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ROTC students prepare to jog
ROTC students in formation for jogging around campus, part of their physical training requirement. Photos by Bonnie Powell

Berkeley and the ROTC: Enrollment is climbing, and student attitudes are shifting
11 October 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - Think you can stereotype the college ROTC student? Meet Anna Elzeftawy. The UC Berkeley sophomore's nose sports a small stud, while a skinny braid dangles from her curly mop of hair. She's currently majoring in mechanical engineering, after brief flings with political science, economics and history. Her long-term career plan, however, is firm: "I want to fly and eventually be an astronaut. I think space in general is really exciting."

    Anna Elzeftawy

'My Muslim friends have started asking themselves, 'If Anna can be in the military, then what's it all about?'
—Anna Elzeftawy, sophomore

The "blind as a bat" Elzeftawy enrolled in Berkeley's Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) this fall, after she learned that the Air Force had begun accepting pilot candidates with poor vision who get corrective laser surgery. Her Egyptian parents were surprised, but they weren't nearly as shocked as her friends in the Muslim Student Association.

"They asked, 'What if they send you to Iraq?" recounts Elzeftawy, who is not Muslim. "I said that I guessed I'd have to go. But it's good they ask, because now they're wondering, 'If Anna can be in the military, then what's it all about?'"

Uncle Sam wants me
Elzeftawy is part of an enrollment surge in Berkeley's Naval, Army, and Air Force ROTC programs. (Although most people say "Rotsy," the letters should be pronounced individually.) The three units also draw students from other universities in the Bay Area — Naval ROTC serves Cal, UC Davis, Stanford, and the California Maritime Academy, while the Air Force and Army draw from almost 30 local universities and community colleges — but Berkeley students account for nearly half each program's enrollment.

Thirty-five freshmen are now enrolled in NROTC, an astonishing 75 percent increase from 2001's freshman class. Last year's Army ROTC program had only eight freshmen; 12 enrolled this fall, bringing the army's total to 48. The Air Force, meanwhile, has seen its total enrollment jump to 62 from about 45.

Even the Marine Corps program, which operates with the Navy's under NROTC, has attracted a few more good men. This year five freshmen enrolled, two of whom are Berkeley students (one of them female). "That's an extraordinary leap, considering that last year we had three people in the whole program," says Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Michael Broihier.

Broihier is also an adjunct associate professor of naval science in the College of Letters and Science; the ROTC's commanding officers, all active-duty military, are part of L&S's military sciences faculty. Any student can take the military science classes, which include military history, tactics, and specialized areas such as aerospace studies. Those who choose the ROTC track are expected to commit to the rest of the program at the end of their freshman year, although sophomores and juniors can also join under certain circumstances.

    David Turner

'It's a good deal financially. But even without the scholarship I would have done it.'
—David Turner, freshman

In addition to the military science courses, ROTC must maintain physical training requirements for running, push-ups, and sit-ups; learn drills and shine their boots properly; and spend a few summers at boot camp learning about areas of specialty by following active-duty service members. Their extracurricular training, however, is what really sets the program apart from other L&S offerings: they go on weekend training exercises in which they learn how to fire M-16s and jump out of airplanes.

On a mission
"Recruiting as well as retention are sky high this year, and some of the reason is financial," says Captain Lee Rosenberg, director of Berkeley's Military Affairs program and commanding officer of the NROTC. (He's also a Cal parent: his daughter just started nuclear engineering classes as a Berkeley freshman.) "With the bad economy, families are finding themselves with less money for college."

ROTC offers numerous scholarships. Depending on when the student enrolls, scholarships are available that cover from one to four years' worth of full tuition and fees, plus a stipend. (ROTC enrollees who are not on scholarship receive a small monthly salary for their service.) ROTC students also leave Berkeley with a guaranteed job: at the end of the program, after they graduate, they are awarded an officer's commission that requires four years of active-duty service and four years of reserve service.

For scholarship recipients, however, there's one catch; if you fail to graduate or want out of the program, you have to repay the government's generosity either through enlisted service or out of pocket. That could end up being a rather large debt, particularly for students at a private university.

"It's a good deal financially," says David Turner, a new NROTC midshipman and Berkeley freshman. "But even without the scholarship I would have done it." Like Elzeftawy, Turner hopes to be a pilot, and joining the military is still the surest path to the flight cockpit.

    Kent in classroom

Lauren Kent, the Naval ROTC program's student battalion commander, often leads classes for other midshipmen.

Berkeley senior Lauren Kent, the NROTC's battalion commander, joined the program as a freshman primarily for the scholarship, but says the leadership training she's received has been even more valuable. Selected for battalion commander based on a combination of her leadership skills, involvement in unit activities, and academic performance (she has a 3.69 GPA), Kent directs some of the classes, coordinates much of what her battalion does at drill, and leads the pack of NROTC runners in their physical training exercises.

"It's a lot of responsibility," says the diminutive Kent. "You have to know what's going on with everyone and set a good example for them. More importantly, you have to command their respect without tolerating any b.s. And ROTC has taught me how to do that."

The home front
The other reason for ROTC's increase in popularity, according to Rosenberg, is 9/11. "September 11 was very frightening for people, and many of them wanted to do something," he says. "There's greater exposure to the military and interest in ROTC now because of the major conflicts we're facing. The war on terrorism has already lasted longer than the Gulf War did. And it's not just about oil, but about preserving freedom."

    Lauren Kent

'I felt a lot of hostility last semester, but I think it was just out of ignorance. People at Berkeley don't really understand the military, and they make a lot of assumptions.'
—Lauren Kent, senior

Donning a military uniform on a campus that, over the decades, has seen many anti-war demonstrations, does present its challenges for Berkeley's ROTC students. "I felt a lot of hostility last semester, but I think it was just out of ignorance," says Kent, who admits to being glad she mostly has to wear her uniform only around Hearst Gym. "Some students really don't understand the military, and they make a lot of assumptions. They'll ask me questions, like 'Why is the U.S. doing this?' or what some news story about deployments means. But I've never had a problem with anyone talking mean to me or calling me anything absurd."

Kent's major — conservation and resource studies — tends to attract liberal students and professors, but she says that ROTC has helped balance her viewpoint. "I'd call myself a liberal moderate, I guess," she shrugs, then laughs. "I have a good friend who's sort of a hippie, and she says that I'm the first military person she's ever known that she likes."

Elzeftawy and Turner also both shrug off the negative impression most Berkeley students have of ROTC. "I was drawn to Berkeley for its liberalness," Elzeftawy says. "And that to me means tolerating all ideas. Now, I'm constantly making inroads into what people think of the military." Turner says he knew his choice might be an unpopular one but says he welcomed the task of changing people's minds.

    Mike Seltzer

'It's not about who's patriotic and who's not. I think Berkeley's very patriotic in the original sense of the word. This country is a democracy, and true patriotism is to voice your own opinion and question things, not blindly follow your leaders.'
—Mike Seltzer, Physical Sciences '02

For Mike Seltzer, who earned his bachelor's degree in physical sciences from Berkeley in May 2002, having spent four years in the AFROTC program, his decision met with a frosty reception at home as well as school. Seltzer was born in Berkeley, and both his parents attended Cal in the '60s. "It was like, 'ROTC at Berkeley, are you kidding us?'" recalls Seltzer. "Nobody on campus ever gave me the thumbs up either, but I also never got much trouble."

Seltzer neither condemns nor agrees with his detractors. "It's not about who's patriotic and who's not," he says. "I think Berkeley's very patriotic in the original sense of the word. This country is a democracy, and true patriotism is to voice your own opinion and question things, not blindly follow your leaders."

The gathering storm
Joining the ROTC in the aftermath of September 11, of course, means that students are willing to risk a lot more than scholarship money. Recent graduates like Seltzer could be at the front lines of any future conflicts, and younger cadets like Elzeftawy and Turner can't ignore the possibility, either.

"Students are made aware when they come into the service that they could be deployed," says Air Force Captain Joseph Quinn, assistant professor of aerospace studies. "We talk about that, and about current events, all the time."

Now on active duty as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, Seltzer is working with the Berkeley AFROTC program while he awaits pilot training in January. Although he has wanted to be a pilot since a child — "My mom tells me that my first words were, 'Plane takes off,'" he says — he is not eager to climb into the cockpit of an F-15 being sent into Iraqi airspace.


An armory in North Hall
Did you know that military training was once compulsory for male undergraduates at Berkeley, or that the Navy once occupied International House? Read about the history of UC Berkeley and the military.

"Combat is not a goal of mine. I realize that war is a terrible thing and I hope for world peace just like most people," he says somberly. "But I do realize it is a part of the job."

Turner agrees, reporting that the topic comes up for discussion often with fellow Berkeley students. "Look, you never want to go to war," he says. "But you can't protest everything. Sometimes you have to try and change it from the inside."

And Elzeftawy, who has defended her decision to join ROTC from Muslim friends, thinks that if she earned her wings, she might find flying in combat "exciting."

"I don't mean in a casual sense," she says. "It's not a game. But the opportunity to use my skills to accomplish something for my country makes me feel really small and really important at the same time. I mean, everyone at Berkeley says they want to change the world, but maybe I can."