Not in my future
I had a brief flirtation with ROTC at Central Washington University in early 1998, lasting a few busy months before the program and I came to a mutual understanding that a military career was not in my future.
This was a good thing, though it didn’t seem like it at the time. I would have been a mediocre (at best) commissioned officer. The real damaging part was that they were unable or unwilling to simply tell me that my services were not required (and I’d cut off my metal headbanging hair for nothing!), but instead fabricated a pseudo-medical excuse that made me believe I was ineligible for military service at all. The net result was that I didn’t even try to enlist until after the Iraq invasion, when (I reasoned) I had decent odds of slipping slight medical irregularities past the gatekeepers.
I will hit twelve years time in service with the Army National Guard in a few months; over eleven of those have been on active duty (as opposed to one-weekend-a-month).
I don’t think about ROTC too often; it was a brief prequel episode to my career, a sort of interlude in my college days. But there were some moments.
We had one NCO floating around, not a regular cadre member and his name tragically forgotten, with a sharp British accent and a truly disturbing level of enthusiasm for the United States Army. “Mr. Nelson,” he would exclaim. He only exclaims or yells in my memory. “How shall you branch when you graduate from this institution?”
And Cadet Nelson, a nice kid who didn’t blink twice at my long metal hair before helping me sort out what was what, ventured a reply to the effect that he should like to become an armor officer.
“Armored death boxes!?” this NCO erupted with mixed amazement and disgust. “Why would you want to die in a burning tank, Nelson?”
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when/if I graduated, but I suddenly decided that armor was probably not it.
I had Transformers. . . But she had motivation.
I was in long enough to take several military science (ha!) classes. There were only a few people in class, among them a “non-traditional student” (read: old lady in her late 20s) who was only in the class for what her academic adviser had promised would be an easy A.
In class one week, we learned the basics of rifle marksmanship (theory only) and learned to disassemble and reassemble an M-16 rifle. [It’s hard to imagine this being allowed on a college campus just 16 years later.] I had never been exposed to firearms larger than a pump action BB gun before, but I was pretty good at the taking apart and putting together. We had little competitions after some practice, and I was usually a good 10-15 seconds faster. Our older female compatriot was frustrated. “How are you so good at this?”
I shrugged. “I had Transformers.”
Fast forward to a little shooting range simulator, employing a Super Nintendo with a “rifle” controller and associated special hardware; think Duck Hunt on steroids. It was alleged to be pretty close to the real thing in terms of accuracy and precision, though I had my doubts even then. Still, we lined up and gave it a swing. I met with indifferent success. Our older female classmate hit 40/40 every time. “So how are you so good at this?”
“You’re shooting at targets. I’m shooting at my ex-husband.”
“Captain Anthony. . . Captain Anthony. . . Captain Keith Anthony.”
We were supposed to go rappelling the next day. I was mildly terrified, but I wasn’t about to admit that, so I was just trying not to think about it. I ran into Cadet Nelson somewhere–the library?–and he matter-of-factly told me that the training was cancelled. “CPT Anthony shot himself.” CPT Anthony was my instructor for Leadership. He was a pretty nice guy, quiet. We’d just been talking the day before about the books we read for fun. He didn’t seem to have many local connections or a family around, but I didn’t really know him.
I don’t know why, but I just assumed he had shot himself in the foot or something. “Really? That’s rough.” It didn’t click. Jim clarified that he’d left a note simply saying “I’m sorry” and had eaten a pistol round, and I realized that the big deal here wasn’t that I was getting out of rappelling.
Fast forward a few days. I was a little too cool, too cynical for military ceremonies, and I wasn’t really part of this crowd, but I was trying to be so they’d pay for my college, so I went. I think I still had long hair, even.
They called roll, and the other cadre members sounded off. Then they called it out.
“Captain Anthony.” A long pause.
“Captain Anthony.” A longer pause.
“Captain Keith Anthony.” And it struck home that he really wouldn’t be answering, and I just about lost it for this guy I barely knew and now would never know better.
They had a counselor come talk to us about grieving and we had a series of stand-in instructors for the remainder of the quarter. I got the impression that everyone was going to pass Leadership whether we did anything or not. This was a small battalion, perhaps two dozen cadets total and only half a dozen cadre; I think the death really shook people, but he hadn’t seemed to be close to anyone. I look back now as a senior NCO and wonder what, if anything, could have been done.
I still have some random FMs and documents from that stint fifteen years ago. When I did eventually enlist, I understood the rank structure and unit structure, could disassemble/reassemble a rifle, and had a few other odds and ends tucked away in my brain. I was not exactly overawed by ROTC-produced officers–I’d seen the sausage being made, you see–and I had my suspicions about the other ones. And in the end, it worked out. I wonder now how much of my motivation since then came from a desire to prove that cadre wrong, to demonstrate that they made a mistake in not giving me a chance, but the reality is that if the potential for military leadership was there in 20-year-old me, it was very well hidden. I think I make a far better NCO than I ever would have an officer, and I’m cool with that.