‘A marathon until the weekend:’ Meet the busy students of the UW’s Army ROTC
On a particularly frigid winter morning in 2011, Hyeong Oh, a newbie in the U.S. Army, got a 2 a.m. wake up call. He groggily picked up the phone, only to find out he had to be at Fort Campbell, Kentucky post’s airport, in a couple of hours.
“Have you watched those videos of soldiers coming back from deployment and families crying?” he asked. “I’ve seen that.”
That morning, Oh was asked to lead the families of soldiers, who would be returning home to Fort Campbell later that day, to a gymnasium adjacent to the airport. Families were meant to stay inside the gym; after all, it was snowing. Instead, they waited anxiously outside, gripping the fence that separated them from their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives.
The families waited one hour shivering in the snow, until they spotted a plane.
“They were all yelling and shaking their hands,” he said, recalling that night, “and when a soldier came out of the airplane the families were crying, really crying.”
As Oh watched the emotional greetings, he began to understand the significance of his service; the military doesn’t only impact soldiers, but entire families.
Oh joined the Army at 19 years old, only six years after his family emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, and when he realized pursuing art school or moving to Las Vegas to learn the ins-and-outs of the hotel business were not the most economical of decisions. While his parents both run successful small businesses, his mom an alterations shop and his dad a carpet-installation business, he refused to consider taking money from them for school.
“My mother told me, ‘Just go, I can pay for it,’ but I didn’t want to give them that pressure,” he said. “Right now, because I left, because they don’t have another guy who just wastes their money, they have more money.”
When Oh’s friend told him joining the Army meant a free education, he figured it was for him; it was a simple, cost-effective way to pursue his degree.
He had been in the Army three years when he heard about the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Students are taught fitness, leadership skills, and military science while obtaining a degree from one of 275 participating academic institutions across the country. ROTC pays each selected cadet’s tuition or room and board for at least two years, and upon graduation, they are commissioned into the Army as Second Lieutenants.
That offer appealed to Oh, who is now a junior at the UW and a third-year in Army ROTC (AROTC).
The only catch: an eight year contract with the Army. Four years as an active duty officer and four years of Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), or six years in the Army National Guard and two years of IRR. While Oh is anticipating pursuing active duty in the Military Intelligence Branch, signing that eight year contract was not easy.
“After [we] finish college and do the eight years [we] are 30 years old,” Oh said. “We spend our 20s in the Army. You have to really commit.”
The Kinnear Husky Battalion: in the business of educating
Kitty-corner to McMahon sits Clark Hall, a building whose exterior matches the other halls throughout campus, with the exception of the pull-up bars that decorate the courtyard. This is home base for AROTC, as well as Air Force, Navy ROTC, and the military science department.
AROTC is celebrating its 100 year anniversary in 2016, though military instruction at the UW began in 1862, 54 years before the modern AROTC was formed by the National Defense Act. That makes the Kinnear Husky Battalion, the official name of the UW’s AROTC, one of the oldest military instruction programs in the country.
As a member of the Kinnear Husky Battalion, cadets attend physical training (PT) Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, beginning at 6:15 a.m. sharp. On Thursdays, they have two hours of Leadership Lab (LLAB) starting at 6:00 a.m. Depending on other duties they have within AROTC, they may be able to sleep in Tuesdays. But, most weekdays begin around 5:30 a.m. and end around midnight, after they finish their homework and tend to other typical college student tasks.
Lt. Col. Tevina Flood, chair of the department of military science and a West Point graduate, said it’s hard for her to quantify the exact amount of time a cadet spends each week on AROTC-related activities. Her conservative estimate was around 20 hours a week.
“It’s pretty hard for some of them to keep it together,” Flood said. “I’ve got a senior, he does this, he has a few different jobs, of course he is a full-time student, he doesn’t get any support from his family. So yeah, it’s a lot.”
The AROTC cadre are active duty army officers, like Flood who started at the UW in January, after spending most of her career in Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Afghanistan.
Although Flood is a military school alumna, she said she recognizes that ROTC cadets face unique challenges.
“My 80 cadets are this tiny minority, and when they look around themselves they see lots of people behaving in ways that are not the same as what they do, and it would be very easy for them to say ‘I want to do that instead of what I am doing now,’” Flood said. “And some of them do that, and unfortunately then some of them have to be shown the door.”
The distractions within what Flood called the “sea of temptation” range for each cadet. It’s often difficult for them to indulge in what many college students typically take part in due to their schedules. Flood emphasized that it isn’t the AROTC cadre’s job to stop cadets from engaging in activity that doesn’t fit the character of an Army officer, and it isn’t their job to discourage such behavior either.
Their job is purely to educate.
Fortunately, as long as a cadet is committed to their choice and isn’t “stupid,” they can make it through, Flood said.
“If we start from the position that it is probably a matter of ignorance, then I can fix ignorance,” Flood said. “I can’t fix stupidity, but I can fix ignorance. We are in the business of educating just like all the rest of the faculty here are.”
Growing up military
Ignorance isn’t an issue for Elena Wright, sophomore cadet and member of ROTC’s Ranger Challenge Program. She grew up in a military family, with a colonel for a dad and a lieutenant colonel for a mom.
Before settling in to ROTC at the UW, Wright moved 11 times. From Washington to Kansas, Pennsylvania, Kuwait, Colorado, and finally Canada, where her parents live now.
She had stints in “civilian communities,” but always preferred to live on posts.
“You’re always going to be safe for the most part,” Wright said. “I was completely like, in this encased bubble of safety.”
Her upbringing made her highly adaptable to change; a crucial characteristic for anyone in the military. She can make friends and connect with just about anyone, assets you’ll find in most military kids, she said.
For most of her life, Wright has been planning to double major, graduate, go to medical school, and become an Army doctor. Dissimilar to most of the population, for Wright, not going into the military is what scares her.
“I love that I know it; I love that it’s my community that I feel comfortable in,” she said.
Wright is one of two women in the UW ROTC’s Ranger Challenge Program, or what Wright called ROTC’s varsity team. Ranger Challenge is composed of 10 cadets who spend additional hours every week training, and then compete with other schools on fitness drills, field drills, and on an army knowledge exam. Membership in this elite squad is very competitive.
As for possible sexism, Wright said she has only received support from her male and female colleagues in the Ranger Challenge and general AROTC community.
“If someone said something to me to the effect of like, you’re not good enough because you’re a girl or, you shouldn’t be here because you’re a girl, everyone, including all my male colleagues would defend me,” Wright said. “I’ve had people ask me questions like ‘how do you carry that pack, you’re so little, or you’re so short, you’re a girl,’ and I guess I just neutralize the gender aspect. I carry it the same way everyone else does. You just try to keep up and you do your best. It doesn’t have to be about being a girl or being a boy.”
Wright said she wanted to become part of the team to challenge herself, and thinks her determination is what landed her a spot in the program. During tryouts last fall, she completed the final day despite a cold that left her without a voice.
Now, she balances AROTC, Ranger Challenge, class, homework, and sorority life, leaving her with time for about four to five hours of sleep each night.
“The way one of the girls describes it is, it’s a marathon until the weekend and then you can recharge,” Wright said. “I think it’s just about learning how to manage your time really well. Like I don’t go out during the school week. There are girls in my house who love to go out every Tuesday and Thursday night, and I never do … I don’t really mind because that isn’t my priority, that’s not why I am here. I don’t think my future patients or colleagues would have wanted their physician to have gone out every Tuesday and Thursday.”
From Coal to Diamonds
On busy game nights, the University Village RAM is packed. There’s a line out the door of customers waiting to be seated, tables to be cleaned, and fans shouting as touchdowns are scored, or aren’t scored. For most of the RAM staff, these are stressful nights. But for one busser, they’re a cake-walk.
“At Fort Knox we had to sleep in a field in the middle of the forest for eight days straight,” senior cadet Jacob DesCamp said. “I went without a shower for a week, and it’s hot, and you’re sweaty and miserable. When you go through stuff like that, and like some cadets have gone through deployment, then you know what a crappy situation really feels like.”
DesCamp works two jobs on top of his school and ROTC workload. Typically, he spends four days a week bussing tables at the RAM and walks dogs every day for extra cash. Like Oh, DesCamp enlisted in the military prior to joining ROTC. At 17, he joined the Oregon National Guard, completing basic training before his senior year of high school.
He plans on spending the eight years on his contract, and beyond, in the National Guard, while pursuing a career within a government security agency, like the FBI or the CIA. Similar to most college seniors, he’s recently been applying to jobs within those organizations, adding to his already busy schedule.
“Sometimes I feel like my heart is gonna stop,” DesCamp said. “Honestly though, I know people out there in the military go through a lot worse, so I try to keep that in mind.”
DesCamp said that being in the army changed him more than he could have ever imagined when he enlisted.
“Enlisted soldiers have a tendency to poke fun at ROTC cadets because they see it as being easy, I guess,” DesCamp said. “But it has been a lot harder, more challenging than I ever anticipated. It makes adults out of kids.”
He compares the experience of being a cadet to riding a roller coaster. Some days are easier than others; some days it hits you all at once, like a rollercoaster loop or a 200 foot drop. But the skills he has acquired along the way, from public speaking, to leadership, to stress-management have made the hard, unpredictable days worth it.
“You put pressure on coal, it turns it into diamonds,” he said while explaining his growth in the service.
Wright, Oh, and DesCamp all commend the AROTC cadre of Army officers for helping them develop these skills in their few years in the program, despite the laborious schedules.
“They will definitely learn something, and in the end, enjoy the shared suffering,” Flood said.
Reach News Editor Kate Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KateClarkUW