No More Urban Officers? How an Uneven ROTC May Change Our Military

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Big-city campuses once produced superstars like Colin Powell. Today, those programs are dwindling -- which may lead to a whiter, more rural military.

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When cadet Kevin Poon arrives at St. John's University in the dark of early morning for physical training, he stands among about 80 other cadets in the football field encircled by the school's red track, quietly waiting for 6 a.m. and the start of warm-up drills. He says hello and nods to some, all of whom are dressed like he is in gray "ARMY" t-shirts and black shorts.

About half of the cadets, like Poon, are idly shifting their weight and glancing around sleepily before they have to form a series of lines and stand at attention. They are commuters. The other half talk and laugh amongst themselves, their shouts piercing the cool morning air as they while away the minutes. They are non-commuters who live, work, and train together on campus.

Poon, a bespectacled Asian American sporting a buzz cut, is a senior at St. John's ROTC in Queens, one of only two Army ROTC programs in New York City. He has persevered through four years, since he was a freshman, but he thinks of his fellow cadets more as professional partners than friends.

"I have a working relationship with my comrades," Poon said. "I do what they ask. They do what I ask. No hostility, but no intimacy."

Poon's experience is typical among cadets in the Northeast, where ROTC programs are few and far between. New York City is home to nearly 600,000 students and 80 colleges. The city's population of 8 million is equivalent to Virginia's, yet the city has only four ROTC programs on college campuses, compared with Virginia's 11.

Many New York schools severed their ties with the ROTC during the 1960s, when anti-war protests broke out across campuses in the Northeast. When the draft ended, the military slipped even further into the background, where it has remained ever since. In response, the Armed Forces have stopped making much of an effort to recruit in the area. Even City University of New York, the third-largest public university system in America and the one that commissioned General Colin Powell, no longer has an ROTC program.

With so few programs available, cadets must undergo long commutes simply to take part in the program. Poon, for instance, lives in Newkirk Plaza, Brooklyn, a 1-hour-and-40-minute ride to St. John's via public transportation. He wanted to be a part of ROTC, and St. John's was the closest school to his home that offered it.

"It's at the bottom of their inbox. They're not necessarily prejudiced; they just don't have the time to think about it."

Therefore, much of his life takes place on the subway. Cadets have physical training three times a week and one day of military science class, as well as "lab," where they run practice drills wherever they can find some open space. This means that Poon must make it to campus at least four times a week.

"It's physical training in itself just to get here and back," Poon said. Train schedules float through his brain as often as checklists of homework he has to finish. For him, ROTC is a series of weekly tasks. He appears for classes, eats, shows up for physical training, and often sits doing homework in D'Angelo Hall, the campus's flagship building, until the early hours of the morning.

When there's simply too much to get done, rather than go home, Poon will walk across campus from D'Angelo, pull out a sleeping bag and change of clothes from his locker, and set up camp by one of the many couches spread throughout the main floor. He has few friends at St. John's. Some he met through other classes, some through different organizations he belongs to, but mostly he hangs out with people back home.

In contrast, for on-campus cadets at St. John's, life revolves much more around ROTC. They roll out of bed in the early morning, knowing that in rooms down the hall their buddies are doing the same. They go to class together, study together, drink together, drill together. ROTC programs are meant to be this way to instill a sense of belonging, to bind a group of individuals into an "Army of One." In Southern and Western regions of the country, they do this well. But for Northern city dwellers like Poon -- who make up half of the ROTC program at St. John's -- that kind of camaraderie can be hard to achieve.

"Commuters are sort of second class citizens in the ROTC program, in the way that you interact with students," said Sean Wilkes, a Columbia student-turned ROTC recruiter who participated in Army ROTC at Fordham University. "That sense of community, that fraternity aspect, is lost." This in turn leads to a shortage of urban-bred officers, which, combined with a lackluster effort by the military to recruit officers in the Northeast, has led to dysfunctional and inaccessible city ROTC programs in this region.

Cheryl Miller, who wrote a report for the American Enterprise Institute entitled "Underserved: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City," believes that the lack of ROTC host-campuses and poor transportation to the few campuses that do have programs is one of the main reasons so few officers come out of urban environments.

There is only one campus in the five boroughs -- Manhattan College in the Bronx -- that hosts Air Force ROTC. If, for example, a student from Queens College wants to commission as an Air Force officer upon graduation, he or she will have to travel more than three hours round-trip for classes. State University of New York Maritime at Throgg's Neck in the Bronx hosts the city's only Navy ROTC program. Columbia students, who used to have a naval ROTC program on campus, now have to travel 75 minutes to participate.

Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that students are most willing to join ROTC when there's no need to travel at all. In a poll at Brown University, seven percent of students interviewed said they would be interested in ROTC if it were on campus, compared with only one percent who said they would be willing to commute.

"My guess is you'd get significantly more people if you actually had a program on campus," said Dr. Michael Segal, a leader of the national Advocates for ROTC.

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Colin Daileda is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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