The University Record, October 29, 2001

ROTC steadfast in its mission

By Shiri Bilik
News and Information Services

On the morning of Sept. 11, while late-sleeping U-M students were still oblivious to the terrorist attacks, the U-M Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was already in class at North Hall.

Around 9 a.m., someone turned on the TV. The ROTC Air Force detachment congregated around it—colonels, professors, and cadets all frozen in the same state of shock.

“We knew that it was going to definitely involve us more than maybe anyone else watching it in Ann Arbor,” says student Nick Smith.

Karen Mesko, also a student, remembers hearing about the third plane hitting what she calls “my Pentagon.” The attacks hit her hard, she says, but they have not changed the way she views her role in the Air Force. “I train every day with the knowledge that I might be called to serve in military operations. Knowing that it’s more imminent doesn’t change my outlook,” she says.

Like Mesko, the nearly 300 U-M ROTC students all have made a commitment to serve as commissioned officers in the U.S. military, in return for college scholarships of up to $80,000 for four years. Because officers must have college degrees, no ROTC students currently enrolled at U-M will be serving before May 2002.

“We explained to the Wolverine Battalion that their mission here is to go to school, get their training, and use this as a learning experience for the future,” says Lt. Col. Robert McCormick, admissions and scholarship officer for the Army ROTC.

The first learning opportunity came immediately, in the confusing hours following the attack. National military headquarters issued a command that, for possible safety concerns, ROTC students were not allowed to wear their uniforms in public.

Mesko says the order angered her. “It’s a privilege I’ve earned,” Mesko says. “The fact that the terrorists created a situation in which I wasn’t safe wearing my uniform really made me mad.”

The uniform directive only lasted for a day, but it foreshadowed the many ways ROTC students would now be put in the spotlight. McCormick said that while inquiries for enrollment have not gone up, media calls have been flooding in. Additionally, the campus community is paying more attention to its students in uniform, and ROTC students and staff report that response has mostly been positive. People give ROTC members “thumbs-up” on the street and rowdy partiers on balconies pause to cheer as uniformed students pass by. At home football games following the attacks, cadets putting up the American flag received a standing ovation when they entered the stadium.

Despite the overall approval, the students say that since the attacks, there have been days when they felt uncomfortable being in uniform. U-M student groups and the Ann Arbor community organized a number of anti-war rallies, and while the ROTC students or their North Hall headquarters were not targets of verbal or physical attacks, students said they felt awkward walking around campus. But they note that the demonstrations on campus have been peaceful and respectful.