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August 29, 2008 - 4:29pm


Saw a flyer yesterday on a bulletin board in the English Building:


I needed to know what more Army ROTC could possibly provide, so I force-marched over to take a look. In the small grassy space west of the Armory, about 50 students in blue-and orange ROTC t-shirts and shorts were chatting, playing bean-bag toss, and trying to get a grill going. Rock music played loudly from an unseen stereo in an Armory window.

Just before four o’clock, the music went down and someone yelled for them to tuck their shirts into their pants and fall in. The cadets formed up in two platoons in front of a tan Humvee in the grass, and the student platoon sergeants reported that all were accounted for.

Guidons?” the cadet First Sergeant asked.

“No guidons,” a cadet Platoon Sergeant said.


Other students walked past on the sidewalk, coming from or going to their dorm rooms, the gym, and the Greek houses, and a busy road behind the formation made it hard to hear.

“Don’t worry about guidons,” the battalion commander said from the side.

There was a short awards ceremony for those who got scholarships or had excelled in summer programs. A quarter of the cadets got awards. When it was nearly over, a young woman with long straight hair ran up. She wore a ROTC shirt and madras shorts, and had an ankle tattoo and heavy earrings. She dropped her bag next to me, said something apologetic, and ran to join the others. When the formation was over and she came back to get her bag, I asked her kiddingly if she’d get an Article 15 for being late.

“I didn’t want to be late.” She laughed. “I had a class and ran over afterward.”

We talked about the barbecue, held to welcome back cadets and give others on campus a chance to meet them. There were fun things to do, she said, like the grenade toss, and the M-16 simulator, which everybody who tried it seemed to love. “I was never much into that shooting thing,” she said. “But then I tried it and it was awesome! Especially shooting those helicopters!” She pointed an imaginary gun to the sky and made a pshoo-pshoo noise. The music came back on loudly, and she invited me to stay for a burger. Air Force and Marine cadets in dress uniforms filed in and out of the Armory.

I went over and introduced myself to Sergeant First Class South, who was shooting the breeze next to the battalion sergeant major. SFC South was a new arrival, just up with his family from duty in Orlando. His pressed BDUs had a Combat Infantry badge with a star over it and an Air Assault Badge pinned on the breast. He’d retired but worked as a defense contractor to help train the cadets. He thought it a good job and a welcome transition to civilian life, a chance to learn “how to deal with doctors, lawyers” and the like far from any military post after 20 years in the service. He got to take classes himself, and his young children loved playing with neighborhood kids in a nearby small town where he lived.

He said cadets were welcome to bring friends to this event—in case they were interested in ROTC, since you could take military science classes without obligation—and that the cadets with “surveys” on clipboards for passersby were a recruiting tactic too. The clipboard cadets were engaged with the grill, and passersby rarely looked in the direction of the gathering, though one pretty young woman smiled at them, and a couple of wiseacres snickered.

South said there was a rock-climbing wall inside the Armory, and the shooting simulator, which could portray different scenarios all over the world, and different weapons, from 9mm pistols to grenade launchers. “The kids like it,” he said, “and it’s certainly easier and cheaper than getting them to a range.” He said ROTC also sends some cadets to training programs, such as a military map-reading course in Indiana. I mentioned the old joke in the enlisted ranks that there’s nothing more dangerous than a freshly-minted Second Lieutenant with a map and a compass.

South laughed hard, briefly, then put his instructor’s face back on. “We learn all kinds of things out there,” he said. “Funny how many are afraid of the dark. But you get a bunch of city kids in the woods for the first time…. I tell them that a lot of what they’ll need to know about military life they’ll need to learn as they go. It’ll almost be like college all over again. They need to pick up some books, do some reading to find this stuff out. They won’t always have an NCO right there to tell them how things work. They’re going to have soldiers who get DUIs, soldiers with marital problems, all the stuff they’ll need to deal with that they haven’t even imagined yet. They ask me, ‘What do I say when I meet my new platoon sergeant?’ I tell them, well, don’t act like you know everything.”

Nearby half-a-dozen cadets and one friend were being shown how to throw grenades from an improvised pit. The target was a shapeless enemy soldier behind folding chairs draped in ponchos. The kill zone was marked out with white tape and little orange construction cones in the grass. Someone overthrew it and the inert grenade clattered to a stop near my feet. The cadet running the activity looked sheepish. “At least it’s a dud,” he said to the others.

There were many opportunities for students to join something this muggy August day. Across the street a giant banner hung on a wrought fence:

Sigma Phi Epsilon
TODAY at 5

The Ice Arena was across from the Armory too, groups of skaters entering together, and a gang of mopeds was parked at the curb of the Academic Services Center. A Jimmy John’s car with a megaphone on its roof rolled past slowly, announcing, “We’re looking for drivers at three campus locations….”

At the barbecue, a couple of cadets sat on the tailgate of the Humvee turning M-16s over curiously in their laps. The hardest-looking assistant professor I’ve ever seen, a full-bird Colonel assigned to the ROTC battalion, watched his cadets play bean-bag toss with a tiny smile of pleasure as flames leapt from the grill and smoke poured across the sidewalk.


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