pink she chose looked stunning, as well as all of her centerpieces,” Cedeno said. “The food was absolutely delicious. The whole feeling of the wedding was just a good vibe. All the people there wanted to enjoy Gonzo’s special day, and we really did. We had the time of our lives getting to dance with her, play games, eat and just laugh for hours.”

Junior Olga Reyes Diaz is another member of the top six and played a key role on the wedding day.

“Olga planned the wedding with me and she got the other top six involved. On the wedding day they all got up and gave speeches saying cute stuff to me,” Gonzalez said.

Much like Wilder, Cedeno believes the statement ‘we’re a family’ deeply resonates with the JROTC program.

“JROTC is not some military program where all we do is yell at you. JROTC teaches you leadership, and how to become a better person and the best version of yourselves. You bond with people on another level and it really is like a family. You feel safe in the program, and our goal is to make sure you feel like you belong. We offer so much to do, and we want as many people to be able to experience that,” Cedeno said.

Like many other JROTC cadets, Cedeno has put an immense amount of time and effort into the program, but feels she has gained just as much as she has put in.

“CSM and colonel helped me at my lowest moments and never gave up on me or ignored me. I felt like I could talk to them about whatever, and they wouldn’t get annoyed with me. They can be harsh with me, but never for the wrong reasons. They’ve only wanted to better me as a person, and have,” Cedeno said. “I can’t thank them enough for helping me shape myself into the person I am today. I’ve made close bonds with cadets in the program. We’ve always been there to uplift each other and make sure we keep our heads up high. We continue to motivate each other and push past our limits.” 

Wilder believes that the students in JROTC are like no other. It’s what has kept him teaching for decades and brought the colonel out of retirement.

“They’re always happy to see us, they’re always smiling. [If] they had a bad day they want to talk to you about it, but they’re just the joy. It’s the joy that makes you continue to work,” Wilder said.

It’s incredible, people have no idea what kind of students we have here at Harrisonburg High School. I wish all of America was like us.

— Sergeant Major Russell Wilder

The joy was especially prominent on the summer July day of Gonzalez’s wedding. Wilder recounts laughing, dancing and being unable to keep from smiling.

“We had a blast. It was such a good time and it was just so heartfelt that she asked me to do that, I was so honored. I’ve had lots of my students ask me for their quinces and stuff like that, but to ask me to walk them down the aisle touched my heart. When a kid trusts you that much to ask you to walk them down the aisle, I must be doing [something] right,” Wilder said.

While Wilder is proud of the program he has built, he leaves much of the credit to the true goodness of his students.

“They’re so accepting and caring and loving of each other. The way they treat one another, they really care about how the other person feels and they’ll go out of their way to try to help somebody. It’s incredible, people have no idea what kind of students we have her at Harrisonburg High School. I wish all of America was like us,” Wilder said.