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Xavier Magazine | March 25, 2017

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Leap of Faith

By France Griggs Sloat

Joanna Brown walks across campus in her military fatigues. Her black, well-shined boots thud softly. Her green backpack, loaded with books, blends in with the drab hues of her uniform. Suddenly, the voice of a male student breaks the silence.

“Hey look at the she-male,” he says, his voice echoing off the buildings. “Where’s your rifle?”

Brown keeps walking, but the barb finds its mark. It stings.

“It was insulting,” she says, recalling the event a few weeks later. “I was in uniform at the time. I said nothing.”

That was before the events of Sept. 11, when students in the ROTC’s All For One battalion didn’t stand out in particular. To most, they were just students who chose the military as a career. To a very few, they were something to ridicule.

Things are different now. Quite different. Some of the 17 senior cadets graduating this spring with a full commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army say the terrorist attacks have had a profound effect on how they view events and how others view them. Strangers now come up to Brown in public to shake hands and thank her for her service. A stranger paid for her lunch at a local restaurant. Students ask more questions about ROTC and the military.

For these students, Sept. 11 left an indelible mark, even if many don’t yet fully appreciate the magnitude of the changes wrought by the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. They are members of the first class of ROTC students to graduate into a world sharply redefined by terrorists who stole America’s veil of security.

Four years ago, they came to campus under no military threat. The Cold War was over. The only real conflict in their lifetime was the Gulf War, and many were too young to fully remember that event. Today, though, their lives are changed, and they face the harsh realization that this spring some will march off the commencement stage and into a war.

Caleb Landry was still in fatigues when he went to dinner at the Cintas Center cafeteria the evening of Sept. 11. As he walked across the room, people stared.

“People were struck dumb,” he says. “They’re seeing that we are the people who are going to respond, and they’re looking to us for leadership. Everyone came to us at dinner and asked, ‘What’s going on? Are you leaving? What’s the next threat?’ Friends were calling and asking, ‘What are you doing? Where will you go?’ It made me feel a sense of pride. For the next few weeks, it was constant honking and people yelling.”

Daniel Von Benken was at home watching the events unfold on television. He knew right away that what he was watching would probably have a permanent effect on him. “As soon as we all sat down, the first thing we all talked about was that this will probably bring about something serious, and we’ll probably be involved,” Von Benken says. “I’m not scared now, but I feel obligated to the cause. At first everyone was like, ‘Go get bin Laden.’ But that’s not the only thing out there. There’s a greater evil out there that he represents.”

If anything, senior cadets like Landry and Von Benken feel an increased resolve to fulfill their chosen path. “I signed up to be a soldier,” says Landry. “Nine-one-one has made me more of a patriot, and I realize things about this country I didn’t know before. It has not changed my resolve or my job performance. It made me reevaluate my choice, and I came to the same conclusions.”

Brown, too, re-evaluated her career plans. “September 11 made me feel more vulnerable, even though I’m being trained to deal with it,” she says. “It definitely reinforced my resolve. At first I was set on going only four years then out, and now I’m not so sure. I think more that the people I’m responsible for need the experience of a person who’s been there more than four years, and if I don’t do it, then who will?”

Contrary to some assumptions, the terrorist attacks haven’t sparked an enrollment boom in the 270 Army ROTC programs on college campuses across the country, says Army ROTC spokesperson Paul Kotakis. Nor have they reactivated programs at colleges like Stanford and Harvard that were dumped during the 1970s anti-war movement.

Enrollment was up 5 percent nationally, however, prior to the attacks, reflecting a renewed interest in the program and its benefits—scholarships paid by the Army, guaranteed jobs, opportunities to learn high-tech skills, the lure of travel. For this, students commit to four years of active service after graduation.

At Xavier, 77 cadets are now enrolled, up 14 percent from two years ago. That’s partially attributable to the University’s reputation as being highly competitive and successful. Since 1998, its ranking among all ROTC programs went from 168th to ninth by meeting performance and graduation goals.

Lt. Col. Tim Gobin, chair of the department and professor of military science, is making some changes he believes will help boost enrollment. For example, in his first year at the helm, he weeded out the in-your-face drill sergeant approach in favor of one that focuses on developing good leaders. But ROTC is still a tough program to complete: a three-hour military science course each semester teaching everything from the mundane—how to fill out reports—to technical studies of historic battles; a weekly leadership lab where cadets learn battlefield knowledge such as weaponry and first aid; and a summer camp after the junior year that replaces traditional boot camp.

The University first offered military instruction in 1877. Until 1971, military science was mandatory. During the anti-war movement, many colleges dropped ROTC, although Xavier, which has a mission dedicated to promoting peace and justice, did not. Though it may seem contradictory, there’s room for a military science program on such a campus, argues J. Leo Klein, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry.

Unfortunately, he says, there must be an Army to defend our society, and, hopefully, it will be a peacetime Army run by people educated with a humanistic background. “They should be very responsible Army people,” he says.

Though cadets say they sometimes feel tension around some professors when they come to class wearing fatigues, they also are finding their military choice to be more accepted by their peers and the public.

“Before September 11, people were more like, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” says the 22-year-old Brown, who plans to specialize in transportation after graduation. “People smile at us now, and they never did before. One little old man came up to me and said, ‘I want to thank you for serving your country the way I did in World War II.’ ”

But they wonder what’s next, if they’ll see combat. Von Benken has a friend who graduated in May and was in Afghanistan by the fall. He’s convinced he will see action, too. “I think it’s 10 times more likely I’ll see combat now that this has happened.”

Senior Eric Chappell says when he enrolled, he didn’t expect this kind of war to be going on by the time he graduated.

“It’s the last thing I wanted,” he says. But the 22-year-old cadet, who plans to train as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, says he’ll be among the first volunteers to go overseas.

Officials, however, say there’s no guarantee.

“Nine-one-one was a tragedy and obviously the military is a major player in doing what the president wants to do in support of the country’s goals,” Gobin says. “There may come a time down the road when these students may have to deploy because of decisions our leaders may make.”

That may be sooner than they think.

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