A Few Good Days With a Few Good Men (And Women)

Monday is uniform day. Stacie K. Persons ’02-’03, an Air Force cadet, has to get up a little earlier than

Monday is uniform day. Stacie K. Persons ’02-’03, an Air Force cadet, has to get up a little earlier than usual. “When you go to bed [before uniform days] you make sure everything’s shined and lint-free,” she says. Monday, Oct. 7, was the day President Bush gave a key speech about military preparedness for a war in Iraq. Because of his speech, that Monday was also the day the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice organized a 300-person anti-war rally in front of the Science Center.

A handful of cadets in full uniform walked by the protest. No protester said anything, but the cadets got some meaningful stares.

Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC, pronounced alternately R-O-T-C and rot-see) lore is that two years ago a midshipman in uniform was asked by a professor to leave the class. But today, even strolling by a peace rally, onlookers are just curious, not irate.

“No one said a word to me. No one yelled at me or anything like that. Which is about what I expected,” says Samuel K. King ’04.

“When people find out that I’m in ROTC, they find that this is the most intriguing thing that I do,” says James S. Foreman ’04, a third-year Army cadet (MSIII). “A lot of people like to ask about it. I’m proud to tell them.”

There is a lot to say about the politics and prejudices of Harvard and ROTC. Most of it has already been said. But curiosity lingers—what is life actually like for people who make an extracurricular commitment not for their own or their résumé’s sake, but for national defense. Sure, they get money to pay for school. But in addition to four years of ROTC coursework, they also commit to at least four years after school of military training and service. University President Lawrence H. Summers likes ROTC; a pro-military speech was one of his more significant political statements since he became Harvard’s president. He even recorded a video clip to aid in army recruiting and he showed up at commissioning last year, something cadets say meant a lot to them.

There are 22 Harvard cadets in the Army, 18 in the Navy and seven in the Air Force, although first-year numbers are still fluctuating. Their lives are similar to Harvard’s civilian students—they live and eat in the dorms, they take Harvard classes, they’re involved with sports teams, Harvard Model Congress and other activities that will be of little service in a war zone. But come 6:30 a.m. on Monday mornings, their college lives sharply diverge from their classmates’. For a week, FM marched alongside Harvard’s fighting forces.

Wednesday, 6:35 a.m.

It is still dark out, and cold enough for breath to be visible even though it’s only October. It will be drizzling and disgusting later today, but for now it’s still crisp and cool. For someone who is usually asleep for another six hours, Cambridge before dawn is kind of exciting. For the Army MSIIIs, or juniors, who have to fill out a quiz on military tactics for homework, it is routine. The van ride to MIT, where ROTC classes for all three services take place, is a chance to hastily fill in their answers. “ROTC homework is basically an academic bottom feeder,” one cadet explains.

Everyone is in the van and accounted for at 6:39. Everyone except one cadet, who arrives about five minutes later. “What time is it?” an authoritative figure in the front seat barks at her. “By my watch, 6:42.” There is some half-hearted reprimand and for a moment it seems like the army is the cold, rigid entity that stereotypes and war movies are made of. Until the “Jeopardy!” theme song starts playing.

Captain Alan Wiernicki teaches the third-year course. Today, a pretty light day by his standards, involves a “Jeopardy!”-style review of the science of tactics. Wiernicki assigns captains and, as he says, “just like fifth grade gym class,” the captains pick teams. “Rafi” says William C. B. Taylor ’04 before anyone can say anything else. Everyone laughs. Apparently this was the obvious first pick.

Cadet Raphael S. Cohen ’04 is doing an active-duty four-year scholarship. And he is doing it intensely. Cohen is a member of Pershing Rifles, a tri-service military fraternity that emphasizes additional skill acquisition and war games. He also participated in this year’s Ranger Challenge, where cadets compete in activities like making a bridge out of one rope and other practical skills of physical mettle.

The army is now a big part of his life at Harvard, but he didn’t come in to school “contracted” (on a four year scholarship and committed to serve already). “For a long while I thought that I was going to do some sort of military service. Patriotism somehow gets instilled in you from very early on. But what exactly that would end up being—an active duty commitment or time in the reserves—wasn’t really clear to me until freshman year,” he says.

When he did make the decision, it was not about finances, but about his desire to serve. “My mom took a little while to get used to it,” he says. “With the international situation being what it is, it’s natural that they’re slightly concerned for my safety. But it’s an honor and I think they view it as such.” His family’s support is important. Cohen is an observant Jew, and he often participates in ROTC training activities that violate the Sabbath. He says, “I end up having to make a lot of choices. I hope they’re the right choices. Well, they are the right choices for me and my family,” and he notes that the Torah makes provisions for such violations in the name of national defense.

Back in the classroom, it’s unclear whether Taylor made the right choice for teammates this morning at ROTC “Jeopardy!” His team, which names itself the Exterminators, is falling behind the opposing Doves. Everyone is struggling a bit. It is clear that military science homework is left to be done during the half-light of the van ride to MIT.

“Okay,” quips Morris E. Levy ’04, playing Alex Trebek for the morning. “The Doves will pick again. But there’s not much of a choice because this is, after all, the army,” and the teams had no categories to choose from except army-related tactics. Correct answers elicit a “boo-ya” from the instructor, and after a slight chiding for unpreparedness, he ends class with a few minutes to spare. The army cadets amble down the street in the drizzle to indoor physical training or “P.T.” They’re lucky to get the gym today—usually they’re outside, even in the cold.

One cadet leads the group exercise and third-year platoon leaders look on with evaluation cards in hand. The peer leadership and review is an integral part of what cadets are learning. While cadets seem to come perilously close to dropping the large planks used for weight training on their heads, Captain Richard K. Berube, who is in charge of recruiting for the Paul Revere battalion, MIT’s ROTC branch, takes time away from observing physical training to speak surprisingly frankly about his battalion.

“We understand the demands on our students and we try to be as flexible as we can. Their number-one priority is to get their degree. There are not too many generals from Harvard,” he says. “We wish there were more, but we know they have bigger and better things to do. They’re obviously very intelligent people who will do great things in the military. But there are going to be a lot of companies that want them to work for them.”

Michael A. Zacchilli ’03 jumping-jacks over to see what a reporter is doing watching P.T. on a Wednesday morning. While continuing to jump, he manages not only to keep his glasses from falling off his face, but also to explain why he joined the Army in the first place. Harvard would have been out-of-reach otherwise, he says, explaining that he contracted with the Army to pay for school but now could actually envision a career of military service. Zacchilli is applying for an education deferment to attend medical school and then to serve as a doctor in the army.

“More and more civilian institutions are recruiting heavily from the military. A doctor coming out of the army is looked at very, very favorably,” he says.

Zacchilli, like his fellow cadets, emphasizes the leadership training ROTC cadets get, and the leadership experience they will have as commissioned officers. Cadet King agrees, “It’s a choice about my future. There aren’t a lot of jobs out there where a 23-year-old gets put in charge of millions of dollars of equipment, but most importantly you have the final responsibility for people. The term is ‘mission first and people always,’” says King.

The majority of his fellow cadets repeat this sentiment. It is at once idealistic and practical—serious patriotic aspiration toward leadership and service to one’s country, coupled with a strong awareness of the private-sector marketability of an officer pedigree. Most ROTC officer candidates don’t envision a lifetime in the military.

King can’t pinpoint exactly why he joined, but it’s clear that he’s thought a lot about the future. “It is something I thought was valuable and the opportunities that you have for personal development…there’s no other way to get those kinds of experiences,” he says. “It’s so hard to explain to other people what it means.” And it’s true. It’s difficult to glean the specifics of what a ROTC commitment means emotionally to these cadets and midshipmen. It’s not so hard to glean that it does mean a lot of work.

Monday, 7:34 a.m.

The military loves its Microsoft Power Point. This generation of officers is digesting an entire vocabulary of national defense acronyms in bullet point form. It is not so different here in the military-science classrooms at MIT than anywhere else. People show up late. They are disheveled and fighting off sleep. “I’m definitely tired. That’s where this comes in,” says one midshipman, toasting with a can of Mountain Dew.

Jeffrey C. Munns ’03 sits in the front row. He is the battalion commander this semester and so he coordinates activities for all the midshipmen at MIT. This morning he stays awake through the basics of sonar and how sound travels underwater. Most of the back row nods off periodically.

Munns, unlike most of his fellows-in-arms, doesn’t temper his future plans with a well-thought-out alternative to the military. “Eventually I want to try and get into the astronaut program, and most astronauts come from the Navy,” he says. “When I started getting serious about thinking about school I realized this is what I want to do. When it came time to pick a major, I picked astrophysics. I like this stuff. It could come in handy.”

Something else Munns calls “handy” is learning how to use a nuclear reactor. He is applying to be trained for submarine duty next year because most astronauts get picked from the submarines.

“I’ll serve my time and see how I like it. I grew up in the service and from what I’ve seen so far I like it,” he says.

Friday, 8:03 a.m.

The Army is at Harvard for P.T. this morning. Sergeant Major Kraig E. Haas supervises as James S. Foreman ’04 leads stretching and stadium runs. As they warm up, Haas intersperses small talk with pointers on leadership. He asks about an upcoming rugby game and Foreman reports that Harvard is set to play the Army, as in West Point. Cadet Finnegan A. Hamill ’04 asks Haas “Who do we root for?”

“Not the Army. Those are West Pointers. Always root for the ROTC guys,” Haas says. Most of these cadets have made a deliberate choice not to attend a service academy. For Munns, who knew pretty much what he was getting into, it was a choice in favor of “enjoying college” and having a normal college experience. Others who come from military families, like Persons and Tatiana “Tasha” C. Bartch ’06 are also pleased with this choice. Bartch is, in fact, ebulliently ecstatic about her college choice. “I love it so far,” she says of Harvard, Air Force ROTC and pretty much everything else.

“I didn’t apply to the academies. I don’t want my life to be that planned minute-by-minute,” she says. “I’m more into doing my own thing.” Chatting at the Science Center Greenhouse, she says, “I just had midterms. I had to go play the piano to get out my angst.” Catharsis through raucous sonata review isn’t the only thing about Bartch that strays from military stereotypes. During her junior year in high school she modeled professionally, and she may take modeling up again. Bartch’s photo has graced the pages of Italian Vogue, Glamour “and stuff,” she elaborates vaguely.

She is not committed to the Air Force until the first day of her sophomore year. Even full scholarship recipients get a year’s trial period. Bartch declines to say one way or the other whether she’s positive she’ll continue with her commitment. When she moved into Weld Hall this fall, it was the first time she ever lived off a military base, and the rhythm of Air Force training keeps her grounded. “I’ve always sort of been a tomboy. I love lifting weights, hanging out with boys. I feel comfortable with the group and it makes me feel closer to home,” she says.

And perhaps the biggest freshman year perk: Bartch describes the rooming talk with her Weld roommates. “We were picking rooms and I was like ‘by the way, I wake up at five in the morning a couple times a week.’ No one wants to share with me. It worked out really well.” While she’s not completely sure about the future, she is certainly enthusiastic about the present. She couldn’t really imagine college any other way. “A lot of military kids end up doing it—they know what they’re getting into. I don’t know how you can grow up on a base and not have such respect for people who serve their country like that,” Bartch says.

“It’s the way I live, everything in moderation. I try everything, enjoy everything. As long as I get good food and good sleep and run every day, I’m happy.” Bartch says she never really thinks about Harvard’s institutional antagonism toward ROTC. She was a little worried, though, when she opened the package of student publication that freshmen receive over the summer. “Perspective was the first one I pulled out and I literally opened right to the middle and there was a big title that said ‘ROTC is wrong.’”

Bartch and Persons are both the daughters of Marines. They chose the Air Force over the other services mainly because the career options and quality of life seemed the best match, especially, Persons mentions, in terms of gender issues. The Air Force was also most attractive to Jamin B. Wilson ’04 because of advice he got on the quality of life in the air force. There was no familial pressure or connection to the military to push him toward ROTC or influence his service choice. “I felt like it was my duty to serve my country,” he says. “I was told the Air Force has the best quality of life. It’s the best if you have a family.”

On campus, he is involved in what used to be called the Harvard ROTC Association, now the National Defense Forum, and also participates in Pershing Rifles. He says his ROTC commitment is a huge part of his life at Harvard, but certainly not the entirety of his experience. This is true for most cadets.

“I definitely identify as an ROTC cadet. But first and foremost you’re a student. The program is very good about putting a priority on academics,” says Taylor. Still, some ROTC cadets feel separated from their college. “There are definitely times when I feel like I do identify more with even MIT and ROTC than the actual Harvard experience,” Persons says. For others, ROTC is more of a large extracurricular commitment. Bartch calls her Air Force training her “varsity sport.” But more so than athletes, the ROTC commitment is very much a public one. “I’m not going to go up to every TF and say ‘Hey I’m Rafi the ROTC cadet, but I end up wearing the uniform to class,” Cohen says.

Who are the

Harvard cadets?

They are professionally ambitious first of all. They are patriotic, athletic, altruistic, inspiring and very good at planning ahead. ROTC upperclassmen don’t seem smug so much as self-assured when thinking about the job market. The recruiting nightmares and vocational anguish of their peers is a foreign notion to them. But Persons puts it in perspective. She says traveling to MIT isn’t really such a hardship at all. “When you consider the kinds of things you’ll have to give up on active duty,” she says, “it’s nothing.”

Even as they enjoy their time at Harvard, the pall cast by current events affects these students in more profound ways than most. No one will say much about the current international situation except to offer the vague sentiment that it is even harder to think about war when you might have to go fight in it.

Cadet Bartch tells a story about working out in the gym at the base where her family lives. A newly-enlisted man, probably about 18 or 19, was working out next to her. She says a TV news segment came on about troops deployed to Afghanistan and the new enlistee broke down and cried.

Munns says it’s funny to think that some of his ROTC peers are confident that their commitment will be over after four years and that they anticipate the kinds of professional opportunity that will be available to them as former U.S. military officers, while diminishing the hardship and commitment of their required years of service.

The military teaching staff make it clear that they don’t expect officers from Harvard to make careers in the military. In fact, Sergeant Major Haas says that the goal is to have military-minded individuals high up in the government and business worlds.

Still, ROTC is about more than getting a good job eventually or paying for school, and a military commitment is certainly not just another extracurricular. The cadets and midshipmen don’t get too sentimental about it, though. King comes the closest. Because he joined ROTC in his sophomore year, he spent five weeks last summer at a “lateral entry camp” where he caught up on the training he had missed. He says the drill sergeants at Fort Knox, where he attended this camp, talked a lot about how to talk about the army. “You’ll tell your stories about your different experiences and you try to relate to how it makes you feel inside and the people who haven’t had that experience might not understand you—not the what, but how you felt,” King says.

“Freshman year I had some doubts. I knew that the tuition attracted me and I knew that was the wrong reason,” says cadet Persons. At first she thought that she would join the Air Force to pay for Harvard. Years in ROTC have changed her mind. “Now I’m going to Harvard so I can join the Air Force,” she says.