When Joining ROTC Was No Big Deal

Posted on January 2, 2016

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I read the piece in the Dec. 30, 2015 ed. of the WSJ, “At Last, Some Campus Sanity: ROTC Gains,” with some interest since I passed through NROTC many years ago. And I honestly didn’t think much about it.

The first time I heard some youngster in the last few years, upon hearing I spent a few years in the fleet, say “thank you for your service,” I honestly almost turned around to see who he was talking to.

Maybe an old WWII or Korean War veteran, still with us after all these years had limped by with his cane or was pushed through in his wheelchair, sporting one of those caps which displayed where he served, like on a ship, the USS Something or Another.

The kid wasn’t talking to me. I was never in combat. Lots of guys in my generation went into the Service. I remember those two years pretty fondly, although the fifty years or more that separate me from mid-watches and long, boring, exhausting hours at sea, or floating around in a boat or landing craft at some ungodly hour of a dark, cold morning off some beach, probably help colorize the memory.

When I got ready to head off to college, my trunk already on the way from New Jersey to Durham, North Carolina via railway express, my brother, older and wiser I always thought, told me something like this.

“Well, you’re seventeen and probably think you know everything.” He could be a bit cynical.

I just listened, probably thinking, now what?

“You know just about everyone in our family has been in Service,” he continued. I nodded. I knew that.

“So when you go in,” he said, expressing what I knew—I would follow family tradition and go in–“you don’t want to go in as an enlisted man.”

I was vaguely aware that important distinctions existed in Service, but my knowledge came largely from movies and novels.

“You want to go in as an officer,” he continued, “so take ROTC if they have it at Duke. That’s what I did at Georgia Tech.”

And that ended my instructions from older and wiser brother, which I, actually, listened to.

Reading the WSJ article, which was about the renewal, albeit on a very modest scale, of ROTC programs in the Ivy League schools, reminded me of my not-much-of-a-big-decision back in the fall of 1960 when I arrived on the Duke campus.

After all, my father had served during the First World War, my brother during the Korean War, and when I looked over the list of cousins, uncles, grandfathers and the lot, it was a no-brainer. Service was part of family culture. I’m not bragging on this, just stating a fact.

The big question for me as I registered and got ready to start classes was, which ROTC? Duke had an Air Force and Navy ROTC. I ambled up the main quadrangle and ran into the NROTC office first. So I became a Navy midshipman, and later, after graduation, was commissioned as an officer in the Navy.

Some have asked me over the years, why the Navy? Big tradition in family? A seagoing people? No, no, it was just the first one I found. My father was from upstate South Carolina and my mother from Chile. Neither family were big seafarers.

This led me to an important fact of life, since confirmed many times over. Providence, or God’s hand, determines much of your life. Some would call it coincidence but I know better.

Now, what I didn’t know was where this was all going to lead me to as I drifted through my undergraduate years, relatively clueless but quite happy to see which doors opened. Some closed dramatically, and loudly, in my face, like my determination to be a doctor. Chemistry and math screamed that my calling must be someplace else.

I know this conflicts dramatically with those of you who determined long ago what you were going to be, or do in life. And you held to the dream—governor, senator, lawyer, doctor, space astronaut, wildly successful and rich entrepreneur, writer, wife, mother, nurse, etc. etc.—and realized it, usually with a lot of hard work (the building part) and prayer, keeping God in your equation, always.

So I joined the Navy, and the experience has been with me all my life. I spent two years on active duty floating around, storming beaches, and bars, across the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

USS Donner LSD 20

The ship I served on, part of the Atlantic Amphibious leet home ported at Little Creek, Va.

I even “crewed” a gondola one evening in Venice with Jack Allen, an NROTC graduate of guess where—Brown–probably the most politically correct and anti-military of the Ivies, now gingerly opening the campus to the military. That’s nice of Brown, and the others, since it has been the American military which has preserved their freedom to do and think what they damn well please for the past two and a half centuries. But, I digress.

Jack told me he had crewed at Brown and so we borrowed a gondola tied up along a canal and “crewed” for a few minutes, parking it on the opposite side of the canal to where its owner was shouting loudly in Italian at the apparent hijackers of his gondola.

Jack, just in case you read this, I think the statute of limits has probably expired on this short exercise on piracy.

The second lesson I learned from where NROTC led me—the first lesson being that Providence has determined much of my life—is that I believe all young men should have a service experience to make them aware that they are more than little egos floating through life, pleasing themselves. We are part of an organization—this country—that sustains, edifies, protects, and nurtures us. And we owe it a small percentage of our time and our devotion to sustaining and maintaining it.

Your service can be other than military service. Teaching, Peace Corps, and other ways exist. Just get outside of yourself. Give something of yourself to your country.

I know the professional military doesn’t want the draft, conscription, or anything that smacks of forced service. I also know that women want to be a part of what was for me, a man’s world, but I think service transcends gender, so welcome girls.

Perhaps today’s scores of candidates for president—none of whom served as near as I can tell—can be asked to address the issue. Is this country all about me, or all about us? It is, of course, about both, but I’d like to hear their thoughts on the matter. Right now, what passes for public discourse is clattering around the sewers of our existence. I want something better.