MIT ROTC Students Train to Be Leaders In Both the Military and Civilian Worlds

The Combat Water Survival Test is a training exercise for MIT’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets that includes a three-meter blind drop, an equipment ditch, where cadets must jump in and remove all their tangled equipment before surfacing, and a 15-meter swim in a heavy uniform while holding a dummy rifle aloft.

For Raphael E. Moyer ’10, a self-proclaimed “poor swimmer,” it’s a test of confidence.

“It doesn’t sound like that far, but it’s pretty tough,” Moyer said.

When MIT was founded, all students were required to take part in military training. In 1917, MIT became the first school to have an official ROTC program administered by the Army. ROTC offers financial assistance with scholarships, but requires four years of service in the military from its students. They are called to active duty after they graduate. To date, more than 12,000 MIT students have been commissioned into the Army, Air Force, and Navy.

Compared to ROTC at other schools, MIT’s program is much smaller. Half as many schools are assigned to MIT’s ROTC as there are assigned to the Boston University ROTC program. It’s a tighter-knit community. Moyer expected a strict military environment when he decided to join ROTC. At other schools, ROTC is very hierarchical: everyone stands at attention when talking to a superior. At MIT, he said, the atmosphere is more relaxed.

“Everyone has a lot of respect for each other, but it’s not like this rigid chain of command of getting orders and getting reprimanded, which I think helps MIT foster creativity and put out some really good cadets as opposed to giving this rigid mentality that’s not really helpful.”

Nathaniel E. Keegan ’12 is one of six students in the Naval ROTC Marine Option. He says he notices a big difference between his military high school and the MIT program.

“I’m now working with really motivated people that all want to become officers. [At my high school,] we had problem kids and kids who didn’t want to be there. It’s relieving just to be around people who are really pumped up for what they’re doing and definitely have a lot of initiative.”

From math to military history

On top of their MIT workloads, ROTC students must take military science classes and participate in physical training. Freshmen and sophomores are taught to march, salute, and use a compass. They take classes in military history and customs. Junior and senior classes cover leadership, foreign relations, and how to work in squads.

Once a week, ROTC students must wear uniforms around campus. Shined shoes; short, neat hair; and wrinkle-free uniforms are just some of the guidelines for men. Women follow a similar code. They must also keep their hair above their bottom collar. They can’t wear dangling earrings.

Kristin J. Jochems, a senior from Wellesley and Air Force cadet, isn’t bothered by the stares she occasionally gets. “I have had civilians and veterans come up to me and comment how wonderful it is to see a woman in uniform.”

Of the 34 students in Air Force ROTC, Jochems is one of eight female cadets. She will be the first in her family to join the military and plans to work for the FBI or CIA one day.

She says her family was apprehensive at first. “My mom was nervous,” Jochems said. “She was convinced that I was going to end up in Iraq shooting bad guys.”

But Jochems will be serving as a Air Force Intelligence Officer, a job that will keep her away from the firefights. Her role will be to gather and analyze data, such as sounds and images, and relay them to the right people.

“The odds of me being on the ground in Iraq with a gun are very slim. Once I convinced my mother that I’m probably not going to be kicking down doors, she calmed down a little bit.”

Jochems is currently the Public Affairs Cadet Officer within the Mission Support Group of AFROTC, and has to commute to MIT from Wellesley by car two to three times a week for her leadership lab and aerospace studies class.

Just like any other Air Force cadet, Jochems spent her summer after sophomore year at Field Training, the Air Force ROTC’s version of boot camp. The training is supposed to evaluate cadets as leaders under pressure and train them for active duty. Jochems said that it was tough, but definitely worth it.

“You’re tired, and you’re sore, and you’re being yelled at. That last day of Field Training when you realize ‘I just did it, I made it through military boot camp’ is really rewarding, and I think that’s a big moment of pride for a lot of cadets.”

Careers after ROTC

For some students, ROTC is a way to realize childhood dreams.

Nathan Elowe, a Junior at Tufts and an Air Force cadet with MIT’s ROTC program has wanted to fly ever since reading “Peter Pan” as a kid. He names fighter jets like he’s giving a grocery list.

“F-16, F-15, A-10, F-22 — I want to fly a lot,” he said.

Keegan too, has been wanting to fly since forever. “One of my earliest dreams was to go to the Naval Academy, become a fighter pilot in the navy, all that fun stuff,” he said. “With any luck, both God and President Obama willing, I hope to fly F-35s. That’s a long shot in and of itself, and it all depends on what the Marine Corps needs. Whatever I end up doing, I’ll serve as best I can.”

Moyer, on the other hand, would like to stay on the ground. A double major in Courses 2 and 17 and an Army ROTC cadet, he plans on combining his MIT degree with his interest in tanks. “Mechanical Engineering gives me the mechanical background to understand how [tanks] work and political science helps me understand how they would be implemented,” he said.

Moyer enjoyed reading about military history at a young age and found a special interest in these giant vehicles that would battle along the Eastern Front of World War II. Now, his goal is to join a high tech division in Colorado, where he could be in charge of a platoon of armored vehicles.

There is downtime for the ROTC students, too. Every spring, Army, Navy and Air Force host a formal ball.

On March 6, students and their dates gathered at the Hyatt Regency for a evening of food and ceremony. After the color guard’s presentation of the colors, the assembly offered their formal toasts to the colors, the commander-in-chief, and chiefs of the specific services.

One of the tables in the room was empty, a tradition to remember those missing or captured in battle. The glasses were turned over and salt was sprinkled as a symbol of the tears shed by families for their lost sons and daughters. A single red rose in a vase signified the blood shed — the ultimate sacrifice for one’s country. For the entire dinner, the POW/MIA table remained in the center of the dining room as a solemn reminder.