When my alarm announces the arrival of 0515 Wednesday morning, I know the pain train’s back in town. For Army cadets, Wednesdays bring Leadership Labs, an ROTC requirement best described as a course on tactics. More importantly, Leadership Labs mean cadets must wear their Army Combat Uniforms.
Although the ACU was designed to camouflage its users, for me, the uniform attracts nothing but awkward attention. Upon joining ROTC, I didn’t think the ACU would affect my Harvard life all that much. After all, I had no intention of wearing the uniform outside of ROTC training.
However, that was before I was introduced to the primary dilemma facing cadets everywhere: getting to Leadership Lab from class on time without sacrificing dinner. Initially, I planned to leave section at 1700, eat dinner by 1715, change into my ACU by 1725, and leave for the MIT ROTC Unit by 1735. However, my plan failed to account for the difference between Army Time and Harvard Time. You see, Harvard and the military don’t see eye to eye with regard to timeliness.
On campus, Harvard Time reigns supreme; if you’ve got a meeting at 1800, you’ve got a good seven minutes to procrastinate before you’re officially late. Meanwhile, the military doesn’t ascribe to Super Harvard Time, let alone Harvard Time. Although Leadership Labs start at 1800 on paper, every cadet knows that arriving after 1740 means you’re late. If you plan on arriving to Leadership Lab at 1800, by the time you arrive, cadet command will have already sent two search parties to scour the streets of Boston for your sorry soul.
Thus, I decided to cut dinner from my pre-Lab plan, only to realize that Leadership Labs end long after Harvard’s dining halls close. As a result, my Wednesdays were ending with a growling stomach and a bitter attitude.
To address my hunger, I began to change into my ACU before section, hoping I’d have time to grab a quick meal before leaving for ROTC Land. The plan worked, but it also brought about some interesting side effects. When walking into class in uniform, I feel like I’m on trial. The atmosphere becomes tense; people look at me as if I’m spearheading some sort of military takeover of Harvard. At times, I’ve considered fulfilling the fears of others by launching a fake military coup d’état where Army ROTC seizes control of the Undergraduate Council. However, considering that the Army ROTC program numbers six contracted cadets, I’ve decided to postpone the operation for the time being.
Wednesdays also mean walking in uniform off-campus, which attracts a different kind of attention. For the most part, I get stares with the occasional yet uncomfortable “thank you for your service.” About once a month you’ll encounter the typical eccentric conspiracy theorist who opposes anything in uniform. For reasons unbeknownst to me, they commonly view cadets as some sort of brainwashed legion of minions ready to serve America’s Illuminati masters at a second’s notice. Personally, I don’t mind the slightly eccentric critics; if anything, they provide me with great conversation material to work with.
However, I’m bothered when I’m asked why I joined the Army. It’s not that I dislike the question itself or the strangers who ask. On the contrary, I want to answer their questions. I just struggle to find the words to answer such a complicated question at a moment’s notice. Thus, I’m stuck giving them a cliché answer, disappointing them as well as myself. If time allowed, I’d give them two answers.
The first addresses why I joined. From a young age, I dreamed of changing the front lines of American foreign policy. Thus, the military naturally attracted my attention. The second part of my answer addresses the more important, hidden question: why I decide to stay. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of moments where I’ve asked myself what the hell I’m doing as I struggle to find my PT belt at 0530. However, it’s the motivation of others that convinced me to stay. You see, at Harvard, people often let you face things alone. Everyone’s competing to be the best, and in doing so, many hold so-called “stragglers” in contempt.
Our cadets don’t operate like that. Whether a cadet’s struggling to finish a lap, climb an obstacle, or continue the ruck march, you can bet your life that they’ve got four other cadets running alongside them, encouraging them to keep pushing. You never crawl alone. You never run alone. You never fight alone. It doesn’t matter what you believe, where you’re from, or what you know. All that matters is that you’re wearing the same uniform as the person beside you.
That’s why I’ll keep wearing this camouflage.
Nathan L. Williams '18, a current Army ROTC cadet, is a government concentrator living in Mather House.
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