Photos: Connor McCourtney
Jeremy Hild remembered lying motionless in a patch of warm Vermont grass, the plastic stock of his M4A1 carbine pressed against his cheek as he squinted downhill. He pulled the trigger and sent a piece of lead screaming toward the target 300 yards away.
It’s not the typical Saturday morning for a Drake University sophomore.
Hild is a cadet in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The ROTC is a national program that provides a way for young men and women to receive a free college education. In exchange, they serve up to eight years after graduation in the U.S. military as commissioned officers.
With the current state of the economy, ROTC is becoming a more attractive option for students, even with ongoing wars. Drake can cost well over $100,000 for four years, and that is not taking into account food, housing or books. Many students struggle to find ways to pay for college without falling deep into debt.
“Over the last few years there has been a huge influx of new recruits,” said 1st Lt. Justin Peterson, the officer in charge of the Drake ROTC program.
“It’s an appealing offer,” Peterson said. “Cadets have 100 percent of their tuition paid for. They receive $600 a semester for books and get a salary of up to $800 a month in living expenses. Some cadets actually come out of college with more money than when they came in.”
Fourteen students are enrolled in the Drake ROTC program. Their number represents a modest increase over the last year, and several new members have been added since 2008. Combined with the ROTC programs at Iowa State University and Buena Vista University in Storm Lake,100 ROTC cadets are enrolled in Iowa. Nationally, more than 20,000 cadets serve in ROTC programs.
Peterson explained that cadets serve four years in active duty and four years in the reserve as part of the Iowa National Guard after graduation. Specialists such as pilots will serve seven years active duty with no time in the reserve. As soon as cadets graduate from Drake they become second lieutenants, the lowest rank of officer.
“The ROTC isn’t like the movies. We’re here to build competent leaders, not put people through hell,” Peterson said. “We make sure that cadets know how to be good commanding officers. We focus on building strong personal relationships and how to make decisions when the world is falling apart around them.”
Cadets are full-time students and full-time soldiers, which is sometimes a challenge. Cadets are whisked away from college life and flown across the country to perform training exercises. On Friday morning they could be eating scrambled eggs in Hubbell Dining Hall, and on Saturday they are trying to force down a protein shake in the back of an armored personal carrier.
“Last semester I flew out to Vermont for mountain warfare training,” Hild said. “I was hiking 30 miles through the middle of Vermont, pulling myself across rivers and carrying wounded soldiers back and forth across fields.”
When Hild walks across campus he quickly grabs his laptop, book bag and a light jacket, a weight of, at most, 20 pounds. On training missions he puts on 30 pounds of body armor, a 35-pound backpack, a five-pound combat helmet and an eight-pound M4A1 carbine. That’s at least 75 pounds.
“Did I mention that I had to hike all day?” Hild said.
Joshua Moon is in the Drake Law School and a cadet in the ROTC. He remembers how hard it was adjusting back and forth from military to college life.
“We trained up in Washington with these absolutely stunning mountains off in the distance,” Moon said. “We were hiking across fields while Blackhawks roared overhead. A little different than walking across Drake.”
With the U.S. fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, cadets have to come to terms with the idea that they might be deployed overseas after graduation. The prospect of war also brings the daunting finality of life and death to the forefront. College students may think they are invincible; cadets do not have that luxury.
No Drake ROTC cadets have been injured or killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that does not make the danger of war any less stark. As of last month, 5,905 servicemen have been killed in the conflicts overseas, more than 70 of those from Iowa.
The cadets remembered what a difficult and terrifying choice joining the Army was for them and their families. They had to deal with the fact that they might not be coming back home.
“I remember sitting in the recruiting office completely zoned out, my back covered in sweat,” Moon said. “My mom was in the other room just crying hysterically. She kept yelling over and over that I didn’t need to do this. I guess I had decided that this was something I needed to do. It ended up being one of the best choices I’ve ever made.”
Hild said he is not worried.
“Of course the idea of going to war is heavy on the mind, but I deal with it in my own way,” he said. “At least I would be going somewhere warm.”
Even if the U.S. is still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan when the cadets graduate, they will not necessarily be deployed.
“It’s a myth that the military ships students off right away,” Peterson said. “They don’t put them on planes and paratroop them into Baghdad the day after graduation.”
Cadets will spend one to two years training in a specialized branch after they graduate from Drake. They can specialize in infantry, reconnaissance, engineering, law, medicine or any one of numerous fields. Some cadets will never fire a rifle again after basic training.
For students looking to pay for college through ROTC, Hild warned that a free education should not be the only thing to keep in mind. He said that the military lifestyle is not for everyone.
“Money shouldn’t be your primary motive,” Hild said. “You have to be dedicated to what you’re doing.”