Gary Brito was readying for his senior year of high school in 1981 when he saw a magazine advertisement for Penn State while at his grandmother’s house in his hometown of Hyannis, Mass. Intrigued, he asked his cousin for $20 to cover the application fee. It was money well spent. That October, he received an acceptance letter in the mail, so he took the Amtrak from Boston to Altoona—about a 12-hour ride—to check out the campus where he would spend his first two years of college. He was sold on the university, but aside from classes, Brito wasn’t yet sure what else college life would have in store.

“I had heard of Army ROTC, but I didn’t have any interest until one day I walked by a booth in the campus hub in Altoona and I picked up a brochure,” Brito ’86 H&HD says. “I decided to give it a shot, just as an extracurricular activity.” But that extracurricular, which piqued a growing interest in the Pershing Rifle Team and Ranger Club—“I liked the adventure, like probably every other cadet,” he says—gradually evolved into something more.

He grew to appreciate the time spent outdoors and the chance to learn practical lessons in organizational leadership. He also had the opportunity to attend a cadet summer camp at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The entire ROTC experience opened Brito’s eyes to other skills he enjoyed developing, like marksmanship and land navigation. He initially thought that he’d finish his degree in community studies and then serve his four-year post-college commitment before moving on to the next stage of his life. What he couldn’t have guessed at the time is that the brochure he’d picked up that day at Altoona would lead to a decorated career in the United States Army.

Last September, a little more than 35 years since he was commissioned as an infantry officer, Brito was promoted to commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) at Fort Eustis, Va., which recruits, trains, educates, establishes standards, and “leads change to ensure the Army can deter, fight, and win on any battlefield now and into the future,” according to the U.S. Army website. That command coincides with Brito’s promotion to four-star general, making him one of just 17 officers at that rank currently serving in the Army, and  the first Penn State ROTC alum to achieve the rank. Only 255 officers have reached the rank of full general in the Army’s history, a list that begins with George Washington and includes such names as Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, John Pershing, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Colin Powell.

Gen. Gary Brito assumed his new command, photo by U.S. Army Jean Wines
‘AN OPPORTUNITY, NOT JUST A CHALLENGE’: Brito assumed his new command last September in a ceremony at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. U.S. Army photo by Jean Wines.

Brito’s path to joining such lofty company has been comparatively quiet; his is the story of a dedicated soldier who was inspired by the leadership and development opportunities afforded at every stop in his career. “I very much enjoyed working with people, and obviously there’s been a lot of travel,” says Brito, who served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I enjoy working with soldiers and leaders from different cultures, different backgrounds, and taking on different challenges.”

His latest challenge is a massive one: TRADOC oversees 37 Army schools organized under 10 Centers of Excellence  and trains more than 750,000 soldiers and service members each year. “A very big mission for us, present day, is enlisting soldiers, so a priority is enhancing our recruiting enterprise to bring in volunteer soldiers of high quality that our Army needs,” Brito says. “That’s a big mission. I look at this as an opportunity, not just a challenge.”

“I have complete trust and confidence that TRADOC is in good hands,” U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville said after Brito took command. “He is the right person at the right time to lead this organization.”

The task is complicated by world events. Like every other sector of society, the Army faced unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating obstacles that Brito’s command will be required to overcome. “We’re seeing the impacts of a post-COVID environment—not that COVID is over, but the impacts of remote learning, not being able to visit schools for recruiting, all of that has impacted the youth of today,” he says.

An array of cultural and economic changes mean military recruiting now heavily relies on the ability to provide a safe environment, good housing, educational opportunities, recreational facilities, and other necessities to ensure a high quality of life both for those serving and their families. As Brito explains, that includes “a culture that is professional and that just doesn’t accept sexual assault, sexual harassment, and those things that you wouldn’t want to happen to your brother or your sister or your child. We need to ensure our military provides that type of environment—this job I’m in now, that’s a major responsibility.”

Michelle Harper Brito ’86 Lib has been working alongside her husband since the beginning, moving their family, which includes two now-adult sons, to 18 different stops, from Germany to Hawaii to Virginia and more. The couple met at a fraternity party at Penn State; having grown up in a military family (her stepfather was in the Air Force), Michelle, an economics major, wasn’t sure she wanted to continue that lifestyle as an adult, but Brito convinced her, eventually purchasing an engagement ring from Kranich’s Jewelers on College Avenue.

“So I meet this ROTC guy and, you know, we got serious. I really thought he was going to do this for four years and we would move on to something else,” Michelle says. “But four years became seven, became 10 years, became 20 years. … Every few years, I would look at my watch and go, ‘So how long are we doing this?’ It can be a rollercoaster—it’s nothing I ever predicted or imagined—but  there are so many opportunities. It can be a lot of fun.”

When Brito was back at University Park in May 2021 to attend Penn State’s ROTC commissioning ceremony, he strolled down College Avenue and sent Michelle a photo of the storefront where he had bought that engagement ring. “I couldn’t have asked for any better partner,” he says. “She’s been the rock of it all. The military spouse is probably the hardest job ever. I hit a home run.”

Michelle, who serves on the Military and Veteran Affairs Advisory Council at JP Morgan Chase, has held private sector positions in accounting, government contracting, and mortgage lending, when circumstances have allowed. She’s also assumed many volunteer positions in her role as an officer’s spouse, mentoring younger families, keeping them informed while their loved ones were deployed, letting them know about resources available to them during that time, and generally being a source of support. Michelle has also supported the Blue Star Families Campaign for Inclusion, which focuses on programs, advocacy, and training that address the inequities military families of color can face and increase their sense of belonging in their communities. She’s found such responsibilities meaningful and impactful, particularly in 2005, when several soldiers died under her husband’s command in Iraq.

“It was difficult, but I am still in touch with that group of ladies,” Michelle says. “We had such a bond after that year that we’ll never forget.”

Reaching his current command at TRADOC, eight years after earning his first star as a brigadier general, is not a destination Gary Brito could have predicted. By any measure, he is a trailblazer: He was the first Black commander at Fort Benning and is now the first Black commanding general at TRADOC. He doesn’t take the significance of these breakthroughs lightly but emphasizes that they mean less as a measure of his own accomplishment than as an example for future soldiers.

“I’m a humble guy, so I don’t look at it that way, but I realize it’s historic,” Brito says. “Being in this position can be a level of inspiration to young soldiers of all nationalities, and of course to African Americans, that they can succeed because of their potential, and not be impeded by the color of their skin, their gender, family background, economic status, you name it. You are a United States Army soldier, and you have the opportunity to excel from wherever you came from.”