Camouflaged in Claremont: ROTC Deserves Discussion

Two years ago, I
enrolled in my first non-CMC course, a class in the Pomona History Department.
I’m in the U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and a few weeks into that course I wore my uniform to class—I had a
ceremony immediately following. As soon as I walked in I received a few odd
looks. I chalked it up to Pomona students who had never seen a uniform on
campus before, and before I knew it, the looks dissipated. 

I participated fully without incident for the rest of the class. I had asked the professor about
wearing my uniform previously, and he had no problem with it.

A day or two later, I
received an email from the professor. He had reconsidered and felt I should
change out of my uniform before coming to class. He added that it was even
permissible for me to arrive late to class each week as long as I changed
first. I was bothered by this response, but, wanting to do well in class, I told
him that such an arrangement would be fine with me.

He offered no
explanation. Instead he changed the subject, expressing his appreciation for my
viewpoints in class. Presumably, he felt I was making others in the class
uncomfortable. Perhaps, though, he might have realized that in creating a
‘safer’ space for them, he brought discomfort and unease to my own academic experience.
If my attire made others in the class uncomfortable, I would have been happy to
discuss Army service and their feelings toward it. Instead, the entire
classroom was robbed of an important conversation, and I was left confused.

I don’t fault the
professor entirely. I shouldn’t have asked about wearing my uniform; I should
have simply worn it.

Claremont McKenna College is, at present, the only school at the Claremont Colleges that provides room and board for ROTC cadets on scholarship. Many prestigious institutions, including all the Ivy Leagues, banned ROTC after the Vietnam War and continued the ban because of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which forbade enlisted servicemen and women from expressing their homosexuality in public. Since DADT was removed, private universities in the northeast have again added the program. Yet Pomona still refuses to fully recognize the program it once hosted. The school now grants academic credit for ROTC classes, but still has a long way to go to meet the standard set by CMC. 

Stifled conversation
produces ignorance and stereotyping. Those who are
uncomfortable around ROTC cadets might view my service as an extension of what
they view as an immoral American foreign policy. Others might view war as evil
altogether. Some may even support a strong military, at least in theory, but
feel queasy having that reality thrust in their midst. All of these views are
valid, but we accomplish nothing by sweeping these concerns under the rug and choosing to pretend neither they nor my service exist.

I don’t do ROTC just for fun. The Army pays my tuition, and CMC covers
my room and board. When I graduate in May, I’ll enter the Army as an officer (I
find out my specific job in three weeks, eek!) and serve for a minimum of four
years. I’m not entering the Army for the money, and anyone who does has a very
hard go of things. ROTC cadets are in the Army to serve. Sometimes we wear
uniforms, and we spend the occasional summer at various, stiflingly hot army
bases. But fundamentally we are students, and we want to engage with our own
choices the same way other groups on campus are free to engage in their own.

My fellow ROTC cadets
and I are not foreign to criticism. There will always be the anonymous Facebook
posts expressing desires to condemn us in Collins dining hall or the dirty looks at Pitzer.
These aren’t even isolated to Claremont. My grandfather stood up and yelled, “Don’t sign on the dotted line!” when I told him of my desire to serve. This
sort of criticism is an understood aspect of military service, as is the need
to remain calm and quiet in the presence of vitriol.  

Nevertheless, I view the
liberal arts education as an opportunity for students to be challenged in a
safe and thoughtful environment. If we choose not to accept a certain level of
initial discomfort and decide not to discuss my decision to serve in the
military—or your decision not to—aren’t we cheating ourselves out of the
developmental classroom experience we desire and ultimately came here for?

I hope these words spark a much needed conversation on the value of
ROTC on campus. Let’s all cut down on the stares and internal criticisms and talk
about the American military and its connection to campus—after all, CMC wouldn’t
exist without the G.I. Bill.

I won’t speak for my fellow ROTC cadets, but I am ready to jump-start
the conversation as soon as possible. The American military isn’t perfect,
but it shouldn’t be taboo, either.

Ben Waldman CM ’15 is a government and history dual major from Brooklyn, N.Y., a.k.a. the coolest place on Earth.

Update: This article was updated Sept. 28 to note that Pomona College now grants academic credit for ROTC classes. 

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