ROTC students keep a low profile. Hidden away at MIT since 1969, when the University pushed the program off campus, the hardy band of students would probably duck the radar screen completely if not for their mandatory uniformed-Mondays. But their military existence, packed with discipline and drills, is more than just days of slick dress blacks and hats.
The life of a ROTC student begins at 5:30 a.m. at least twice a week. On one dreary, wet Monday morning at 7, eight members of the Navy ROTC program climb on the shuttle that whisks them to MIT. The damp day is scheduled to start with a bang: a thermodynamics quiz. So as the bus rattles down the road, Raymond L. Andrews '03 frantically tries to cram half of the book into his brain while the other ROTC students are huddled in the back, trying to stay warm while quizzing each other on the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Finally the shuttle reaches its destination, and everyone walks briskly through the rain, hurdling the huge puddles on the way to the military science building across the campus. After collecting the test papers, the gregarious lecturer, fresh off the submarine, chats about water feed supply pumping while reminiscing about his latest eight-month stint under water. During announcements, he reminds the class about their upcoming 6 a.m. lab. Groans fill the room, which is wallpapered in maps of international hot spots, like China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
One of the rookies to the program, Jeffrey C. Munns '03, sits in the back row of the classroom listening intently to the teacher share his nautical tales. Munns always knew he would wind up here. Growing up in a military family, he felt compelled to carry on the family tradition. "The 'duty to serve your country' kind of thing was instilled me as a child," he reminisces. "And then there also was the issue of scholarship-[the government] pays for tuition, books, fees, and so on." For others, the money factor was key in drawing them into ROTC and devoting years of their lives to the armed services. For Richard J. Goodier '01, the scholarship has given him the opportunity to go to Harvard. "ROTC was one of the very few ways I could've gone to college outside of the state schools," he remembers. But more than just a grueling requirement to make it through $120,000 of education, the daily exercises soon became something Goodier looked forward to. Goodier declares, "I really starting liking [ROTC] during freshman year. I learned leadership skills that are good for any situation, whether in the military or in the business world."
Gaining these valuable leadership skills requires a lot of time getting to know the T bus driver on the early shift, as Marisa L. Porges '00 explains. "For the basic commitment, we always have Naval Science class two times a week, 7:30 to 9 in the mornings. Usually, I got up at 6, caught a ride or the bus to MIT by 7, returned to campus after 9 and continued with a normal day like everybody else." After dealing with that hectic schedule for three years, Porges was glad to get some extra shuteye this year. She exudes, "I managed to have no morning classes though for my senior spring, so I can finally have a true college life. " Every Monday midshipmen attend battalion labs, two-hour lectures dealing with varying topics including courtesies, sexual harassment and visiting veterans. And they also must attend early morning classes, like scintillating three-hour navigation seminars.
The military believes in improving one's body as well as one's mind, so athletic competitions loom large. ROTC squads from across the nation go head-to-head in a series of events at Military Excellence Competitions (MECs). "There are also volunteer activities which we're 'strongly encouraged' to do, like rifle pistol, color guard and drill team," Andrews says. Color guard, which is basically marching around carrying huge flags, takes the form of team competitions. Judges score teams based on the sharpness of their moves, their appearances and form. Sometimes they escape military confines to march for football games or the Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year parade. The drill team competes as a larger platoon or a squad at MECs. A drill sergeant inspects the midshipmen to test if their uniforms are well groomed, how attentive they are--as in no slouching--and their overall appearance. They must also execute such moves as a left face, right face or march column left. And as for artillery, the rifle pistol team also competes at MECs and campuses throughout the year. To score big in on the shooting range, midshipmen focus their energy on "trying to get each other," according to Goodier. But none of this extra sweat and studying counts for Harvard credit. As Goodier points out: "Everything is outside of Harvard, so it's like I've been taking five or six classes every semester."
But as time consuming as these activities are, ROTC airforce member Brian R. Smith '02 says the packed schedule can be rewarding--even when events kick off at 0600 hours. "The fact is that ROTC is what you make of it. The older you get, the more responsibility you get," Smith explains. "For instance, I hold three jobs right now, so I go to MIT an average of 3 or four times a week."
Men outnumber women in the program, but women keep on pace with their male counterparts. Porges admits that being a woman in the ROTC "has provided for unusual experiences since, as would be expected, I find myself as a minority amongst a primarily male group." That status though, has not hindered her from advancing in the field. Porges boasts, "Women are given the same opportunities as the men in all ROTC endeavors-a fact that can be clearly seen by the number of women we have as midshipmen leaders in our battalion. I, in fact, was 'Battalion Commander,' the top midshipmen billet last semester-which basically means I ran the show from the midshipman's standpoint."
Although women say they have prevailed in ROTC, many people protest other forms of discrimination in the program. The program has been kept off the campus for decades, although the reasoning has changed. Initially, the University booted ROTC in 1969 after pressure from members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) stormed University Hall and took over the administrative offices over night to protest the Vietnam War. Today though, ROTC's problems stem from gay rights issues and the military's seemingly prejudiced "don't ask, don't tell" policy against homosexuals. ROTC students say they tend not to mind trekking to MIT but they say the University's stance is misleading. Munns feels the University acts hypocritically by banning ROTC: "[The University] says that they are tolerant of everyone, yet they choose to be prejudiced against people they think are prejudiced. The elements against ROTC aren't kicked out, yet they won't allow ROTC back. It's a really tough issue." Porges adds, "Ideologically, if they're promoting tolerance of everyone, it should include accepting the military. I'm a little disturbed that people here don't accept something that's such a major part of my life."
Andrews, on the other hand, is concerned more with the good of the unit than the idea of all kinds of people working together. "The military is based on teamwork and unity, and a team only works best together with absolute trust," Andrews says. Looking at society, Andrews sees friction between heterosexuals and homosexuals, and he doesn't want that interfering with the efficiency of ROTC. In general society, there is friction between heterosexuals and homosexuals, so the military is really no different. It took time for men to be able to work side by side with women, and the same thing with race. Considering the military's roots, starting with only white males, it has come a long way: first allowing other races, then women, and now gradually homosexuals. Social change takes time, and the military will probably change the policy soon-I've read news reports that they are currently reviewing the policy."
As for now, these military trainees tough out the grueling physical training, and the occasional confrontation with a disagreeing fellow student. They rest secure in the knowledge though that after graduation, they'll be sailing on the open sea to exciting foreign lands, while the rest of the world toils in gray corporate cubicles.