As the beating of war tom-toms on the Potomac grows louder with each passing day, the United States Navy and Marine Corps stand deployed in the Middle East, poised for a possible attack on Iraq.
More than 24,000 American troops, 25 U.S. ships and 325 U.S. aircraft are assembled in the Persian Gulf, prepared to attack Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological war-making capabilities at a moment’s notice.
Here at GW, a battalion of 165 Navy ROTC midshipmen from four area colleges quietly go about their daily business of classes, drill formations and physical training as showdown with Iraq looms.
For the most part, they’re far from the action in the Gulf. Even graduating seniors – the “first class” – who will head to Newport’s Surface Warfare Officer School in July, still have six more months of training before they “break things and kill people,” as one inside-the-unit saying goes.
“The only way we’ll be over there anytime soon is if they lose a hell of a lot of officers and commission us early,” a GW fourth-class midshipman says.
In fact this year’s freshmen – the “fourth class” – belong more to the next generation of military officers than to today’s active armed forces.
Although GW’s ROTC unit is far from the action of the front lines, the distance does not stop them from thinking about the coming conflict.
Several ROTC students already have served as enlisted personnel – and returned to school to join the ranks of the officer corps.
From former Army paratroopers in Bosnia to Special Warfare veterans in Somalia, the unit has its share of prior enlisted warriors – “priors.”
Ken Rogers, a GW sophomore, used to be a 2nd class petty officer. After the initial stages of the Gulf War, Rogers served as an electronic technician on the USS Whale (SSN-638), hunting Russian-made diesel boats in the inlets of the Persian Gulf.
Rogers will not say if whether he found any, but his grin hints that he did.
Rogers says round one with Iraq was a “different story.” Today, he says, the imminent threat is Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons.
“Unless we have a strategic target, I don’t know if we should be over there,” he says. “Is it that we’re showing a display of power? There are definitely economic and humanitarian interests – and obviously he’s a terrible man. But there are other ways to play hardball. Of course, if the U.N. sanctions don’t work, then force is our only alternative.”
Rogers says that the United States should resort to force only if the U.N. sanctions prove ineffective. Sophomore Chris Gillooly agrees.
“We should be maintaining, and not necessarily escalating the crisis yet,” Gillooly says.
Freshman Devere Crooks thinks along the same lines. “The United States would have to invade the country, and that would involve street-to-street fighting,” he points out. “Instead, we should be limiting his strategic weapons capability and maintaining the balance of power in that region,” adds Crooks. “Our only legitimate right is making sure he doesn’t start a war over there.”
In the meantime, Commander Ed O’Brien, the unit’s executive officer, says he is concentrating on cultivating the midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically. The group meets on the Quad for weekly physical training sessions. And during their four years of college, students must take eight ROTC classes, including courses on management, leadership and ethics.
The unit also performs a large amount of community service. At Christmas, Marines in the ROTC program raised more than $7,000 for Toys for Tots. Two community service drills are also a mandatory part of each semester. Midshipmen clean up parks or serve food at Miriam’s Kitchen. In addition, the unit works with Watkins Elementary School in Southeast and organizes food drives.
Andy Geisler, a 1988 GW graduate and former ROTC member who recently retired from the Navy, calls his years at GW the most formative of his life.
“I was young and excited and proud to serve my country and this was the perfect venue for me to achieve several goals – a college degree, a career and the opportunity to serve,” Geisler says.
After leaving GW, Geisler spent 15 months at flight school in Pensacola, Fla. He then moved to Norfolk, Va., where he learned to fly the CH-53E Super Stallion. After training, Geisler and his squadron were stationed in Sigonella, Sicily.
“We stayed in hotels, ate well, drank and smoked a lot,” Geisler says.
In January of 1991, Geisler found himself flying out of Egypt, resupplying three carrier groups during the war on Iraq.
“I broke down on the Turkish side of the Syrian border and in the Saudi desert,” he says. “I drank heavily in those countries too.”
Geisler is distressed by the current state of the Navy, he says. “The Navy was gutted. Morale was and is low,” he explains. “The Navy I left was not the one I had joined. The crucible of political and social movements that toy with the defense of the nation pose great risk.”
Geisler blames a lack of discipline and weak leadership for the problems.
Despite his involvement in the 1991 war, Geisler says he is against another full-scale war in Iraq.
“Pin pricks on Iraq will not solve our problems or theirs,” Geisler says.
Today, the nation is tense as it watches the Middle East. When Geisler was a ROTC midshipman, the United States was mired in rocky relations with the Soviet Union.
Conflict continues to arise around the globe; the United States rocks on the edge of war. And on GW’s Quad, student military officers practice their drills.