Captain Albert Park kept a quote in the back of his head while deployed in Afghanistan in 2007. The quote — said by Captain Ronald Speirs, a World War II veteran played by Matthew Settle in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” — motivated him while completing his duty as a U.S. soldier.
“We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function. Without mercy. Without compassion. Without remorse. All war depends on it.”
In 2006, Park — who was commissioned at California State University, Fullerton in 2005 — served as the headquarters commandant for a joint international post in Iraq. He spent most of his time maintaining logistics and ensuring operations ran smoothly and without violent interactions. When he was sent to Afghanistan in 2007, however, he began to see bloodshed first hand.
Stationed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan — the future base of “Operation Geronimo,” which ended with Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011 — Park’s daily patrols to villages brought frequent encounters with the enemy, the anti-coalition militia (ACM) otherwise known as the Taliban. Park hoped to transfer to a different post. The attacks he experienced, which could occur daily, involved firearms and rockets. Park described the daily action as “exhilarating,” though “definitely scary.”
“If it’s my time, it’s my time; I just let that be what I operated off, because if you’re scared, you can’t operate,” Park said. “Every time that you go out on patrol, you hope that you come back alive. You just take it day by day. You can’t really think about the future.”
After completing his work in Afghanistan in 2008, Park was deployed to Haiti in 2010 to provide humanitarian care after the 2010 earthquake and sent to Iraq, again, in 2011. Park then had a choice to make: his next assignment.
From a list of 72 possible locations for his next chapter, one stood out as Park’s first choice: the operations and executive officer and assistant professor for the University’s Reserve Officer Training Core program.
On Saturday, September 15, 2001, a football game was scheduled. The Big House was filled to the brim, but the atmosphere was quite different than a normal game. Senior Vice Provost Lester Monts remembers the Army ROTC cadets and midshipmen raising the flag at the game while the national anthem played, eliciting an out-of-character noiseless response from the audience.
“When the colors came out of the tunnel, there was almost complete silence in the stadium,” Monts said. “I never heard the national anthem sung with such gusto as I heard on that particular day … And that’s just a description of their patriotism and appreciation for what the military does for them and alike.”
Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the enrollment in the University’s ROTC program has increased — with 555 total members in 2001 growing to 898 in 2013. While enrollment comes in peaks and valleys, its membership flourishes with above 800 total members enrolled each year since 2010.
Established in 1917, following the implementation of the National Defense Act of 1916, the ROTC program has commissioned almost 500,000 officers since enrollment records were documented starting 1920.
The United States Army Cadet Command determines the curriculum for the Army ROTC programs at universities nationwide. While many of the programs, training exercises and classes have remained similar to or the same as before 9/11, current members participate in the program with more of a focus on effectively using first aid and identifying the enemy.
Operations Officer Wayne Doyle, who has worked at the University since the late 1990s, said he noticed the shift in the program’s curriculum to better prepare for finding non-state actors — like the Taliban — that aren’t uniformed and easily identifiable in a crowd, compared to the large unit formations the U.S. military has traditionally faced.
“How can you fight them without causing civil damage at the same time?” Doyle said. “It takes a different mindset to do that than when I grew up in the Army.”
The goal is to create tactics that cause as little harm to civilian populations as possible, according to Doyle.
To pursue this objective, the Raiders team — an extracurricular club that 40 cadets, including some from Michigan State University — completed a mock night raid similar to the one performed by the United States Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden. The club completes different exercises each year, but the objective is to allow cadets the opportunity to execute a realistic Army operation on their own. In this exercise, planned and led by University cadets, they simulated calling in for air fire, surveillance and wore night vision goggles, among other tactics, to complete the exercise.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Allana Bryant, professor of military science and the lead member of the cadre (or staff) advising the program, the reenactment represents one of multiple large training events. Within her past two years involved in the program, Bryant said it has expanded to new heights, and will grow this year with their participation in the Army Ten-Miler — a race that aims to build Army spirit and maintain fitness goals — in Washington, D.C. with two cadet teams and one cadre team.
As for former ROTC graduates who now serve in Iraq, Doyle said the program prepared them well for the combat and day-to-day life while deployed.
“From time to time I’ll have lieutenants write back to me from Iraq telling me this was some of the best preparation they ever got for combat in Iraq,” Doyle said. “That was good to hear, because we are teaching useful things that do apply later on.”
Bryant attended the U.S. Military Academy herself and was deployed to Germany, Kuwait, Haiti and around the country prior to coming to Ann Arbor. As a student at West Point Military Academy, Bryant and her classmates had access to tangible necessities for the military, like helicopters and shooting ranges.
The University program differs, however, from the United States Military Academies with members also experiencing a more traditional university lifestyle.
With this campus life, a University cadet’s ability to cope with more freedom could be a cadet’s downfall, or his or hers ascent to a disciplined attitude, Bryant said.
Learning to serve
When Engineering senior Matthew Blanchard heard about the 9/11 attacks he was in fourth grade. His teachers kept the news a secret to maintain a calm environment and continued with the usual activities for the day, but the atmosphere was still tense.
Later, when Blanchard returned home from school that day, he watched the news as it played clips of the Twin Towers collapsing. After visiting the World Trade Center a month prior, he was unable to fully grasp the gravity of the situation, just like many other Americans.
Though he made the decision to join ROTC only a few weeks before college began, Blanchard attended camps as a child with plans to attend the U.S. Military Academy, influenced by his dad who served in the military himself. Now, 12 years later, Blanchard serves as the University’s Army ROTC cadet battalion commander, the highest position available for a cadet in the program.
This summer, Blanchard attended the five-week Leadership Development Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash. — a mandatory program that commission cadets participate in after their junior year — with other rising seniors in the program. There, Blanchard received a rating of Excellent — the highest possible — in addition to the coveted Recondo badge, an additional honor for top-performing cadets. Upon returning to campus, Blanchard helped lead the ROTC program’s first five-day-long orientation in late August at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Mich.
Blanchard described the few days as the “best experience” he’s had in ROTC. The orientation gave 96 ROTC members — 42 of whom are new to the program — an opportunity to bond and progress as a unit.
Compared to brief bonding stints his freshman and sophomore year — canoeing along the Huron River — and last year riding a Black Hawk above campus, this year was different. Living in close quarters at Fort Custer, the battalion thrived — allowing seniors to show incoming freshmen the ropes, as well as teaching them one of the most important emotional aspects of ROTC: finding your purpose.
“If you give people purpose, they’ll take to it a lot better and bond a lot better,” Blanchard said. “This five-day orientation was absolute gold for our program.”
Blanchard wasn’t the only one pleased with the event. Doyle, Bryant and Park, all among the ROTC cadre, lauded the orientation as a success. But it wasn’t just the bonding and prepping for the year that elicited satisfaction: It was the seniors’ ability to lead the team more tactfully and passionately than ever before.
The class, according to Doyle, firmly commands the cadets, resulting in them garnering more power and control within the program.
“They took it upon themselves, it’s a really neat thing to watch,” Doyle said, adding that Blanchard “has it in his mind that it’s his battalion, and he is going to run it.”
While usually the level of bonding and integration with the freshmen and transfers takes months to master, Bryant said the orientation reached that level within a few days, resulting in an impressive class of new and old members for the start of the year.
Like Bryant, within a matter of five days, Park saw immense improvements among the battalion, especially with those who have never been exposed to the military.
“It’s so gratifying and extraordinary to see their progress just in a matter of five days — hell, just in a matter of three days,” Park said. “This is all because of the efforts, not only of us the cadre, but the seniors. They’ve been in that program for two to four years, and they are just regurgitating everything they’ve learned into these cadets. It’s an amazing feat to see, actually.”
A change in respect
Since 9/11, Monts has noticed a newfound appreciation for ROTC members amongst the campus community. Compared to a largely unsupportive campus during the Vietnam War — where campus visitors often harassed veterans and ROTC members — they are now not only welcomed, but also celebrated.
“It definitely changed here on campus,” Monts said. “I think that really changed after 9/11, and I heard from cadets and midshipmen that they’re often stopped by people and had people expressed their thanks for what they do for the country.”
On multiple occasions, Ann Arbor residents have paid for Doyle and Bryant’s meals and greeted them with countless thanks and appreciation.
“It’s a difficult life,” Bryant said of her career. “It’s a life where you sacrifice from your own personal goals and dreams sometimes for the sake of something else. The fact that we weren’t recognized or even in a negative light, like it was in Vietnam, that was much more difficult, so I’m very happy about the current state of our culture.”
For the soldiers, cadets, cadre and veterans, individual progress and growth is not the only measure of success — the goal is progress as a nation.
When asked to explain his purpose for joining ROTC, Blanchard paused. After explaining his leadership tactics while training the freshmen at orientation, he thought about his answer, eventually uttering each word of it naturally.
“I want to progress myself as much as I can and become as good quality of a leader as I can,” Blanchard said. “The military setting, for me, has worked very well: I like the discipline and the ability to make myself as good as a person as I could possibly be. It will have somewhere down the road some kind of positive impact.”
While Blanchard is unsure of his future in the military after his six years of service following graduation, he understands the rewards he has received from training in such a high-stress, disciplined environment. No matter if he serves until retirement, or goes into engineering, his leadership skills have forever changed.
For Park, the future is uncertain as well. He has two years left serving on cadre for the University’s program, and then he plans to return to active service. While Park originally joined the military to follow an 800-year-old family tradition of service in the Korean military and, now, the American military, his purpose to serve has shifted.
Being commissioned to protect the country inspired a new purpose for Park: laying the foundation for the military’s future, and protecting the ones that he loves from future dangers.
“There was obviously something that had to be done from the attacks on 9/11,” Park said. “What really compels me to work and stay happy in my work is to make sure I did the most I could do to rectify the inequity; do my part so that other people didn’t have to. I get deployed to keep my friends and family safe from subsequent attacks on American soil. So that took a huge grasp on my heart, actually. I learned to grow very passionate about serving my country, serving other people, serving the greater cause that is something greater than you and me.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the training center in Battle Creek, Mich. It is Fort Custer, not Fort Custard.