The final issue of The Blue and White is on campus just in time to offer perfect procrastination fodder. You’ll find an interview with Greta Gerwig, BC ’06; a critical look at TFA; and the final installment of a series on undergraduate student debt at Columbia. Scour Butler or Lerner for a copy, or check it out on the world wide web. In this piece, staff writer Naomi Sharp, CC ’15, gives us a taste of the day-to-day lives of Columbia’s ROTC cadets.
Christian Vivadelli, CC ’15, meets me outside of Carman at 4:45 a.m. He has just rolled out of bed and comes down from his room wearing a navy sweatshirt. A few hours ago, he was working on a University Writing paper. (“The long one,” he adds as clarification.)
The sky is dark as we head down an empty College Walk. After years of swim practice, Christian is used to waking up early; in fact, he’ll be back on campus by 6:30 a.m. to train with the Columbia swim team. I ask him about breakfast. “I usually have a granola bar, but I ran out,” he tells me.
He opens the door of a black van parked outside the 116th street gates and we climb into the back seat. Like every Tuesday morning, a driver hired by Columbia is at the wheel. Patrick Poorbaugh, GS ’15, is sitting shotgun. Abigale Wyatt, GS ’14, climbs in at 125th street.
The commute to the Bronx’s easternmost tip takes less than half an hour this early in the morning. We pull up at SUNY Maritime, the New York City base for the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC), well before the 5:30 a.m. start time for Physical Training.
Two years have passed since President Bollinger signed an agreement with the Secretary of the Navy to reinstate the NROTC program at Columbia University. The ROTC, which includes Army, Navy, and Air Force branches, allows students to attend college while training to become officers in the U.S. Armed Forces. Some ROTC participants, cadets, receive a scholarship for their college tuition on the condition that they commit to a period of military service after graduation.
At Columbia, the controversy leading up to the 2011 decision—a whirlwind of op-eds, polarized town hall meetings, faculty petitions, and national media coverage—was heated. Critics of the ROTC perceived a too-cozy relationship between the military and academy. That controversy has all but disappeared.
“It very quickly became a nonissue here, which is wonderful as far as I’m concerned,” explains Vice Provost Rittenberg, who continues to manage the implementation of the agreement. “Sometimes lack of interest is a good sign.”
Whether or not outsiders are paying attention, Columbia’s decision has made the ROTC a part of campus life. On the first floor of Lerner Hall, vending machines were replaced with the new NROTC office. “We purposely spend a lot of time here because we want to be available to the campus community,” says Captain Matthew Loughlin, the commanding officer of the NROTC in New York City. His reception from Columbia faculty and students has been “almost universally positive, and at a minimum cordial,” Captain Loughlin affirms. “There may be people who perhaps were opposed to us being here, but they’ve been respectful and polite, and we very much appreciate that.”
For now, Christian is the only non-GS cadet in the NROTC. He hasn’t received any backlash against his affiliation; the way he sees it, “there’s some novelty to being the first one.”
As the first NROTC students in almost 50 years trickle into Columbia, a quiet beginning to the program has its benefits: “We did not want that to happen under a microscope,” explains Professor Jeffrey Kysar of the mechanical engineering department, who leads an advisory committee on issues related to the NROTC. “A student’s a student. They deserve their own privacy.”
Floodlights cast a glow over the soccer field. To the right of the scoreboard (“Maritime College, Home of the Privateers”), not far from the edge of the field, is the East River. It’s the first outdoor Physical Training, or PT, since winter, and the weather is chilly as the cadets arrange themselves by platoon group to begin formation and synchronized exercises. Unlike the small group of Marines present, who look prepared to use the Navy cadets as dumbbells, the NROTC does PT more for camaraderie than intense physical training. “We’re not the chinup service,” remarks Captain Loughlin good-naturedly.
All of the Navy cadets wear blue sweatshirts with the Navy insignia on the back. Most of them are students at SUNY Maritime, but some commute from other schools. Like Christian, these students are only allowed to join the NROTC because their universities signed an agreement with the Navy.
Students have participated in the Army and Air Force ROTC programs independently of Columbia long before the NROTC decision. Air Force ROTC cadet Nico Barragán, CC ’13, and Army ROTC cadet LeTicia Brown, SEAS ’14, have never communicated with the administration about their ROTC involvement. From Nico’s perspective, Columbia and the ROTC are “two different worlds—and they rarely collide.”
That may change: the administration is gradually extending its attention to the Army and Air Force ROTCs. “We want to give our students in those programs the same type of support,” Provost Rittenberg says.
Only the Naval ROTC program requires a contract with universities as a prerequisite for student participation. Compared to the Army and Air Force ROTCs, the NROTC is a smaller, highly technical program with stricter academic requirements. Besides a Naval Science class every year and Leadership Lab at SUNY Maritime, Christian will take two semesters each of Calculus and Physics, a semester of Computer Science, and a semester of American History at Columbia. With the exception of P.E., he is not exempt from any Columbia Core requirements.
For NROTC cadets, “Columbia has been surprisingly helpful,” says Christian. “Usually when I have a question, they get it done pronto.” Abigale, who joined the Navy in 2008 and began studying at Columbia this year, also finds the administration “very, very supportive.” So far, things have gone smoothly.
“If you hear otherwise,” Professor Kysar tells me, “please let me know.”
Every weekday, LeTicia takes the 6:10 a.m. 1 train to the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham College. The Army ROTC has PT three times a week. LeTicia fell short of the minimum cutoff for situps on her last PT test, so she goes to additional PT each morning before her 8:40 a.m. classes at Columbia.
She comes from a military family: her parents met in the Army and her sister is a West Point graduate stationed in Korea. LeTicia almost went to West Point herself, but was hesitant to commit to “Army 24/7.” Instead, she juggles her biomedical engineering major requirements with the AROTC. “To be honest, I don’t sleep,” she admits, only half-joking.
After PT on Fridays, the cadets have an hour for personal hygiene and breakfast before their classes begin. By 8:30, most of them have changed into full camouflage uniform and spread out across the Fordham cafeteria with egg sandwiches, Coke bottles, and coffees. LeTicia has a vitamin water (“Coffee doesn’t work for me,” she says), and sits next to the cadets who are running the morning’s Leadership Lab. The three-hour lab is followed by a Military Science class, and LeTicia also takes a Military History class. “I feel like people think we learn how to fight, like hand-to-hand combat,” she says. “They take out the whole tactical part of it. The main focus is becoming a leader, [but] most people see it as a physical thing.”
Leadership Lab is in a small classroom on the seventh floor of a Fordham building. Today’s peer-led lesson is centered on writing Operations Orders, a specialized format that the Army uses to communicate information and relay it to troops. More experienced cadets take charge of small groups, coaching them through the process (“You just commit that shit to memory,” one older cadet advises another). They are all working with the same scenario:
“Enemy operating in two to four-man teams with small arms.”
“Our mission is a spot attack. Alpha will be the supporting element and Bravo will be the assaulting element.”
LeTicia is leading a three-person group through writing a sample order. “You need something to initiate fire,” she instructs a younger cadet. “You can say a whistle—one whistle and we initiate fire.”
Initially, LeTicia questioned her decision to commit to ROTC. “Honestly, I needed a way to pay for college,” she says. She received her scholarship to Columbia from the AROTC after contracting with the military in her freshman year. She says that the ROTC has taught her “mental strength.” “I just power through,” she tells me. She thinks for a second and adds, “A lot of Fridays I’ll just come home and go to sleep until the next day.”
Though LeTicia stays positive, balancing ROTC and SEAS has been difficult. The best way the Columbia administration could support her, she says, would be to consider ROTC classes for academic credit—a process that is already underway for NROTC classes.
These evaluations are not taken lightly, explains Professor Kysar; a course that receives Columbia credit must be “sufficiently rigorous to maintain Columbia standards.” One course, “Ship Systems,” has already been approved by the mechanical engineering department and SEAS. It will likely be offered next fall at SUNY Maritime. Though NROTC cadets will have priority for registration, the class will be open to all students at Columbia.
LeTicia hopes to go to grad school while holding a position in the Army Reserves—her Army contract requires her to spend six years in the Reserves or four years on Active Duty. Eventually, she would like to work with soldiers who have lost limbs or sustained other serious injuries, as a civilian on a military base.
Nico gives an assessment of military culture when I shadow him to New York City’s Air Force ROTC base at Manhattan College. “Standards are standards,” he says. “There’s no grey area, there are no excuses.” He shows me a cot pushed against the wall of the Cadet Lounge for cadets to practice making their beds. The sheets should be folded at the corners of the mattress to create a 45-degree angle. The bottom edge should be six inches from the end of the bed. “It’s measured with a ruler and you get yelled at if it’s five,” says Nico. “You might ask why it matters—what’s the difference between five and six inches? But five or six inches on a map can be the difference between bombing innocent civilians and the enemy.”
Nico is the Cadet Wing Commander, the highest-ranked cadet position in the AFROTC. He takes the subway to Manhattan College about five times a week. “When I first got here, I was petrified to tell anyone I was in the ROTC,” he says. Though most people have been supportive, Nico has dealt with negative reactions. The most extreme was after a class during his sophomore year, in which he had volunteered opinions based on his experience with the military. “This girl came up to me and said, “If you die in Iraq, those people will have justice,’ ” he recalls.
A Political Science major, Nico understands the spectrum of opinions about the ROTC and is well-aware of the ethical implications of military work. “There are certainly people who have thoughts like, ‘Anyone killing anyone for any reason is wrong,’ and I totally respect that,” he says. “That’s a very noble idea. I might not see it the same way, but if someone said that to me I would be like, ‘Okay, I understand.’ ” Although he draws “a tremendous sense of pride” from his military work, Nico feels a responsibility to remain open-minded.
Nico’s Aerospace Studies class at Manhattan College is taught by Lieutenant Colonel Timothy McCaffrey, the commander of the AFROTC in New York City. Because of scheduling conflicts with Columbia, Nico takes a makeup class with another cadet.
Today’s lesson includes training on sexual harassment, which Air Force members will revisit at least once a year for the rest of their military careers. “If there’s a claim of sexual harassment, you investigate it,” Colonel McCaffrey says flatly. “Even if you don’t believe it. Investigate everything.” He reads through a series of scenarios and asks the cadets how they would respond. Some scenarios are ambiguous, including the case of a female guard who reports a male guard for calling her “honey.” It might not be sexual harassment, Colonel McCaffrey concedes, but it still violates military code of conduct. “Does he call everyone ‘honey’? Does he call the men ‘honey’? She trained as an airman,” he finishes. “She deserves to be called by her rank and name.”
In another scenario, a female officer accuses her superior of sexual harassment and reports to their commander, who is a close friend of the accused and insists it must be a misunderstanding. A related military policy has faced heavy scrutiny in recent months, after an Air Force commander used his authority to overturn a sexual assault conviction against a member of his force. Colonel McCaffrey sees no grey area. “I would expect the commander to be fired whether or not the sexual harassment case was true,” he tells the cadets. “She came to him and he did nothing.”
After he graduates this year, Nico will go to flight school to become a pilot. Eventually, he would like to work somewhere where he can use the Arabic and Hindi he studied at Columbia. He hopes that the ROTC’s relationship with Columbia will strengthen over time. “For LGBT students, there are resources; for students of color, there are resources,“ he points out. Nico suggests that an ROTC representative on campus, or an advisor who specializes in helping military students, would provide the support that cadets are currently missing.
He isn’t looking for special treatment for ROTC programs—just a little more recognition. “I don’t think Columbia needs to cater to us,” he stresses. “We’re just like any other student group, pretty much.”
It’s light outside by the time PT ends for the NROTC cadets. Christian still has swim practice before his full day of classes even starts. Swimming takes up most of his time outside of class and the ROTC, and he is also a member of Zeta Beta Tau. “I don’t think any one of those communities would like to hang out with each other,” he reflects. “I don’t know if they would all click.” He adds with an easygoing shrug, “But I make it work.”
On the drive back, Christian and Abigale discuss an upcoming uniform inspection for Navy cadets. Abigale enlisted in the Navy after dropping out of college and traveling the country for three years, taking odd jobs—at various points, she was a canoe instructor, a balloon artist, a zoo worker, and an employee at a brownie factory. She knows that at Christian’s age, she wouldn’t have had the discipline to join the NROTC. “To make that decision at 18 is impressive,” Abigale says.
“He has four years to come out and be an officer, with all that that entails,” she adds. “There isn’t another training period. It’s interesting trying to develop that identity when you’re spending so much time at Columbia.”
When we pull up at 116th street, Christian leaves to grab something to eat before he goes to Dodge. He’s mastered a skill to get through long days like this one:
“I’m a pretty good napper,” he tells me. “I can fall asleep in probably thirty seconds.”