TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – For many prospective college students, ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) may seem like the only way to pay for a four-year degree. For some of them, the potential danger of joining ROTC will pay off in a college education and successful career, whether as a soldier or civilian. But others, just because they wanted to go to college, will end up making the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
ROTC is a U.S. military training program on college and university campuses across the country. Cadets participate in daily physical training and military science classes to prepare for a position as an entry level officer in the armed forces after graduation. After a collegiate career of increasingly demanding immersion into a military lifestyle, most students willingly begin their service time in the armed forces. But that’s not always the case.
In return for mandatory service post-graduation, ROTC funds the cadets’ tuition. This financial incentive is a selling point for many students. The money can be seen as a relief for struggling college students who are looking for a way to complete a four-year degree without the burden of onerous student loan packages.
“When I was applying to colleges – and I also applied for scholarships – by far the biggest scholarship I got was to ROTCU,” said retired Army Capt. Mark Guffey. “Basically a full ride at any college that had a ROTCU program. So when I got into Duke it just made sense [to join].”
Financial burden aside, ideological reasons can motivate incoming college students to join the program. With conflict seemingly endless in the post-9/11 war on terror, some cadets simply want to protect the American way of life.
“Lots of people want to serve the country,” said Cadet June Han. “A lot of my friends are actually … military families. Their father was in the army, or grandfather was in the army, so I think for some they just want to to continue tradition.”
But others say that entering ROTC for purely patriotic reasons isn’t exactly common.
“Some of [the cadets I trained with] did it purely out of patriotism, but for the most part the scholarship was the big lure, the one that really took everybody right over the top,” said retired Army Sgt. Hoa Johnson.
Both current and former ROTC cadets are disdainful of the suggestion that ROTC members might have reservations when it is actually time to serve.
Johnson’s reply was terse when asked about whether he has ever heard of someone refusing to serve after having college paid for by ROTC.
“Think about it, it’s like a guaranteed job coming out of college.”
However, he acknowledged there is an option to decline a commission after completion of the ROTC program. Though rarely used, the out can be available, under the right circumstances. However, the military has recently made some changes to limit the already few exceptions. On April 29, the Department of Defense decided that cadets attending a military academy could no longer defer commissions in order to play professional sports. In the future, athletes at these schools will have to serve two years of active duty before being released from their contracts with the military.
“There have been a few people to defer their commissions, but not for bad reasons, because they wanted to enlist [as a private] because they thought that fit best in their lives at the moment for whatever reason,” said Ashleigh Flanary, a current cadet at The University of Alabama.
She explained that declining a commission because they have decided not to fulfill service requirements would probably be similar to when a cadet is kicked out of the program and must pay the money back.
Guffey has heard cadets express hesitation about entering active duty. He lamented that when he joined, many cadets did not fully recognize that joining ROTC could also come with the possibility of deployment. Now, he said, people are more aware of the risks.
When Guffey entered ROTC, the U.S. was not in any major military conflicts. He recalled a pervasive attitude among the cadets in his cohort that “you were going to sign up to be a soldier and never really do anything.” However, just a few months after Guffey completed ROTC and begun his officer training program, a few of the new lieutenants who were in his graduating year were called to join the 1989 invasion of Panama.
“I remember very distinctly that many of them were very surprised and very scared like, ‘Oh, what do you mean I actually have to fight and do this?’ It was shocking and not expected and people were hesitant about actually being in it … It is a reality that you could be in danger, and a lot of people in my generation just didn’t have that mindset at all. They didn’t think they would have to go to combat.”
However, Guffey maintains that fear of deployment is not a sign of weakness. To him, a rational fear of violence is a mark of humanity.
“Some of [the cadets] believe they are fighting for freedom, which they are,” he said. “But some of them think, ‘I will be in infantry,’ and I always worry about those people a lot because you should not be gung ho for [the trauma of combat] – you should have a different mindset.”