Students find their calling in the ROTCby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
Support for the Iraq war is down, but the number of college students completing Army officer training is on the rise.
Minneapolis, Minn. — It's 6:30 a.m. at the University of Minnesota's aquatic center. And, to be honest, the scene is a bit surreal.
Five meters up, perched on a concrete diving platform, is a teenager in military fatigues. He's got a black stocking cap pulled over his eyes, and he's holding a rifle.
Before you can make sense of what's going on, the guy hurls himself into the water below -- gun and all.
As it turns out, this is a pretty typical morning, at least for members of the University's Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC as it's better known.
Water survival training is just one of the many things these cadets learn on their way to becoming officers in the U.S. Army.
Today 120 college students splash around a heated, indoor swimming pool in Minneapolis. In just a few years, they'll be in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever else the Army chooses to deploy them.
Freshman Bethany Kullmann can't imagine her future any other way, but trying to explain that to her friends has been quite a challenge.
"I've actually been called a fool to my face by one of my friends," said Kullmann.
"'It's just, you are completely stupid. Why would you ever want to do this? There is nothing intelligent about what you want to do'," Kullman said her friends tell her.
U.S. troops have been in Iraq for over five years. More than 4,000 Americans have lost their lives. And two-thirds of the country's citizens now say the war isn't worth fighting.
You might wonder why anyone would think this is a good time to volunteer for military service. But, as you listen to these cadets, that question starts to seem a bit shallow.
"I don't want to talk about freedom, and I don't want to talk about defending the Constitution if I'm not going out and doing something," said one cadet. "I don't want someone else to do that for me. I want to be able to say I was in that fight, and I stood up for what we believe in."
"I was born in Ukraine," explained another. "I moved here in 1999. I love this country, and I want to give something back."
"I think what a lot of people have a really hard time doing is separating the current administration and the current war from the definition of America," added Kullmann. "I mean, we are here, because we believe in a liberal democracy, because we believe in the Constitution, the way of the American life and because we serve the Office of the President, not the person who sits in that chair. That doesn't matter. Whether we agree or not, whether the public agrees with this war, that makes absolutely no difference."
Contrary to popular belief, students don't get handed full-rides for simply enrolling in ROTC. The program does offer college scholarships: some 4-year, some 2-year. But a quarter of the U of M cadets don't receive any money at all.
Then again, most of them seem to be motivated by something other than free English courses or complimentary biology labs.
"I always just sort of felt an intrinsic need to serve something higher than myself," explained a cadet. "I had a grandfather who was in the French Army in World War I. He was actually legally exempt from military service, but he decided to do so, because he felt that it was something more important than himself. So I really take that to heart. It's being part of something greater."
Back at the aquatic center, a tug-of-war has broken out in the deep-end. Cadets tread water as they pull on a soggy rope, trying to yank their opponents across the pool.
According to the classic military advertisements, Army officers are broad-shouldered men with crew cuts and a penchant for barking orders.
But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone like that in this group.
Instead, there's the art major who describes himself as a 'former hippie slacker.' There's a 5-foot-tall sophomore who has a habit of playing with her ponytail. And there's the lanky guy sporting Hawaiian-print board shorts. When he first enrolled in the ROTC program, he could barely muster 10 push-ups.
Of course, these cadets do have one thing in common with those old-school Army poster boys: a strong desire to serve their country.
Bethany Kullmann said it's a calling she couldn't suppress, despite her best efforts.
"Both my parents had been through the ROTC program in late 70s, and my mom was one of first female paratroopers. So I always grew up hearing these stories at the dinner table. But I always thought, 'It's not for me. I wanna be a prom dress designer.' But I was thirteen when 9/11 happened. I really distinctly remember the day after, watching TV and seeing a fighter pilot saying that he could shoot down an American airliner, and he could die if it was better for the whole of the American people. And I literally felt like someone had punched me in the face, like this is your calling, this is your duty," Kullmann said.
And that dream of becoming a prom dress designer?
"It's OK," said Kullmann. "I can't sew."
- All Things Considered, 03/28/2008, 6:20 p.m.