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A Few Good Men

In 1950, over half of Yale’s undergraduate population participated in the military’s Reserve Office Training Corp (ROTC)— the college student’s alternative to taking his chances with the draft. In addition to their normal coursework, they performed drills, took Military Science courses, and, perhaps most dauntingly, signed away the four years following graduation to become officers in the military. In exchange, they received Yale credit for their ROTC coursework, considerable financial aid, and, in an era when military service was almost compulsory, were able to exercise some control over how they would go about serving.

Half a century later, the basic ROTC program remains unchanged: Cadets perform drills, take military prep courses, and commit at least four post-graduate years to serving as officers in the military. ROTC participation at Yale, however, looks very different. The overwhelming number of students who participated during its heyday has been reduced to single digits. And, whereas in the 1950s Yale students only had to walk across campus to participate in ROTC training, their drills now begin with an hour and a half-long car ride.

Every Thursday morning at 10:30, Yale Senior Matthew Hammerle pulls on a dull-green flight suit, climbs into a rental car, and drives 65 miles to ROTC training at the University of Connecticut. On one particular Thursday last fall, he and Jason Pampena, a fellow cadet, stood waiting in front of Payne Whitney Gym for their rental car to be delivered. However, on this particular Thursday, Enterprise Rent- A-Car failed to pass inspection. This particular Thursday, Enterprise was late. 10:30 passed, 10:40 passed, 10:50 passed. Finally, a taxi pulled up to the curb and not one, not two, but three Enterprise representatives crawled out of the backseat. Apparently they lacked the personnel to drive the car over. They wanted Hammerle and Pampena to walk the five blocks to Enterprise headquarters on Crown Street, but, after a quick negotiation, they, not Hammerle and Pampena, were trudging down the sidewalk, and the two cadets were in the taxi, speeding towards the car lot. As they climbed out, yet another Enterprise representative materialized. “Hey Matt, what’s up buddy,” he said, handing Hammerle the keys to a gray Mazda. A brief search for the car in question ensued, but finally, Hammerle and Pampena were in transit—thirty minutes behind schedule. “I have no idea what happened back there,” Hammerle said as he turned the car out of the lot and headed towards the highway.

* * *

As the two drove northeast, their conversation drifted away from Yale and towards ROTC. Pampena, a sophomore, had only recently begun attending ROTC classes and was unsure whether he was comfortable making a binding commitment to the military. He was so new to the program that he had yet to be issued a uniform—unlike the majority of the underclass cadets, he still wore a button-down shirt and khaki pants. And, as he was coming to realize, the distance between New Haven and Storrs, where the University of Connecticut is located, poses more of an obstacle for the Yale cadets than simply a long drive. Like any organization, ROTC has a social component, and Pampena wasn’t sure how to go about making friends with fellow cadets he saw only once per week.

“Get involved with these people outside of ROTC,” Hammerle advised him. “Do some of the fundraising events.” A senior, Hammerle was in his fourth year of ROTC. Just as Pampena’s civilian clothes marked him as a newcomer, Hammerle’s uniform placed him among the elite of his ROTC division. His flight suit indicated his status as a jet pilot—one of the most coveted positions in the Air Force.

ROTC consists of three main components: classroom seminars, drill training, and physical fitness. The Air Force cadets attend training once per week, and are required to attend a Saturday session once or twice per semester. But that day’s session promised two key deviations from the routine. Late in the afternoon, there would be a physical fitness test in preparation for an official exam the following week. And Jason had heard rumors that there would be an inspection.

Cadets in shorts and t-shirts, sweating through repetitions of sit-ups, push-ups, and laps around a track while yelping cadence is perhaps one of the images most commonly associated with ROTC. But while a cadet’s performance on physical fitness tests affects whether he gets his desired job in the Air Force, the minimum requirements are, according to Hammerle, quite lax. Essentially, physical training is just one way the military exacts its chief requirement from its officers: discipline.

“It says a lot intrinsically about how dedicated to the program you are,” Hammerle said. “If you don’t meet the requirements, one, that’s pretty bad; two, you aren’t trying at all.”

The inspection Pampena anticipated is also about more than shiny buttons and ironed dress blues. “The idea is to make sure the younger cadets know how to wear their uniform and that the older cadets are still keeping neat,” Hammerle said. “It teaches discipline—you have to stand at attention for an extended period of time.”

“What happens if you have to sneeze while at attention?” Pampena asked.

Hammerle laughed. “Umm…hold it?” he said, half-questioningly. “I mean, if you have to sneeze, you have to sneeze, but it’s about discipline.” The premium the military places on discipline transcends the walls of the classroom. As representatives of the Air Force, the officers are expected to embody its values in their public and private lives—Hammerle, peppered his speech with asides such as “this is just my opinion, not the Air Force’s.” To uphold the reputation of the Air Force is a weighty responsibility, especially for ROTC cadets who will, on average, work full time for the military by the age of 22. When his fellow Yale seniors are tentatively acclimatizing to the world beyond college, Hammerle will be thrown in headfirst. On May 20, he receives his commission as a Second Lieutenant.

* * *

Once they arrive at Storrs, Hammerle and Pampena split up. Pampena joins his fellow sophomores for a history lesson while Hammerle and the other senior cadets seat themselves around a table in a drab, gray conference room. The room is equipped with computers, projection equipment, and fancy speaker phones, the last of which hold the cadets’ attention. Each week, part of their classroom time is devoted to telephoning an officer in the Air Force. This week their mentor is Lieutenant Ian Young, who boasts 15 years of military experience—ten as an officer—and has been stationed in locales as far-flung as Djibouti, Germany, and Florida. One by one, in brisk, official tones, the cadets present him with questions.

“Sir, what is it like to be married to a fellow officer?”

“Sir, you are prior enlisted—what are the best leadership qualities you’ve seen implemented by an officer?”

“Sir, what is a typical day like as a maintenance officer?”

“Sir, what culture differences did you encounter between the Air Force and Marines in Africa?”

“Sir, what is it like coming back to the U.S. from overseas?”

Their questions and Young’s answers emphasized that these cadets are not merely preparing for a job; they are preparing for a lifestyle. Like Lieutenant Young, they will return from abroad to find that their families are doing just fine without them. They will squabble with Marines over stolen video games. They will conduct search and rescue missions in 120 degree heat. All of these may occur during their tour of duty in the Air Force.

* * *

After their phone call to Young, the senior cadets are given a brief break. Some adjourn to the ROTC lounge, where they snack, recount weekend exploits, and coordinate logistics for an upcoming movie night. Others—UConn students—dash across campus to attend their other, academic classes. No matter how late they are, the uniformed cadets salute one another as they cross paths. While they don’t come close to outnumbering their civilian peers, they are a visible presence on campus. And this points to the most difficult part of Hammerle and his fellow Yale cadets’ decision to participate in the program: There is no ROTC program at Yale.

Hammerle, two other Air Force cadets, and a lone Army cadet compose Yale’s entire ROTC contingent. But in the not-too-distant past, Yale did have a strong involvement in ROTC. Professor Gaddis Smith, who is about to publish a book titled Yale in the 20th Century, explained succinctly why Yalies were once drawn to the program: In the 1950s, “ROTC was a way of getting through college without getting drafted.” But Yale’s relationship with military training began even before the conception of the ROTC program. For a number of years after the Civil War, Yale students performed rudimentary military exercises to satisfy the conditions of a federal grant. The grant was eventually withdrawn, and until World War I, Yale lacked a military presence. “When World War I broke out in 1914, a great many students, alumni, and even the president of the University believed very strongly in military preparedness,” Smith said. “Yale established its own, private, privately-funded military training program—while the U.S. was neutral.”

In 1916, when war with Germany seemed inevitable, Congress officially established the current form of ROTC. Yale was one of the charter members. Almost immediately, the faculty expressed its unhappiness that courses such as “Stable Management” counted for Yale College credit, but the program went largely unchallenged for five decades. During that time, Yale students fought in the two World Wars in such great numbers that, according to Smith, “the only civilians remaining at Yale were either very young, or in some cases old or disabled.”

But in the face of the Vietnam War, attitudes towards the military at Yale became highly unfavorable. “The anti-war movements at Yale and around the country… saw ROTC as the symbol of University support in an immoral war,” Smith said. Emboldened by anti-war and anti-ROTC sentiments, Yale professors finally acted on their long-standing dissatisfaction with the program. Supported by the Yale Corporation, professors presented the Pentagon with a list of changes ROTC would have to implement in order to stay on campus: Students would no longer receive Yale College credit for ROTC courses; ROTC instructors would lose their titles as Yale professors; and whereas previously, the military had not allowed them to pursue studies in certain departments such as Art History or Anthropology, ROTC students would be free to major in whatever subject they wished. The Pentagon rejected the faculty proposal, and in 1969, ROTC was expelled from Yale.

* * *

Today, ROTC and Yale are tenuously linked. Because the University lacks an ROTC battalion, interested students must travel to nearby campuses that do host them: Army ROTC is hosted by Sacred Heart, and Air Force ROTC by the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus. No school in Connecticut offers Navy ROTC.

Nonetheless, Yale still provides some support for its ROTC students. It pays for the rental cars, tardy though they may be, that the cadets drive to the University of Connecticut and Sacred Heart every week. It also provides them with a university- affiliated ROTC advisor: Yale’s Director of System Engineering Facilities, Jerry Hill.

Hill was chosen as ROTC advisor by former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, who deemed his twenty years of service in the Navy “appropriate life experience.” His role is primarily logistical; he serves as a liaison between Yale students and ROTC officials.

* * *

Over the years, various groups have tried to bring ROTC back to Yale. The most recent failed attempt was championed by the Yale College Republicans during the 2004- 2005 school year. As in 1969, today’s ROTC proponents are challenged by a war that is largely unpopular among Yale students. But unlike in 1969, when the academic veracity of ROTC was the other key point of tension, it is now the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that has turned many faculty and students against on-campus recruitment. Professors and students at the law school have filed a series of lawsuits against the Department of Defense to protest the Solomon Amendment, a piece of legislation mandating that any university receiving federal funding allow military recruitment on its campus. And, during the Yale College Republican’s recent attempt to reinstate the program, Yale University President Richard Levin publicly sounded off on the issue, announcing that he found the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy “shameful.”

In spite of the controversy associated with ROTC, neither Hammerle, nor Benji Hurlburt, another Air Force ROTC cadet, has encountered much campus criticism for their ROTC participation. They both point to an incident that occurred last spring while they were manning a ROTC information booth during Bulldog Days as the only memorable exception.

“A girl was handing out ‘Lies About the Military’ fliers right next to our table,” Hurlburt recalled. “Mostly, people just ask me what it’s about, though.”

“My friends think my uniform’s pretty cool,” he added.

* * *

Neither Hammerle nor Hurlburt portrays his decision to enroll in ROTC as overtly political. Hammerle saw it as a way to show his gratitude for the comforts afforded by American citizenship. “I haven’t had a lot to worry about,” he said. “I thought I had to give something back to my country, and military service is a way to do that.”

Hammerle also sees his future career as an Air Force jet pilot as one he can easily translate to the civilian sphere. “Leadership is something I’m definitely looking into,” he said. He is also aware that, as a Yale student, his desire to pursue leadership opportunities does not set him apart. “A lot of people at Yale want to be leaders, but they don’t want to do it through military service.” Pointing to the political ambitions of many Yale students, Hammerle added, “Truthfully, I think that the American people would be very skeptical of someone who’s going to be sending our troops into battle without having been there himself.”

Aside from ROTC, there are other routes that college students can pursue if they want to receive officers’ commissions upon graduating. All college graduates are eligible to apply to Officer Candidate School, a 14-week training program that, like ROTC, prepares them to enter the military as officers. The U.S. Marine Corp. also offers a Platoon Leaders Course, in which aspiring officers complete training over the course of two summers. According to Hill, approximately twenty Yale students currently participate in the program, and part of its appeal lies in that it requires a weaker commitment than ROTC.

“When you graduate, you are not obliged to join the Marines, nor are they obliged to take you,” said Yale’s ROTC advisor, Jerry Hill. “They have a no-harm approach there.”

ROTC, by contrast, does require its cadets to join the military upon graduation, and they usually make a binding commitment by the end of their sophomore year. It also requires students to commit a sizeable amount of time to the military while they are in college. Yet, the program has its own advantages over other forms of officer training. Most notably, while the Platoon Leaders Course provides students with some financial aid for college, ROTC is one of the few programs of any kind that offers students sizable merit-based scholarships.

“If you’re a middle-class family and can’t apply for financial aid but can’t quite afford to send your kid to a place like Yale, the ROTC scholarship is a good way to go,” Hill said.

Not all ROTC students are on scholarship, and many have reasons aside from financial aid to join the military. Hill noted that a number of recent Yale cadets have joined Air Force ROTC because they want to become pilots. But in almost the same breath, he emphasized that he believes ROTC students are at least partially motivated by ideological concerns. “They all do it to serve their country on some level,” he said. “There are other ways to fly planes.”

Patriotism aside, Hill said that this year’s class of four cadets reflects typical involvement in the program. “It’s interesting since we’ve gone through 9/11 that there doesn’t seem to be an appreciable increase in interest in ROTC [at Yale],” he said. “We haven’t seen an application increase.”

“Some of the older alumni think that [the current] generation is not as patriotic as the older generation,” he added, “Which is unfortunate. The military needs people like Yale students-smart, critical thinkers, problem-solvers.”

Perhaps Yale students are simply wary of entering such a difficult and dangerous career. Those in the military, even officers, make sacrifices unasked of their civilian counterparts—they bind themselves into a contract to accept low pay, live in far-flung, sometimes unpleasant locations, and work within a system unrivaled for its discipline and rigidity. They also face occupational hazards—injury and even death—that few other Yale students consider when weighing future career options. Hammerle noted that one of the reasons Yale students may not join the military en masse is that they are unwilling to make a potentially fatal commitment.

“It’s really tough,” he said sincerely. “We have it pretty happy and easy here. Why put that at risk for an objective you might not believe in?”

* * *

Benji Hurlburt’s primary motivation to join ROTC had more to do with the specific opportunities it offers than with a strong desire to enter national service. “It’s kind of a dream of mine to be a pilot,” he said. “And getting college paid for—that really helps.”

Hurlburt sees the lack of ROTC involvement at Yale as a Yale-specific problem. “I think maybe people at Yale think a job in the military isn’t something Yale students do when they graduate—it’s for ordinary people,” he said.

“People think of going into politics or becoming a doctor,” he added. “They don’t put military service on the same level…Maybe it’s just the culture of Yale in general, which isn’t as patriotic as other places.”

Ironically, Hurlburt’s aspirations as a pilot place him in the same situation as Yale students competing for extremely selective jobs. Unlike Hammerle, who has already received his commission, Hurlburt, as a sophomore, is still competing with Air Force cadets across the country for one of the few pilot slots available to ROTC cadets every year. In some ways, his status as a Yale student places him at a disadvantage. “To be a pilot, when you’re competing, GPA is a factor,” he said. “They don’t take into account what classes you’re taking…They put all your numbers in a database, and if you’re above a certain percentage, you’re in.”

* * *

In ROTC, Hurlburt’s identity is little more than a number in a database, a fact that may point to a reason for the program’s decline at Yale. As an institution that champions the individuality of its students, its values may simply be antithetical to military participation.

Nonetheless, in spite of the limitations it places upon its cadets, both Hammerle and Hurlburt have forged individual identities as students outside of ROTC during their time at Yale. Hammerle is an avid participant in intramural sports—he was captain of the Morse inner tube water polo team for three years in a row—while Hurlburt was recently named director of The Purple Crayon, an improv comedy troupe. Thinking back on the past four years, Hammerle doesn’t believe that ROTC has defined his time at Yale.

“I definitely missed out on a couple of classes I wanted to take,” he said. “But ROTC is kind of a different world for me. Thursday comes around and I go to Storrs, then I come back and forget about ROTC.”

For Jason Pampena, however, ROTC proved to be too much of a time commitment—he stopped participating at the beginning of this semester. “I left because it just didn’t fit into my schedule,” he said. “If that hadn’t been the case, I would have definitely stayed in through the end of the year.”

Like Hammerle, Pampena was attracted to the military because of the public service opportunities it affords. But during the fall, his trips to Storrs interfered with an EMT training course he was also taking. Pampena also said that he found himself questioning whether the government was using the military in a proper manner. Now he lists Teach for America and the Peace Corps as post-college opportunities that interest him, though he has not ruled out the possibility of joining the military upon graduation.

* * *

Every day, thousands of students, including Hammerle, Hurlburt, and Pampena pass through the rotunda of Commons where, carved into the walls are the names of every Yale student or graduate who has died serving his country in the Armed Forces. Entering from Beinecke Plaza, one is confronted by the names of those who fell early in Yale’s history: in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War. Moving forward into the adjoining foyer, it is possible to be overwhelmed by the almost uncountable names of those who died during the two World Wars. Exiting into the rotunda, one passes two short walls listing the names of those who died in the Korean War and in Vietnam, ending with Francis Allard Boyer, class of 1969, who died on December 3, 1972. Although in the past several decades, U.S. military fatalities have paled in comparison to earlier eras, the names do not stop because wars stopped. They stop because Yale students stopped joining the military.

Helen Eckinger, a junior in Trumbull College, is Managing Editor of The New Journal.

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