On ROTC's 100th Anniversary, Norwich Cadets Reflect On Service

Apr 25, 2016

The Reserve Officer Training Corps, ROTC, is celebrating its 100th year. It was created by an act of Congress in 1916 when the U.S. was on the brink of joining World War I and needed well-trained officers. The idea of combining civilian college life with military officer training started at Norwich University, which lays claim to being the birthplace of ROTC.

As Norwich prepares to celebrate the centennial with a two-day symposium,  President Richard Schneider is brimming with energy. Highly decorated officers from all branches of the U.S. military are descending on campus this week. 

"I've got four stars, three stars, two stars, one stars — it's a cast of stars! Everywhere!" exclaims Schneider of the generals and admirals who'll be helicoptered to the Northfield campus from Burlington by the Vermont National Guard. "It could be a protocol disaster but my staff is really good at this."

Schneider has just spent this afternoon at Norwich's annual Tri-Service Awards ceremony, where 121 cadets were honored. His dark green dress uniform is impeccable, but he sits comfortably in his large cream-colored office. Bright afternoon light pours in the windows as he describes how he thinks ROTC's anniversary should be commemorated.  

"We're not going be talking about a 100 years of glory, of producing wonderful officers — which we have — in the nation! For America," says Schneider. "What we're going to be talking about is, what should we be teaching these kids today to know what kind of war we're going to be fighting 15 or 20 years from now? And that is a big problem."

That problem looks substantially different than it did in 1819, when the founder of Norwich University, Captain Alden Partridge, determined that the military needed well-educated civilian soldiers. Norwich was founded just 35 years after the Revolutionary War when the memory of the war was still strong. 

"Partridge said listen, educated people need to know how to lead troops in a time of war," explains Schneider. "He basically is given the honor of the Father of the citizen-soldier, and we are the birthplace of the Reserve Officer Training Corps."

Admiral Richard Schneider became president of Norwich University in 1992.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

Norwich has all four ROTC programs of the U.S. military — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines (the U.S. Coast Guard has no ROTC). About half of the cadets at Norwich are in the ROTC program. Schneider says it's as hard to get a ROTC scholarship these days as it is to get into West Point. The rest of the cadets pay tuition. 

"They pay to get yelled at," he says, not without pride.

But civilian students attend Norwich too. 

"Having military people and civilian people together, I think is awesome," declares Schneider. 

Norwich's mix is similar to that at the workforce of the Department of Defense: two-thirds in uniform, one-third civilian. This is useful, says Schneider because civilians and soldiers "do not think the same." 

He compares today's Norwich experience to his own years at the Coast Guard Academy in the 1960s. 

"We were all men. We were all engineers. I'm certain we were all right-wing Republicans," he says of the lack of diversity. "Now it's totally different. Now, you can have arguments about, why are we fighting in Afghanistan? What does this mean? You can't have those arguments when you're all thinking the same way."

"Equipment will come and go, planes change, armament changes. You know what doesn't change? Human behavior. We produce kids who want to serve. That's what we do." — President Richard Schneider

President Schneider speaks emphatically about the discipline that Norwich demands of its cadets and about molding them into leaders.

"Equipment will come and go, planes change, armament changes. You know what doesn't change? Human behavior," says Scheider, his voice growing quiet and steady. He says instilling moral and ethical leadership in cadets is essential. "We produce kids who want to serve. That's what we do."

The fierce pride Schneider has for his cadets was on full display earlier in the afternoon during the Tri-Service Awards ceremony. Plumley Armory was filled with hundreds of uniformed cadets in crisp white shirts; many of their shoulders are decorated with braided gold cords. They sat attentively, maybe occasionally bored, as their peers received awards for scholarship, service and upholding ROTC values.

Four of those ROTC students met with me afterward to talk about why they chose the military.

From left to right, Cadets Erik Rajunas, Annelies Heni, Emily Hart and Michael Heimall.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

Cadets Michael Heimall and Emily Hart are both in the class of 2016 and graduation is just around the corner for them. Annelies Heni is a junior and Erik Rajunas is a sophomore. 

Heimall's background is military all the way: He's the fourteenth member of his family to attend Norwich, and he grew up on military bases. Hart, Heni and Rajunas all had military influences from parents or grandparents. 

But Cadet Heni from New York City is the outlier.

"I went to an all-girl Catholic high school in Manhattan!" she says, laughing. "This is a really different experience!"

What they have in common is a desire to serve. They speak about this earnestly, without reservation about their patriotism. And, they say, they are not unique. 

"Even when I was young I felt like I had a need to serve, that I had something to give back," says Cadet Hart.

She compares her decision to join the military with high schoolers who went to art school or took up a philanthropic cause: "You find that you have a lot in common in that you still want to serve your community somehow, you just want to do it in a more structured way."

"Even when I was young I felt like I had a need to serve, that I had something to give back." — Cadet Emily Hart

And that structure can be grueling. First-year cadets — or "rooks" — rise every day at 5:30 a.m. for PT, physical training. At 7 a.m. they have "hygiene" — shower, shine shoes, make beds and go to breakfast. At 7:30 a.m., they report to morning formation for the raising of the flag, and then classes begin at 8 a.m. 

And that's just first few hours of the day.

From morning to night, rooks have very little flexibility in their schedules. 

"The freshmen just live to be an upperclassmen," says Cadet Hart, "because they're like, 'Oh my gosh, I can finally take a nap.'" The older cadets say that theoretically they do have more free time, but it evaporates with additional ROTC responsibilities and harder classes.

Occasionally these four cadets let slide that being here at Norwich — trying to fulfill the demands placed on them — gets to everyone at some point.

The American flag is lowered daily at 5 p.m. as a bugler plays.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

"Sometimes you're not happy to be here, but when you leave this place, you're just so happy to have been here," explains Heni. The other cadets eagerly jump in.

"Because everybody's thought of transferring," says Rajunas. "Everybody's thought about it just once." There's agreement and nervous laughing around the table. 

"Not that it's a bad place! It's a great place!" More laughs. "But you know, when you're going through adversity and you have the ability to end it and just leave, some people do!" At this point, they're all four laughing and shaking their heads. 

But joking aside, the two seniors at the table — Cadets Emily Hart and Michael Heimall — are getting a clearer picture of their lives after Norwich. Hart will go to training in Arizona to become a military intelligence analyst. If all goes according to plan for Heimall, by late next fall will be leading a platoon of 40 soldiers. 

"My brother is an enlisted man. He did not go to college, he went into the Army after high school," explains Heimall. "The thing I think about the most is, how am I going to be a leader to individuals like my brother? It certainly adds a personal aspect of it."

Also personal for Heimall is the commissioning ceremony when ROTC cadets become officers. The fourteenth member of his family to attend Norwich, Heimall plans for his father to swear him in as an officer, his two grandfathers will pin on his lieutenant's bars, and his brother, the enlisted man, will be his first salute. 

"It's probably been the most poignant image in my mind that's gotten me through the last four years," he says.

The Upper Parade Ground in late afternoon.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

Earlier in the day, I had asked these cadets what civilians misunderstand about life in ROTC. A little later in the afternoon, Cadet Rajunas found me on campus and said he'd been thinking about that question. He said, most people wouldn't assume that Norwich is a really progressive place. 

"For me, being openly gay, I wasn't really sure how received I would be." Rajunas was out in high school, but he says he went back into the closet when he was first at Norwich. 

But early in his rook year, his platoon mates found out he was gay, and they were supportive. They told him they'd have his back if anyone gave him grief.

Fast-forward to last weekend, when the big event on campus was a formal, the Junior Ring Ball. His date, a guy from another school, stood him up. Rajunas was feeling down and kind of embarrassed when he shared with a friend that his date wasn't coming after all. 

"Without hesitation, he said, 'I'll take you.' You know, just this straight cadet who's just a friend of mine, being a good friend." Rajunas says they went, they had a great time, and the reactions of his peers reinforced for him that his sexuality isn't an issue in the way he worried it might be when he arrived at Norwich.

As we finish talking, we walk outside and long shadows are falling across the parade ground. It's nearing 17:00, the hour when cadets march in the daily ceremony to lower the American flag as a bugler signals the end of the day.