For some Yalies, LEGOs bring back memories of childhood. For Justin Elliott ’05, the interlocking plastic blocks represent his dreams for the future.
“That’s Jack Stone,” Elliott says, pointing to a moustached plastic adventurer sitting in a LEGO plane on his common room table. “My mom sent it up.”
Elliott, who has wanted to be a fighter pilot for “as far as you can trace it back,” is working toward his goal now as a cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program — when he is not at swim team practice, in class, or solving mechanical engineering problem sets.
Being an ROTC cadet at Yale requires motivation, dedication, and an hourlong commute at least once a week to attend training and classes. But it does not mean immersing oneself in a military life for four years.
Yale has not given academic credit for ROTC courses since 1969, when the faculty voted that ROTC was “vocational training, not liberal education.” But Yale still supports its cadets, paying for rental cars and gas to get them to and from the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where the Air Force program meets, or Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, where the Army program is located. Even though ROTC no longer meets on Yale’s campus, there are eight Yalies who are currently cadets.
While the group may be small, Liz Jordan ’06, an Air Force ROTC cadet, said she sees diversity within it. While she, like several other ROTC cadets at Yale, was born on a military base and comes from a military background, Jordan said her participation in ROTC does not define her. With her fingernails painted pink, her hair pulled back with a pink bandanna, and a pink Dave Matthews Band sticker on her Nalgene, Jordan hardly seems to fit the gruff image of a future “Jack Stone.” The fact that she is in ROTC, she said, sometimes “provokes double takes.”
“It’s definitely not who I am,” Jordan said. “Yet.”
Richard Holliday ’04, a third-year cadet in the Army program, said he believes ROTC has become a larger part of his identity this year: It is his MS3 year, where after two years as a “follower,” he is finally in a leadership position. Holliday said cadets consider the third year of military science very important.
“ROTC basically has three parts,” Holliday said. “A five-to six-week [summer] leadership camp, the MS3 year, and the third is all the other years combined.”
Matt Collins ’03, who is assigned to attend Air Force intelligence training after he graduates from the ROTC program at the end of the semester, said the commitment ROTC requires is, in a way, proportional to the amount of time a cadet has been in the program. A cadet can essentially try out the program freshman year and then “walk away” at the end if he does not want to continue, Collins said. Under some conditions, cadets on scholarship who leave the program would have to repay it, but a cadet who leaves after freshman year would not.
ROTC scholarships can be generous, sometimes covering full tuition, books and lab fees as well as giving a cadet a nontaxable stipend that increases every year he is in the program. A cadet who is not on scholarship, Collins added, can also walk away after sophomore year. But while a cadet is a “mentee” for the first two years in the program, he enters the Professional Officer Course during his second two years and becomes a mentor to the freshmen and sophomores, Collins said. All the Air Force cadets attend aerospace studies classes and a weekly Leadership Laboratory, which he said the upperclassmen teach under official supervision.
“You really feel the commitment your junior and senior years,” Collins said. “But it’s not burdensome. Certain small parts of it are frustrating, but what academic work isn’t at times?”
Elliott said with ROTC, a mechanical engineering major, and the varsity swim team, he has to manage his time wisely.
“You assume the hours of 7 a.m. to 5:30 are no-work hours, then you go to dinner, so you have to know that from 7 to midnight, that’s when you do work,” Elliott said while taking a break from a computer science problem set that had already taken him 11 hours. “I try to leave Saturday nights open. It’s manageable. You’ve just got to be disciplined.”
Jordan said she looks forward to increasing her commitment to ROTC in future years.
“I don’t like to do things halfway,” she said.
Elliott said cadets frown on those who only attend the weekly Thursday class at the University of Connecticut and even have a special name for them: “Thursday warriors.”
But Jordan also said she values her time away from the program. Though her father, a former ROTC cadet and Air Force pilot, used to suggest jokingly that she apply to the U.S. Air Force Academy, she wanted to attend a school that would give her a more traditional college experience. Yale also appealed to her, she said, because ROTC does not have the same significance on campus as it does at schools like Texas A&M.
“This way, I get to do Yale things six days a week, and then figure out Air Force stuff on Thursdays,” Jordan said, but added that she participates in the weekend volunteer opportunities ROTC provides.
Collins, whom the Air Force Academy recruited for golf, said he considered participating in ROTC while attending Yale “the best of both worlds.”
“I had more social freedom here. Being able to wear many hats while I was at school was, for me, the best option,” said Collins, who is a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity and a former varsity golfer. “I was bringing ROTC to whatever university I went to — I knew I wanted academics and ROTC first.”
Participation in ROTC is not without academic consequences. In the Air Force program, cadets attend classes on Thursday afternoons, so they must either forgo most classes that meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays or simply miss half of the lectures. While Collins usually stacks his Mondays and Wednesdays, he said he once made an exception to take “Crime and Punishment.”
The Army program has class on Wednesdays, Holliday said, and it also differs from the Air Force program because Army cadets have physical training every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning. He said he must get up at 5 a.m. on these days.
“It’s not exactly the typical schedule at Yale,” Holliday said.
While Jordan is prepared for the program to take up her time and shape her schedule in the future, she joked that she hopes it will not “dominate” her thinking. She said her political views are not always consistent with people’s image of ROTC.
“I’m liberal with my personal politics,” Jordan said. “That shocks people.”
Elliott said he considered himself liberal when growing up, but now does not think he fits into any one political ideology. He added that he has been pleasantly surprised by the military’s open-mindedness and by the things he has learned in Leadership Laboratory.
“It certainly wasn’t the brainwashing I thought it was going to be,” Elliott said. “We’ve probably learned more about how many bad decisions [the U.S. government has] made than how many good decisions [it has made]. They’re trying to make us think like leaders.”
Elliott cited the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as an example of how the military is sometimes misunderstood. He said he was not sure what to think about it at first, but he learned the hard way that the rule can simply mean “don’t show affection in uniform.” Elliot got in trouble for hugging his girlfriend while he was wearing his uniform and said the policy seems to have more to do with respect for the uniform than with targeting any one group.
Yale Law students who wore gags in protest of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when military Judge Advocate General corps recruiters visited campus earlier this month and in the fall might disagree with Elliott. And on a campus that sent over 150 students to the recent anti-war rally in New York City, one might expect that ROTC cadets would meet with vocal criticism. But in general, that is not the case.
Holliday said people do not tend to be confrontational when they see him in uniform.
“You can definitely tell the people who haven’t seen me in it before. There are definitely people who don’t think too highly of it,” he said.
Several cadets said faculty had complimented them upon seeing them in uniform. Jordan said a professor she did not know stopped her in the Woolsey Hall rotunda one day when she was in uniform and told her that he had participated in ROTC at Stanford University.
“He said, ‘I think it’s great you’re doing that,'” Jordan said.
Collins said the honor code cadets live by binds them together. Many cadets share the same values, he said: integrity, pride, and service before self.
“You don’t see it as much in the civilian world,” Collins said. “It’s a different way of thinking about things altogether. There’s so much individuality [in ROTC] competing for spots and honors, but one of the first things they tell you is that if you’re better than everybody else, you’re the one getting yelled at, because you should be helping your fellow cadets.”
Elliott said he looks forward to leading fellow cadet next year when he takes on a leadership role in ROTC.
“Joining ROTC was the best decision I made when I came to school,” Elliott said.