ROTC: a window into the U.S. military

by Kori Koch

As the sun rises, they’re part of the most disciplined people out sweating on campus, straining through series of push-ups, long jogs and stretches.

A trademark of University ROTC cadets is to constantly prepare. The ROTC produces the nation’s largest number of commissioned officers into the U.S. armed forces. The program has been at the University since 1919.

For Ehren Bittner, a native of Duluth, Minn., the opportunity seemed obvious.

“I’ve always wanted to be a naval officer,” said Bittner, a Navy ROTC senior. “Having the wind in your hair, out on a lake, going forward, is just awesome.”

He began preparing in high school. Bittner took classes to strengthen his leadership skills and enhance his technical background. He received an ROTC scholarship in 2000 and is now in his 10th and final semester at the University studying chemical engineering.

There are many reasons to join ROTC, but each military branch offers financial programs aimed to increase enrollment.

Many students interested in ROTC apply and compete for scholarships. A four-year national scholarship is a popular route among first-year students entering the program. It covers tuition and fees up to $17,000 per year. Cadets also receive 10 stipends per year ranging from $250-400 and an annual book stipend of $600.

Capt. Timothy Kemp, Army ROTC enrollment officer, said enrollment rates since Sept. 11, 2001, remain steady, but the reasons to join seem to be changing.

“I think students’ reasons for joining have changed slightly,” Kemp said. “Many students are committed to serve, regardless of scholarship money involved.”

There are currently 73 Army ROTC cadets at the University.

Cadets who have scholarships in the Army ROTC branch of service make up nearly half of each class, Kemp said.

Rick Michalec, a military science instructor, said students join for similar reasons.

“Most join because they have a strong desire to be in the military for whatever reason, be it family influence or a guaranteed job. Others join for social reasons,” he said.

Michalec compared the camaraderie produced within the armory’s walls to that found in a fraternity.

University senior Rory Hanlin’s sense of service drew him into the Army National Guard in 2000, while still attending high school. He said he also sacrificed part of a summer to go to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. It prepared him for Army ROTC, he said.

“I knew things other cadets didn’t, and I’ve also experienced active duty,” he said.

Maj. Greg Webster, the Air Force ROTC unit admissions officer, came to the University in 2003.

Webster said he was immediately impressed with the maturity, dedication, professionalism and sense of service shown by cadets.

There are currently 71 Air Force ROTC cadets at the University.

“The bulk of students get scholarships straight out of high school,” said Lt. Will Brooks, a Navy ROTC officer.

There are currently 79 Navy ROTC cadets at the University, with 20 percent training as Marines.

Long before many students’ alarm clocks sound, ROTC cadets jog three times per week to a cadence faintly heard by their sleeping peers. Often led by upperclassmen, early-morning exercises focus on upper- and lower-body strength training, calisthenics, track work and games.

All ROTC service branches conduct unique training programs while working toward a similar goal, Webster said.

Nicole Penn, a Marine ROTC cadet, explained how the program’s naval branch of service includes students preparing for commissioned positions in the Navy and Marines.

“We train together, because we fight together,” Penn said.

Kirk Hall, an Air Force ROTC senior and wing commander, said two-thirds attendance at training sessions is required from cadets.

To remain in the program, cadets must pass periodic physical fitness tests every semester. The Army physical fitness test involves two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups and a timed two-mile run.

“We attempt to promote a lifestyle of health, rather than just training for tests,” Kemp said.

Michalec has been at the University for two years in a position he described as “a needle-in-the-haystack type of job that everybody wants but nobody can get.”

He prepares jun monthlong summer camp at Fort Lewis, Wash. At this rigorous leadership-based event, cadets are evaluated nationally. To showcase officer potential, Air Force ROTC juniors travel to one of three locations for field training.

Webster said those who evaluate cadets look carefully for how well they work together and how they lead when given the chance.

Sticking out on campus

While dressed in uniform on campus, Bittner said, he and other cadets stick out like sore thumbs. He admits to seeing either happy or confused looks on faces of passing students.

“I’ve been congratulated before, which is cool. Other times, students throw weird looks like, ‘Why are you risking your life to protect my freedom?’ ” he said.

Bittner said he has never been verbally harassed in or outside the classroom.

“My professors don’t make personal opinions known in a professional setting,” he said.

Hanlin also said he has caught a few odd glances from students.

“We’re going to be soldiers, so we’ll need to get used to that,” he said.

In the past, the ROTC program has been stereotyped for brainwashing and recruiting students, Michalec said.

“Some cadets prefer their professors not know they’re in ROTC because of what they say in class, although, overall, the University’s pretty supportive,” he said.

ROTC in the classroom

Aside from the Carlson School of Management, ROTC courses provide the best management training offered at the University, Hall said.

Cadets are required to take one ROTC course per semester for four years. The courses increase in difficulty. First-year students study basic soldier skills.

“We immediately educate students about what we stand for – an organization that trains for war not to fight it but to prevent it,” Michalec said.

Kemp said upperclassmen become battalion leaders and staff members who basically organize and execute day-to-day operations.

Upon graduation, cadets are commissioned as second lieutenants in the military. Graduates fill positions that earn approximately $38,000 per year, including housing and other forms of compensation.

Depending on job training received thereafter, commitment to the military ranges in length.

For example, an Army ROTC graduate with a four-year national scholarship is obligated to serve for eight years. Four years must be spent on active duty, while the remaining four years can be spent in the Army National Guard, Army Reserve or Army inactive ready reserve.

Serving after college

Like college, ROTC is an opportunity that will give as much back to students as they put in, Hanlin said.

“I think ROTC is such an important part of an officer’s developmental process that it needs to take a primary focus in my life,” he said.

Hanlin said the balancing act of school and ROTC is quickly perfected by most cadets.

“ROTC provides an awesome community but does take time away from my academic and social life, which I suppose is just the nature of the beast,” he said.

Kemp described how cadets are not deployable once contracted with the ROTC.

“They’re not duty-qualified yet as lieutenants. They have months and years of training before we send them anywhere,” he said.

Webster said every cadet’s decision to re-enlist is different.

“We encourage students to keep an open mind about their future throughout the program and explore every option when pursuing a military career,” he said.