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We Train to Lead

ROTC Programs of Princeton, Rutgers, and Penn

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“If you want to apply the skills and talents you might have developed in high school, be a part of a community and do good in the world, and you wouldn’t mind a free education — then ROTC is definitely an option worth looking at,” says Midshipman Second Class Bryan Suh, public affairs officer for the University of Pennsylvania’s Naval ROTC unit.

The point about Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) preparing students to “do good in the world” echoes a comment on Tiger Battalion’s website: “Princeton Army ROTC embodies Princeton’s motto, ‘In the Nation’s Service, and the Service of Humanity.’”

Last May, a few hours after Princeton University’s Commencement, an ROTC commissioning ceremony was held in Nassau Hall. The University’s website reports, “Fourteen members of Princeton’s Class of 2023 became commissioned officers” in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The latter two branches comprise NROTC (Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps).

The class included the first female U.S. Marine to be commissioned from Princeton’s ROTC program, and the first woman from Princeton’s NROTC to be selected for the submarine officer program.

Penn Veterans Day NROTC event. (Courtesy of UPENN NROTC)

The website notes that the ceremony was “led by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, a Class of 1980 graduate who himself was commissioned through Princeton’s ROTC program more than 40 years ago … it was the first tri-service ceremony held at Princeton since 2019.”

Princeton’s Tiger Battalion was founded a century earlier. “Established in 1919 after World War I with the mission of graduating trained, battle-ready officers who would be able to serve their country in times of crisis, the Tiger Battalion was one of 125 ROTC units created by the War Department,” explains an article that appeared in The Daily Princetonian last January.

ROTC units at neighboring institutions have comparatively recent origins. The University of Pennsylvania’s website notes that the institution “has taught many famous military leaders including Major Samuel Nicholas, the first commandant of the Marine Corps.” However, the NROTC unit there was not created until 1940.

Rutgers University’s Black Dragon Battalion was founded in 2012; Princeton University joined the program in 2014. Rutgers’ website explains that the name is a tribute to the USS New Jersey, “the most decorated battleship in the history of the United States,” which shared the nickname of “Black Dragon.”

Master Sergeant John Kirby exchanges silver dollar salutes with Princeton Army ROTC commissioning officers. (Princeton University ROTC/ Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

Benefits of ROTC

Midshipman First Class Elisabeth O’Connell graduated from Rutgers University this year. She says that Rutgers’ Black Dragon Battalion has “challenged me to balance my academics, physical fitness, and leadership skills by creating an environment where we could make mistakes and learn from them.”

Suh, a junior at Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences, chose Penn because he “wanted to go to an educational institution where I would be challenged.” He saw potential for the school to offer a “well-rounded background, so that after my career in the Marine Corps, I could go a lot of different ways.” He chose the Marine Corps because the “big thing I was looking for was a sense of community.” He is impressed by the work ethic, high standards, and willingness to challenge one another that he sees in the Marines.

O’Connell recalls, “I learned about the ROTC Scholarship through a seminar for students applying to the [U.S.] Naval Academy during the senior year of high school. As I was already going through the process of applying to the Naval Academy (USNA), I tacked on the Navy ROTC Scholarship application as well, honestly unaware of the amazing opportunities that come with ROTC. When the USNA placed me on the waitlist and later no slot became available, I accepted my admission to Rutgers University with the ROTC program scholarship, thinking I may try to reapply and transfer to the academy.”

(Courtesy of Rutgers University ROTC)

Asked about the monetary benefit of joining ROTC programs, Suh explains that they offer a “scholarship to a four-year undergraduate program, in exchange for an obligated period of service.” He notes that the extent to which this covers a student’s expenses depends on the cost of a given institution’s tuition. But both Suh and O’Connell make clear that ROTC membership offers benefits far beyond the issue of scholarships.

“Immediately, the rigor, intensity, and motivation of the small Rutgers Navy ROTC drew me in,” O’Connell says. “I chose to continue my path to commissioning through the Rutgers Navy ROTC program primarily because of an insanely motivated and talented group of individuals around me that pushed me to be the best version of myself. With only about 60 students, combined with Princeton Navy ROTC, the program feels very intimate.”

Suh echoes O’Connell’s observation about a close connection between ROTC classmates; he likens the experience to that of playing on a sports team. “It’s a communal organization,” he explains. “A lot of ROTC upperclassmen will live together in the same house off-campus (or the same dorms if it’s a smaller college) — it’s a tight-knit community.”

He strongly believes that an ROTC program builds more well-rounded individuals than the experience of a military academy. “The academies take kids straight out of high school … and they bring them in the summer before they start college,” he says. “They’re brought right into the academy to be given Plebe Summer, which is basically a month or two of boot camp. This boot camp is run by active-duty instructors like chiefs in the Navy, gunnery sergeants in the Marine Corps, and then officers from both — and midshipmen.”

New recruits “are taught everything — from how to eat, how to sleep, how to walk — how to do everything. You break them fully down, and then you build them back up into the mold of what an academy midshipman should look like,” says Suh. The result he sees is that “academy kids are good … at the signifiers of the military—uniform, bearing [an attitude of confidence and discipline], and making their bed with perfect hospital corners.”

But he posits that moving directly from living at home to an academy setting removes the opportunity to learn essential practical life skills such as finding an apartment, “because the academy does everything for you. My philosophy is that it’s not discipline if someone has to tell you to do it — and you do it because someone is going to yell at you.”

In an ROTC program, “You can do all the same training, and get to the exact same finish point — which is commissioning into the Navy or Marine Corps — while still going to an Ivy League school, or another great institution,” Suh says, adding, “I think there’s a lot more diversity, and a lot of interesting programs you can join, if you do ROTC.”

Suh’s comments seem to echo a recollection by Milley. A September 2023 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly notes that Milley’s parents “discouraged him from applying to West Point, urging him to get a better-rounded education instead.” So, he “chose Princeton, where he majored in politics … and served in the ROTC.”

Military Excellence competition. (Courtesy of NROTC Rutgers)

“We Train to Lead”

Tiger Battalion’s website emphasizes that the “objective of the Officer Education Program at Princeton is simple: We Train to Lead.” The ROTC curricula described by O’Connell and Suh makes it clear that the battalions at Rutgers and Penn share that mission.

Asked how ROTC membership affects a student’s daily schedule, O’Connell replies, “To build camaraderie and uphold the Navy’s physical fitness standard, all of the midshipmen gather for unit physical training three times a week at 0600 [6 a.m.].” Other classes include Naval Science “twice a week; and a leadership lab for two hours on Fridays. The Naval Science classes cover an array of topics including naval history, system engineering, and military law, while the leadership labs focus on developing small unit leadership and exposing the battalion to individuals already advanced in their career.”

This generally aligns with Suh’s experiences. “We normally start around 5 or 6 in the morning, every day. Training normally ends by 10 most days. Most academic classes start at 10:15. We have a rich, full day — five hours of academics and sports is already most people’s full day at college; [for an ROTC student there is] a full day — and then you start classes! Then you have time for working out, doing homework, or extracurricular activities.”

O’Connell admits that in terms of leadership skills, “the ability to embrace change proved to be my biggest challenge. When I joined the Rutgers Navy ROTC unit my freshman year of college, I initially only focused on what needed to be done based on what was instructed.”

She continues, “As I continued in the program, gaining valuable experience holding various billets in the battalion leadership structure, I began to notice some areas in the program that we could improve. Finding a way to address the pitfalls stood as my biggest challenge, because I looked up to the midshipman leadership above me and the active-duty staff, never seeking to undermine them.”

“What helped me to overcome this challenge was a discussion in one of our Naval Science classes around the ‘Why,’” she adds. “Once I realized the power behind a leader’s cause and the importance in sharing that cause, it helped me to gain the confidence to confront areas where we could improve as a battalion and learn to accept change as a collective effort rather than an individual effort.”

Suh describes his military coursework. “We have Naval Science — where you learn about anything from the basics of the Navy (an introduction to Naval Science); to Leadership and Ethics, which is a senior and junior seminar … on what ethical leadership looks like — the standards you must uphold. We also have Leadership and Management, which is kind of like a typical business school management seminar, but through the lens of a military organization.”

Marines also take Fundamentals of Maneuver Warfare, a technical class that covers, “‘How does the ethos or philosophy of Marine Corps war fighting work?’” Suh explains. The course includes tactical decision-making role-playing games.

O’Connell brings up the crucial aspect of physical training. “Physical fitness has always been an important part of my life, but being around other individuals like myself challenged me in a new way,” she says. “Particularly, the Marine-option students in the battalion who are required to participate in extra training, such as field exercises and long hikes with weighted packs. I could not only watch my comrades push themselves to the limit, I wanted to be right there next to them.”

“I participated in all of the required training for the Marine-options, including field exercises at Fort Dix and extra physical training at Rutgers,” she adds. “The physical challenges helped me grow as a leader by exposing me to the USMC culture and develop my mental toughness.”

Suh recalls that in addition to the organized physical training, “there is an expectation that you’re also working out during a lot of your free time, to get to where the standards are.”

O’Connell points out that in addition to coursework during the school year, “Summer training also plays a large role in the midshipman timeline. Over the summer, midshipmen are given the opportunity to spend time on deployed naval ships, submarines, and with aviation squadrons to learn more about the U.S. Navy. Throughout my time as a midshipman, some of my favorite memories occurred during summer training, as it was an amazing time to ask questions, see different geographic locations where the Navy operates, and meet people with a depth of knowledge about the Navy.”

Elisabeth O’Connell at Summer Training in 2019. (Courtesy of Elisabeth O’Connell)

Commissions and Future Plans

O’Connell says that upon graduation, “Midshipmen traditionally commission into their respective field and begin their career; however, the Navy allowed me to delay my commissioning to attend a graduate program overseas. I completed a one-year Master of Arts in Government program specializing in counterterrorism and homeland security at the Lauder School of Government at Reichman University in Israel.”

She says, “In December 2023, I will be commissioning as a naval flight officer with a MA in government from Reichman University and a BA in chemistry from Rutgers University. My time in the Rutgers NROTC program provided me with numerous opportunities to better myself in every aspect, as well as work with a batch of top-notch students and military members.”

Suh says that as a Marine, when he graduates in May of 2025 and receives his commission, he will attend The Basic School for six months. “There, they take you from being a midshipman (or, a newly commissioned lieutenant) to get you to a point where, if needed, you could lead a platoon. That is the point of The Basic School, but it is also where we get our MOS (military occupational specialty),” he explains.

He says that the school metes out new officers’ initial career assignments. “You get ranked based on your performance, and you put in a wish list, basically.” Through a complicated process “they divvy it up according to the needs of the Marine Corps first, and then the wants of the lieutenants at The Basic School.” He adds, “For Navy midshipmen, they actually get their service assignments senior year. They put in a packet that, midway through the semester, they get told, ‘You’re going to be a service warfare officer,’ or ‘You’re going to train to be a SEAL, aviator, or submarine officer.’”

Suh has found it rewarding to be able to “bring underclassmen under my wing, and mentor them. On a larger scale, in a peacetime military, that is what you do. You have your people — whether they’re sailors or Marines — and your job is to train them, and eventually bring them back into the civilian world as better citizens.”

O’Connell is grateful that, because of Rutgers’ ROTC program “I emerged from the program a stronger leader, which can be credited to my classmates and Navy officers who pushed me be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

She says, “From both the physical and leadership training challenges, I will continue to carry the lessons I learned during my time in the Navy ROTC program throughout my career.”

Penn NROTC students on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Courtesy of UPENN NROTC)

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