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ROTC program bucks national trend

Marcela Berrios | Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Across the United States, as the war in Iraq continues and the country mourns on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, college ROTC programs are scrambling to attract incoming students.

At Notre Dame, however, ROTC programs have received steady rates of applications – generally surpassing national averages since before the war began.

Students who consider joining a ROTC program must weigh tuition benefits and an accelerated career start with likely deployment after graduation. For some Notre Dame students, a sense of duty sounds stronger than any fear of serving overseas. For others, the chance to make affordable a Notre Dame education through military scholarships is the ultimate dealmaker.

Army on pace

Capt. Sean Straus, in charge of the Army ROTC’s recruiting operations at Notre Dame, said he expects to have as many as 30 freshmen enrolled in the program by the end of the 2007-08 academic year.

Currently, he said, there are only 24 new recruits at Notre Dame, but more should arrive next semester – putting the class of 2011 on the higher end of the program’s averages.

Straus said since 2001, the Army ROTC program has welcomed between 20 and 25 new recruits out of more than 200 applicants each year.

“The admissions standards at Notre Dame weed out a lot people,” he said. “It’s easier to get the [Army] scholarship than it is to get into Notre Dame.”

But students still try, despite the possibility of serving amid the sectarian violence in Iraq after their college years.

Senior Hayden Piscal said she decided to join Army ROTC when she was a high school junior because the program would make a Notre Dame education affordable for her family.

“At first I decided to do it because it would pay for school, and it would be a job right out of college that I would not have to worry about,” she said.

Piscal said she is happy with her decision to join ROTC because she has found the leadership skills and sense of patriotism developed in the program have been rewarding. Her feelings toward the program, she said, have moved beyond the financial perks it offers.

The possibility of being sent to the Middle East never influenced her decision.

“We have more or less been told to expect to deploy within a year or two of commissioning,” Piscal said. “But that has never made me think twice about joining the military.”

For senior Guy Hippleheuser, the war in Iraq was a motivation to join Army ROTC at the end of his freshman year.

“Around the time that I began thinking about ROTC, there were rumors spreading throughout the media about how our forces were spread thin enough to warrant a draft or a pull-out from Iraq completely,” he said. “I didn’t feel that we as a country could allow this to happen. So I joined ROTC, hoping to fill one of the empty ranks in the military.”

Statistics show this sentiment is not the consensus among students in the United States.

In April, Time magazine reported that the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) had announced there were only 25,100 ROTC cadets in universities nationwide in 2006 – 6,000 shy of the target. Representatives of the GAO also said the Army would disburse about $1 billion in 2007 to attract new soldiers and retain its old ones. A portion of those funds will go directly to ROTC scholarships across the country.

“The Army in general is growing,” Straus said. “It’s adding 60,000 soldiers and of those, a decent amount of those are going to have to be officers. So as a result, they’re going to turn to the ROTC more to try to meet those needs.”

A war in the Middle East requires manpower, he said, and the Army ROTC programs will offer full-tuition rides to students in exchange of an eight-year commitment to the military after graduation.

Senior Russell Fu said he switched to Army ROTC at the end of his freshman year because the program offered him more money than the Air Force ROTC did.

“I had been part of Air Force ROTC my freshman year but voluntarily left due to them having no more scholarships available,” Fu said. “Army ROTC called me at the beginning of my sophomore year, offering me a slot with a full scholarship, so I quickly jumped on.”

And, like Piscal, he said his positive experiences in the program have expanded his views about the Army beyond being a way to make college affordable.

“I feel proud to give something in return to my country that has blessed me with so much freedom,” Fu said. “I feel honored to say that I defend this freedom for myself and my fellow countrymen.”

Navy funding limited

The Naval ROTC program has had limited growth because of tightening budgets.

Todd Willebrand, deputy public affairs officer at the Naval Service Training Command (NSTC) in Great Lakes, Ill., said approximately 1,000 new scholarships were issued to new Naval ROTC students across the nation, a 20 percent drop from the 2003 figure.

But, he said, the war in Iraq was not responsible for that plunge, as the number of applications the office received each year had actually increased. The NSTC’s ability to cover the expenses of all the students, however, had not.

But Naval ROTC senior midshipman Dan Justice said he still believed fear of being deployed is a factor that plays into a high school student’s decision to apply.

“I can certainly see how [Iraq] would, especially for the Marines and Army, affect kids’ decision to join the military,” Justice said. “I understand that concern and it’s something you have to consider when you look at all the pros and cons of joining the service.

“If it’s such an important factor for you and it outweighs all the pros then the service probably isn’t for you.”

But for him and the other students at Notre Dame that choose that path of service, ROTC was a calling.

Budget cuts hit Air Force

Lt. Col. Shawn Braue of Notre Dame Air Force ROTC said he could not quantify the effect of the war in Iraq on Air Force ROTC recruiting because “there is not a mechanism in place to poll students on their reasons for not enrolling in ROTC.”

The war in Iraq, he said, may be one of a number of reasons why students choose not to enroll, though there’s no way of verifying that. 

What he did confirm, however, is that budget cuts to Air Force ROTC programs everywhere have been bringing down the recruiting numbers annually.

“Air Force scholarship money is less [than that of] other services, and that might have a bigger impact on the numbers,” Braue said.

He said the 2007 national average of total students enrolled in any given school’s Air Force ROTC program is 92, a sharp decline from the 2003 average. Since the war in Iraq began, the Air Force has seen its average ROTC program shrink from 115 members in 2004 to 95 in 2006.

The budget cuts have affected the Notre Dame detachment, which was larger than the national average in 2003, but is now below the mean with only 83 students, Braue said.

The budget cuts, paired with the rising costs of a Notre Dame education, he said, have made it impossible for the Air Force to offer more scholarships at the University.

“We can take $15,000 and offer a student full tuition at a state school, or we can take that money and not even pay half of what it costs to go to Notre Dame,” he said.

More than fear of going to Iraq, he said, the current financial limitations of the program were responsible for the decreases in recruiting numbers.

Senior Tony Crosser, a member of Air Force ROTC, said the Air Force is currently cutting scholarships for ROTC “because of a need to cut the numbers in the Air Force and increase the numbers in the Army and Marines.”

“The cutting of scholarships is hurting enrollment in the Air Force ROTC program, but is making those who want the scholarship go to the services that need more people,” he said.

Crosser pointed out the abundance of full tuition scholarships for Army cadets and Marines -who are in high demand in Iraq and are more likely to deploy after graduation – an incentive the Air Force can’t afford presently.

But as is the case with the Army, there are still students who join the program for more than the money, like junior Nathan Loyd.

“I’ll admit, the scholarship potential was very enticing,” he said. “However, when I entered ROTC, I did not have a scholarship. … I wasn’t given one until I had been in ROTC for a while, and so I developed a strong sense of purpose. I see that purpose in almost all of the cadets and midshipmen.”

“… We are men and women training for a profession of arms.”