Last summer, Jack Szymanski ’08 experienced the hardest six weeks of his life.
As a participant in the Platoon Leaders Class Program in Quantico, Va., Szymanski began his days at 5 a.m. with a workout comprised of a run and a weight circuit. He completed the “Tarzan course,” an obstacle course done in trees 30 to 40 feet above ground. And, once a week, he would spend his normal sleeping hours — from midnight to 5 — hiking and crawling through muddy water, under barbed wire obstacles with flashbang grenades going off and a simulated enemy assault at the end.
“I gained greater respect for the Marines — for their real commitment to high principles and standards that encouraged dedication to self-improvement, discipline, and attention to detail,” Szymanski said in an e-mail.
Szymanski, along with several of his peers, now regularly spends time stationed at a table on Cross Campus to promote the Marine Corps. But although some Yalies said they think the students manning the table are trying to attract enlistees directly into the U.S. Marine Corps, and that the uniformed Officer Selection Officer is there to sign people up for duty, those behind the table said they are actually there just to answer questions about the Corps. They also promote the Platoon Leaders Class, a no-commitment, paid summer program that enables potential recruits to decide whether or not the Marine Corps is for them.
While the program has succeeded in recruiting a number of Yalies, some campus groups have expressed their opposition to the program, especially because of the United States military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals.
Nick Panza ’07, who has led the charge in bringing Corps representatives to campus, has been involved with the recruiting program since his sophomore year at Yale, when he decided that the Corps was the most accommodating and rewarding of the various armed service divisions.
“All other branches respect and look up to the Marine Corps,” he said. “Marines are always the first to fight, the first guys on the ground, and that pride appealed to me.”
Though his summer was challenging, Szymanski said, he left the PLC program with a positive feeling.
“The PLC program is fantastic because it allows college students to receive actual Marine officer training that goes towards their earning a commission, but does not require that the student actually make any sort of post-graduation commitment,” Szymanski said in an e-mail. “For people like me, with no exposure to military life and very little idea of what exactly they’d like to do in the way of careers, that flexibility is invaluable.”
This past December, Panza founded the Semper Fi Society to promote the Marine Corps and the Platoon Leaders Class at Yale. He said his decision to start it was based on the fact that Yale’s history has always been so closely tied to military service, as evidenced by “just walk[ing] through the rotunda in Woolsey Hall.” Panza also said he believes that a pro-military organization on campus is necessary. The Society was approved by Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg in December.
Although the Society could be controversial, Trachtenberg said that because the organization took the necessary steps to be granted official status, it has the same entitlement as any other group on campus.
“The table in the Cross Campus is not set up by the military — it’s set up by an organization,” Trachtenberg said. “Every organization has the right to set up their wares, so to speak, on Cross Campus.”
Some groups on campus, such as the Queer Political Action Committee, object to Semper Fi Society’s status as an administration-approved organization. Their main complaint, said Hugh Baran ’09, the committee’s coordinator, is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the common name for the practice of keeping sexual orientation a secret in the military.
“‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is hateful and discriminatory and needs to be understood as such,” Baran said. “The University should take a stand and have the social responsibility to set an example and say that we’re not going to let military recruiting happen here on campus.”
Still, this academic year has seen an increase in the number of students who have shown serious interest in the Platoon Leaders Class. PLC takes place at Officer Candidate School in Virginia during the summer, and is one of the first steps that college students can take towards becoming an officer in the Marine Corps. Four Yale students attended the program last summer, and so far two have been accepted to the program for next summer. Another four or five are still in the application process.
Captain Ryan Olivieri, the Officer Selection Officer who is responsible for colleges in Manhattan and Southern Connecticut, said Yale is tied with Baruch College in New York City for the highest number of participants in his sector. Since the inception of the Semper Fi Society, the club has grown from the requisite five officers needed to make the activity official to 20 members. The rise in participation correlates with the Society’s recent increase in publicity; members have been posting fliers around campus and in dining halls in addition to manning their weekly table on Cross Campus.
As the Society continues to grow, it will solidify its agenda and expand its goals, Panza said. In the future, Panza said the club plans to sponsor a “Military Day” along with the ROTC students at Yale and to participate in the University’s annual Veteran’s Day ceremony, which takes place on Beinecke Plaza each year.
Olivieri said he has found the environment on Yale’s campus to be supportive, and that there is generally a positive attitude towards the program, whether or not people actually want to participate. Some have even approached Olivieri to express their thanks for his presence on campus, which he said surprised him.
“There’s a misconception towards the military and the Marine Corps,” Olivieri said. “Lots of people think that we have a role in writing policy, but we just follow through on policies.”
Panza said he agreed, stressing that his participation in the program is independent of his political sentiments.
“The Marine Corps and President Bush are two different things,” Panza said. “Obviously, the President is the Commander-in-Chief, but just because you support the Marine Corps or the military doesn’t mean you’re Republican or supporting George Bush.”
Since the beginning of the fall semester, Olivieri said he has not experienced any hostility or protest toward the Semper Fi table, and Panza said he has only experienced it once or twice.
But Olivieri said he did encounter some opposition to the program last year. A student engaged him in a conversation about the PLC program before revealing that he was gay. Olivieri said he replied that the student could not do the program if he admitted his sexuality based on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The student then told Olivieri that the military was discriminatory.
Beyond the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, some students said they are angry that the Semper Fi Society is offering the military a way to recruit on campus. Jesse Harris ’08, a member of the Yale Coalition for Peace, said she and members of her group aim to inform high school students in New Haven about the military. Although the Coalition accepts that the military could seem attractive to a high school student who may eventually need financial aid for college, Harris said she and her peers perform a sort of “counter-recruitment.”
“We are not necessarily anti-military — we recognize that the military is an option for New Haven students — but we want them to make informed decisions,” she said.
Harris said the Coalition has taken a stand against the Marine Corps’ presence on campus. The anti war group does not support programs that are recruiting people to help with the war effort in Iraq, she said.
“Whether they call this recruiting or not, the bottom line is that it is,” Harris said. “Maybe they don’t have the forms at the table, but they’re still asking students to get in touch with them, and that leads to handing out the forms. They intentionally present the military in a misleading way in that they they’re only giving you the information they want you to know.”
But members of the Semper Fi Society said their goal is to transcend party politics and to serve their country.
“Some expressive freedoms are restricted as one serves the role of a U.S. military officer, but the key word for everyone is always respect,” Szymanski said in an e-mail. “I really don’t think that that point is conveyed enough, especially at places like Yale. We’re not all hawks or Republicans, and we don’t all agree with Bush or certain agendas — but we are unified in our commitment to defend the nation.”