The students behind the ROTC uniforms
The battalion commander of Washington University’s ROTC program, previously a member of the varsity softball team, doesn’t come from a military family. Her family is still getting used to the idea of serving active duty—her goal after graduation.
“I think they realize the benefits both of ROTC and my choices to join the military. But they definitely were not on board to begin with,” Henkel said.
ROTC cadets compete to be assigned active duty after graduation, in part because it’s a guaranteed job but also because it’s what most people imagine when they think of fighting for their country. Some students who want jobs in the civilian sector are happy to end up in the Reserve or National Guard, but that’s less common. As multiple instructors and cadets noted, the purpose of ROTC is not to militarize college campuses but to liberalize the military—not that there hasn’t been some concern in the past.
“We may not purify the world tonight, but we should purify ourselves,” one faculty member said in a 1968 faculty meeting at which the College of Arts & Sciences voted to encourage the school to terminate its ROTC contract.The program isn’t nearly as controversial as it was in the Vietnam War era when two campus ROTC buildings—Army and Air Force—were set on fire. It was an obvious symbol of the war. But the long-extinguished symbolism hasn’t done a lot for the program’s visibility, not only at Wash. U. but nationally as well.
“I go home, and no one really knows what questions to even ask because no one knows anything about it,” Henkel said. “I mean, obviously all my friends back home support it. Because obviously, who in their right mind would say they don’t support the military?”
Wash. U. has offered military science since 1891—25 years before ROTC existed—but due to dwindling enrollment over the last few decades, the University added eight other St. Louis schools to its battalion in the 1990s. Gateway Battalion currently has 86 members, only a dozen from Wash. U.
Most students wake up too late to see the cadets working out on Francis Field or jogging around campus weekday mornings at 6 a.m. In addition to the academic course load, the ROTC program involves three morning workouts each week and multiple weekend excursions each month.
On a Friday morning toward the end of September, the battalion left for Fort Leonard Wood, preparing for a three-day trip that would include an obstacle course, day and night land navigation, and a shooting range.
Nestled 2 1/2 hours from campus in the center of Missouri, Fort Leonard Wood has all the vestiges of an unremarkable small town, from a gas station that serves prepackaged meals to a Burger King and a childcare center. But all of it lies behind a military checkpoint, and the Church’s Chicken onsite has a tank stationed out front.
Excursions like the one to Fort Leonard Wood include a mix of activities that will prepare them for the Leader Development and Assessment Course (LDAC)—which cadets will attend before their senior year of college to prove they are up to active duty—and others intended to encourage younger cadets to stay with the program. At this one, students who had never held a weapon fired M203 grenade launchers because they were cooler than basic rifles. Two weeks earlier, they went rappelling down a 65-foot metal wall, about double the height they will have to descend at LDAC.
They sleep in coed barracks, and everyone overdresses to try and avoid wearing bug bites in the morning. ROTC first opened to female cadets in 1972, but that apparently didn’t leave the fort time to build two bathrooms—the restroom has a two-sided sign on the door so it can alternate between male and female.
Students are responsible for keeping watch throughout the night and cleaning the facility in the morning. The lights go up at 5 a.m. regardless of the fact that the first drill won’t happen until long after daybreak. But cadets are used to standing and waiting for things to happen—or they get used to it quickly.
While ROTC offers students a distinctly different experience than a military academy, both tracks lead to the same place. The new chair of Wash. U.’s military science program, Lt. Col. David Waters, previously worked as a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He chose Wash. U. because it was the highest academically ranked school on the list.
“The mindset seems to be kind of the same,” Waters said. “They know that once they graduate, they’re going to serve the nation as an officer in the army. Surprisingly, I haven’t seen that much of a difference, which is nice because they’re going to be doing the same job.”
Sophomore Connor Eulberg first considered ROTC when he was a sophomore in high school and took a career test that told him he would be a harbormaster, attorney or special agent in governmental services, and he “obviously thought the last one sounded pretty cool.” He also thought ROTC would be a good way to avoid a desk job out of college.
Freshman Wesley Beck was influenced to join ROTC by a family history of service, including an uncle currently in the Navy. “No one in my family has ever been an officer in any of the armed forces,” Beck said. “So I thought I’d give it a try, try and become an officer and be the first one in my family.”
ROTC cadets are separated by year, with each class leading students one year their junior. MS4s, or fourth-year cadets, are in charge of organizing full training plans; MS2s and MS3s act the role of squad leaders while MS1s act the role of ground troops. The program is designed to allow students to pick up basic skills but ultimately learn how to act as leaders—the core focus of the program is to prepare students to take the role of second lieutenants after graduation. As Master Sgt. Leondra Felder said, “the value of ROTC is leaders providing great leadership to the future leaders of the army.”
Felder checks a student’s uniform to show how scrupulous the army is in making sure everyone is wearing the same uniform the same way according to regulation before stressing that the program focuses on the individual: “We don’t just stick to ROTC curriculum. We always talk about their family, their health, their well-being. We’re just an all-around program where we take care of the soldier or the cadet as well as their families.”