Today's Reading Assignment
...from Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten, who recently visited the Army ROTC program at the University of Minnesota. The "Golden Gopher" battalion at the school was named the nation's best in 2007, among the 273 Army ROTC detachments at colleges and universities around the country.
As Ms. Kersten notes, enrollment in the Minnesota ROTC program has almost tripled under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Curt Cooper, the battalion's commanding officer. Nationwide, participation in the Army program has remained relatively stable, but more cadets are now completing the progam and accepting commissions as Army officers. In 2004, Army ROTC commissioned 12,000 Second Lieutenants for the service; in 2007-08, that number is expected to reach 16,000.
As a former Air Force ROTC instructor, positive stories about the program certainly touch my heart. Over the years, literally thousands of young men and women have wandered into an ROTC building, or struck up a conversation with an instructor, leading to careers and life experiences that many believed unattainable. In 1958, a young man named Colin Powell "found himself" in the ROTC program at City College in New York City, launcing a career that would carry him to the nation's highest military post, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Ms. Kersten's column underscores a couple of important points. First, there's a lot of work associated with being an ROTC cadet, and many of the events--including physical fitness training and evaluations--are held at inconvenient hours (at least, by the standards of most college students).
She also emphasizes the program's competitive nature: cadets are expected to compete with each other, and in an era of pass/fail grading systems and "self-esteem" academics, ROTC participants know exactly where they stand. During their junior year, all cadets are ranked among their peers, from 1-4,099 nationwide. The rating helps determine if students can remain in the program, receive a commission, and the types of assignments they'll receive after graduation.
During my ROTC tour, I had the unpleasant task of telling a few cadets they didn't make the grade. There was anger (and sometimes a few tears), but even the wash-outs understood that the process had been both demanding and fair. None expressed any bitterness toward the program or the military, and none (to my knowledge) became president of their local Code Pink chapter. They left with the understanding that military service is a demanding profession and for whatever reason, not everyone can make the final cut.
That's why the cadets of the Gopher Battalion deserve our thanks and gratitude. Minnesota is hardly a bastion of conservatism, so there are likely the occasional taunts or insults when the cadets wear their uniform on campus--not to mention those ill-informed (and ill-advised) editorials that appear in student newspapers. True, there are probably worse places to be a ROTC cadet (Berkeley and Madison dome to mind), but we're guessing that U of M doesn't exactly roll out the red carpet for its on-campus military program.
Consider these comments from Tracey Molm, a campus anti-war activist. Ms. Molm wasn't exactly pleased when the university's Army ROTC program was named the nation's best:
"There is no reason to have such military presence on campus," she said, "other than trying to be violent."
Molm said there are bigger priorities on campus that aren't getting the rightful attention.
"The whole country, including the 'U,' has its priorities screwed up," she said. "No other special interest group has a space on campus. Tuition continues to go up, but the government continues to find money to fund the war in Iraq."
Speaking of screwed up, consider these pearls of wisdom from Ms. Molm:
Molm said the ROTC is necessary in a time of war, but she doesn't think war is necessary.
"If we need to have any war … we do need an ROTC," she said. "But do we need war?"
Molm also said she thinks students participating in ROTC are being lied to by recruiters who stoop to low levels to get students involved.
We're sure that Ms. Molm's thinking was influenced by her professors, so that should give you some idea of the "climate" faced by the ROTC program at Minnesota. And that makes the accomplishments of Lt Col Cooper, his staff, and his cadets, even more remarkable.
One of the missions of any university is to produce leaders for the state and the nation. It's a safe bet that Colonel Cooper is producing far more leaders than his contemporaries in the Women's Studies Department. Yet no one is challenging the need for that program on the Minnesota campus.
By comparison, the ROTC program where I served enjoyed a very cordial relationship with the university. Both the Chancellor and our Dean were ROTC graduates, and both made a point of attending every commissioning ceremony. Our school (which is a part of the Southeastern Conference) also had a number of prominent alumni who had served in the military, so we never faced the outright hostility that greets ROTC at other universities.
Some final thoughts: if the armed forces agree that ROTC is important (and it remains the largest commissioning program, by far), then the military needs to make it a better assignment, in terms of promotion. I can't speak for the other services, but in the Air Force, a tour in ROTC was often the kiss of death.
Officers returning to their career fields were often met with disdain and hostility. My assignment manager told me that I had been "on vacation" for three years, and I was expected to take a "tough" job in return. Never mind that I'd been working 60 hour weeks to revive a failing detachment, and spent two tours as an ROTC training camp instructor. ROTC didn't end my career, but it didn't give it a boost, either. And that's a shame, since the assignment was one the most rewarding of my military service. From a career perspective, the rewards were meager. On a personal level, the rewards were astounding.
And I'd volunteer again in a heartbeat.