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A different culture: U. ROTC program presents unique challenges and conceptions of ‘service’

Thank you for your service

0620 14 FEB Cadet Major Natalie Fahlberg ’18 walked past Scully Hall and circled Carl Icahn Laboratory as she made her way to Jadwin Gymnasium. In the pitch black, her silhouette was barely discernible. Fahlberg wore her uniform with her ruck, a backpack weighing 35 to 50 pounds. Though the temperature was 31 degrees, she was unperturbed as she strode confidently forward. Her hair was pulled tightly back into a neat bun at the nape of her neck, right below her cap.


Fahlberg, the Executive Officer (XO) of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and the only female in the senior Army ROTC class, joined her fellow cadets at Jadwin Gym to complete a short two-mile ruck march. At a pace of 17.5 minutes per mile, the cadets moved in formation. In late March, as part of their basic training, the cadets will march 12 miles in under three hours, with a pack weighing up to 70 pounds.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, cadets make this very walk to Jadwin Gym for early morning physical training, or ‘PT’ in military vernacular. That means that cadets must wake up by 0530, before the sun rises.

On 14 FEB, sunrise was at 0653. While Fahlberg and the other cadets were at Jadwin Gym, campus was eerily desolate — a background of towering buildings with pitch-black windows. The sidewalks that would soon be alive with hustling students were empty.

0635 Cadet Captain Teddy Waldron ’18 called the company to order. Thirty-five cadets, with rucks in tow, awaited instructions in the lobby of Jadwin Gym. Three injured cadets sat out during the PT session.

The cadets would soon make their way around the stadium, go south on Washington Road, cross the brick bridge over Lake Carnegie, and then make their way east onto the Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath. The cadets would remain in two lines for the entire march, briefly exchanging a word here or there. A cadet at the front of the formation would carry the Army ROTC flag.

Cadets walking along the Delaware and Rarity Canal towpath .

Once the cadets reached the end of the towpath, they immediately broke formation to run back, each settling into a different pace. Some cadets lagged behind, sometimes marching and sometimes jogging. Others were far ahead, unbothered by the 50-pound packs strapped to their backs.

Every time a cadet fell behind or stopped to retie their shoes, another cadet would slow down and accompany them, ensuring that morale stayed high.

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Once they crossed the bridge again and were making their way north on Faculty Road, a driver honked at them, acknowledging their service — a small, fleeting sign of deference. The cadets marched forward, seemingly unfazed by the gesture extended to them whenever they are in uniform. Someone always thanks them for their service.

Cadets crossing Faculty Road.

Whenever she hears such a commendation, or whenever someone pays for her meal as a show of thanks, Kara Dowling ’20, a Navy ROTC cadet, feels conflicted.

She hesitantly explained that she doesn’t feel she’s done anything to deserve it. Dowling isn’t the only one to feel this way.

“[It’s as if you’re] treated with a respect that you did not earn … earned by people before you,” added Waldron, buttressing Dowling’s sentiments.

“In American society, military service is celebrated as a kind of genuinely selfless act, but I think it’s important to understand that it is, at the end of the day, just a job,” Waldron explained.

Lieutenant Colonel Kevin McKiernan, who directs the Army Officer Education Program and, has served in the Army for 24 years, agreed with the two cadets.

“I think when we call it service sometimes, it puts us on a pedestal that maybe it doesn’t necessarily deserve,” McKiernan explained.

According to McKiernan, military service is a choice, one that comes with its own unique benefits and challenges.

Not the typical student

0710 Cadets sprinted the final leg of their ruck march, nearing Jadwin Gym, with arms sharply bent, moving quickly. Waldron and Fahlberg finally rounded the corner in view of the gymnasium. With their gazes fixed straight ahead, the two took no notice of the warm sunlight that had begun to take hold of campus.

Shortly thereafter, cadets partnered up outside the gym, one counting aloud while the other did push-ups on the cold concrete. Struggling to maintain perfect form, they did their best to push through to the end. Their noses were almost touching the ground every time they bent their arms as close to 90 degrees as possible. Halfway through, they switched partners, welcoming a short reprieve.

Cadets doing push-ups outside Jadwin Gym.

However, most people haven’t seen the cadets training. Most students and faculty members have rarely seen them in uniform. As Major Lee Gerber, former assistant director of the Army Officer Education Program, pointed out, most of ROTC’s activities happen before students are awake, far away from the public eye.

In addition to PT three times a week, cadets are required to take a weekly leadership lab on Friday afternoons, as well as a military science elective course.

According to Gerber, who worked with the Army ROTC program for three and a half years, their classroom is situated at the edge of campus, in a building at the corner of Faculty Road and Alexander Street that prominently features the University’s motto in its lobby, beneath the window to the front desk. It reads: “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”  

The University motto, featured in the lobby of the ROTC building.

All the professionals who lead Army ROTC and work at the Armory, as the building which houses ROTC is called, move in and out of their offices in full uniform. The receptionist, clad in civilian garb, seems almost out of place.

Inside, the walls are painted a bright Princeton Orange and are lined with Purple Hearts, a large woven University logo inscribed with the old motto, and the Officers’ Oath, all of which are prominently displayed in wood-framed glass cases.

But the Armory wasn’t always on the outskirts of campus. Up until the Vietnam War, it was located in Morrison Hall, then known as West College.

In May 1970, thousands of students and faculty gathered to approve a strike against the war in Vietnam. Students also firebombed the Armory amidst protests at the Institute for Defense Analyses. The Armory was moved shortly thereafter.

Unlike its Ivy League peers, however, the University maintained its Army ROTC program during and after the war. Still, Navy ROTC was disbanded during the war and was not reinstituted until the fall of 2014.

The Navy program is run in cooperation with Rutgers University, where cadets travel for classes and physical training three times a week. Navy ROTC cadets have to wake up by 0430 to get to training on time.  The Air Force runs a similar program, while the Marines are subsumed in the Navy ROTC program.

For the 36 Army ROTC men and women who do train on campus, military service and the ROTC program offer personal and financial benefits. The list includes support for higher education and leadership opportunities.

The ROTC scholarship pays for a portion of undergraduate college tuition, along with a monthly stipend that varies by class year. Oftentimes, the military will also pay for graduate school.

I don’t know if [other students] see ROTC as a form of service, but they see [what happens after] as service. I don’t know if they appreciate the four years of training we go through to get there.

-Kara Dowling ’20

Some cadets would not be at the University without ROTC. For instance, Dowling would most certainly have opted for Clemson University in her native South Carolina. There, unlike the University, where all grants are based on need, a full academic scholarship was guaranteed.

On the other hand, the hardships set the cadets apart from many of their peers, as they have to wake up far before the sun rises, maintain a disciplined schedule, and take mandatory courses that do not count for University credit.

“A lot of people just don’t understand how taxing it is, both at Princeton and after Princeton,” Fahlberg explained.

Upon graduating this June, Fahlberg will attend Airborne School and then contract into the New Jersey Army National Guard. For her, like any other commissioned officer, that means at least eight years of service after graduating. Seniors like her are also sometimes granted an educational delay to complete a graduate program.

“I don’t know if [other students] see ROTC as a form of service, but they see [what happens after] as service,” said Dowling. “I don’t know if they appreciate the four years of training we go through to get there.”

The summer before senior year, Army cadets are required to attend Cadet Summer Training for three weeks of rigorous instruction at Fort Knox, Ky. CST is generally supplemented by Cadet Troop Leading Training, approximately four weeks of training that provides cadets with real-life exposure to an active-duty unit at a U.S., or sometimes international, base.

For Fahlberg, the only senior female Army cadet, there are the added challenges of being a woman in the military, which is only 14–16 percent female. These range from changing in the field in front of men to proving her physical fitness capability.

“When you think military, you think super macho…. You don’t really think of a 5-foot-4-inch, 110-pound girl,” Fahlberg said, smiling.

Despite such stereotypes, Fahlberg and Christina Onianwa ’18, the only female of color in the senior class’s Navy ROTC, have risen to the challenge.

Even in an unequivocally “masculine culture,” Fahlberg said she sometimes likes being the only girl in her cadet class because of the challenges it poses.

Onianwa concurred, adding that with regard to race, the military can often be equalizing.

“On the battlefield, it doesn’t matter what color you are,” Onianwa said

However, there have been issues of ROTC students not being able to reconcile the program with certain medical conditions.

“It’s an unforgiving environment,” explained one such student, who dropped out of the ROTC program at the end of their freshman year. The student was granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the circumstances discussed.

“There are standards; you either adhere to them or you don’t,” the student explained.

In order to join ROTC the fall before college, this student went off medications prescribed for depression. However, if disclosed on intake forms, the illness, since it requires treatment through medication, can put a cadet in danger of being disqualified from the program.

Once training has been completed, soldiers can get a waiver to openly take medication. However, the waiver isn’t available to those in training.

The student experienced a bout of Lyme disease shortly following the two-day Spring Field Training Exercise at Fort Dix, where ticks are common. The student also decided to re-start medication, meaning that the student had to leave the program. Cadets have the option to quit without an explanation within a year of joining. 

“It’s an intensely stressful environment that doesn’t work well with being a student,” the student said.

McKiernan noted that military service is a job which cadets must choose to do with such challenges and benefits in mind. The responsibility they carry is something cadets place upon themselves.

Bridging the civilian-military divide on campus

0730 With backpacks in tow, cadets head back in twos and threes toward Wu Hall, where they all have breakfast together every morning after PT. The cadets are smiling and laughing, despite being weighed down by the 50-pound rucks on their backs. Their flushed cheeks recover once they enter the dining hall, where they eat as a unit — always together and always in uniform.

However, for many cadets, the uniform is heavier than the rucks on their backs.

“You don’t have that luxury in the military to step away after a 9-to-5 work day. Every day you wear the uniform, you represent the Army,” explained Gerber, adding that the cadets must live up to certain expectations every single day.

In addition to their uniformed breakfasts, Army ROTC cadets are encouraged to spend at least one day a week in uniform.

“When you’re in the uniform and you’re talking in precept, it definitely — in a good way — adds a sort of pressure that I have to be really careful about the things I say,” explained Fahlberg. “That’s why you always kind of wear the uniform, even if you’re not [physically] wearing it.”

After all, the uniform represents a choice all the cadets have willingly made. “I signed that dotted line saying I’m willing to die for my country,” Fahlberg said, starkly illustrating the weight of the choice she made.

The divide between those connected to the military and the rest of the population has also been discussed on the national level. According to a recent Slate piece penned by Amy Schafer, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a small number of military families disproprotionately comprise a large portion of the armed forces, widening the civilian-military gap even further.

Many grew up within these families and this culture. Samuel Rob ’18 and Caleb Visser ’20, so-called “army brats,” moved around frequently as children because of their parents’ military careers. Rob is the son of two career Army officers, both former Judge Advocate General colonels who helped resolve legal military issues and prosecute war criminals. Rob’s brother Jacob, who also attends the University, is a first-year in the Army ROTC program. Visser is the son of a retired Army officer and his older brother is a captain in the Army.

Rob and Visser have both participated in color guard ceremonies at home football games, during which four cadets march and present the regimental colors on the field. These games, along with the second annual Military Appreciation Football game held this year, are part of a growing initiative to help increase the University community’s awareness of current student cadets and alumni who are either veterans or currently serving in the military.

Rob, Visser, and two other cadets participating in color guard ceremony at home basketball game in Spring 2017.

Yet, Gerber said, “If you stop the average person on campus, they couldn’t even know that [ROTC] exists.”

Nevertheless, there are many sources of support and community for University cadets — and even veteran staff members. Rob, who oversees daily training operations as Battalion Command Sergeant Major, befriended Dennis Stewart, who served in the U.S. Navy before becoming a chef in Whitman Dining Hall. Other students have had similar experiences.

The Center for International Security Studies also hosts a speaker series known as MIL 101, established in Feb. 2014 by Wilson School Ph.D. candidate Doyle Hodges GS, who spent 21 years as a Naval officer before coming to Princeton. Margaret Mullins, who now runs the program, explained how “the approach to MIL 101 this year is largely from the perspective of civ-mil relations.”

Mullins explained that the program encourages discussion around the civil-military relationship, by recommending to all interested that they more critically analyze the roots of the divide, where the military is deployed and for what purpose, and the willingness of citizens to question the military and demand more access to information.

I signed that dotted line saying I’m willing to die for my country.

-Natalie Fahlberg ’18

Although events are open to the public and are geared toward students who may not have a military background, a large part of the University’s military community is in attendance.

“I walk in, and it’s like all of ROTC sitting here,” explained Dowling, comparing the number of military personnel to civilians.

ROTC cadets and command have praised the University’s focus on expanding the ROTC program. President Eisgruber has spoken at the commissioning ceremony every year, when graduating cadets going to active duty are commissioned as officers with the rank of Second Lieutenant. Each senior can invite up to 15 guests, who proudly fill the wooden pew-like seats of Nassau Hall’s Faculty Room.

“That’s a big deal! They take good care of us,” Gerber exclaimed.

Additionally, the University’s recent change in policy for transfer students has improved its relationships with ROTC, facilitating the enrollment of student veterans and growing the numbers of ROTC students. According to Gerber, ROTC membership has doubled in size over the past four years.

Though there are several veteran graduate students, the number of undergraduate veterans remains low. In the 2014–15 and 2015–16 school years, there was only one student veteran at the University each year. This year, there are just five in the first-year class.

However, Waldron pointed out that not everyone in the military sees the divide as a bad thing.

“The military is not that different from any other part of the government,” explained Rob. “You have a responsibility to vote, to know who the candidates are, to familiarize yourself with their policies. You have the responsibility to know what’s going on.”

The choice to serve — and sacrifice autonomy

0830 Previously deserted sidewalks were bustling with life, as students rushed to grab breakfast or make their way to early morning classes. The cadets are out of uniform and back to being regular students.

Two cadets walking past Icahn Hall.

Even without the uniform, being a cadet is a salient identity marker. For Falhberg, it is no different than her gender or faith. For Onianwa, it is no different from her race or gender.

“My identity won’t change. I’ll always be a woman of color…. I expect to be treated as an equal [in the military] regardless of my identity,” said Onianwa. 

Fahlberg and Onianwa carry these identity markers wherever they go, be it their classes, their eating clubs, or their advisee groups — both cadets also serve as RCAs.

Campus hosts a multiplicity of avenues to serve; cadets and commanders highlighted this as their way to serve, to give back to a society they had benefited from, or to fulfill their duty to the body politic, as Rob put it.

With that motivation in mind, Rob is the only senior cadet commissioning active duty this year. Graduating seniors commission as second lieutenants at the conclusion of the four-year program, and have the option of electing to go active duty, National Guard, or Reserve.

Waldron stressed an “ideological pull,” saying his background made him motivated to serve. His mother emigrated from China following the Cultural Revolution and grew up in a country without many political freedoms.

“I feel as though I need to give back to this country, this country that has given so much to me and my family,” Waldron explained.

My identity won’t change. I’ll always be a woman of color…. I expect to be treated as an equal [in the military] regardless of my identity.

-Christina Onianwa ’18 

Visser explained that he grappled with varying types of service while on Bridge Year in Senegal.

“I was forced to really confront a lot of conceptions of service and what service meant to me,” explained Visser. “A significant reason that I chose to come to Princeton was its emphasis on service and acting as a steward in the nation’s service and in the service of humanity.”

Visser also pointed to an unusual motivation for service — namely, being critiqued. Many cadets admitted that at one point or another, they had fielded questions, and sometimes even critical remarks from classmates and professors.

“I’m totally aware of the criticism of the military,” said Visser, “but because I am aware of those and because I am from the community, I feel like I can go back into it and hopefully make a more well-rounded impact.”

Waldron explained that such an awareness often motivates cadets to serve.

“I couldn’t judge [U.S. foreign policy] without having been there, been a part of the decision-making process firsthand and serve,” said Waldron, referring to his decision to join ROTC.

Waldron explained that he would like to make a limited positive effect by serving in the military. He added that since the United States is likely to be involved in wars anyway, he believes there is a certain moral good to entering the military sphere as long as you go in well-intentioned and committed to trying to make better decisions.

Still, Wilson School professor Jacob Shapiro, himself a Navy veteran, paints a vivid picture of sacrifice.

“You don’t get to say no…. You’re doing the mission assigned, whatever hardship that imposes on you or however much you might disagree with it.”

“You don’t get to say no…. You’re doing the mission assigned, whatever hardship that imposes on you or however much you might disagree with it.”

-Wilson School Professor and Navy veteran Jacob Shapiro

“That loss of control, willingly giving up your liberty in the service of a larger good for some period of time, is just fundamentally different [than other forms of service].”

And this choice, job, or responsibility — however a cadet chooses to phrase it — means being put in charge of 35 to 90 people as soon as they finish college.

This fate awaits the graduating cadets in June. In the meantime, they keep training.

Senior Writer Rebecca Ngu contributed reporting.