Video By Erin O’Connor and Dominick DiFurio
It’s 7 a.m. and humid on the Sun Devil Fitness Complex fields. A group of students is crawling across the ground, rubber duckies held securely in their hands.
Beyond being made of rubber, these duckies bear little similarity to their bath-bound brethren: They’re rubber models of assault rifles used by the U.S. military. The students are ASU’s Army ROTC cadets, and training with “rubber duckies” is one way they prepare to enter combat.
This is just practice now, but very soon, these cadets will be faced with the realities of being top officers in the Army, though they are often younger than their subordinates.
The ASU Battalion lost one of its graduates in combaton July 23, when 1st Lt. Jonam Russell, class of 2011, was killed while leading a patrol in Soltan Kheyl, Afghanistan.
Despite the loss of one of their own, ASU’s Army cadets are quick to affirm their commitment to the responsibilities and dangers of service.
ASU’s Army, Air Force and Navy ROTC programs serve students interested in joining — or even returning — to the armed forces after earning a four-year degree.
These programs prepare students to enter the armed forces as commissioned officers, or the top leaders within their branches, after graduation.
The Army ROTC is the largest of the three programs, with about 178 cadets.
Recruiting Operations Officer Nathan Carsey said one of the major benefits of ROTC is the scholarship opportunities, adding that 45 percent of cadets have scholarships. An ROTC scholarship covers all tuition and fees and provides $1,200 a year for books.
Cadets who receive scholarships must contract with the Army to obtain their funds. Contracted cadets are not technically in the Army, so they cannot draw military education benefits, but they do receive a tax-free stipend.
Active-duty cadets, who serve in the National Guard or Army Reserves while in ROTC, can draw military benefits, Carsey said.
He said cadets in the program commit to attending military science classes twice a week, physical training three times a week and “labs,” practical exercises of classrooms skills, once a week, in addition to their degree coursework.
The program follows a standard curriculum set by Cadet Command at Fort Knox, Ky., he said.
The program is split into basic and advanced courses. Only 28 percent of cadets continue from the first year of the basic course.
Cadets must contract with the Army before starting the advanced course in their junior year. The first year of the advanced course is intensive, and cadets rotate through different leadership positions every few weeks, Carsey said.
They attend the Leader Development and Assessment Course at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington between their junior and senior years. LDAC assesses what the cadets have learned in the past three years and is considered when cadets are ranked at the end of the program to determine where they will be placed within the Army after graduation.
Cadets are responsible for many aspects of the program, including planning and overseeing labs and physical training, by the time they reach the fourth year, Carsey said.
The leadership responsibility is built up gradually every year to ease cadets into the difficult task of leading their peers, he said.
“Just by signing up, the cadets are saying, ‘I want to do more,’” Carsey said. “Unless you were born to be General Patton, there’s no way to jump in and lead a platoon from day one. We expect you to fail, but we’re here to build you up.”
An Extension of Self
“It’s not about you. It’s about the person to your left and right,” said Olivia De Los Santos, a kinesiology junior and Army ROTC third-year cadet, repeating an Army saying.
De Los Santos fulfilled a childhood dream when she joined ASU’s Army ROTC program last year after transferring from the University of Hawaii.
She said she didn’t participate in the University of Hawaii’s ROTC program, because her parents were against it. When the kinesiology program lost funding there, she decided to make the commitment upon her transfer to ASU.
De Los Santos said she was initially surprised by the program’s rigorous standards.
Cadets are held to Army standards, though the standards for the cadets are not as intense as the ones for fully commissioned or enlisted members of the Army, she said. De Los Santos experienced those standards this summer at Fort Knox.
She was required to complete the Leader’s Training Course at Fort Knox, because she transferred into the ROTC program and missed the basic training cadets receive during their first two years. She described the experience as basic training compressed into 30 days.
The higher expectations that come with a military lifestyle have changed the way she lives her life, she said.
“You can’t be running around doing things you aren’t supposed to, because it reflects badly not only on you, but on the rest of your battalion,” De Los Santos said. “You walk taller. You stand taller. I’m proud I’m in this program. … It changes how you look at things.”
She said the responsibility that comes with training to be an Army officer becomes second nature after adjusting to the program.
De Los Santos said she hopes to be commissioned in the medical specialist branch when she receives her assignment next year. She sees a military service career as a natural extension of her predisposition to care for people.
“For me, there’s no greater art than saving the life of someone who’s saving yours,” she said.
Daniel Carr-Crawford, one of De Los Santos’s close friends and a broadcast journalism senior at USC, said that her choice to join ROTC was not surprising.
“She’s always looking to prove herself, and ROTC was one way to do that,” he said.
Carr-Crawford said he has known De Los Santos since the two were in fourth grade. Their friendship is somewhat separated from her ROTC life, but Carr-Crawford said De Los Santos did talk to him a little about ROTC when she was first making the decision to join. He said he wanted her to know exactly what she was signing up for when she joined ROTC.
De Los Santos’ selfless personality makes her a good match for the program, Carr-Crawford said, adding that he isn’t worried about her.
“It’s a perfect fit for her,” he said. “I know that she will be extremely qualified to take on whatever challenges come her way.”
A Career Soldier
History senior Daniel Vigeant joined ASU’s Army ROTC program after serving as an enlisted member of the Army for nine years. Vigeant served with the 82nd Airborne Division before a 14-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2007. His last assignment before enrolling at ASU was at Andrews Field in Maryland. He earned an associate’s degree in military history while serving.
Vigeant is an active-duty cadet and the Army ROTC battalion commander, the highest-ranked cadet position.
Becoming an officer was part of his long-term career goals in the Army, Vigeant said.
He said the ROTC training was a different experience for him coming from an aviation background because the program is infantry-based.
“I expected that I would have to relearn a lot of things, which was the case,” Vigeant said. “It was kind of like relearning the wheel for me.”
Along with developing military leadership skills, the program’s emphasis on academics makes cadets into classroom leaders, he said.
“You definitely have to want to be a leader,” he said. “The cadets come here knowing they are going to be leading.”
Vigeant said he wants to return to active duty in the aviation branch after he commissions. The dangers of active duty are a consideration for him, especially because he is married with two young children.
His wife, Cheric Vigeant, said she supported his decision to join ROTC to become a commissioned officer and receive a degree, adding that he will be the first in his family to graduate from college.
The Vigeants met in 2009 while he was stationed at Andrews Field and married in November 2010.
After Vigeant was promoted to staff sergeant, the two started talking about where he wanted to be at the end of his career and how he would get there, Cheric said.
She said he had a friend at Andrews Field who was doing the Green to Gold Scholarship Program, which allows enlisted members to become commissioned officers.
Vigeant decided he wanted to become a commissioned officer over a warrant officer, which is a more specialized position within the armed forces, and applied to the ROTC program at ASU.
Cheric said she thinks Vigeant’s prior military experience is an asset to him as cadet battalion commander, because he can understand the challenges younger cadets may face as they start their military careers.
“He has a good head to be able to relate to them,” she said.
Although Cheric has yet to experience a deployment in their marriage, she said she has already had to deal with Vigeant being gone for long stretches for some training exercises, including the LDAC.
Vigeant’s absences are difficult, but they have brought the two closer, Cheric said.
“When he comes home, it’s so much more special,” she said.
Vigeant is able to maintain a good balance between his work as a soldier and his family life, and though the profession has its dangers, the benefits, especially job security, are worth it, Cheric said.
“He’s really good at keeping work at work and home at home,” she said. “I don’t feel like he’s choosing the Army or the ROTC over me. It’s just his job.”
Building a Better Officer
Urban planning senior Logan Stone, like Vigeant, came to ASU’s Army ROTC program already a veteran.
Stone participated in Junior ROTC during high school and enlisted after graduating in 2006. He was deployed in Iraq, where he worked in the civil affairs branch to improve local opinion and infrastructure, from 2008 until 2009.
“It’s winning the hearts and minds,” he said.
Stone said he did not plan on becoming an officer when he enlisted. However, after becoming a sergeant and serving as a non-commissioned officer, he wanted to be a better officer than the ones he had, so he returned to the U.S. to earn his commission.
He started at Phoenix College in January 2010 and transferred to ASU in January 2011. His previous service allowed him to start in the advanced course after transferring.
It was strange to have younger commissioned officers giving commands while he was enlisted, Stone said.
“There’s always that stigma that because you’re young, you don’t have experience,” he said. “As a general rule of thumb, that’s right.”
Now that he’s at ASU, it can be strange to be in classes with people younger than him, he said.
Stone said his fellow cadets tend to be more mature than the average ASU student, adding that cadets have to sacrifice much of their personal lives to fully commit to the program.
As the ASU Battalion’s operations officer, Stone is responsible for overseeing all training.
He said cadets with previous service are valuable to cadets who have never been enlisted.
“I think it’s a good thing, because we can take that experience to influence the leaders we’re pushing out now,” Stone said. “They look up to us as role models.”
Serving at Home
Special education sophomore Amber Bohlman sought a different military experience when she needed a way to finance her college education.
Bohlman works full-time troubleshooting radios as a signal systems support specialist with the Arizona Army National Guard. Most positions with the Guard are part-time positions and adhere to the traditional “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” commitment. Bohlman’s full-time position requires her to work four days a week and allows her to draw full benefits.
She said her mother encouraged her to consider joining the National Guard after she received a recruitment letter in the mail. At the time, she had to decide between taking out loans to cover her college costs or forgoing college completely, she said.
Bohlman said she considered joining ROTC, but it wasn’t feasible because she needed to work full-time to better cover her expenses.
She enlisted in July 2011. Her positive experience since then encouraged her to switch from working part-time to full-time as a guardswoman this semester, she said.
Bohlman doesn’t regret her choice to start her military career as an enlisted member, she said.
“I fell in love with the enlisted side,” she said. “After my basic training, I was completely in love with it.”
Taking on responsibility for others’ safety was initially intimidating, but she now enjoys it, Bohlman said.
It does take a certain personality to be successful in the National Guard, she said.
“You have to be strong-willed, and you have to be very sure of yourself to do something like this,” she said.
Bohlman said she would like to have a long career with the National Guard and eventually lead as an enlisted officer.
“It’s probably one of the best choices I’ve ever made,” Bohlman said. “They’re very flexible, and they’re there for you.”
Sherry Durec, Bohlman’s mother, said her daughter spent a few weeks considering the different branches of the armed forces before she chose the National Guard. Durec said she encouraged Bohlman to consider the armed forces as a way to pay for school, because she thought Bohlman had the right personality for it.
“I thought that because she’s such a determined and outgoing person, the military would be a good fit for her,” Durec said.
She said Bohlman has always had a determined personality, which showed when she ran track in high school. When they moved to Arizona from Michigan six years ago, Durec said she was surprised her daughter continued to run track. She expected the heat would be too much of an obstacle, she said.
The National Guard has made Bohlman more determined and amplified her natural compassion, Durec said.
“Now when I see her, she’s got a bigger heart,” she said. “It’s made her grow up a lot.”
Durec said she was initially worried for her daughter when she joined the Guard, but Bohlman’s willingness to step up to the responsibility of being a guardswoman has helped relieve her worry.
“I think any parent should be proud to have their daughter or son serve in the military,” she said.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @amy_medeiros
Clarification: Although Nathan Carsey earned a Captain rank in his work with the Army, he is not considered a captain within the ROTC program.