The results of last week’s ROTC survey should be released later today. Before they are, Bwog encourages you to do some close-to-home back-reading on the issue–below, we’ve re-run Izumi Devalier’s article from the November 2005 issue of The Blue and White titled “Embedded in New York: Or, How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love ROTC.”
The average Columbia student knows about as much about ROTC as she knows about assembling a rifle. Guns don’t kill people, the thinking goes: ROTC students kill people.
As for what they do when they’re not killing people (which, as it turns out, is always), most students draw a blank. To answer this question, I embedded myself with Columbia’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps for a month, blending in about as well as a student clad in camouflage blends in on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk.
My life as a soldier began on a bright Friday morning when I was supposed to meet Army Cadet Private Riaz Zaidi, C’08, at 0915 in front of the 116th gates. Friday is a big day for ROTC cadets, with classroom instruction and leadership labs. Unfortunately, Friday is also a big day for sleepers like myself, and I usually spend the hours before noon pleasantly incapacitated.
As I stumbled out of my dorm and began sprinting to our meeting place, I panicked. Having failed to Facebook him in advance, I had no idea what Cadet Zaidi looked like. But then I spotted a tall figure sporting full camouflage and polished black boots. Thank God for conformity.
Columbia students must trek to Fordham University to participate in the New York City Army ROTC program, and to Manhattan College for the Air Force Program. The result of this exile, imposed since 1969 when student rioters prompted Columbia to end the program, has been a gradual dwindling of cadet enlistment. This year, only five Columbia cadets are enrolled in the Army, and three in the Air Force, including a visiting student from Tulane University. Together, they keep a low profile on campus, evading hostile stares as they quietly reconcile their civilian and military lives.
On the subway ride to Fordham’s Lincoln Center Campus, Cadet Zaidi skimmed the ten pages of reading he was assigned from the First Year Military Science (MS) textbook. More than once, I caught passengers staring at him, perhaps suspecting Bloomberg had upgraded subway security. He didn’t seem to care.
When we arrived, the MS1 instructor, Major Riley, was already handing back the previous week’s quizzes. A handsome man in his thirties with closely cropped, dirty-blonde hair, Major Riley is the stuff of ROTC legend. For one, he is sickeningly fit: the Major scored a 414 on the extended scale of the Army’s Physical Fitness Test, which considers 300 a perfect score. He runs a five-minute mile, which he claims is “not that great at all,” and can perform 144 pushups in two minutes. Today he is teaching a tutorial on nutrition. Major Riley teaches with what one would call the Socratic method, had Socrates been a drill sergeant. Major Riley: “Why do we eat?” Cadet Pham, NYU ’09: “Sustenance, sir!” Major Riley: “What is your body?” Cadet Lombardo, Manhattan College ’09: “An organic process, sir!” This exchange was followed by a short lecture on the basic rules of healthy eating (“If it doesn’t grow, don’t eat it!”).
Then class adjourned, and I went back to my bag of Doritos.
The following Wednesday, I set my alarm for the ungodly hour of 0600 and joined in the Physical Training at Central Park. Even though PT sessions take place three times a week, Cadet 2nd Lieutenant Sean Wilkes, C’06, told me I should start on a Wednesday since it was “light on running.” For someone whose athletic regimen is limited to power-walking the stretch from Lerner Hall to the International Affairs Building when I have a poli sci paper due, this was good news.
I should have known better. When Cadet Zaidi and I arrived at the southwestern entrance of Central Park, the other cadets had already begun filing into formation. Before I could gather what was going on, the senior cadet ordered everyone to begin marching. Then they started sprinting. I did not.
I eventually found them stretching on a baseball diamond not far from where we had started. “Thank God that’s over,” I thought, proud of a hard day’s work. Sure, I was panting, but I had completed the run, however clumsily. I remember thinking, “Maybe I’m cut out for the army after all!”
Then the real routine began. Crunches, plyometric jumps, leg lifts, reverse curls, squats, lunges, bicycle kicks, sit-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, push-ups with your arms close together, push-ups with your arms far apart, one-armed push-ups—did I mention push-ups? I tried to sit out of the exercises, but Major Riley caught me cheating and ordered me back. By the time we finished my body felt like it was disintegrating. But the other cadets seemed unfazed. After reviewing several marching drills, they dispersed and set off for their morning classes. I spent the rest of the day immobilized in bed.
I was allowed to participate in most ROTC activities despite having blown my cover early on (Major Riley: “So what publication are you from?”). Given my cursory military knowledge, derived from repeated viewings of Spy Game, I had expected the Army to be more secretive. You could say we had our own little Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.
Field Training, however, was off-limits. Apparently they require military ID on military bases, and my CUID didn’t count. Field Training allows cadets to apply the skills learned in the MS tutorials and leadership labs to simulated tactical programs, including weapons and survival training. Imagine a giant ropes course with hand grenades, 50-pound rucksacks, rifles, and a lot of shouting.
But compared to some other ROTC regimens, Field Training coddles you. Cadet Wilkes described the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare exercises as “training seven days a week for five weeks,on about four to five hours of sleep a day, sometimes none. It’s grueling, but you survive.”
In one Chemical Warfare exercise, Wilkes had to walk through a gas chamber filled with CS gas (ortho-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile). Cadets wore gas masks, but were required to remove them in the middle of the room, state their name and social security number, and answer a simple question such as, “What’s one plus one?”
Cadet Wilkes described the experience in the nonchalant verse of military poetry. “The purpose of this LDAC exercise is to give us experience with putting on our mask and MOPP suit in an NBC environment, and demonstrate the importance of doing so properly,” he said.
“I have an Air Force tradition you might be interested in,” Air Force Cadet Bob Wray, C’06, told me. He was referring to Detachment 506’s quarter-annual “Dining-In” ceremony. “It’s a formal event, so you’ll have to wear a dress. And by the way, it’s on Long Island.”
When Cadet Wray and I arrived at the American Legion Outpost 958 in East Rockaway, members of the Color Guard, the Air Force’s flag-bearing unit, were already practicing for the opening ceremony.
‘Dining-In’ is basically a unit-based formal dinner with a military flavor,” Wray explained, as he carefully transcribed the names of guests onto beige place-cards. While he paced around the room frantically issuing orders (“Has someone asked Major Brown if he wants chicken marsala or roast beef?! Someone make sure the colonel has a parking spot!”), I wandered aimlessly, shaking hands with the 80 or so guests in attendance and making idle chatter with cadets, commissioned officers, and their civilian dates.
One of my fellow civilians, Katherine, was a senior from NYU and by all accounts an ROTC groupie. As the roommate of a cadet, she had attended most of the detachment’s events. When I asked her why she hadn’t simply joined ROTC, she said she preferred being a “partial observer of the community. Plus the food is usually good.”
When the guest of honor, Air Force Colonel John Ranck, arrived, we took our seats. The dinner began with a flag ceremony, followed by a memorial commemorating POWs and persons missing in action.
The dinner itself was “scripted.” This meant that guests were treated to meticulously calibrated dialogue and strange military traditions such as the Grog ceremony, in which cadets devised witty stanzas exposing trivial infractions committed by fellow cadets (Sample: “I hereby spot a crooked bow / Off to the Grog you go!”). The loser drinks out of the Grog bowl, which normally contains a repulsive concoction of low-grade alcohols. But due to the underage audience, this particular Grog bowl contained a purple mixture of diet root beer, Red Bull, protein powder and Lucky Charms cereal.
By the time we had finished our desserts, I was beginning to see why these cadets were so attracted to ROTC. Beyond its military aspects the program offers a tight-knit community, much like a college fraternity, though it certainly has a different rhythm from the one most Columbians are used to.
On the train ride back to Manhattan, the train conductor looked at our group—two of us in elegant dresses and three cadets in full uniform—and ex- claimed, “Hey guys, don’t you think it’s a little early for Halloween?” I thought about responding, but decided instead to enjoy the double life for a few more hours.