As the possibility of military action in Iraq appears more likely, many Reserve Officer Training Corps students say they are struggling with their own battle on campus – to win the respect of their civilian peers.
Some students who participate in ROTC say their civilian classmates misunderstand their motives for joining the military. More than anyone, they said, they do not want to go to war. As the saying goes, no one prays harder for peace than the warrior.
Try as he might, through conversation or in-class discussion, junior Luke Olsen said he cannot shake the stereotype of being a killing machine. The military did not prepare him for this fight.
“I didn’t join the military to be a killer,” said Olsen, whose family has been in the military since the Civil War. “I enlisted to save lives and to defend the Constitution.”
Olsen, a member of the Air Force ROTC, wakes at 5 a.m. most days to complete the military’s rigorous physical training regiment. Olsen said it is often difficult to balance his commitments to ROTC and school, but the sacrifice is worth it.
“You never know if you’re prepared until you get there,” he said. “Even though we have the most powerful military in the world, there is always room for improvement.”
Freshman Naval Midshipman Kevin Ritchie knew putting on a uniform meant a loss of free will – he now serves, like his father, uncle and brother before him, at the military’s dispense.
Ritchie said that although he has his own feelings about the potential war, he took an oath “to defend the Constitution against all enemies.” His conviction to fight for “the higher cause” is what the military calls “instant willing obedience.”
“The prospect of fighting in the streets of Baghdad is like heading for the belly of the beast,” said Ritchie, whose brother in the Navy may soon be called to active duty for a potential war.
“There is going to be a lot more bloodshed this time compared to last (Gulf War),” said Ritchie, who believes the decision to go into Baghdad should warrant a second thought.
Becoming a soldier is a decision that often runs in the family, but some students volunteer for personal reasons.
Junior Nick Van Zandt, who joined the Army ROTC after the September 11 terrorist attacks, is convinced Iraq is a threat to vital U.S. national interests. He is also sensitive to the American public’s perceptions of war.
“The problem with going to war, especially if we only have limited support, is that the world, and many of the American people, will continue to see the military and its soldiers as the main aggressors,” Van Zandt said. “People think of Vietnam and of the soldiers who raped and pillaged villagers.”
Sophomore Zachary Dalvom, a third class midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., said he believes removing Saddam Hussein from power is the right choice for both America and the Iraqi people.
“World War II happened because we left Germany alone after the war,” he said. “The second time around we instituted the Marshall plan, rebuilt Germany, and now they are our ally. Maybe under someone else Iraq will be our ally. It’s a gamble, but we may have to take it.”
While most of the students interviewed have a few years before they are sent overseas, senior Christina Fanitzi is only months away from her first assignment abroad.
A cadet major in the Army ROTC, Fanitzi said the likelihood of her being deployed when she graduates in the spring is extremely high.
“I could be sent anywhere – Korea, Bosnia, Iraq,” she said.
The prospect of going into active duty makes her nervous.
“My feelings of anxiety are normal. It’s no different than running a race or giving a speech, I am ready to execute my tasks because it’s what I’ve been training to do … along with getting my degree from GW, that is.”
While the ROTC cadets are prepared to serve their country, they are hopeful not to have to serve in battle.
“We do not sign up to kill,” Van Zandt said. “We sign up for peace, and that is a noble cause.”