A Walk in the Woods

stern_ROTC-7
Photo by Scott Stern.

I had been told that this area was swampy, but somehow I hadn’t quite envisioned getting my feet wet. As I walked through the woods, the ground squelched underfoot. Leaves — some still improbably alive during this unexpectedly fair winter — rustled above me.

Five Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadets and I were walking through the trees of the Stone Ranch Military Reservation. The cadets walked briskly, decked out in olive-green camouflage gear and matching boots. This was part of the cadets’ Leadership Lab — today, they were engaged in a land navigation exercise. Armed only with compasses and a map, the cadets were expected to locate five points in five hours.

It was big news, last year, when Yale brought back ROTC, a program in which students can be commissioned as officers in the military after completing a four-year degree. Yale had disbanded its ROTC program in the midst of Vietnam War protests and kept it away from campus because of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The day after Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 2010, University President Richard Levin called then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to discuss bringing ROTC back to campus.

In 2012, Navy and Air Force ROTC programs will finally return to Yale. Both programs expect to gain as many as 20 students next year. Yalies who sign up for Army ROTC next year will still do so through UConn, the only host program in the state.

Two Yalies are currently cadets in the Army ROTC program: John Lee ’14 and James Campbell ’13. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Lee and Campbell wake up to excercise at the unimaginable hour of 5:50 a.m. There is Tuesday afternoon training and sometimes Thursday training; there is also Leadership Lab on Fridays.

That Friday afternoon, at the Leadership Lab, members of my group asked me if I was the “new guy” and invited me to plot one of the points on the map. I was touched by their sense of bonhomie, but also unnerved by their assumption that I was joining ROTC. I had always been a bit of a skeptic when it came to the military; I strongly disagreed with the war in Iraq and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

My group had no trouble locating the first three points, but the last two points were literally off the beaten track. The cadets got their bearings by repeatedly consulting their compasses and counting their paces. The strategy of counting paces would have worked better had there not been huge, moss-covered boulders and murky swamps to circumnavigate. Having completed the exercise, we half-walked, half-ran back to the starting point. My muscles began to feel sore, but I couldn’t complain.

We arrived back at our starting point at 4:58 p.m. The cadets had to be back by 5:00 (sorry, 17:00), or else they would have failed the exercise. At 5:03, our bus departed for the University of New Haven.

For Andrew Hendricks ’13, Yale’s sole Air Force ROTC cadet, the commute has not been quite that simple. He cannot take any Tuesday or Thursday classes because he must drive to UConn at Storrs each Thursday — a three-hour round trip. Hendricks’s Thursdays are packed with physical training, Aerospace Studies class, and “warrior knowledge quizzes.”

When ROTC returns to Yale and attracts more cadets, Hendricks hopes he will not have to travel so far. “I will also be able to get more involved with the program, hopefully taking on higher leadership roles,” he says. Students will also be able to petition for credit for ROTC classes, and Yale might become a “partner program” for Army ROTC, as UNH is. More importantly, perhaps, Yalies will be exposed to students with a unrivaled level of dedication.

Jogging through the wilderness, I came to admire the level of devotion of the ROTC cadets I met. To those who disagree, I might tell them to go take a hike. Through the woods. Through a swamp.

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