Sunday, January 10, 2016

How Real Is Junior ROTC? View Of A Son Of Xavier Who Kept Marching On To Cold War Victory

Back in the day, the day being my childhood, youth, young adulthood and you might say prime - i.e. 1952-1992, every President had some claim to being a World War II veteran.  Granted Jimmy Carter was a cadet at Annapolis and Lyndon Johnson's claims to military glory are dubious, but they all had been in uniform during WWII.  Bill Clinton broke that chain.  Now we are at a stage where there is discussion of candidate's experience as high school cadets.  Specifically Donald Trump a graduate of the New York Military Academy and Ben Carson who rose to the rank of colonel in the Junior ROTC in Detroit.

Being a Junior ROTC "veteran" myself, I found this kind of fascinating that this could actually be a thing.  A little over a year ago, I wrote a rambling piece called "How I Accidentally Impersonated A Veteran" the gist of it was I spent a lot of time with a veteran-dominated group presided over by an older guy with serious veteran credential, whom I viewed as having strided off the pages of history.  My detailed knowledge of an obsolete weapon impressed him and me impressing him impressed the rest of the group enough to confuse them into thinking I was an actual veteran.  Of course, that detailed knowledge was the result of Junior ROTC, where in the late sixties I supervised an arms room that would have outfitted the heavy weapons platoon of a WWII rifle company.

I also have pretty vivid memories of some of the classroom instruction we received.  In particular I remember the Psychology of Leadership as being some of the best management training I ever received. Regardless, I have a lifetime fascination with history including military history, so I could not help but wonder to what extent my Junior ROTC training had any connection at all with actual soldiering.

The obvious answer was to ask an actual soldier, who had had the same training.  I did not know Scott O'Connell that well while we were attending Xavier High School together, but I had some really interesting conversations with him at a couple of our reunions.  He had come a long way for our 25th as he was stationed in Germany doing counterintelligence work.  That was in 1995.  At any rate, I figured he was the guy to ask and I found his answer pretty interesting.

Your question about JROTC's relevance to the "real army" is interesting. It also made me reflect and on reflection, I realize I have been serving this country since the Johnson administration!

I think the issue is how good the JROTC program was, and Xavier's at the time, was one of the best in the nation. Our cadre were veterans, sometimes of many wars. They may have seemed (a few at least) as kind of dense, but they were men who served in a serious way. They were old brown shoe Army. A few of the officers were more "progressive." Major Buck Wilkinson was a Green beret when they were at the height of their fame. Capt Alonzo Toal was with us only a year before he went back to RVN and was killed in action two weeks after he arrived. The NCOs were classic, a bit out of Beetle Bailey. But remember, to them we were a bunch of spoiled little kids. As you know, Major Smullen went on to full colonel and was Colin Powell's Public Affairs officer and ghost wrote his biography. He now teaches a post grad program on National Security at Syracuse.

The actual Program of Instruction (POI) was excellent and identical to what is taught in college ROTC. In fact, it was more challenging. Map reading is a crucial skill that you can't get enough of. Really! The assembly and disassembly of weapons and study of the nomenclature is the same as ROTC and the Army. But of course we were doing it with the Garand M1, which was long out of use. But the M14 and later M16 (I think we only had a few to pass around) were useful. The military theory, heritage and tactics were all real. Same as the Army. The military history course was identical to college ROTC. Overall, it was an A plus, and good slice of basic (very basic) military learning. It was enough to exempt any of us from taking the Military Science 1  course in college ROTC. I took advantage of that, and still had an edge with the other ROTC guys in sophomore year. Xavier was that good. I wound up Fordham's battalion Sergeant Major as a junior as well.

With regard to the regimental side of things: the infantry drill training that we received the first week before school and then every week at the 69th Regiment Armory was equivalent to and even superior to college ROTC and even the real Army (minus the lack of rifles - would have been cool if the 69th would have provided them). In real army units, except for the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), they only march to and from training by platoons and have big parades maybe twice a year. For that, they have a few drills the week prior, that's all. Because of Xavier I was very comfortable at running these parades and pass in reviews throughout my Army career.

Quick aside: as a Infantry Battalion staff officer in 1977, I was directed to set up the canned music for one of these rehearsals - about 3,000  troops of 5 battalions in a massive pass in review. I asked what kind of music. The major said, Lieutenant, I don't give a fuck what kind of music it is. Marching music! Guess they expected John Phillip Souza. But I have eclectic tastes in music and a large collection of military music from many nationalities. When the rehearsal went  down I asked the major how he liked the parade music as the battalions tramped by us. "Pretty good.... what the fuck is it?" "A Soldier's Song," I replied. He chomped his cigar and said, "What soldier? We're all soldiers." I looked him in the eye and said, "A Soldiers Song is the name of the Irish national anthem." Miracle I made it to Captain.

Back to Xavier: The "Mickey Mouse" stuff such as short haircuts and the  obnoxious focus on brass and shoes is more extreme than the ROTC or the army, other than real Army Basic Training (or any given day in the USMC). But it was good training and helped build character - I hated it though. I hated worrying about my spit shine and brass more than whether I had prepared myself enough for Latin class. But it is a military academy tradition such as West Point, VMI, and the Citadel put their cadets though. Although I'd say Xavier then was harsher than they are now.

The biggest difference for us: we did not LIVE there. I can tell you, until one is about four years into the military life, being away from home is the toughest thing. We got to go home every day. Although I'd say in my case riding the A train for 90 minutes in uniform through the worst neighborhoods in New York (Bed Sty, Est New York, Jamaica) was not fun. Thinking back, if we had lived at Xavier, I would have had more time to polish my shoes and work on my brass.

I missed out on the weekly infantry drill training after Freshman year.  I was in the Regimental Supply Corps, the only unit that did not march.  Our version of the school song might have been "Sons of Xavier keep counting of the inventory". Probably a better background for a public accounting career.

I had only a vague memory of the Senior Army Instructors prior to Major Smullen and was not aware that Captain Alonzo Toal was killed in action.  The other eerie thing on reflecting on our first year or two where we were learning to march and shine our brass was that Xavier's most militarily distinguished graduate Donald Cook Class of 1952 was a prisoner of the Viet Cong.  His Medal of Honor citation reads in part:
Repeatedly assuming more than his share of responsibility for their health, Colonel Cook willingly and unselfishly put the interests of his comrades before that of his own well-being and, eventually, his life. 
His biographer gives the Jesuits of Xavier some credit in forming his character.


S.W. O'Connell is a retired US Army intelligence officer who has served in a wide variety of counterintelligence assignments around the world. The Patriot Spy is the first novel in his Yankee Doodle Spies series.  You can follow Scott on Yankee Doodle Spies.

Peter J Reilly CPA, hopes to become the first tax blogger to give up his day job.  His failure to absorb the lessons in bearing and appearance imparted at Xavier High Scholl would hamper him in his career in public accounting where he would often be marked low in executive presence.

For those of you not in on it, the title is a reference to the school song.  Here is a typical performance of it.

1 comment:

  1. Stand so all the world can see!

    I cherished my time as a cadet in the Xavier regiment. Sad that all of today's Xavier students do not get to have a similar experience.

    Well done!

    Bob Scavullo SOX60