Not your mother’s Northwestern ROTC

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Many college students spend four years trying to avoid “real life,” putting off decisions about their future. College students in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps don’t have that luxury. Their daily schedule is laid out from day one of school and their life plan for the next eight years established before they even step on campus. As in the rest of the military, procrastination in ROTC is unacceptable.

McCormick junior Charlotte Thayer, 20, is a midshipman in Northwestern’s Naval ROTC (NROTC) program. Both of her parents are NROTC alumni and her brother, Peter, is completing the program at the University of Texas. Thayer said she joined the program out of a desire to “serve in the military and get a good education.” But not everyone with these aims can be accepted into ROTC.

With scholarships in short supply, NROTC candidates hoping to compete must meet all of the requirements for a spot at a top-tier university. Excellent grades and standardized testing scores are musts, as well as leadership in extracurriculars and participation in athletics. According to Captain Brian Koehr, commanding officer of the Naval ROTC Chicago Consortium, the Eagle Scouts provide NROTC with many midshipmen.

But recruits also need to give equal attention to fitness. In order to receive a NROTC scholarship, midshipmen must pass the Navy’s Physical Readiness Test. The test comprises 100 points, awarded based on repetitions completed or the speed of completion. To receive an outstanding test score (90/100), for example, a female midshipman between ages 17-19 must perform 102 curl ups, complete 47 pushups, run 1.5 miles in 11 and a half minutes, and swim 500 yards in eight and a half minutes.

All these demands serve another purpose besides finding the best future officers. The rigorous application process weeds out those interested in NROTC for the wrong reasons.

“The thing about ROTC is it’s something that people have to want to do it,” Thayer said.
“It sounds like a lot of people might do it for a full-ride scholarship to a school like this, but people find out very soon that if they don’t want to be in the military they’re not going to last very long.”

Thayer is one of about a dozen female midshipmen in the Northwestern NROTC unit. The unit has seen a greater number of women join, with women now making up roughly half of its members. Just ten years ago women accounted for only a third of midshipmen, according to Northwestern NROTC alum Casey Osterkamp, who graduated in 2005. Women have only been allowed in the NROTC program since 1974, though they have been able to serve in combat since 1948.

“I didn’t feel like in ROTC people treated me differently, but definitely in the real world people treated me differently,” Osterkamp said. “There are definitely those old white men who’ve been around forever in their 40s and early 50s, and they remember a time when there were no women there.”

The physical standards for male and female midshipmen differ, but all complete the same biweekly physical training, take the same naval science courses and are held to the same academic standard.

In comparison to their female comrades, male midshipmen between the ages of 17 and 19 must perform almost twice as many pushups and run 1.5 miles a minute and a half faster to receive the same “outstanding score.”

The Marines have recently raised their physical fitness standards for women. By 2014, physical fitness tests will require all female Marines to perform pull ups. In the past, female Marines needed only to complete a flexed arm hang.

“As women are getting more jobs, as more opportunities are opening up, their standards are increasing,” said Thayer.

Opportunities for women in the military continue to expand. Two years ago the Navy changed their policy to allow women on submarines. Women are currently excluded from participating in ground combat, but this year the Marine Corps permitted women to enroll for the first time in the Infantry Officers Course, which trains Marines for this type of warfare. In February, the Department of Defense opened up about 14,000 new military posts to women by amending military policies which had banned women from certain jobs, particularly in the Army.

“The Navy is moving towards completely integrated forces,” said Lt. Mac Marrone, a professor of naval science at NU NROTC. “The Navy is definitely trying to see where the boundary is, if there is a boundary. Things are happening as we speak, it’s an interesting time.”

While in many areas women are progressing, other factors can prevent them from reaching their career potential in the military. Osterkamp said that one of the reasons she left the Navy was institutional ignorance about needs specific to women. Her first deployment was on a ship with 250 men and just 5 women, and she encountered a few difficulties.

“Just the little things like, how do you get tampons while on deployment? Oh, wait, there’s only 5 people that need them,” said Osterkamp.

Additionally, women find that starting a family proves a major obstacle to their career progress, the extent of which their male peers cannot understand.

“The Navy doesn’t think about the fact that oh, when women have babies that takes time away,” Osterkamp continued. “As a result they haven’t really thought about how that changes their career trajectory, and so women are disadvantaged because of that.”

In a 2008 study of female ROTC cadets, University of Virginia professor Jennifer Silva found that 84 percent of cadets interviewed said they did not want to pursue a military career because it would hinder their ability to get married and have children.

Still, Osterkamp sees women’s presence in the military continuing to increase.

“I definitely think that more women are in the military now than there used to be even ten years ago,” she said. “I think people are slowly adjusting. It’s basically going to take those old men who have been there forever to get out of the Navy.”

At Northwestern, the trend can be seen in the large percentage of female midshipmen. Aside from the high representation of women, though, the unit is also unique for its size. Due to the school’s high price and selectivity, the number of Northwestern NROTC recruits remains fairly low.

Recruits may receive an NROTC scholarship, but they also have to get into the school. The program size is also affected by budgetary constraints—NU and other private schools cost more than public universities. With limited scholarship funds, the Navy realizes that money goes farther at a state school. They can put two or three midshipmen through a public university for the cost of one at NU. With politicians moving to reduce the defense budget, the Navy may soon have even less to work with.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean the ROTC budget will decrease,” Koehr said. “You never know how that’s going to play out.”

Ultimately, Thayer feels there is a tradeoff to allotting more scholarship spots to public universities.

“We have jobs engineering nuclear reactors. So would you rather have a public state school person doing that or would you rather have someone trained at Northwestern engineering school doing that?”

According to Koehr, cuts in the Navy budget have most affected the 2 year scholarships, which he says have “drastically reduced nationwide.”

Said Koehr, “The Navy is trying to beg for budgeters to make that money available, but if it’s not in the bank, there’s not a whole lot we can do.”

The poor state of the economy in recent years has made the limited scholarship spots even more selective because more students are applying.

“More people are looking for it—it’s the reality of down economic times. It’s a great opportunity for them,” said Koehr.

Thayer’s younger brother, Peter, is a freshman midshipman at UT. Peter did not receive a scholarship, so he currently participates in ROTC as a college programmer, a midshipman who completes ROTC training but does not receive scholarship money. While these individuals may be able to pick up a scholarship during their college career, many will never get financial assistance.

Koehr compared the college programmers to the walk-ons of a football team. “They don’t necessarily get to play, but they put in all the blood, sweat and tears.”

Because of this, Koehr has an even greater respect for college programmers. “They’re doing it on their own volition. There is a higher level of commitment there.”

Peter, meanwhile, is concerned that current and possible future budget cuts will affect his scholarship chances.

Charlotte Thayer said of her brother, “He’s worried with military cuts happening, spending going down, that there’s just not going to be a spot for him.”

Having seen her brother’s frustration, Thayer recognizes the potential implications for a smaller ROTC budget.

“Sometimes it doesn’t matter how competent you are, how well you’re doing at school, or in the unit,” she said. “It just doesn’t happen for you.”

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