ROTC: Molding military leaders
EDITOR’S NOTE: Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a time to honor those who have served their country in the armed forces. This year, Inside UVA is using the occasion to look to the future and celebrate three veterans and their service — not only to their country but to the University.
|ROTC To Mark Veterans Day With Nov. 8 Ceremony
ROTC will hold a Veterans Day ceremony on Nov. 8 at 3:20 p.m. on the north side of the Rotunda. The speaker will be Lt. Col. Bryan Turner (U.Va. 1983), attached to the 192nd Fighter Wing of the Virginia Air National Guard. Turner led the flyover during the POW/MIA ceremony at U.Va. Sept. 20. He will speak on his combat experiences and the importance of being a veteran.
Photo by Dan Addison
|U.Va. cadets at the Sept. 20 ceremony honoring POWs and MIAs.
By Matt Kelly
They marched around the clock, through the balmy September night, in pairs, back and forth across the McIntire Amphitheater stage, honoring U.S. prisoners of war and those missing in action, men and women they have never met, but who are their comrades in arms. For the cadets from U.Va.’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, this was one way to show their appreciation for the sacrifices others have made defending their country and its freedoms.
Aside from working on their degrees at U.Va., these cadets are preparing for life in the military, under the tutelage of three senior officers at the helm of U.Va.’s ROTC program and a cadre of military instructors.
In summer 2006, the three officers will leave U.Va., having spent the closing years of their military careers teaching the next generation of officers.
Two commanders, Air Force Col. John C. Vrba, 52, and Navy Capt. John R. Warnecke, 53, will retire. Army Col. Hampton E. Hite, 45, will accept a reassignment or retire.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” said Vrba of his current job. “We should all close our careers in ROTC. … And to do it here — at one of the top schools in the country.”
Vrba graduated ROTC at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, with a business degree. A manpower programmer, he has alternated between headquarters and field commands, including Howard Air Force Base in Panama, as support for the war on drugs. Though not in actual warfare, Vrba was periodically shot at during trips through Colombia. “It happened so fast, you wonder if it was real,” he said.
Hite, of Emporia, Va., graduated ROTC at Elon College with a political science degree. He is the only departing commander who served in combat — in the ’91 Gulf War and peacekeeping operations in Kosovo in ’99. The son of a career officer, he led 140 men in a rocket battery in the gulf, which he described as six months of build up followed by four days of combat. “The combat was so intense and so quick, it seemed to zip right by,” Hite said. In Kosovo, he was attached to Army headquarters.
Warnecke attended the Naval Aviation officer candidate school after graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a history degree and a mathematics minor. He flew an S-3 Viking torpedo bomber jet for 22 years from aircraft carrier flight decks. “I enjoyed it, but night landings were challenging. No one ever gets used to night landings,” he said.
ROTC produces leaders, Vrba said, and U.Va.’s high admission standards make this mission easier.
First Lt. Brian Findlay (U.Va. ROTC, Class of 2003), currently stationed in Afghanistan with an airborne scout patrol, returned recently to speak to Army cadets about his experiences. ROTC prepares cadets for the military, he said, but he advised them to focus on academics and having fun. “Your troops will respect you more if you are a well-rounded person.”
While Findlay provided a real world example, it is difficult to prepare students for the reality of combat. “They think they are immortal” and anxious to engage the enemy, Warnecke said.
But he cited the impact of last year’s memorial ceremony honoring Capt. Humayun S. Khan, a U.Va. ROTC graduate killed in Iraq. “That drives [the reality] home for them.” Hite has filled his teaching staff with soldiers who have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, so they can add insights from their experiences. His own combat experience is radically different from what troops experience today.
“We had to defeat Saddam’s army and push it out of Kuwait,” he said, a simple and measurable objective compared with the task troops face now. “The mission today is to help build a nation.”
While there is strong camaraderie, not all cadets stay in the program. Navy ROTC has about 98 percent retention rate, Warnecke said, with an increased interest in the Marines. Air Force ROTC retentions are holding steady at 75 percent to 85 percent.
Hite said while Army ROTC retention rates at U.Va. are higher than the national average, they have dropped from about 85 percent several years ago to around 65 percent now. There is less predictability in choice of duty and more overseas combat deployments, he said. Roughly 4,000 Army ROTC cadets nationwide will graduate in May, but there are only 2,500 active duty slots for them to fill. The remaining 1,500 will go into the Army Reserve. But since the Reserves have been called up for combat, it is hard for these graduates to actually start their civilian careers because of their impending military duty.
Young officers also face an increased frequency of overseas combat deployments; Hite had two overseas combat deployments in 23 years, while some of his graduates have already had two overseas tours in the last 5 years.
Hite also said some cadets decide the military is not for them.
“I would rather they get discouraged here than when they are leading a platoon into combat,” he said.
Where They Go From Here
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) provides leaders for the U.S. Armed Forces. Students take military science, leadership laboratories and physical training while completing their college degrees. All four military branches — Army, Navy/Marines and Air Force— are represented at U.Va., a rarity. The Air Force ROTC program also serves students from Liberty University, James Madison University, Piedmont Virginia Community College and Old Dominion University, who sometimes attend drills on Grounds.
After graduating, Army cadets attend six weeks of intensive physical training then undergo more extended training within their branch of service. Among Navy cadets, aviators report for flight training, surface warfare officers report directly to their ships, nuclear submariners report for a one-year Nuclear Engineering curriculum, SEALS report to special warfare training and nurses report to one of the major Naval hospitals in the country.
|Why They Serve
Fourth-year Air Force cadets Jeremy J. Porto, 21, of Woodbridge, and Alina M. Sullivan, 22, of Springfield, feel a sense of purpose in ROTC.
“You don’t get the same sense of accomplishment and camaraderie in the civilian world,” Sullivan said. “Here we share common values and the same goal. It is a different motivation and drive.” Porto, a civil engineering major, has been selected to be a pilot and wants to be an astronaut. Sullivan, a Spanish and foreign affairs dual major, will be working in Air Force intelligence. Both cadets have become fast friends with students they would not have otherwise met. Sullivan stressed the importance of this cohesion.
“We all started together and we will be commissioned together,” she said. “Together we care about the people we are with and we care about our nation.”
|History of Veterans Day
Armistice Day, originally proclaimed to honor those who served and perished in World War I, became a holiday in 1926 and a national holiday 12 years later. On June 1, 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day to honor all U.S. veterans. In 1968, legislation changed the national commemoration of Veterans Day to the fourth Monday in October. However, in 1978 Congress returned the observance to its traditional date of Nov. 11, the anniversary of the Armistice of 1918 that ended World War I.