BY ANDY KROLL
Published October 7, 2008
Under the glow of the construction floodlights, Gunnery Sgt. Kenneth Bodisch’s shadow stretched to superhuman size along the 50-yard-line of Michigan Stadium. A thick, brick wall of a man, Bodisch stood at the bottom of the Big House’s eastward facing seating section, shouting at the students sprinting up the stairs of the stadium’s concrete bowl.
“Push it!” he barked. “Make it hurt!”
He turned to a student nearby who was hunched over, his elbows resting on his knees.
“You feel like jello yet?”
On the opposite side of the empty stadium, about 60 men and women dressed in the same white shirts and blue shorts ran the vertiginous rows of stairs and the connecting concourses. A group would slow for the occasional straggler, but they never stopped, and the sound of their rubber-soled shoes hitting each step faintly echoed throughout the bowl.
After 45 minutes of running, everyone moved down to the field for the conclusion of this particular Friday morning’s physical training session. They laid down on the dewy artificial turf field for sets of abdominal exercises and push-ups led by Bodisch. “You should be trying to cause some violence to their body,” he explained to the weary-looking group scattered around him.
High above Bodisch and the naval battalion of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University, a last glimpse of the previous night’s sickle-shaped moon could be seen before disappearing into the brightening sky. A few feet away from the corps, a sweat-drenched midshipman collapsed to his knees and puked on the field.
By 7 a.m., physical training was over. The midshipmen in the battalion slowly made their way through the abandoned student section and out of one of the stadium’s main gates. They had just enough time to return home, shower, eat breakfast, change into their civilian clothes and blend back in with the rest of their classmates as if they too had just rolled out of bed.
For the students in the Naval ROTC program, and also the University’s Army and Air Force programs, this routine — up at 5:30 a.m. for physical training, then into the daily grind of school — is normal. Unless it’s Thursday, when all the cadets (Army and Air Force) and the midshipmen (Navy and Marines) wear their military uniforms for the day’s laboratory class, students in the ROTC are just anonymous faces on the Diag.
But participation in the ROTC is very much a second, parallel life. Depending on the program, that commitment can include anywhere from two to six early morning physical training sessions each week, weekly classes in North Hall and one or two weekend events each month. Many students also take on ROTC-related commitments each summer, like shadowing an active duty officer on a base in Germany or completing the month-long Warrior Forge leadership training program at Fort Lewis in northern Washington State.
And, of course, there’s the four years of active duty in the military for students who contract with the Air Force, Army or Navy while at the University, which almost all do.
Here on campus, the belief in the importance of public service is resurgent. Each year, swaths of graduates join programs like Teach For America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. But in spite of this renewed emphasis on serving the public, it is clear that one of the most obvious forms of public service — military service — is no longer included under that umbrella by many young people.
“There just seems to be a big disconnect for our generation with the military,” said Ben Karek, an LSA junior and ROTC cadet. “Who knows what those reasons are for.”
The life of a student in the ROTC is hard to comprehend for the vast bulk of college students, who shun Friday classes altogether and wouldn't ever consider waking up hours early for a grueling morning work out. Even the most goal-oriented students wouldn’t understand dedicating that kind of time to a large group like the ROTC — for a generation that values individual success, a long-term commitment to military service doesn’t quite click.
So why, then, do these nearly 300 students, unlike so many of their peers, decide to commit the better part of a decade to the order and rules and decorum of the military?
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For the cadets and midshipmen in the University’s ROTC programs, there’s no single definitive answer to this question. Rather, in talking with the men and women for whom North Hall is a second home, an array of reasons emerges. For one, students often mention their family’s military background. Many had grandfathers who fought in World War II, uncles who had served in Vietnam.
“The military is very legacy-based,” said Ellen Racklyeft, a Nursing senior and the Naval ROTC battalion commander, the highest-ranking student officer in the Naval ROTC. “There’s a lot of, ‘Well, my dad did it. My grandpa did.’ That’s a huge thing.”
In the case of Lee Collins, an LSA sophomore and Army cadet, his family tradition of military service dates back as far as the birth of this country. Although no one in his immediate family served in the military, Collins said his distant relatives had fought in both the American Revolution and the Civil War. It was these family members, he said, that inspired him to join the ROTC. “One distant ancestor was an aide to General Washington. Another received a medal of honor at Gettysburg,” Collins said proudly. “That really inspired me going back to those roots, and kind of carry the torch.”
Not all cadets and midshipmen can boast having relatives who served under the most famous general in American history. But even those without a military legacy view their participation as a way of beginning such a tradition in their own families. Karek, who joined the Army ROTC in hopes that it would help him land a career in federal law enforcement, said joining the military “would be a good chance for me to represent my family.”
Mentioned nearly as often as family legacy are financial reasons. As the University’s tuition increases while the availability of student loans decreases, more students see ROTC programs quite simply as a way to pay for college. A quick glance at the informational material greeting visitors in the lobby of North Hall confirms this: “NROTC: MONEY FOR COLLEGE,” reads one Naval ROTC brochure; “College Expenses? 100% Tuition Coverage — Navy,” says another; “LET USAA HELP JUMP-START YOUR FINANCIAL FUTURE,” exclaims yet another brightly colored pamphlet for the Air Force ROTC.
Captain Rick Vanden Heuvel, the commanding officer in charge of the Naval ROTC program, said the economic appeal of the program couldn’t be overstated, especially considering today’s economy.
“It’s about not only the service for the ROTC and the eventual service in the Navy, but it’s, ‘O.K., we’re offering a full-ride scholarship to the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University,’ ” he said. “So that alone, there’s an economic appeal to that.”
The same applies to the University’s Air Force ROTC program. Although many cadets in the program compete for a limited number of scholarships, the Air Force ROTC has recently begun offering automatic scholarships to students pursuing majors in selected foreign languages, nursing and several types of engineering, according to Capt. Victoria Misek. Cadets who don’t receive a scholarship, she added, can take out low-interest loans through the Air Force to help pay off student loans after graduation.
Still, Misek hesitated to say students join the program purely for the money. “You know, I’m not going to even lie and say, ‘Hey, that’s not the reason some people do it is for financial aid,’ ” she said. “But I wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re going to be here because of financial aid.”
The importance of financial aid or family tradition varies from student to student. There is, however, one reason for joining that nearly every ROTC member mentioned: the desire to contribute to a larger cause, a greater good. Some, like Ryan Hall, call it patriotism.
“I’m a very patriotic person, and it was always a patriotic decision,” said Hall, an LSA senior and the commander of the Naval ROTC’s Marine Option Charlie company.
Others compare the ROTC to the generic-college-student lifestyle — a lifestyle that for these students would feel empty without a greater purpose.
Devon Stanforth, an Engineering senior and Army cadet, said he knew the way some of his peers went through college wasn’t for him. “I’m seeing people around me just going to college to get a job. And what are they doing with their job? They’re just making money — and that doesn’t seem too exciting or productive,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do something that actually meant something.”
On this, almost all of the cadets and midshipmen agree. Their service in the ROTC, and one day likely as an active duty officer, means something to them that is greater than themselves and their own personal goals.
Where these young men and women feel conflicted, though, is whether their voluntary commitment to defend their country means anything to their peers on campus. By no means are they asking their peers to serve; on the contrary, each student interviewed for this story adamantly stated that joining the ROTC is not for everybody.
“And that’s something I think is awesome about college campuses,” Hall said. “We can all agree that we’re into different stuff, and (ROTC) is for some people and not for others.”
Still, many cadets and midshipmen say there’s a clear divide between their peers and the military here on campus. Despite being one of the largest ROTC programs in the country, and having their own centrally located building, the ROTC programs are one of the least recognized student groups.
“I don’t think that people have much mind about it at all,” Racklyeft said. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Many say the ROTC’s lack of visibility is an internal issue. Hall, who has visited ROTC programs at schools like Notre Dame and Ohio State, said the Naval ROTC program is more insulated here than on other campuses. At Tulane, for instance, Hall said the ROTC’s level of recognition was on par with University of Michigan groups like Dance Marathon and the University Marching Band.
“We haven’t gotten out and done much to show that, ‘Hey, we are around, and we do do things for this campus,’” he said.
One way Hall and Racklyeft hope to increase the ROTC’s visibility on campus is the upcoming 233-mile run planned for early November to celebrate the Navy’s 233rd birthday. Members of Naval ROTC program will take turns running a course they’ve designed that winds throughout campus. Completing all 233 miles, Racklyeft said, will take about three-and-a-half days.
“I think that’s going to be an enormous thing for publicity,” she said. “You know, maybe people will see us better… well, obviously they will, we’ll be running in circles for three days!”
Still, among students at large, there doesn’t appear to be much interest in understanding why the military maintains a presence on campus, other cadets and midshipmen say.
“I think people don’t ultimately understand on campus what the commitments are of someone who’s in ROTC, or why they would choose to wake up at 6:30,” said Ryan Bouchard, an LSA senior and Army cadet. “Whether that’s something for a Michigan student, that’s a personal decision.”
Many ROTC members said people often thank them on campus, for which they’re greatly appreciative. Yet most cadets and midshipmen added that the thanks doesn’t often come from students.
“Most of them, they’re older people,” Karek said. “A lot of the time they’re people who have family serving, or veterans themselves will say something.”
Perhaps this disconnect with their own generation further confirms for ROTC students what kind of military they will be joining after graduation: the few sacrificing for the freedoms, beliefs and lifestyles enjoyed by everyone else. After all, the number of Americans currently serving in the All-Volunteer Force is less than one percent of the U.S. population. And though many people profess to “support the troops,” lurking just beneath that phrase is the understanding that supporting the troops stops the moment the military recruiter comes knocking at the door.
“I think people are very concerned about supporting the troops,” Racklyeft said. “I think that’s a big thing: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, support them, support them.’ But it’s somebody else’s job.”