education

Why We Need West Point: Painfully written by an OCS guy

West Point SnowRecently, there’s been a string of nasty essays written about why we should dismantle the United States Military Academies. The argument usually revolves around cost and the fact that we don’t actually need them. That is, we can produce the requisite number of officers through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate Schools (OCS). As much as I love watching my West Point peers get worked up about it, and despite my undying loyalty to my own alma mater (OCS), I’m of the mind that the military academies are precious and valuable institutions that produce superior officers, and dismantling them would undermine the quality of officership in the military.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer mostly to the United States Military Academy at West Point, simply because it is the institution I have the most experience with by virtue of my daily interactions with its chief product (officers) over the past fourteen years.

While I refuse to come out and say that West Point graduates make better officers, I will say that on the whole, they are a different breed of officer. And while almost universally derided by subordinates and peers alike, they are invaluable to the work and mission of the United States Army.

Before getting into why West Point officers are different and uniquely valuable, it is important to briefly discuss some of the stereotypes that officers from the different commisssionning sources face. Stereotypes, that while unfair, are often rooted in some reality.

The OCS officer is usually expected to be one of two extremes – either really good or a total dud. They are thought to be prior-service enlisted (although this is not always the case; most OCS officers are simply civilians with a college degree), and they are expected to be wiser through life experience and more in-tune with the reality of doing the Army’s actual work. Similarly, the older ones might be accused of “burn out” by virtue of being older in a young man’s game, or getting too involved in “NCO business” and having a hard time staying in their lane as officers.

The ROTC officer usually comes in many more shades in terms of expected performance, being anywhere along the spectrum from “ok” to “great.” They are generally thought to have partied pretty hard in college, using ROTC as a kind of safety net that accidentally landed them in the military, and their stories of their college experience are invariably better and more interesting than their USMA and OCS peers.

The greatest (and most damning) stereotypes are reserved for West Point officers. When soldiers learn their next platoon leader or commanding officer is from West Point, it’s almost always followed by a deep breath and a mental bracing for impact, and usually an audbile “Oh god…” West Point officers are generally thought to be a little more uptight and focused on mission accomplishment at all costs than other officers. The expectation is that the officer will be of the “Captain Sobel” of Band of Brothers fame variety. That is, strict, intense, and deeply committed to mission success, even if that success comes at the expense of his subordinates’ well-being.

Of course, all of these are stereotypes that unfairly color officers before they ever step in front of troops. These stereotypes exist though, and soldiers (and especially officers) are always interested to learn of one’s commissioning source as a snippet of information to either confirm or deny deeply held biases.

In my personal experience, some of the best officers I have ever worked with were graduates of West Point. I’ve met the quintessential, hard-charging, I’ve-read-every-platoon-leader-memoir-in-existance West Pointer who could have been a stand-in for Captain “your weekend pass is revoked” Sobel. I’ve also met “total bros” who would seem a better fit at Animal House than anything remotely military. And although I’ve met West Point officers whom I personally didn’t like, I’ve never met one that was wholly incompetent. Even the “bad” ones accomplish the mission, no matter how awkward or strange their behavior might seem.

The first time I had a real conversation about West Point as an institution was when I was working closely with a new Captain who was a graduate. I was a young and angry Sergeant at the time, and on our LESs, we had the same number of years of service. He made the argument that being a student at West Point is more of a military experience than a college experience, and he essentially served four more years than I did, despite what it said on his LES. I didn’t agree with him at the time, and thought this was just typical West Point ring knocking.

Over time, however, the more that I’ve learned about West Point and its traditions, the more I’ve come to agree with him.

If the logic holds true, that attending West Point is more of a military experience than a college one (and I think it does), then it should also hold true that those officers are receving four (er, sometimes five) additional years of military experience that their ROTC and OCS counterparts just don’t get. From a younger age they are immersed in a military environment, and over time, everything that is supposed to be expected from an officer is ingrained. You just can’t do the same thing with a college student sporadically attending ROTC courses, or an OCS candidate who has just 12 weeks until pinning on a gold bar.

It’s also true that ROTC and OCS officers bring something different and unique to the service by virtue of their not being completely immersed in a military environment, which is why ROTC and OCS are also important to preserve.

I have a growing respect and admiration for my peers who graduated from our military academies. I am in awe of the work and dedication it takes to apply, get selected, and thrive there – in many ways because I was completely not prepared to do so myself at that age. I’m proud to serve alongside USMA graduates and wanted to write this gentle love letter, because I can imagine how frustrating it must be to have your alma mater drug through the mud every couple of months, and thought that as a non-USMA guy, I could offer a perspective not tarnished by years of doing The Rocket.

@dongomezjr

education

Gen. Powell: “Military Service is honorable.”

Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.

Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.

Returning to City College for the ceremony welcoming back ROTC was beautiful and surreal. It was strange to walk in the Great Hall and see so many military men and women criss-crossing the floor in sharp uniforms, and I had to remind myself at times that I was one of them. I felt uncomfortable like one would when inviting two friends to dinner that you know don’t get along, but are forced to be cordial. I studied the faces of faculty members whom I knew were at best, skeptical of this endeavor.

The ceremony began with a the posting of the colors. The Francis Lewis High School JROTC Color Guard did the honors and looked superb.

The President of City College, Lisa Staino-Coico began speaking, then CUNY’s Chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, followed by the ROTC Cadet Commander, Major General Smith, all discussing how great it is that ROTC is returning and thanking those who had a role in bringing it back.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.” (Jeff Mays, DNAinfo)

That, I believe was Gen. Powell’s way of addressing the lingering apprehension among those who believe ROTC does not belong on campus.

Military service, is honorable.

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

And I agree.

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it. It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

The ceremony concluded with us singing the Army Song in the Great Hall.

Media:
After Decades, Boots Are Back on Campus (New York Times)
R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s City College More Than Four Decades After Removal (New York Times, At War Blog)
ROTC Returns to CUNY (CUNY Press Release)
CUNY brings back long-lost ROTC program (New York Post)
Colin Powell Helps City College Re-Launch ROTC Program (DNAinfo)
Army ROTC returns to City College of New York (Army Press Release)

@dongomezjr

education

Ghosts on campus: student-veterans of the Vietnam era at City College

I’ve been doing some research on the ROTC at the City College of New York and came across this piece in The Campus newspaper. It’s called “College: a vets’ eye view” and the author interviews some of the student-veterans on campus about their views on the war in Vietnam. I am completely sucked into these pieces because all of this happened at my alma mater. The same things I experienced at City between 2007 and 2010, student veterans faced forty years ago, and probably sixty years ago too after World War II.

But I never really knew. None of us did. All of this information is lost. Ghosts of the past walk the campus, experiencing the same things over and over and over again. All this gnashing of teeth and tormented thoughts. The answers all there, buried in texts from the past. This has all been done before.

Most of the veterans, although they agreed that anti-war protest is important and necessary, felt that they were somewhere to the political right of most students, if not in their attitudes, certainly in their actions. It’s possible that is because most of them are married and working at least part-time, and feel that they have a greater investment in the “system” than other students have.

For the same reason, most of them felt that their attitude toward their education was somewhat more pragmatic than most other students’. Several said that their only interest in the school was to get a degree as fast as possible.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

@dongomezjr

College: a vets' eyes view

Returned veterans speak out

education

ROTC Wants Rule by Force

The City College of New York recently announced that they had digitally archived all ROTC Wants Rule by Forceeditions of the undergraduate student newspaper of record from 1907 to 1981. I’ve been poking around for a few minutes and I can waste a lot of time there.

When I was at City College I founded the veterans club, or rather, resurrected the veterans club. While looking for a name, I discovered through old issues of The Campus newspaper that a group that called itself the “City College Veterans Association” had existed for many years on campus. So I just started a club with that name. CCNY historically hosted a vibrant military/veteran community on campus that faded away with the elimination of ROTC during the Vietnam War. That culture I’m happy to say is being revived, slowly.

Anyway, here’s a little snippet from the front page of the April 1, 1947 issue of The Campus, proving that satirical news is an old, old idea.

This particular article reminds me of a flyer a veteran friend of mine made with me. It was a flyer announcing the veteran club on campus, and we wanted to add a line at the bottom assuaging people’s fears so we wrote:

CCVA is not a political organization. CCVA does not take a position on the wars and is only here to help improve the lives of veterans on campus.

As a joke, we made a flyer with an alternate disclaimer that read:

CCVA is a political organization. We take a militant position on the wars and we are here to militarize the campus. (or something to that effect)

Reading back on the real disclaimer, I’m struck by how apologetic in tone it seems. I remember at the time feeling that it was necessary to have it in there given the political climate on campus, even though that was probably an imagined climate. Most students were completely uninterested in the wars or what activities were happening on campus. It’s also interesting that we used the term “the wars” as if they were truly perpetual. Not the Iraq War and Afghanistan War. Just ‘the wars.’

Anyway, you can access the entire archive here.

@dongomezjr

ccva general flyer

education

ROTC back at CUNY after more than 40 years

A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

While doing some research for an earlier post, I learned that Army ROTC is headed back to the City University of New York (CUNY) and specifically the City College of New York (CCNY), my alma mater. I had heard through the grapevine that this was in the works, but nothing was officially official. It won’t start until the fall, but it looks like the cat’s out of the bag.

I know a lot of people were involved in making this happen, and maybe when ROTC officially opens at CCNY I’ll write a longer piece on how it all went down. For now, I’m just happy to know that it is actually happening. CUNY, CCNY and the Army will all be better for it.

@dongomezjr