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Lehigh ROTC: Forged in Fire

Thoughts of Lehigh University might conjure up many images: towering Gothic architecture, rigorous academics, the Lehigh-Lafayette Rivalry, gregarious squirrels, seemingly innumerable staircases. But the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) should also come to mind, says Major Scott Matkosky, assistant professor of military science.

“Lehigh University is one of the original three ROTC programs in the country,” Matkosky says. “So when you think Lehigh, you should think ROTC because it’s been here for a long time.”

In fact, 2019 will mark the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of ROTC at Lehigh.

 

“At the end of the day, it’s about leader development,” says Major John Abella, professor of military science. “[We teach cadets] to be good leaders, not just for the Army, but for the Nation.”

Well before the National Defense Act of 1916 established ROTC, Lehigh’s fifth president, Henry Sturgis Drinker, arranged in 1913 to send students to the first Summer Military Training Camp for Civilians in Gettysburg, Pa. Drinker, a graduate of the Class of 1871 and a strong supporter of military education, served as president of the National Reserve Corps from 1913 to 1916 and as chairman of the board of directors of the Military Training Camps Association from 1916 to 1919. In September 1919, he established an ROTC infantry unit at Lehigh.

Drinker’s daughter, historical writer Catherine Drinker Bowen, described Lehigh’s establishment of ROTC in her 1924 book, History of Lehigh University:

“Conducted on a voluntary basis during the first year, the [ROTC] unit had a membership of more than three hundred students; and the work ... was highly successful. Let us add that there is nothing more dreary and drab than a voluntary college ROTC which is not successful.”

Far from “dreary and drab,” Lehigh’s ROTC program today continues to produce effective leaders for the Army and the civilian world.

Says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Farmer ’02, a former professor of military science at Lehigh who also participated in ROTC as a Lehigh undergraduate: “The Army is looking for leaders who can solve complex problems in difficult conditions. The Lehigh student is a great person [for that].”

A Full Student Experience

ROTC produces second lieutenants for the Army outside the U.S. military academies—and provides a unique dual-sided experience for participants, who remain full-time college students.

“There’s a big difference between going to a military academy and coming to ROTC to receive your commission,” says Matkosky. “When you come to ROTC, you’re going to get that full college experience, which is a great thing and something that somebody shouldn’t miss in their life. ... The military academies aren’t for everyone, so ROTC gives an opportunity to experience college life while earning a commission in the United States Army.”

Says Abella: “[In] ROTC there is that balance [of student, soldier and athlete], and you hone in on that holistic person. I think ROTC students who can master that rigor and balance at an early age are better prepared at dealing with complexity and other life issues in the future. As coaches, role models and mentors, we help cadets navigate and integrate those college experiences.”

Lehigh is the host school for the Steel Battalion, which includes full-time students from Lehigh as well as several other Lehigh Valley colleges and universities: Alvernia College; DeSales University; Kutztown University; Lafayette College; Lehigh Carbon Community College; Moravian College; Muhlenberg College; Northampton Community College; Penn State University, Berks; and Penn State University, Lehigh Valley. Approximately 94 cadets are currently enrolled in the program.

Jordan Hall on the Mountaintop Campus serves as the program’s home. The battalion’s motto: Forged in Fire.

Although the university in 1920 made military science a required course for all first-year students, the program became voluntary in 1961. Lehigh in 1946 established an Air Force ROTC program but discontinued it in 1995 due to government budget cuts.

Today, Army ROTC at Lehigh offers different levels of participation for students, and not all require future military service. Some students take military science classes without enrolling as cadets or participating in activities outside the classroom. Any first-year student, for example, can enroll in the freshman military science course, a 50-minute “basics of the Army” class that meets once per week.

“The great thing about doing ROTC is you get a kind of basic understanding of what the military does, why they’re here, what they’re designed to do,” says Farmer, who is currently stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Students also have the option of enrolling as cadets to fully participate in the program for two years without a service obligation. Some of them choose to contract later. Others from the start enroll as contracted cadets, many of whom receive scholarships.

Regardless of how they approach the program, students do not major in ROTC. Instead, they take military science courses for elective credit and major in a field of their choosing. Whatever a student’s area of study, academics take top priority, and ROTC activities are scheduled so as to allow cadets to focus on their studies. In fact, each cadet’s cumulative GPA constitutes 40 percent of his or her total evaluation while in ROTC.

“The Army stresses the grades and the GPA aspect of their cadets,” says Second Lieutenant Ryan Hunt ’18. “If you have a good GPA, you obviously gain a lot of points and stack up well. So the Army puts a lot of emphasis on it, and as a cadet and as a program, we do as well.”

In addition to military science classes, the ROTC program includes early-morning physical fitness training (PT), leadership labs, and field training on the more than 20 acres of forest adjacent to campus, which include a ropes course, squad situational training lanes and a land navigation course. Participants also learn basic military skills such as rifle marksmanship and small-unit tactics.

“Physical training is an integral factor to our cadets’ leader development,” says Abella. “But PT is not only the physical development of the cadets. It prepares them mentally for their days, and to some degree spiritually. Physical training is there to be a cohesive medium for all of our cadets to instill discipline, teamwork and camaraderie.”

Morning PT sessions begin at 6 a.m. sharp and include running, situps and pushups. The program draws from cross-functional fitness and works to develop in cadets high levels of endurance. Tactical road marches require cadets to hike in military uniform with rucksacks containing approximately 30 to 40 pounds of equipment. Combat survival water testing covers swimming, treading water and floating in fatigues and boots, and in some cases with rifles and rucksacks. One test requires cadets to jump off the high diving board at Jacobs Pool in Taylor Gym while blindfolded, wearing fatigues and holding a rifle. Another challenges cadets to remove a vest while under water.

“The combat survival water test is a method to build confidence in one’s ability to navigate the unknown,” explains Abella. “When you do the training, much like other military training, the tacit tasks are kind of the important ones. Trusting and knowing your training is the foundation. However, the ability for cadets to overcome fear and build confidence in their skills transcends military training.”

The primary focus, however, is the development of leadership skills.

“We’re teaching them how to think and how to really assess and analyze, so that when they’re out there with their platoon in an austere environment, and it’s just them and their soldiers, [they’ll be] critical thinkers able to assess, analyze and lead whatever mission they have,” says Abella.

'The Best of All the Worlds'

Hunt received a degree in mechanical engineering and served as Cadet Battalion Commander in his final semester at Lehigh. When determining his plans after high school, he says, he knew he wanted to serve in the Army but also wanted to receive a college education and have a civilian experience. He enrolled as a contracted cadet and is now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.

“I thought that this was a great way to go to a better school that I could afford ... get a good education [and] be able to go into the Army. It was kind of the best of all the worlds,” he says.

Developing as a leader was a primary goal for Hunt, who developed a deeper appreciation for military service and the leadership skills it requires.

“Growing up, I participated a lot in athletics. I played football and baseball, and I think being in that leadership role was kind of attractive to me,” he says. “... The responsibility of being a leader that I’ve learned throughout my time here is a lot greater than I thought it was. It’s not so simple as just. ... telling people where to be and what to do. There’s a lot that goes behind it, a lot of stuff people don’t initially see.”

As Cadet Battalion Commander, Hunt got to test that knowledge. In that role, he says, he served as a leader to his peers, “which is sometimes the best challenge.”

Hunt was aware that he was no higher in rank than his peers, but he still had to lead and accomplish tasks—all without having any more experience than those he was charged to lead.

“That added an element of leadership I never experienced before,” he says.

Hunt also served as captain of Lehigh’s Ranger Challenge team in October 2017. Considered the “varsity sport” of ROTC, the high-intensity intercollegiate team event tests military skills as well as physical and team-oriented events. The Challenge is held each year at Fort Dix, N.J. Each of the approximately 43 participating schools sends its best cadets to compete.

“[Lehigh has] a long tradition of doing very well, but the last four or five years we kind of got off track, and we were finishing in the middle of the pack,” says Hunt. “... This year we were able to change our training and change our goals. We got rid of excuses … and we did really well. We took third [in 2017]. That was definitely the highlight of my ROTC experience and training.”

'You Get to Still Be a Student, Too'

Kathryn Gliot ’19 participated in theatre in high school, which she says was like a second family to her. She found something similar in ROTC at Lehigh.

“I decided not to do anything with theatre when I got to college,” she says, “[and] ROTC has kind of replaced that in my life. … It’s nice to have that family-like aspect and have these people that I can depend on, and we all have at least one thing in common, but we’re also very different.”

Gliot is majoring in international relations with minors in German and Russian. Being in the Army, she says, has always been a part of her life. Both her parents participated in ROTC.

“It definitely has helped out my family [financially],” she says. “It made it easier for my younger sister to be able to go to college as well.”

Never an athlete in high school, Gliot found the physical fitness aspect of ROTC particularly challenging at first. She worked hard, she says, and it has paid off.

“[PT] has helped me develop and become better at physical fitness things,” Gliot says. “I’m really happy with where I am right now with my physical fitness, but there’s always room for improvement.”

She’s experienced personal growth as well.

“I’m a fairly introverted person … and it’s just made me more confident in going with my gut instinct and trusting the knowledge that I have because I’ve learned so much about tactics and things like that,” she says. “It’s helped me be more comfortable with talking in front of other people, and the friendships that I’ve formed, the people that I’ve met, have helped me become a little bit more extroverted. Not completely—I’m still fairly introverted—but it has helped.”

Like Hunt, Gliot wanted the civilian student experience.

“Doing ROTC, you get to still be a student, too,” she says. “When you go to West Point, everyone there is doing Army things, and it kind of pervades into your classes and everyone knows that’s what you’re going to do. But having teachers who sometimes don’t even realize that I’m in ROTC until I have to miss a class for ROTC or something like that, it really has been nice to have two separate spheres where my teachers don’t necessarily need to know that I’m in ROTC. It is always interesting though, the things I can contribute, especially being in international relations. ... I’m taking a class on the Middle East right now, and every once in a while I’ll be like, yeah, these are the things that they teach us about this through the Army. It’s just really cool to be able to combine those things, but it’s also really cool to have them be separate.”

Well-Prepared Leaders

When Farmer was offered an opportunity to serve as a professor of military science, he jumped at the chance to return to his alma mater.

“The [Lehigh ROTC] program ... set me on the path to being successful in the Army,” he says. “I was maybe the good raw material, and they helped shape me into an Army officer and a leader. I left here ready, [and] those of us who have continued to serve continue to do well, and we’re enjoying the great start we got here at Lehigh.”

The skills ROTC provides its cadets are applicable far beyond the military as well. Hunt took a leadership course for his major, and although it was focused on business and engineering, he says, the topics were the same as those he learned in ROTC.

“I think it’s because leadership is leadership,” he says, “no matter where you are.”

Are you a Lehigh ROTC alum? We'd like to hear from you! Please email inmil@lehigh.edu or call 610-758-3275 to get in touch. 

Photos by Christa Neu and Stephanie Veto

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