ROTC on the Rise

 

For as long as the state has existed, Texas kids interested in the military were told to attend A&M. The charismatic leader of UT’s Army ROTC program is trying to change the military’s image at a historically protest-heavy school. But can UT attract strong cadets, even at the tail end of war?

Lt. Col. Joseph Kopser does not strike most people as the proverbial army officer.  He admits the military makes mistakes. He shoots jokes. He talks about his feelings. He even urged parents and students at the spring commissioning ceremony for new Army officers to cry if they felt like it. His students say they could listen to him for hours.

That’s part of his plan. Kopser, UT-Austin’s new chairman of military science, has been given a monumental charge: Improve the quality and numbers of the school’s graduating ROTC cadets. If ever there were someone to convince college students to join at the tail end of war, it would be Kopser.

Although he’s been on campus for only a year, his charm offensive is working. The quality of cadets is on the rise. Prominent officials like four-star Gen. Bob Cone, MA ’87, who oversees all Army training, now visit often. And the program recently landed a spot in a prestigious military competition at West Point. As the UT Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps celebrates its 65th anniversary this fall, it is finally on an upswing.

Kopser’s arrival comes at an auspicious time. Historically, a revolving slate of chairmen and a reputation as a comparatively liberal campus harmed UT’s ROTC enrollment and graduation numbers. In the past 10 years, UT has exceeded its mission for producing officers only twice, according to U.S. Army Cadet Command, which oversees all Army ROTC programs nationwide. Young Texans interested in the military often are advised to attend Texas A&M or one of the service academies. Many don’t even know UT has ROTC.

“The reality is that if you’re growing up in the state of Texas and talk about the military, from your preacher to your coach, they all point to the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets,” Kopser says. “I’m here to reverse the mentality that all service goes through Bryan-College Station.”

Winning Hearts and Minds

In reality, graduates from UT’s ROTC programs are reaching the highest levels of the military. Naval ROTC product Adm. William McRaven, BJ ’77, Distinguished Alumnus, is now a four-star admiral who leads the United States Special Operations Command and oversaw the raid that took down Osama bin Laden. Another Naval ROTC grad, Vice Adm. Vivien Crea, BA ’72, Distinguished Alumna, became the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, one of the branch’s highest-ranking women ever. And Air Force ROTC alumna Col. Jeannie Leavitt, BS ’90, Outstanding Young Texas Ex, recently became the first woman to command an Air Force combat fighter wing.

Meanwhile, UT is engineering a like-minded campaign to improve services for military veterans as more of them appear on campus from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2008, the number of former service members enrolled at UT has grown by more than half to 636 as of fall 2011.

Last November, the University opened a federal grant-funded student veterans center and staffed it with a full-time coordinator, who is a combat veteran, and a clinical psychologist on loan from the Department of Veterans Affairs. There are new orientation sessions for veterans, a University-wide veteran-services committee, and a $5,000 Jean Perkins Foundation scholarship for up to 50 combat veterans or active duty soldiers.

“What a 26-year-old veteran will need is completely different from a freshman who is coming to UT with all their friends from high school,” says LaToya Hill, UT’s assistant dean of students.

Plans are also in the works for priority registration for veterans, a mentorship program, and a training symposium for faculty and staff on issues combat veterans face as they transition to civilian life. For all its efforts, UT has been named twice in the past year as one of the most military-friendly campuses in the country. The accolades are impressive—all the more so because UT’s commitment to the military hasn’t always been so fervent.

Show Me the Love

It took two decades of rancor, even from the University president, to finally bring an Army ROTC to campus. Much of the animosity was due to UT’s longtime status as a “free-thinking, unregimented, civilian school,” according to Texas Fight: The History of Army ROTC at the University of Texas at Austin. Only after World War II and the founding of the University’s Naval ROTC program did UT finally welcome the Army.

Enrollment surged during the Korean and Vietnam wars to nearly 500 cadets, then dropped during peacetime. For the last decade, it’s hovered around 100 cadets. Since its founding, UT has commissioned 1,750 Army officers, according to Texas Fight, a recent book about UT’s Army ROTC by John Boswell, BA ’67, MA ’69, Life Member.

The low numbers at UT are particularly jarring given that ROTC enrollment, despite the wars in the Middle East, has surged at the country’s 273 programs over the last decade. Enrollment has risen from nearly 31,000 students in 2002 to more than 36,000 students in 2011, according to U.S. Army Cadet Command. Increasing enrollment is critical to the Army because ROTC supplies 60 percent of its officers.

Show Me the Money

A dearth of scholarships for UT Army ROTC students has also handicapped the program. Although U.S. Army Cadet Command has steadily increased ROTC scholarships from $102 million a decade ago to $272 million last year—largely to make up for the rising cost of tuition—it has not had much impact at UT. The standard Defense Department scholarship offered at UT, which covers tuition, fees, books, and a monthly stipend, is not as generous as other schools’ offers.

“Ultimately, when you have a kid comparing deals, the bottom line is the bottom line,” Boswell says. “Either the alums come up with the money, or UT does.”

“Very few people come to UT to become an Army officer,” Boswell adds. “They’re almost doing it in spite of it. They’re doing it for patriotic duty. Hell, they’ll pay ROTC to be at UT.”

In some ways, ROTC students are paying their own way at UT. Aside from federal scholarships, there are no substantial grants or scholarships for cadets. While UT’s Army ROTC has its own alumni group, the Texas Caissons, it has only 200 active members and began in the early 1990s. It may not be big or old enough to encourage substantial giving. The scholarship fund it does have awards $600 per year to three promising cadets.

“The vast amount of undergraduate scholarships comes from development money that each college has raised,” says Tom Melecki, UT’s director of student financial services. “My question is, what have its alumni done?”

Even the home of UT’s Army ROTC program was recently in doubt. After UT demolished Steindam Hall, home to the University’s Air Force, Army, and Naval ROTC programs for half a century, the University planned to erect a new liberal arts building on the site and scatter the ROTC programs among three buildings on the edge of campus.  Alumni lobbying efforts went nowhere until James Mulva, then chief executive of ConocoPhillips and a UT Naval ROTC graduate, got wind of the plans. With his wife, Miriam, Mulva agreed to give $15 million toward construction of the new liberal arts building if the ROTC programs were all housed together in the facility. It opens next year, with one floor dedicated to ROTC.

“I went through ROTC—that’s the only way I could attend UT—so I really want to support ROTC students,” Mulva, BBA ’68, MBA ’69, Life Member, said when the gift was announced. “For these young men and women, it’s not about making money. It’s about service to the country.”

Raising the Bar

Where once UT’s Army ROTC accepted most students who applied, it is now raising the minimum standards for GPA and fitness level, eliminating cadets who don’t meet those standards and turning away others who once would have been shoo-ins. Within three weeks of his arrival, Kopser cut all advertising to focus exclusively on students enrolled at UT. (Students from Concordia, St. Edwards, and Huston-Tillotson universities can also enroll if they meet the standards.)

Joining Army ROTC carries many more obligations than a typical college class or club. Cadets must have a minimum 3.0 GPA, take one military science course per semester, make 5:30 a.m. workouts, and attend military schools in the summer. A high score on a military fitness test is also required.

“My friends are struggling into class at 8 a.m. and ask me how I wake up so early,” says Christian Onofre, BS ’12. “Man, I’ve been up for three hours.”

Students can enroll in ROTC well into their junior year, but they must decide that spring whether they will join the military or not. If they decide to join, they must sign a contract committing to up to eight years on active and reserve duty. Scholarships require the longest commitment.

“ROTC is like a full-time job,” says Joseph Burell, a senior cadet. “I have two part-time jobs, ROTC and classes. It takes a lot of time management to make it all work.”

A cadet learns more than military tactics in ROTC. Leadership and management skills are highly emphasized, as is original thinking. The program’s senior military instructor, Master Sgt. Martin Silva, a special-operations soldier with multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt, knows firsthand the importance of quick thinking.

“It’s not just marching around and carrying a rifle,” says Silva, a former instructor at the Army’s elite Ranger School, which trains special operations soldiers. “I’m teaching students how to think, not what to think. You have to be flexible in combat. If all your soldiers are trained to just shoot back, who knows what will happen in combat?”

A fresh approach to problem-solving was the hallmark of a leadership series Kopser devised with the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce this past spring. The monthly series brought senior cadets together with young professionals who had never served to meet and talk with military and business leaders about lessons learned in both arenas. Despite a required application, the series had a long waitlist among the chamber members. Some of them are now considering joining ROTC when they attend graduate school at UT.

“I think civilians have this perspective that the military is this red meat, gung-ho institution where no questions are asked,” says John King, president of the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce. “And that’s not true.”

While it might seem counterintuitive for an ROTC program to extend its reach into the community with a lecture series, the program attracts new cadets and breaks down some misconceptions about military service.

“I’m selling selfless service and leadership skills,” Kopser says. “If you can master those skills you learn with ROTC, they’re universal whether you join the Army or not.”

UT ROTC alumni report that the lessons they learned as cadets were invaluable when they went on active duty. Joe Cimato, BA ’96, who was commissioned as an infantry officer and served in Iraq, credits his military service for his success as a civilian and now tries to give back as president of the Texas Caissons.

“I can plan, resource, and execute—most civilians can’t do that. Here at my company, usually one person can do only one of those things,” says Cimato, who is now a senior manager at Dell in Austin. “The organizational skills I learned were phenomenal.”

Capt. Ben Silvermintz, BM ’07, Life Member, realized he could transfer the leadership skills he learned in the Army to a completely different profession: running seven high school bands and choirs. Now a director of choral activities at Parkway Central High School, he uses skills he picked up in ROTC, Army Reserves, and his deployment to Afghanistan two years ago. He gave his students leadership roles and delegated tasks that he couldn’t do on his own.

“We travel a lot and move a ton of musical equipment. If I can’t count on my student leaders, I couldn’t get anything done,” says Silvermintz, who is in the Army Reserves. “It’s a glorified company that I’m running,”

Once a week, he hosts a Q&A with students about the Army and his career, all in the hope that he inspires some of his students to join.

Most cadets and alumni say they joined ROTC because they felt a desire for adventure, a sense of duty, a pull from family tradition, or inspiration from a friend or teacher—someone like Silvermintz.

Some have a more deeply personal reason, like regaining a lost sense of community. Katelyn Dolezal, BS ’12, a medic in the Army Reserves, came to UT after a yearlong deployment to Kuwait and felt lost. Throughout her first year and a half, whether at parties or club events, she struggled to make friends on a huge campus. Her reserve unit in Fort Worth was no help, either, since so many people had left the unit following their deployment.

She decided to give ROTC a shot even though she assumed it was nothing but kids with little experience or real-world knowledge. She quickly discovered how wrong she was.

“UT is so big and I struggled to meet people,” says Dolezal, who will pursue a medical degree on Army scholarship at UT Southwestern this fall. “I tried to find my community and finally did—at ROTC, where I’m with like-minded people.”

From top: UT Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC members stand together for the annual Veteran’s Day Retreat Ceremony on the South Mall in November 2010; Cadet finishing an obstacle course cargo net during the Spring Field Training Exercise; Kopser addresses AUSA Texas Capital Area Chapter members on energy security; UT’s Sandhurst Team competing at West Point in New York (from left: Quinn Romasko, Sean Neky, Jared Reinhardt, Margarita Fox, Roy Gann, Jacob Henderson, and Joe Wishart).

Credits: Thomas Allison, Daily Texan; Zan Ray; Chris Leonard; Zan Ray.

 

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