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  Ready to Serve

In the wake of last fall's terrorist attacks, graduating ROTC cadets spent months anxiously awaiting delayed news of their military futures.

By Jocelyn Kelly '02 Photos by Mike Ciesielski

At 1600 Wednesday, March 6, two Hopkins seniors climb the metal steps of the bunker-like ROTC building behind Homewood's Newton H. White Athletic Center. Decked out in camouflage pants and jackets and black combat boots, they take the steps two at a time. "Did you hear?" one says to the other in a low voice. "It might be today."

Three months from now, these two seniors -- and the other senior cadets in Hopkins' Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) -- will scatter to military installations all over the world. They will spend four months attending the Officer Basic Course, emerging as officers prepared to lead soldiers.

That is, they will as soon as they learn their future military assignments.

Normally, the 10 Hopkins seniors would have been given their U.S. Army branch assignments last November. But in the terrorist attacks of September 11, branch assignments suffered a direct hit. The office that processes cadet requests and matches them with their branch assignments was destroyed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. So the seniors in the Blue Jay Battalion (which includes 80 cadets from Hopkins, Towson University, University of Baltimore, University of Maryland–Baltimore County, and Villa Julie College) have been waiting … and waiting.

Cadet Erhan Bedestani, a first-generation Turkish American, desperately wants to be assigned to the frontline infantry division, known as "the queen of battle." Soldiers in that division "have the coolest gadgets, get the most money, the most exciting experiences, and guaranteed Special Forces Ranger training," he says. Earning a spot in Army Ranger School, considered one of the most grueling and elite programs in the military, would almost guarantee that he would see "operations exercises" in Afghanistan, Somalia, Kosovo, or other troubled areas. Bedestani believes he will have wasted his military service if he doesn't become a Ranger. "It's the real test of yourself," he says. Says his mother, Sadyie, "It was very hard after 9/11, especially since we are Muslim. That's why he wants to go -- to catch the bad people."

Cadet Neil Prakash, a neuroscience major, has his sights set on the armor division. The suspense is killing him. "At first, the Cadre kept telling us, you'll get the [assignments], you'll get them. And finally, you just get used to waiting." Ask Prakash if the waiting is hard, and his eyes get expressively wide. He looks pained. Then he composes himself and simply says, "We're ready to go, whenever the country calls on us."

Inside the ROTC building, Cadet Jen Smith approaches a commanding officer. "Capt. Mudd, sir, I heard we might get our branch assignments today." Capt. Joseph Lee Mudd smiles but doesn't look amused. He is one of the Cadre, a group of nine retired and active Army personnel who oversee the Blue Jay Battalion and communicate with Cadet Command. "I think that's the same nasty little rumor we hear every week," he replies. The uncertainty will continue, at least for another week.

Before 9/11, says Sadownik, "students on campus would look at you in your uniform and say 'whatever.' Now they seem grateful that you are around." In the years since ROTC was founded at Hopkins in October 1916 -- one of the first such battalions established by Congress -- more than 3,000 seniors have received officer commissions from the Army's Blue Jay Batttalion. ROTC's goal: to commission officers for active duty, or for service in the U.S. Army Reserve or the Army National Guard. In return for covering most of the costs of tuition (as well as providing a monthly stipend of $250-$450), the Army typically requires a minimum of four years of active duty and four years in the Reserve or National Guard.

Students who enroll can expect to augment their Hopkins studies with Wednesday course work in military science, leadership, and military history, and with field missions aimed at giving them practical skills in land navigation, operations, and tactics (see Saturday in the Field). Freshmen learn military basics like saluting and marching as they begin their leadership training. Sophomores attend military history class; juniors prepare for summer training camp at Fort Lewis, Washington. Seniors hone their leadership skills by preparing missions for the younger cadets. All don uniforms on Wednesday, to get used to caring for and wearing military attire.

The fortunes of ROTC at Hopkins have waxed and waned over the years, mirroring the social and political climate of the times. During the Depression, when even money for clothes could be tough to come by, some students joined ROTC for the uniform -- literally. In the early 1950s, roughly a third of all Hopkins undergraduates were enrolled in the program; some 58 members of the Class of 1953 graduated as second lieutenants of the Army Reserve, according to the May 1953 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine. By the late 1960s, however -- as protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew increasingly vociferous -- ROTC's presence on campus came under attack at Hopkins and universities across the nation. In the spring of 1968, the Johns Hopkins Academic Council voted to revoke academic credit for ROTC participation, relegating the training to an extracurricular activity. It was a move that would last until 1986-87.

Controversy swirled again in the early 1990s, when Hopkins students marched to protest ROTC's exclusion of gays and lesbians, contending that it violated the university's policy of non-discrimination. The administration ultimately agreed, and gave Congress and the Department of Defense five years to reevaluate the ban. (The policy has not changed and the university remains opposed to the ban.)

These days, student participation in and campus support for ROTC appear to be on the upswing -- particularly since the events of 9/11. "Before the attacks," says senior Cadet Erin Sadownik, "students on campus would look at you in your uniform and they would basically say 'whatever.' Now they seem grateful that you are around. People have actually come up and said, 'Good job.'"

Go to Saturday in the Field
Go to Toward Controlling Fear

Much of ROTC's current good health can be attributed to Army Lt. Col. Charles Roller, who came to Hopkins four years ago as the commanding officer of the Blue Jay Battalion. Roller was prepared to do the obligatory three-year tour just as he had done at Duke before Hopkins. But he requested to extend his stay in Baltimore. "I just love what I do here," he says. "I can't think of any place with a better atmosphere."

Roller and his Cadre have put the emphasis on recruitment. It's not unusual for Hopkins undergrads who find themselves in the vicinity of the ROTC building to receive good-natured invitations to enroll; when a student does show interest, the battalion's officers follow up enthusiastically, as Sadownik can attest. "Capt. Jon Shear kept calling the house. He got me to go on Adventure Week before my freshman year. We rappelled, played water polo, shot M-16s, and played paint ball. Then they gave me a uniform." Sadownik laughs. "That's how they caught me. After I put it on, I was hooked."

Wednesdays are uniform days for all ROTC cadets. Here, Erhan Bedestani and Erin Sadownik (standing) chat with a classmate. When Roller arrived, ROTC enrollment was down to about six new cadets each year, significantly less than the quota of 12 handed down from the U.S. Army Cadet Command. Under his leadership the Blue Jay Battalion has met and exceeded its quota. The 2002 crop of 21 seniors is the largest in almost two decades.

In the four years since the seniors enrolled, the Blue Jay Battalion's national ranking has jumped from 131st in the nation to 9th. The ranking factors in the battalion's "output" (the extent to which the number of graduating seniors exceeds a pre-set goal), and the national "order of merit" of rising seniors (how well their performance stacks up against that of their counterparts across the country).

Because of the marked improvement, beginning this fall the Army will move from covering 80 percent of tuition to providing full-tuition scholarships. Cadets slated to graduate in 2005 can expect to receive nearly $150,000 in tuition, fees, book money, stipends, and travel over the course of their four years. Roller doesn't intend to stop there. His goal: to move Hopkins from its "C-Template" designation, with its Cadre of nine Army officers, to a "D-Template" school, with 11. To do that, he'll need to continue to expand the size of each class -- to make ROTC at Hopkins bigger, better, and more visible on campus. He's confident he can do it: "You can't tell me," Roller insists, "people on this campus will not serve our country."

Within the Blue Jay Battalion, each senior in his or her own way has dealt with the dramatic world events of the past months. Most say that their families have slowly come to terms with the increased possibility that the students will see combat after graduation -- something that didn't seem quite so inevitable when they enrolled four years ago.

"The Army has no problem sending people fresh out of camp to 'hot spots.' It's a definite possibility," says Bedestani. When he told his mother that he wanted to go into infantry, she started to cry. But she accepted his decision. "It's his choice," Sadyie Bedestani says. "He wants it so, so much." When his father, Mehmet, realized that Erhan would be a commissioned officer leading soldiers into battle, he cried as well, but it was out of pride. "We are 110 percent behind him," says his 32-year-old brother, Ahmet.

Senior Cadet Marc Hohman has wanted to be a physician since he was 10. "He was absolutely single-minded about it," recalls his father, James Hohman. ROTC emerged as the most viable way for the family to finance his education. Since 9/11, however, "it felt a little like the decision came back to haunt us," says the elder Hohman.

For his part, Marc Hohman now can't imagine his life without the military. "ROTC changed everything," he says. Nearly all of his friends are in the program; his summers have been occupied parachuting from military planes and doing field exercises. This year he is serving as the battalion's second in command: the XO, or executive officer. (Towson University's Ryan Scott, the battalion commander, oversees the "big picture" and coordinates with the Cadre.) When applying to medical schools, Hohman had to justify being a soldier and a doctor to the admissions boards. "I explained to them that I am protecting people either way -- whether that means shooting at the bad guys or patching up our guys. And in the end, chances are I'll be patching up the bad guys, too."

Hohman was accepted by Dartmouth's School of Medicine. He is pretty sure he'll get assigned to the medical corps, with a four-year medical school deferment. After that, he will do his residency in the Army before fulfilling his service obligation. "The Army," he says simply, "will be my career."

Sadownik, who is majoring in civil engineering, has her fingers crossed that she will be assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers. She looks at the military as a steppingstone to a career in the private sector. When she completes branch camp, she will be a second lieutenant and a platoon leader in charge of 50 soldiers. "How many 26-year-olds will be able to say that?" she asks, noting that four years of such experience should greatly enhance her marketability. But, she notes, without the branch assignments, "It's all yet to be seen. It's very distressing."

At 1600 on March 13, the cadets of the Blue Jay Battalion, outfitted in their dress greens, chat and laugh as they begin to line up for their monthly Class A inspection. When they are assembled, Roller strolls to the front and says, "Good afternoon. We've got something new and exciting for today."

The cadets, hands clasped behind their backs, feet shoulder length apart, seem to become even more still and rigid.

"Some people are getting their branches today," Roller says.

The concrete room vibrates with their response -- the deep call that is the Army's equivalent of the Navy's aye-aye: "Hut-hut!"

Roller continues, "But first, we are doing our Class A's!"

Their focus of attention is a battered wooden box on a table by the door. Inside are the new branch pins. Again, the students reply "hut-hut," but with notably less enthusiasm.

The seniors, exempt from the inspection, huddle at the back of the room. Hohman comes in from the offices upstairs. Cadet Michael Moak, a Hopkins senior, bounces toward him and says with suppressed excitement, "We're finding out. We're definitely finding out, like right now."

Their focus of attention is a battered wooden box on a table by the door. Inside are the new branch pins. While the Cadre is busy with the inspection, the seniors gravitate to the box to look at the assortment of cardboard cards holding the pins. Some start counting each type, calculating the odds that they got what they wanted.

"I see a lot of chemical engineer pins," someone says. Moak, craning his head to see the box, says, "If you're kidding you need to say so right now."

Neil Prakash drops to give an exuberant 20, after learning of his assignment to the armor division.
Photo courtesy Hopkins Blue Jay Battalion
Cadet Michael Martinez from UMBC has been bouncing behind the crowd trying to see over their shoulders. "Hey guys," he says, "move away from the table, you're making me nervous."

As the crowd begins to move he pushes through. "OK, lemme see!"

Prakash strides away from the table grinning, then stops, bites his fist and walks back. He looks at the box and strides away again.

"Atten-hut!" yells Roller from the front of the room.

The seniors line up in the back row, legs apart, hands behind their backs. Someone can be heard sucking in his breath.

"Well, we're going to do something different tonight," jokes Roller.

"Hut-hut!" reply the cadets amid beleaguered laughter.

"You seniors have been preparing for the past 20 years. You have set yourselves up for success. You are the largest class since the fall of the Soviet Union [that began] in the 1980s. Since I've been here I've watched you go up and up and up. Today you are getting your branch assignments, so don't hold your applause, make it as loud as you want."

Over thunderous clapping Roller yells, "Cadet Bedestani wanted to be an infantry officer. Cadet Bedestani will be an infantry officer."

Bedestani strides to the front where the crossed rifles are pinned to his left lapel.

"Cadet Hohman," Roller calls. "What did you want to be?"

"A doctor, sir."

"Well, you got your medical school delay and then you will serve in the medical corps.

"Cadet Moak, what do you want to do in life?"

"Infantry, sir."

Roller spreads him arms like a benevolent genie, "I'm going to give you infantry detail and then you will go into military intelligence.

"Cadet Prakash, you get transportation branch with branch detail in armor."

Prakash runs to the front smiling. He addresses the younger cadets, "Squad, drop and give me 20."

The younger cadets have trouble keeping up with Prakash's quick push-ups. He stands and waits for them to finish, "Drop and give me one more for transportation. Recover. Now one more for armor. Recover." He does his last push-up one-handed.

As the cadets regain their breath, Roller calls, "Now this is a cool one. Sadownik will serve as a signal corps officer with branch detail to field artillery." He pins the two crossed guns on her lapel.

As Roller gives out the last assignments, the seniors periodically look down at their lapels and adjust the pins proudly. At the end of the ceremony, the younger cadets line up and shake hands with the seniors.

The last order of business is swearing in a new recruit who wants to join ROTC. The seniors stand ramrod straight, and they look taller than when they walked in that afternoon. They stare straight ahead, chests inflated as the young student reciting the oath becomes a cadet:

I am an Army Cadet. Soon I will take an oath and become an Army Officer committed to defending the values which make this nation great. Honor is my touchstone. I understand mission first and people always.

I am the past -- the spirit of those warriors who have made the final sacrifice.

I am the present -- the scholar and apprentice soldier enhancing my skills in the science of warfare and the art of leadership.

But above all, I am the future -- the future warrior leader of the United States Army. May God give me the compassion and judgment to lead and the gallantry in battle to win. I will do my duty.

Note: In an ironic twist befitting the year's unusual branch assignment process, cadets learned the following day that the information provided by the national office had not been final. The upshot, in part: Erin Sadownik ultimately ended up with her first choice, the Corps of Engineers, and Erhan Bedestani landed an assignment in air defense artillery. Though initially disappointed, as of early August Bedestani was training in Turkey and "very happy," reports his father, Mehmet.

Jocelyn Kelly '02 is currently the international news editor for TheNewsMexico.com in Mexico.

Go to Saturday in the Field
Go to Toward Controlling Fear

Return to September 2002 Table of Contents

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