UP CLOSE | For country or for Yale?

Twenty Yalies came to campus this fall not only to be students but also to become soldiers. For the first time in four decades, ROTC groups have been established at the University — setting cadets on the task of once again merging the military with the academic.
Twenty Yalies came to campus this fall not only to be students but also to become soldiers. For the first time in four decades, ROTC groups have been established at the University — setting cadets on the task of once again merging the military with the academic. Photo by Daniel Zelaya.

At 5:30 a.m., Josh Clapper ’16 woke up. He had five minutes to stand at attention, brush his teeth and put on his uniform.

Clapper attended his morning workout, showered quickly and joined the other participants of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps summer orientation program for morning chow.

He couldn’t speak to any of them. Instead, he looked straight ahead, or down at his food. Eye contact was prohibited. The rest of the day was spent studying military history and learning how to march in formation.

By 9 p.m., Clapper had reached lights out. But he still had to polish his shoes and memorize rank structures for the next day. In a few hours, he would have to rise again for a one-hour shift to practice standing watch during the night.

“One day we’ll be leading 20 to 30 enlisted men,” Clapper said. “[Orientation] helps us to understand the enlisted experience.”

After six more days of “indoc” — short for “indoctrination” — Clapper exchanged his khaki uniform for hiking gear. He returned to Yale for a pinning ceremony in Woolsey Rotunda with the nine other Yalies who had also completed the NROTC orientation.

As soon as the ceremony ended, Clapper gathered his belongings and arrived on Old Campus to participate in the six-day Yale FOOT hiking trips.

This fall marks the first time since 1972 that an ROTC program has existed on Yale’s campus, after a 1970 decision to end the program caused members of the class of 1972 to be the last Yale ROTC students until this year. Twelve Yale students have been assigned the rank of Midshipman Fourth Class, forming the first Naval ROTC platoon at Yale since the program left the University in the wake of Vietnam War protests, and eight Yalies have been assigned the rank of Cadet Fourth Class, joining 30 other cadets from six other universities in Connecticut to form Air Force ROTC Detachment 009, which is based at Yale.

While an Army ROTC unit has not yet returned to campus, these midshipmen and cadets share a unique mission: to discover whether Yale and ROTC can coexist — whether these two institutions are functionally and intellectually compatible — or whether after 40 years Yale and the U.S. military have drifted apart from one another.

Quoting what Provost Peter Salovey told him, Clapper said he and the other Yale cadets must live “two lives at once.”

BALANCING CREDITS

In last week’s session of “Introduction to Naval Science,” or NAVY 111, the midshipmen were asked to draw the chain of military command all the way down to themselves. As they scribbled away on the chalkboard, they referred to each other by last name only, but called their two instructors “sir” and “ma’am.”

Trying to decide where to begin, one midshipman declared, “the President is at the top!”

At its core, ROTC is a financial scholarship intended to support the development of leaders for the military. Rather than enlist directly after high school, ROTC students attend non-military colleges and take advantage of a more traditional college experience. They begin their military careers afterward at the level of an officer.

The scholarship carries with it steep requirements: the hour-and-15-minute long Navy class meets on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, and the students also attend a two-hour laboratory on Wednesday afternoons.

The Air Force cadets meet for a “Leadership Laboratory” and have class for three hours once a week. Both groups also have physical training, or “PT,” sessions at 6:30 a.m. at least once a week.

Lieutenant Molly Crabbe, one of two primary administrators and advisors for the Naval ROTC program, said that Yale has “rolled out the red carpet” for them and provided the program with extensive resources. Colonel Scott Manning and Captain Timothy Secor from the Air Force unit echoed Crabbe’s sentiments that Yale has been supportive of ROTC. The Air Force ROTC program makes use of office and classroom spaces and Payne Whitney Gymnasium for conditioning and group exercises.

But students do not receive any academic credit for ROTC-led courses at Yale.

“We hate to see them do the work and not get credit,” said Manning, the commanding officer for Air Force ROTC at Yale, then adding that students coming to Yale for ROTC from Sacred Heart University have been approved to receive graduation credit for the same courses. Manning said the other universities participating in Yale’s program are still deciding whether to award credit to their own students.

When the ROTC courses were introduced at Yale by the new unit leaders, Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said they were reviewed by an ROTC advisory committee composed of Yale faculty and administrators. This committee decided not to recommend any courses this year to a second committee that would have been able to award them credit.

Beau Birdsall ’16, the current platoon commander of the Naval ROTC, said that some midshipmen have asked why they are required to take a class without gaining credits toward graduation.

As a mechanical engineering major, Birdsall is already taking 4.5 Yale credits this term. When compared to time commitments of other Yale courses, the Naval ROTC classes equal about two Yale credits, meaning that the midshipman is carrying the equivalent of 6.5.

Midshipman Matt Smith ’16 said that “a few non-ROTC” kids even came to their class during shopping period, but none enrolled. Smith said he believes that these students chose not to enroll in the class because of the lack of credit.

Only Air Force cadets in history professor Paul Kennedy’s “Military History of the West since 1500” gain credit for time spent in a class also required for the ROTC program. The class has been approved according to the national Air Force ROTC standards, and Manning serves as a teaching fellow for one section of the course, which all Air Force students joined along with a few other Yale students.

Smith said he believes this system of having Yale professors “sponsor” ROTC classes may be a way to work for credit. Crabbe said she hopes the ROTC “Navigation” class that will be offered next semester could also potentially receive a QR credit in the future.

Commander James Godwin, commanding officer for Naval ROTC at both Yale and College of the Holy Cross, works with the Yale administration to facilitate the new ROTC program. While he said he understands that the ROTC classes can be viewed as “vocational,” he noted that Cornell offers some credit for ROTC courses. Four out of Cornell’s five undergraduate schools allow students to receive credit for ROTC classes, with the exception being the College of Arts & Sciences.

Still, Air Force Cadet Tyler Detorie ’16 said that receiving credit for the classes is unimportant to him.

“No one’s making me going to class,” he said. “I’m doing this because I want to do this.”

THE CHOICE TO SERVE

Participating in ROTC has been a long-term goal for some students. Of the 19 ROTC students interviewed, 16 said they have at least one family member with experience in the military.

Detorie, whose father serves as an Air Force Wing Commander at nearby Bradley Field in Connecticut, said he has always wanted to be a pilot.

“I’ve been around the air force all my life,” Detorie said.

But for other students with parents in the military, the choice to join ROTC was less clear. Clapper’s father attended the Naval Academy and spent five years serving on submarines; his mother served in the Navy. Following in his parents’ footsteps could have been the obvious choice.

Instead, Clapper had some doubts. As he began considering filling out the ROTC application in early April of his junior year of high school, Clapper said he found himself asking, “Do I want to be a part of something so big where I don’t have my own free will?”

Clapper eventually worked out a compromise with his parents — he plans to try ROTC for a year and leave if he decides he no longer wants to be in the program.

Midshipman Drew Denno ’16, whose father serves as the Commander of the Naval Sub Base at New London, Conn., said his experience in ROTC has been “a bit different” than his experiences with the Navy growing up.

“I’m used to seeing everyone at an equal level,” Denno said. “But now I’m at the bottom of the totem poll.”

Other cadets have less of a family connection to the military, or to the nation that they will protect and defend. Birdsall came to Yale after growing up in Kiev, Ukraine. With his parents serving as Christian missionaries in the European nation, ROTC was a way for his family to pay for college — his sister was already in ROTC at Georgetown, though no one their family had previously served.

Birdsall is one of two international students in the Naval platoon. Midshipman Miranda Melcher ’16 grew up in Beijing, China.

No one else in her family has served in the military, but Melcher chose the experience — a decision she said her parents called “a little weird” — because she saw it as “the best leadership training you can get.”

“Considering that I didn’t grow up here, it’s a good way to learn about the country that I’m from,” she explained.

‘A POSITIVE FACTOR’

Each prospective ROTC student must apply both to the ROTC program and to the universities they want to attend.

A high school student can begin the application process for an ROTC scholarship near the end of their junior year until the winter of their senior year.

On these applications, the students list the schools to which they are applying, and the national ROTC offices of the Navy or Air Force work to match accepted ROTC scholars with open spaces in the programs at the school they prefer.

According to Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffery Brenzel, an ROTC scholarship is taken into account when applications are reviewed.

“We do consider the award of an ROTC scholarship as a positive factor in our evaluations, but as with all applicants it is only one factor of many in a comprehensive and holistic review,” Brenzel said in an email to the News.

He added that the success the scholarship recipients have already shown in order to receive the award means they have “a high potential for success at a place like Yale.”

Midshipman Gabrielle Fong ’16 said the attention Yale gives to ROTC status during the admissions process is beneficial for the University.

“Just like we need athletes or musicians, we need ROTC kids,” she said.

Twenty-nine high school students received ROTC scholarships and indicated Yale as a desired placement, according to Crabbe. Out of those 29, only 13 or 14 were admitted to Yale, and only nine passed their physical tests and ultimately matriculated.

ROTC scholarships can cover tuition — not room and board — but they require applicants to commit to an area of study for their college careers that cannot easily change.

Naval ROTC scholarships fall into three tiers: a first tier for engineering majors, a second for math and science majors, and a third for all other majors. Students committing to majors in the first two tiers are more likely to receive scholarships because most funding goes toward the first two tiers. The Air Force follows a similar model for allocating scholarships.

Detorie, who applied as a mechanical engineering major, said that he has little ability to change his course of study.

“If I really needed to, I might have a chance to but it’s very slim,” he said.

Cadet Renee Vogel ’16 said she would not have participated in ROTC if she had not received a scholarship in the third category.

“I would never have done ROTC if I was locked into a technical major because I’m not a technical person,” Vogel said.

When asked whether this early selection of an academic path is antithetical to Yale’s commitment to intellectual exploration and freedom, Yale College Dean Mary Miller cited the examples of other scholarships, especially those intended for international students, that place limitations on what recipients can study.

“If that student chose to give up that scholarship, that student is totally eligible for Yale financial aid, in all the normal ways,” Miller said.

ATHLETICS, THEATER

For members of Yale’s ROTC programs, learning to become an officer is not enough. Many made the decision to come to Yale rather than a service academy because of the opportunities outside of the classroom that Yale offers.

“At the academy, people say they wished they had done something like ROTC, because it was a little too cookie cutter,” Fong said.

Crabbe, who attended Annapolis after high school, said the Naval Academy can be a difficult place. She said she “didn’t have a ton of contact with officers,” during her time there, “especially female officers.”

Fong said she has benefited from the example and mentorship of Crabbe, whom she calls “a woman who can control as easily as a man.” Fong and Melcher are the only girls in the Yale Naval ROTC program.

At Yale, Fong said she feels the female midshipmen are respected. Fong was selected to serve alongside Birdsall as the second in command of the platoon.

At least five of the 20 Yale ROTC students turned down spots at the service academies to be a part of the new Yale units. One of them was Cadet John Keisling ’16, who chose Yale over the Air Force academy for the diversity of opportunity.

“At the end of four years, I’m a second lieutenant either way,” Keisling said.

Keisling has been determined to make the most of his time at Yale, beginning by walking on to the varsity track team to run the 400 and 800-meter races. Four out of the 20 Yale ROTC students are also varsity athletes. Vogel competes in the pole vault for the women’s track team and Detorie plays for the varsity men’s soccer team.

During season, varsity athletes in ROTC are exempted from attending the “PT” sessions of their ROTC unit.

Asked if he was concerned that Detorie might get injured during his dual commitment, Yale men’s soccer coach Brian Tompkins said in an email to the News that he believes Detorie “can handle the rigors of physical training.”

“If anything I think his soccer conditioning will help him with ROTC,” Tompkins added.

Crabbe called Naval ROTC “a little more challenging” than the academy experience because of the dual role of each participant as both a student and a midshipman.

“It takes a really diligent student to balance both of those roles,” she said.

Four of the Naval midshipmen are involved with the Yale Political Union, and two are hoping to become part of the Tory Party. Melcher joined the avant-garde theatre troupe called “Control Group,” an artistic opportunity that seems a long way from the rigidity of the military. Now she not only wears the costumes of the stage but also the uniforms of the United States Navy.

UNIFORM DAY

Thursday is uniform day. Last Thursday in a classroom on the fourth floor of 55 Whitney Avenue, freshmen Air Force cadets in USAF 101, “Foundations of the Air Force,” were both wearing uniforms and talking about them.

“Who do we wear our uniforms for?” Air Force Captain Bai Zhu asked her cadets in class last Thursday. She told her cadets that she believes they wear uniforms for the American people, the people that they defend.

Clad in their matching light blue shirts, dark blue pants and nametags, the cadets focused on proper grooming standards and how to maintain the military uniform.

“It’s great for somebody to be able to stop us and learn about the military,” Clapper said. Multiple midshipmen and cadets mentioned being stopped by people on the street on Thursdays when both Naval and Air Force students are required to be in uniform and “thanked for their service,” which they said they found funny or uncomfortable since they have not truly “served” yet.

Last Friday, the Naval unit donned their “summer whites” while the Air Force cadets added ties and jackets to their uniforms for the official ceremony welcoming ROTC back to Yale’s campus. With all the fanfare, it isn’t as if ROTC students are invisible on campus. Instead, some ROTC members have said they enjoy the prominence and the opportunity for students to question them about the program.

Birdsall said that he and others in the platoon were concerned before arriving on campus about whether ROTC would be criticized by their Yale peers.

“Coming here, I thought it might happen, but it hasn’t,” Birdsall said.

Midshipman Fong said that wearing the uniform has helped to connect the two branches of ROTC members at Yale as well, as they nod to one another in passing on the streets.

At the base of the interaction is an unavoidable fact that every member of ROTC is also a Yale student.

“The challenge is to live all the parts of Yale,” Clapper said.

Part of that challenge is reconciling the fun of college with the responsibilities of a future officer. When asked about the policy on weekend activities, Birdsall, who was selected to be the Platoon Commander for the first semester based on his performance at “Indoc,” said that the common understanding is that “some guys are going to go out and get some alcohol in their system.”

With regard to ROTC policy on the issue, Birdsall said, “They don’t want us to bring discredit on the Navy.”

Clapper echoed Birdsall, saying that they have been instructed to behave as if always in uniform.

For Sam Cohen ’15, ROTC has not dramatically changed his ability to be a Yale student. Instead, he views the program as a “complement to Yale life.”

“You still stay up and get a Wenzel,” Cohen said, “but then you have to be up at 6:30 a.m. for PT on Monday morning.”

Cohen said his path to ROTC illustrates the major benefit of bringing ROTC back to Yale: Cohen attempted to be a part of Army ROTC last year, but found it to be “logistically really, really hard” to travel between Yale and the University of New Haven. Cohen quit before ever officially joining the program. However, he decided to rejoin once there was a program based at his own campus.

“This is not just ROTC at Yale, but Yale ROTC,” Cohen said.

The impact of ROTC has not ended with the participants. About 15 of Cohen’s friends and Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brothers came to Friday’s ceremony to support him. Andrew Goble ’15 said he was excited at the opportunity to “support soldiers” and one of his own friends.

“This was one of his long term goals — he’s lucky that it came to Yale while he was here,” Goble said.

BEYOND FOUR YEARS

By joining the ROTC unit a few weeks into the year, Cohen did not have the opportunity to experience “indoc.” Yet he is one of the program’s two sophomores, and therefore one of the two oldest midshipmen in the platoon.

As the first ROTC class at Yale in 40 years, these students have no upperclassmen leadership to help guide them. This presents both a challenge and opportunity for the cadets in the program.

This chance to be a part of the first year of the platoon drew many of the students to it, but many mentioned that the group often lacks the knowledge and traditions imparted by upperclassmen.

As they walk around campus, Smith said that they only have to be accountable to one another — not upperclassmen — to create the traditions of their program over four years.

“Indoc” for the Yale platoon was not led by other Yale cadets, because Yale has no upperclassmen in the Naval ROTC program. Instead, the week was led by upperclassmen from nearby universities with ROTC.

Compared to indoctrination, he said, being at Yale feels “different to not have someone pointing out what’s wrong with your uniform and wrong with your salute every morning,” Smith said, as upperclassmen from Holy Cross and Wooster Polytechnic Institute did.

Midshipman Fong said the “indoc” experience tests “all those other motives, parents who wanted you to [be in ROTC] or the scholarship money, and those don’t carry you through.”

As the current ROTC students grow into leadership roles, they are also growing toward positions as leaders for the country.

“Students here are constantly challenged to see the big picture in their courses, and that type of thinking in combination with military training can be really powerful,” said Ret. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who teaches a seminar on leadership at Yale, in an email to the news.

“Each of their intellectual cornerstones will be questioned and challenged,” Navy Assistant Secretary Juan Garcia III told the News at Friday’s welcome ceremony.

In May 2016, many of these cadets and midshipmen will begin their commitments to their branch, which could range from two to 10 years. All said they are not yet sure whether the Navy or Air Force will be a life-long career for them, or whether they will leave the military once they have completed their time commitment.

“At this point I see it as a short-term. I don’t see myself as a navy man for the rest of my life,” Midshipman Daniel Caballero ’15 said.

“You never know,” Birdsall said, “being in the Navy is different from being a midshipman.”

Until then, ROTC students return back to their common rooms each night to be Yalies once again.

“It’s normal, he’s just another guy,” said Thomas Shi ’16 of his roommate Cadet Keisling.

Together, suitemates Eve Roth ’16 and Midshipman Fong will help each other get through Yale. “We’ll both be up at some ungodly hour. I’m cramming for science while she’s ironing her white uniform,” Roth said.

Comments

  • rmbonds

    “This fall marks the first time since 1970 that ROTC has existed on Yale’s campus.”

    Not exactly. Yale’s last ROTC class graduated in 1972.

  • yellowasp

    There are so many factual errors here. Josh Clapper is Navy, not Air Force, as is Warner Overhauser. What the hell is up with your copy editors lately?

    • btcl

      Checking facts is a reporter’s job, not the copy editors

  • yellowasp

    The section about the YPU is factually incorrect. Did you ask each of them if they wanted to affiliate? Or did you just pick a few. So much fail.

  • JackJ

    It is evident from the article that not much is known about the military at Yale or at least in the confines of the Yale Daily News. The caption to the photograph specifies “soldiers” but refers to NROTC which produces sailors not soldiers.

  • TDLion

    Great story. Thank you for answering every question I had about ROTC at Yale

  • y14

    Really interesting. I guess it’s cool that the writer clearly wrote a detailed story, but I couldn’t get past the use of “soldiers” instead of “sailors” in the caption (which he probably didn’t write). I might as well have not read the whole piece.