ROTC students balance commitment to program, school

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Tuesday mornings, Air Force ROTC cadets rise nearly an hour before the sun for physical training. At 6 a.m. precisely, nearly 100 of them stood at parade rest, shivering slightly in their matching sweatsuits as they waited to hear what that morning’s workout would be.

Twenty minutes later, they were running laps around the field hockey field behind their home base, Wagner Building, on Penn State's University Park campus. The cadets completed their assigned workout quietly, with the occasional muttered joke or encouragement, and by 6:50 they were back in their ranks, steaming slightly in the cool air to complete their cool-down exercises.

PT ended with 10 POW/MIA pushups in remembrance of prisoners of war and those who are missing in action, and then the cadets were students once more, running home to shower, sleep and study before going about their days.

Cadet Marissa McEwen wouldn’t describe herself as a morning person, but she’s gotten used to these early starts.

“It demonstrates our commitment,” she explained, “to the Air Force, our country, and those who have served before us.”

As a junior majoring in nursing, McEwen is certainly committed — after graduation, she has four years of active service and four years in the reserve, depending on her career path. She wants to be a surgical nurse, which usually means a master's degree, but she loves ROTC and the opportunities it has given her.

McEwen received her scholarship — a confirmation of service — as an incoming freshman, and she hasn’t looked back. The program is very structured, she said, which helped her adapt to college, and she loves the opportunities that are awarded through the program to lead other cadets.

McEwen acts as the drill and ceremonies officer, working with the honor guard and training cadets to be better at drill.

Most of the cadets McEwen started with freshman year are still in the program, and they have become great friends. She met her best friend through the New Cadet Orientation Program (NCOP), and said that there is always someone older available to be a mentor. In return, her mentee has become like family to her.

“Why do people join sports teams? For the immediate family,” she said, laughing. “It’s easy. We have the same ideals and thought processes that come from practice and discipline.”

As most nursing students would agree, the curriculum and time constraints are already difficult to manage, but McEwen makes it look easy, balancing her degree, ROTC, and the other programs she participates in, such as Scabbard and Blade, a collegiate military honor society. It’s made her very proficient in time management, she said.

Time management is essential for members of the ROTC programs, as hectic schedules are the norm. Midshipman 2C Aaron Sabean, a junior majoring in statistics, is also the treasurer of the Olympic Weightlifting Club. In addition to his Navy ROTC obligations, he said that he spends most of his time running back and forth between White Building, signing official club paperwork and preparing for the upcoming trip to university nationals, which will be held in Utah this year.

“Aaron’s high caliber ideals and values are demonstrated daily in his actions,” Maj. John Fulton said. “He is an outstanding individual who strives for excellence in all aspects, whether it be as a Navy Option Midshipman or as a proactive Penn State student striving toward his academic goals.”

Navy ROTC midshipman in dress uniform

Navy ROTC Midshipman Aaron Sabean in dress uniform.

Image: Penn State

Sabean is a squad leader, meaning that at 2:30 p.m. every Thursday he is busy counting heads in the lobby of the Kern Building. In charge of 15 other midshipmen, he must ensure that all the members of his squad are on time and in place for their 3 p.m. leadership lab, which all Navy ROTC students must attend. Themes for these lab lectures vary, with topics from sexual harassment awareness to ethics. Guest speakers also make appearances; on that particular Thursday the lab hosted the return of Lt. Jason Meyer, a graduate of the Penn State Navy ROTC program who now works with the Navy’s EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) school.

The lobby was filled with khaki as all the midshipmen checked in, standing in groups or emerging from the nearby coffee shop with caffeinated drinks in hand. Lab itself is only an hour long, but it fits between full days of class and extracurricular activities for most.

“We’re really normal college students who wear uniforms every Thursday,” Sabean said, and their jobs right now are to graduate.

Like McEwen, Sabean came to Penn State with a scholarship. He knew he wanted to be in the military, and when the recruiter came to his high school, he realized he could get his education paid for and serve at the same time. Being on scholarship, Sabean and other midshipmen are sent on summer training cruises, spending one month over every summer after freshman year learning about the branches and options available to naval officers. This past summer, he spent a month on the naval base in San Diego, and he is fairly certain he’d like to go back as an officer on a surface ship.

Cadet Platoon Sergeant Derek Turner also participated in summer training, spending his month at Air Assault School at Fort Benning, Georgia. While there, he learned about helicopters in combat, but all he is sure about is that he wants to be assigned to active duty after graduation.

Turner is a junior majoring in marketing, and outside of Army ROTC keeps himself busy as a Lion Ambassador, which he said has been one of his best decisions since coming to Penn State. Sometimes it’s difficult to balance, Turner said, but it’s a commitment that he’s made and he has to make time.

Not that it’s a hardship. Turner loves both. Like the other two, he came to Penn State with a scholarship — an automatic contract — and the desire to get an education while serving his country.

“Cadet Turner is exactly what we expect in a future leader,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hanes. “His drive, determination and willingness to learn make him a great example for others to emulate in the Army ROTC program.”

As a platoon sergeant, Turner is in charge of 23 other cadets, freshmen and sophomores, and he was at the head of his platoon with a huge pad of easel paper, drawing diagrams and describing the fundamentals of fire team formation. Army labs are very different than the Navy’s version — Turner’s platoon, along with the rest of Alpha Company, spread out across the tailgating fields below Medlar Field, practicing field formation and hand signals. After the initial lesson, rubber rifles (also called “rubber ducks”) were distributed, and the platoon moved across the field in formation.

“Bang, you’re dead,” Turner called, pointing to the current leader at the center of the formation. “Who’s stepping up? Who’s taking command?”

Cadets provided their own sound effects, which meant that a riot of "bang, bang" and "pew, pew, pew" echoed across the field when Turner and one of the ROTC staff observers staged an ambush from the adjacent rise.

None of the cadets could keep from smiling at their own antics as they headed in to regroup, and Turner was among them.

“People think we’re always stone-faced, but that’s not true,” he said. “We’re normal college students, much less stereotypical than you’d think.”

Last Updated October 27, 2015