More Than Just the Money: Cadets and Officers Talk About ROTC
WITHOUT his Air Force ROTC scholarship. David Herring would probably not be majoring in aeronautical engineering at MIT. In fact, he might not be going to college at all. When Herring applied to schools four years ago--he is now a junior--he discovered that his family belonged to that nebulous economic group, the 'middle-income bracket.' He was ineligible for financial aid or loans, yet his parents could not afford $10,000 dollars a year for their son's education. ROTC seemed to be the ideal solution--in addition to paying for his tuition, it would buy him his textbooks, giving him $100 a month spending money, and even send him home to Indiana a few times a year on an air force jet. Unlike other scholarships available, it could be used at any of more than 500 colleges in the United States that had access to an Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program.
Herring admits that "Initially, I joined just for the money." But he insists that he has come to appreciate the program for its weekly routine as much as for its financial benefits. "At first I was really worried about what it would imply for me to commit myself to the military," he says. "It was nothing I could put a label on, but just a sense of 'oh my God, they're going to make me do things I don't want to do.' Now I see that this experience will offer me a lot of opportunities, both in terms of training and in terms of a career."
And what about the possibility of war? "Sure I worry about war," he says, "But it's not like everyone in ROTC is a warmonger." After a moment's pause he adds, "Anyway, if you did worry about it you'd be worrying all the time wouldn't you?" In any case, as a flight-test engineer--the job he hopes to land after graduation--Herring admits that his chances of actually seeing combat would be slim. "But if I was assigned to work with weapons I'd do it," he says. "After all, it's just a job--I'd do what I had to do."
A DECADE and two years have passed since the day police arrested 300 Harvard students for occupying University Hall in protest of-among other things-the ROTC presence on campus, and the scars of that traumatic upheaval seem to have healed and faded, if they haven't disappeared entirely. The number of college students preparing to do Herring's "job" and others like it for the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force has more than doubled over the last five years, and although Harvard no longer hosts a unit of its own, it has kept up with this national trend. The Air Force ROTC program at MIT, which also accepts students from Tufts and Wellesley, has been especially successful in attracting Harvard students,who make up a little more than one-seventh of that division's 242 cadets.
Air Force ROTC officials agree that a number of factors loom large in their program's rising popularity. They point to the general trend among Americans towards conservatism, and the military's beginning to lose the terrible stigma acquired with the years in Vietnam. The program itself is also more attractive to students than it was ten years ago, they say.
Its basic structure has not changed-cadets still attend a weekly class, meet for marching drill, and participate ina seminar program called "Leadership lab." But drill now meets only four times a semester rather than once a week, and the curriculum of the class has been reworked to include current topics international relations and military strategy, which AFROTC officials call "more relevant" to everyday life. "These days, rather than filling their heads with ideology we concentrate on getting our students thinking," says Col. Joel Hetland, professor of Air Science at MIT and instructor for the program's freshmen.
But Hetland joins his colleagues in calling the program's financial award "probably the biggest factor" in bringing students to ROTC. Of the 33 Harvard students currently enrolled, all but one are on scholarship, and many say they would not have entered the program without it. Ironically, the scholarship is also responsible for the program's most pressing roblem: the high drop-out rate of students. When a freshman accepts an Air Force ROTC scholarship he commits himself to four years of active duty in the service upon graduation. Up to the end of his sophomore year, however, he can break his contract without incurring any financial or service penalty. "Sometimes during those first two years people find themselves disillusioned with the military, or their career goals change", says Major Steven Wallace, assistant professor of aerospace at MIT and instructor of the seniors. "We don't want to take kids straight out of high school and rope them into the Air Force without giving them a chance to find out if they like it." More than 50 per cent of the students in MIT's program decide to drop out before junior year, Wallace says, a figure he estimates is slightly higher than the national average. He theorizes that the drop-out rate rises with the number of scholarshipsgiven out. "Here we have virtually everyone on scholarship," he says. "The people who come out of this detachment are tremendously desired by industry-it's awfully difficult to hold on to an MIT or Harvard student after General Motors has told him they'll pick up his scholarship and guarantee him a $25,000 a year job on graduation."
Wallace admits that there are cadets who accept a scholarship with no intention of entering the military. "We are trying to develop some guidelines for discerning whether a student is just doing this as his meal ticket," he says, adding, "If things continue like this we may have to make students commit themselves sooner." But Hetland says the drop-out rate today is no worse than it has ever been, and that the government is not losing money. "When a cadet gives up his scholarship, we simply give it to someone else as a two-or-three-year scholarship," he says, "It never actually leaves the program." Col. G. Sidney Smith Jr., professor of Military Science at MIT, elaborates: "Because there is a set amount of money put aside for scholarships, and because that money is always ultimately used for scholarships, no money is lost. However, the tax payers are still sending a student to college for two years without receiving that student's services in return.
Despite their concern that students will "take the government for a free ride," Air Force ROTC officials are optimistic about future enrollments. In September, President Reagan signed a bill authorizing the creation of 3000 more scholarships, and Wallace says he feels sure the Air Force will find the money to pay for them. "The drop-out rate is an important moral issue, an important social issue," he says. But says we benefit from frequent turnover of students: "more people are being exposed to the Air Force through our program than ever before.
A COLD Saturday morning down at MIT's New Athletic Center finds the atmosphere quiet but cheerful. Today, the three Flight groups of cadet squadron one are meeting for drill, and everyone is very polite. People salute each other. A civilian visitor is addressed as 'Ma'am' or 'miss.' The cadets gather in small groups, straightening each other's name plates and wiping doughnut crumbs off the blue serge of Air Force ROTC's winter uniform in preparation for inspection. "It's not like anything is going to happen to you if your shoes aren't shined enough," says Steven Perry '85. It's really just a matter of personal pride. He stands with the others, carefully arranging his tie so as not to lose points for his thirteen-person Flight.
Although ROTC officials emphatically discount the importance of this military ritual, the cadets take it seriously. Besides planningthe marching moves each Flight will perform during drill, they are responsible for its scheduling and for making sure attendance is consistent. The mock squadron is staffed and consistent. The mock squadron is staffed and led by a hierarchy of juniors and seniors who have been promoted to ranks that correspond to actual Air Force positions. "It's true that an active duty officer will rarely have to drill," says Bryon Fortson, a cadet corps commander and MIT senior. "But here it's an important part of developing leadership skills, and of nurturing a sense of self-discipline." A Harvard freshman couches his feelings in less official terms. "Sure it's a drag getting up at 6:30 a.m., but I kind of like all the marching around."
In fact, the cadets like "marching around" so much that when Hetland suggested to his students that they devise an alternative "Method for teaching leadership and followship" an overwhelming majority said they would rather stick with the traditional system. "I was really taken ,aback," Hetland says. "I'm dead set against drill myself-in the Air Force you just don't spend time marching around in fields.
Ironically, Hetland attributes the rising popularity of ROTC among college students today to the fact that the program is now less military than it has been in the past. "There has definitely been a trend in ROTC away from digging ditches and carrying guns," he says. "We don't drop people for push-ups anymore."