On Sept. 12, 2001, Patrick Finn cut an artist’s drawing out of The New York Times. It showed the Statue of Liberty hunched over and weeping, with the smoke from the fallen Twin Towers filling the New York skyline in the background.
He put it in his wallet and looks at it every day to remind him why he joined the Army ROTC, a program committed to molding leaders on U.S. college campuses into leaders in the military. “I signed up because of what happened on 9/11,” said Finn, now an AU junior, while looking at the faded clipping, which has been folded and unfolded and crunched back into his wallet every day for more than three years.
The AU students participating in the Army branch of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps do so as part of the Washington, D. C., consortium. Students from Georgetown, George Washington and Howard universities and AU are eligible to join. Each branch of the military is represented, and students travel to Georgetown for Army ROTC, Howard for Air Force ROTC or George Washington for Navy ROTC. Upon completion of the program, students are commissioned as second lieutenants and are required to serve four years in the military. They also immediately become eligible to lead a platoon of 20 to 40 soldiers.
Some AU students joined for scholarship money, because of family military tradition or to prove something within themselves. All share a unique sense of loyalty totheir country and whatever sacrifices it may require, even if it means being a target of criticism on their politically active campuses. Whatever the individual reason these AU students had for joining ROTC, the fact remains the same: The United States is at war, and with more than half of the 33 divisions of U.S. troops in Iraq slated to return home in the near future, it is a near certainty that these volunteer student cadets will be among the next wave of military sent to that volatile region. “It’s just an intense love of country, a desire to give back service to something greater than myself,” said Mike Pollock, an AU master’s student and cadet in the Georgetown Hoya Battalion.
Despite the intense interest and support of the military after 9/11, students in the Hoya Battalion who joined recently said they hardly feel like they jumped on a band-wagon. Popularity was not one of the reasons AU’s ROTC cadets cited for serving.
At AU, where anti-war demonstrations are almost expected, some members of the Georgetown Hoya Battalion said they know many students don’t agree with what they do. “There have been a few times on campus when we’ve been harassed,” said AU senior Ryan Rooks. “As a group, we just don’t respond.” Usually the cadets turn their heads to detractors, but sometimes, Rooks said, it becomes a bit too much to completely ignore.
After the United States invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, anti-war groups at AU brought a beat-up car to the Quad and allowed students to have at it with a sledge-hammer. The car was spray-painted with slogans protesting the war and the Bush administration - but that’s not what bothered Rooks. When he saw the spray-painted word “military” and someone pound it with the sledgehammer he felt let down. Rooks wrote letters to school officials complaining, but never heard back. “It’s largely ignorance,” Rooks said. “People see what they want to see and apply it to us. Sometimes people’s minds don’t change.”
However, that hasn’t stopped AU sophomore cadet John McGuire from reaching out to those who share opposing viewpoints. For instance, when a student chained himself to a bench on AU’s campus last year and proclaimed a hunger strike in protest of the Iraq war, McGuire made it a point to ask him every day how it was going and tell him he respected his demonstration. “People need to know that we’re not war-mongering baby-killers,” McGuire said. “We’re here to serve and defend our country.” Cadets said their service is independent of political persuasion. “When we put our uniform on, we’re non-partisan,” Rooks said. “We serve the nation regardless of who’s in the White House.”
In order to have the opportunity to serve through ROTC,the cadets sacrifice many aspects of college life. Those with scholarships can lose money or even be kicked out of the program if they don’t maintain a 2.5 grade point average. “When you’re in ROTC, academics come first, ROTC comes second, and everything else comes in a distant third,” McGuire said. “Nothing even comes close to second.”
While many of their classmates sleep until noon, the Hoya Battalion wakes up at dawn several days per week for physical training, consisting of running and more push-ups and sit-ups than they ever want to remember at one time. During weekends this month, the Hoya Battalion is intensifying field training, in which they learn how to set up and execute ambushes and conduct raids on bunkersand trenches.
Each summer, all ROTC cadets in the nation finishing their junior year are sent to a five-week leadership program called Warrior Forge in Ft. Louis, Wash. It was there that Rooks learned a new definition of an early wake-up call. His most vivid memories resulted from a nine-day field exercise. In that time, the cadets rose at either 3 or 4 a.m. and did not go to bed sometimes until midnight. It wasn’t the lack of sleep that got him, though. “I might have brushed my teeth three times in nine days and didn’t shower once,” he said. “We were smelly by day four ... excessively dirty and muddy.”
Rooks likened the leadership camp to going camping - only without a tent, and with waking up way before dawn to learn how to throw a grenade or going on an 8-mile road march with a 35-pound rucksack. At night, he and the other cadets were given a thin sleeping mat and a poncho liner to sleep with. “If it rained, well, it rained, and you woke up soaked and cold,” he said.
This past fall, some in the Hoya Battalion ran four to 12 miles per day to train for the Army Ten-Miler, a long-distance road running race. Others competed on the Ranger Challenge team, in which one of the activities requires marching 15 miles non-stop with a 45-pound rucksack. The majority of the exercises, both physical and intellectual, are designed by the military to create leaders. ROTC students are expected to be able to take even the worst and most complicated situations and make strong decisions. By placing the cadets in these difficult situations, the program exposes them to adversity and forces them to deal with it. If a cadet fails one of the summer leadership programs or a physical fitness test consisting of running and strength testing during the school year, he or she can be dismissed from ROTC.
“It’s meant to do that,” Pollock said. “It’s a test. Can you balance being a good student and a good cadet?” If so, it is a good indicator that the student will make a good leader of troops after he or she is commissioned. Since American reservists are already in Iraq and thousands of troops are slated to come home, the reality is that ROTC students could soon be testing their leadership skills on distant battlefields. “Most of us will be in Iraq or Afghanistan in the near future,” Pollock said. “Right now, we’re learning how to kill people, yes, but also how to save lives and the moral and ethical reasoning of warfare. You can’t have a mindless person leading in the field.”
Knowing that war is in their future, District ROTC students said they continue to ready themselves for it physically and mentally every day. Some said they are nervous, others are relaxed, and many said they were just anxious to get on with it. “I only worry for my family ... and my girlfriend doesn’t like it at all,” Finn said. “It’s definitely difficult.” Rooks said that while everyone deals alone with their inner demons of a future that could include combat, he and his friends in the Hoya Battalion have developed a close bond that makes their reasoning for serving clear.
“We are a very close family,” Rooks said. “There’s just something about, say, being soaked and muddy on a Sunday morning with your buddies. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.” The cadets said that people do not need to look at them any differently or thank them for their service. This is something they said they wanted to do. They understand there is a war going on, and they are prepared to go fight and lead in it.
“Any time you have the privilege to lead America’s sons and daughters, it’s a chance you shouldn’t pass up,” Rooks said. “It’s a chance you can’t pass up.”