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.