R.O.T.C. Retakes the Hill (Cornell Alumni News 2/1988)

Two tall, ruggedly good looking Cornell Air Force ROTC cadets stand in front of Willard Straight Hall on a crisp fall morning after returning from their weekly drill in Barton Hall, neatly turned out in their dress blues; their conversation is animated and punctuated with guffaws.

A decade or so ago, it occurs to an observer, the cadets’ presence at such a conspicuous spot on campus, at least in uniform – no less their studiously cool demeanor – would have been unthinkable, a certain invitation to brickbats from passing radlibbers, perhaps worse. But today, as the Straight plaza crowd ebbs and flows, no one seems to take much notice of the junior airmen, except for a few peripherally flirtatious females – Top Gun fans, no doubt (come to think of it, one of the cadets does look a little like Tom Cruise).

Of sudden, the men stiffen, in the way all enlisted men do when they sense an officer is in the vicinity. It’s their commander, Col. Robert Sample, professor of aerospace studies and commander of Air Force ROTC Detachment 520; he’s just appeared on the grassy knoll over the Campus Store, and he’s headed their way. The men salute smartly as Sample zooms by, quickly returning their salute, a grinning, steely blur.

“Awesome man,” mutters a student watching the ritualistic exchange from nearby, without apparent irony.

FRANK Barton 1891 – the first Cornell ROTC commander – would have been proud. So, no doubt, would Andrew Dickson White. After atrophying to the point of near-extinction during the Vietnam War, when anything related to the military was derided in the groves of academe – and the commanders of Cornell’s three ROTC detachments had to scramble to prevent their withered programs from being abolished outright – the military sciences are flourishing once again on the Hill.

Last spring, the three units – Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (AROTC), Air Force ROTC (AFROTC), and Naval ROTC (NROTC) – boasted a combined enrollment of 537 cadets and midshipmen, including approximately 100 students from other area campuses. That number, which grew slightly this year, was the highest in twenty years, and more than double the modern-day low figure of 254 that was reached in 1974, shortly before this writer first reported on the then-troubled state of Cornell ROTC for this magazine (“The University Soldier,” November 1975).

In contrast to the Corregidor-like gloom that then pervaded Barton Hall, which has served as the headquarters for the military sciences at Cornell for almost three-quarters of a century, ROTC morale is also sky-high. One can see it on the various units’ bulletin boards, bursting with Polaroids of Cornell’s gung-ho male and female troopers in action – and obviously loving it – at summer camp, or on summer cruise.

One can hear it in the jaunty, fraternal greetings that resound through the narrow passageways of the separate services’ headquarters, as well as in the respectful, almost monastic silence found in ROTC classes. One can feel it in the almost palpable elan that radiates from a full-dress ROTC drill on the floor of the cavernous hall.

Pass the word: ROTC is back.

MANY people who are connected with the current ROTC program at Cornell well remember the Vietnam period and the black eye it gave the military. Although bruised considerably by local anti-war activists, Cornell was the only Ivy League institution not to evict ROTC. And so it remains today. One who is fully aware of this case-history is Col. Robert Sample.

To be sure, when Sample, a career jet transport pilot, was asked to take over the reins of Cornell AFROTC, he recently recalled, he begged off, telling his Air Force superiors that he “wasn’t interested in becoming a martyr.” Sample’s reluctance stemmed from the two years he spent pursuing graduate studies at the then-militant campus of the University of Rochester in the early 1970s. Unhappily, that tour of duty, which followed two years in Vietnam, coincided with the horror of Kent State, where anti-war protesters were shot by National Guardsmen.

“I remember the day after Kent State,” Sample, a soft-spoken Southerner, said recently in his model plane-filled Barton Hall office. “Friends of mine said, ‘You better take off that uniform, Bob, we don’t want to lose you.’”

Clearly, a part of Colonel Sample was still conditioned for that kind of response when he touched down at Cornell in 1986 – especially in light of Cornell’s reputation at times as the “Berkeley of the East.” Hence his surprise – one shared by many newly assigned ROTC officers of the Vietnam era – when the first time he walked across campus in his dress blues he was met not with curses, but with welcoming smiles and interested looks.

Why the sudden hospitality?

Sample and others point to a number of factors which they believe have put a fresh face on ROTC: an upsurge in national pride; the return to a conservative, “each to his own” mood on campus; and, at least among students, a certain naivete vis-à-vis Vietnam that is the product both of their youth and the passing of time. For the average 18-year-old, Vietnam is a long time ago.

Sample: “You’ve got to remember, most of these kids were only 2 or 3 when I was in Vietnam. When I teach that time period in my History of Air Power course, I find that it’s often their initial substantive exposure to it.”

“These kids don’t remember Vietnam,” says Lt. Col. Clarence “Bucky” Buchwald ’66, commandant of Cornell Army ROTC. “Well,” Buchwald retorts, defiantly, “I don’t remember Korea.”

FOR COLONEL Buchwald, a graduate of the Engineering college who was particularly torn by the domestic campus unrest he read about while stationed in Germany during the late 1960s and early 1970s, returning to the Hill – no less, wearing Frank Barton’s old hat – is sweet revenge indeed. The burly, mustachioed artilleryman still winces at the pain he says he felt upon seeing a photo of the president of Cornell sharing a can of soda with the campus radical leader 1969 after the takeover of Willard Straight Hall. He says the picture in The Stars and Stripes caused him to renounce his beloved alma mater. “I didn’t want to hear anything about Cornell after that.”

However, today, Buchwald chortles, “I wouldn’t want to be stationed anywhere else.” Buchwald is enough of a Cornell history buff and ROTC archivist that his office is filled with a large, mixed collection of Cornelliana (including Major Barton’s original commissioning letter), and ancient Japanese relics (souvenirs of a stint near Tokyo).

It’s his opinion the attitude of the Cornell community toward ROTC has shifted, in a relatively short period, from one of benign neglect to active support. As proof, Buchwald cited a ROTC-sponsored blood drive in Willard Straight Hall from which he had just returned that afternoon.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people came up to me and asked me about my uniform,” the colonel said, with a smile. “‘Hey, what’s that medal?’ they’d ask. ‘What’s that insignia?’ They really were interested.”

IN THE NAVY’S corner of Barton Hall all was full speed ahead as well. “Thank God we finally put Vietnam behind us,” boomed Capt. Richard Colbert, commander of the Naval ROTC detachment. The ruddy-faced, Boston-bred sailor, a veteran of twenty-seven years in the Navy, has his rueful memories of the period, too, although the Navy was probably the service that was least scarred by the unpopular war, a function of its distance from the carnage ashore.

“I remember going on a joint naval exercise with the Swedes in the Baltic Sea,” said Colbert. “And a Swedish naval officer said to me at one point, ‘You know, you’ll never put Vietnam behind you.’ It worried me. But as you can see,” continued the captain as several of his 240 midshipmen marched smartly past his door, “we have.”

Colbert, a reservist himself (he is a graduate of the Navy’s extinct Reserve Officer Corps), is a fervent believer in the concept of the student-soldier. He recalled his first shipboard encounter with a ROTC officer, a Dartmouth-trained man, during the Korean War and the humanizing influence the collegian ultimately exerted on the mostly Annapolis-trained officers on board.

“It was healthy to have a man like that in the wardroom,” he said. “It leavened the bread.” “In the same way,” he declared, extending the analogy to Cornell, “ROTC leavens Cornell’s bread. The kids can see that the military isn’t something out there, that we don’t walk around with bayonets in our mouth.”

Interestingly, the only image problem Colbert seems to have had to deal with at Cornell has been the residual embarrassment caused to Naval ROTC by the accidental sinking, at dockside, of the Cornell unit’s training sloop – an incident which his Air Force and Army hallmates razz him no end about.

HOLLYWOOD and the media, the purveyors of a new military chic, have contributed to the ROTC resurgence, Colbert and others note. While the Army is less than happy with the recent spate of neo-realistic films about the ground war in Vietnam, like Platoon and Hamburger Hill – films which have reportedly reduced some AROTC cadets to tears, but do not seem to have hurt the unit’s enrollment – the Navy is enthusiastic about the help it has received from two contemporary films about naval aviation, An Officer and a Gentleman and, more recently, Top Gun. Captain Colbert also cites the beneficial image given the Navy’s submarine branch in The Hunt for Red October, the recent bestselling book about an underseas battle of nerves between an American and a Soviet submarine.

“There was a whole bunch of kids in here right after Top Gun came out, saying ‘I want to be like you,’” said Lt. Steven Ledger, who doubles as the NROTC unit’s resident naval aviator and its staff information officer, in his cramped cubicle of an office in the congested NROTC headquarters. “Of course, once I explained to them how much work was involved, most of them shied away, but it was nice to see them.”

FAVORABLE attention from the White House and the media helps explain why the military is holding its head high today. However, except for a few praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-ammunition types (who have always been around), that doesn’t really explain why hundreds of Cornellians are suddenly showing up at Barton Hall in the fall – as they did, once again, last year – inquiring about ORTC: The destigmatization of the military may make them less reluctant to show up than they might have been a decade ago, however their principal interest in ROTC, at least initially, has more to do with economics.

The fact is, in a day when a four-year education at Cornell may cost upwards of $80,000 – while many traditional sources of financing college have dried up – more and more young men and women are looking at the deal that the three services are offering to full scholarship cadets and midshipmen and liking what they see.

The deal: a ROTC cadet or midshipman who qualifies for a full scholarship receives full funding for tuition and university fees for four years, plus a $100 per month tax-free subsistence allowance; there’s also an allowance for required textbooks. In return, in addition to military science classes and weekly drills, he or she agrees to complete the bachelor’s degree within a specified amount of time, and to accept an officer’s commission – as a second lieutenant in the Army or Air Force, a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy – usually for four years, and additional service in the Reserves, if required.

All in all, not a bad deal. Indeed, given the dearth of other forms of financial aid, a ROTC full scholarship can often be the only way of paying one’s way through school. It is no accident that, nationwide, Army ROTC enjoyed its greatest recent enrollment increase in 1982, after the Reagan Administration cut back drastically on most other forms of federal-funded financial assistance.

Nationwide, approximately one out of four ROTC enlistees is on full scholarship. At Cornell, which, like other top campuses, has been bestowed with a large number of scholarships to distribute amongst the three services, a much greater proportion of ROTC trainees – 81 percent of Cornell AROTC and AFROTC, 95 percent of NROTC – are having Uncle Sam pick up their undergraduate tabs.

THESE AND OTHER students are also initially attracted to ROTC because of the promise of acquiring valuable management experience – as well as the prospect of immediate, secure, well-paid, and hopefully noncombatant employment in the military following graduation.

“Most of the kids who come in here are looking for a way to pay for their college educations and/or a decent paying job,” said Army Captain Steven Barrows ’76, MS ’78. Thirteen years ago, Barrows was one of the ten diehard juniors remaining in Cornell’s AROTC installation then on the verge of being disbanded because of underenrollment. Today he is back – as the unit’s doughty recruiting officer.

“I don’t knock them,” says Captain Barrows. “I know that the main reason that I signed won way back when was that $100 a month.” Little did Barrows know that he would eventually decide to make the Army a career, no less that he would be returning to Barton Hall, an assignment that he – like his fellow Cornellian and artilleryman, Colonel Buchwald – clearly relishes.

Barrows personifies another reason for the surprising ROTC resurgence: high-powered recruitment. Barrow’s pitch, delivered in his Class A uniform of camouflage fatigues and paratrooper boots, rings faintly of those slick, Madison Avenue-produced “Be all that you can be in the Army” advertisements which the Army ahs been running on television over the last few years.

“I can give you time management skills,” the captain roundly declares, trying out his oft-successful spiel on the writer (who agreed to pretend that he was a high school senior on his first visit to Cornell). “I can help you prioritize your time…But above and beyond that here at ROTC I can offer you a sense of belonging, a sense of unity – and continuity.”

The only thing the captain left out, it seemed, was “Pledge with us!”

“Yeah! I guess you could say that this is a fraternity,” Cadet Regina Mayer, who was sitting nearby, laughingly agreed. Mayer, a senior from Honolulu, seems to epitomize the various reasons why both men and women are increasingly drawn to ROTC. She readily concedes that the principal reason why she enrolled was the scholarship. “There’s just no way that I could have come here without the scholarship,” she said.

Once enrolled, however, Mayer found the camaraderie of the corps infectious. And, somewhat to her surprise, she also found herself participating in optional ROTC activities, like the Ranger program, the Army’s elite Special Forces-type unit, of which she speaks in evangelical terms.

“Cadets enter by increments,” said Major James Graham, a University of Massachusetts ROTC graduate who doubles as Cornell AROTC’s medical officer and information officer. “Initially they may come in for the money. However, by the end of four years their commitment is total.”

IMPRESSIVE statistical evidence of the ROTC resurgence at Cornell can be found in the extensive 1986 white paper on ROTC compiled by the University ROTC Relations Committee (URRC), which had members from the administration, faculty, and general student body, as well as the Department of Military Science.

Ironically, the report, which the university administration released in 1986, was the result of an investigation into the state and nature of Cornell ROTC that had been triggered by the irate parent of a Naval ROTC cadet. The parent claimed that all the homework required for ROTC was making it difficult for his son to hold his own academically. Was it? How did most ROTC cadets feel about their ROTC experiences? How did they feel they were viewed by their teachers and fellow students? The URRC wanted to know, and it commissioned a major survey of all ROTC students at the university in order to find out. The results were heartening, particularly to ROTC commanders – and Day Hall.

Among other things, the URRC survey, to which more than half of all ROTC cadets and midshipmen responded, found that:

- ROTC students were holding their own, in spite of the time-intensive nature of some ROTC activities such as the Navy’s exhausting Principles of Navigation course, or the Army’s optional Ranger program. Indeed, they were more than holding their own: as a group, they had grade point averages slightly higher than those of non-ROTC students in similar academic programs.

- More than 98 percent of ROTC students were satisfied with their ROTC experiences and would recommend the program to others.

- Close to 60 percent of ROTC students felt that they were viewed either favorably or very favorably by their peers. Only 5 percent thought that they were viewed unfavorably by fellow Cornellians – and 15 percent by their teachers.

As a result, the URRC was pleased to issue Cornell ROTC a clean bill of health. The URRC survey did find that “the Navy demands more time from underclassmen than do the other services.”

“On the other hand,” the report concluded, “the Navy appears to devote more staff time to the monitoring of underclassmen than do the other services” – something the rivalry-conscious Army and Air Force vehemently deny. Undeniable, however, were the midshipmen’s grade point averages, which were the highest among the tree branches.

WHAT IS the outlook for ROTC, both at Cornell and in general? Of immediate concern to ROTC personnel and supporters are Defense department budget cuts – like the one for 10 percent recently mandated by the Gramm-Rudman spending law – which may reduce scholarship money and possibly trim the number of active duty berths awarded after graduation.

Captain Barrows of the Army, for one, believes that he has turned the latter potential negative into a plus by telling would-be ROTC recruits that there is less chance that they will have to serve active duty after graduation. After all, not every prospect wants to be in the active services. Some recruits are delighted at the idea of serving in the Reserves instead.

And for those who want active duty? Well, according to Barrows, who noted that he was visited by a record number of Army ROTC prospects in the fall of 1987, they’ll just have to compete a little harder for the fewer remaining berths. And what could be wrong with that?

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