10 Years after Sept. 11 Students Are Inspired to Join ROTC
ROTC students still reflect on terrorist attacks and the role they played in their career choice
July 22, 2011
“Glory, glory, hallelujah….”
It’s the day before Commencement. Thirteen ROTC cadets march into Alumni Memorial Chapel as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays. Flanked by family and friends, each member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps reflects a deep pride.
Standing on the altar, the newly commissioned officers—seven from Loyola, six from Towson University—take an oath not to the president, not to the nation, but to the Constitution of the United States.
“This oath is an ideal and unlike any others,” Lieutenant Colonel Steven Carroll, chair of Loyola’s military science department, tells them. The soldiers taking that oath are also unlike many of their predecessors. When they enrolled at Loyola and joined ROTC in 2007, they knew they were almost certainly committing not just to serve their nation, but to serve overseas in a war zone.
“That makes them special,” Carroll said. “The kids nowadays are simply extraordinary. They’re four times more prepared than I was.”
What inspires a 17- or 18-year-old high school graduate to join ROTC during an apparently endless war? Some—but not all—grew up in military families. Carroll credits their parents, teachers, and churches—the people who touched their lives long before they considered Loyola—with helping them become natural leaders. “They arrive here 85 percent prepared,” he said. The ROTC program at Loyola closes that gap with physical and intellectual training.
Moved to Serve
When Carroll interviews high school applicants for ROTC scholarships, he asks them why they want to join the Army.
Many of them talk about Sept. 11—an event that happened when these recruits were in elementary school.
The prospective students don’t necessarily remember how they felt that day, but they recall watching how those close to them reacted. “I remember seeing my teacher crying,” they tell Carroll. “I remember seeing my mother crying. I remember my father holding my mother.’”
“They don’t remember the event,” said Captain Sarah Bennett, scholarship and enrollment officer for the Greyhound battalion. “What they do remember is the reactions of their loved ones to that event. Therein lies their motivation. You’ll see that in their eyes. They watched their colonel father weeping or just being enraged by the audacity of the event.”
And it is that audacity that draws many students to ROTC—and to a career in the Army.
“This one act of terrorism worked to the terrorists’ detriment,” Bennett said. “It was a horrible tragedy, but from a military perspective, one positive thing emerged. It brought a new generation of passionate leaders who have something tangible to practice their skills against.
“They will dedicate their lives to ensuring that doesn’t happen again.”
A Shocking Moment
Second Lieutenant Christel Sacco, ’11, was 12 years old when the Twin Towers fell. “9-11 really spurred me on and made me reevaluate everything,” said Sacco, from Bridgewater, N.J. She believes that’s true for others in her generation—and especially those at Loyola. “We have a lot of students from New York and New Jersey, so it’s close to home.”
Still, although many of the cadets speak of Sept. 11, they give other reasons behind their decision.
“I obviously feel the tragedy of that event, but I wouldn’t say that that played a huge factor in my decision to enter the military,” said Second Lieutenant Joanna Pultro, ’11, who grew up in Linthicum, Md., the daughter of a retired Marine. “I was interested in the scholarship. It’s not for everybody, but the experience that I had was so welcoming. ROTC sort of pulls you in and gives you the direction that you need.”
Second Lieutenant Eric Rajchel, ’11, who was a seventh grader in Pottsville, Pa., that day, was also already considering joining the military. “It was one of those shocking moments where it changed people, and a lot of people joined the military at that time,” he said. “Then in the beginning of May when they got Osama (bin Laden), it kind of reignited people.”
Growing up watching his father serve in the Maryland Air National Guard, Rajchel knew he wanted to become an officer and serve his country.
“You grow up knowing I want to do this. Military people are a little different. It’s not your standard run-of-the-mill, go-to-work, come-home lifestyle. I wanted to see what I can learn, and give back to the nation as well,” said Rajchel, who is on his way to Fort Bliss, Texas. His parents supported his decision to enter ROTC at Loyola. “My mom really pushed it because my dad had a lot of great opportunities in the military. I wanted to take some of those things and apply them to myself.”
Academics to Artillery
When Loyola’s ROTC program was started at Loyola in 1952, it was one of 25 experimental programs in the country. Today the battalion, which serves students from Loyola, Towson University, Goucher College, and College of Notre Dame of Maryland, is one of 274 nationwide.
As important as the cadets’ physical training is—beginning at 6 a.m. three days a week—their academic and scholarly growth is also essential, especially since graduating students are commissioned as officers.
“I think many of the professors don’t realize the influence they have on future decisions on the battlefield,” said Carroll, who keeps close tabs on the students to ensure they are also succeeding in the classroom. “I tell the parents, nobody cares about your kids like I do. I care about their grades, their conduct on and off campus, their character, their physical health, their mental health. I care about everything.”
Sacco’s parents watched with pride as she set her sights on a career in military intelligence, choosing a political science major, studying abroad in Florence, Italy, and picking courses related to strategic intelligence, democracy, and diplomacy.
“She has matured a great deal. Her mental discipline is just amazing,” said her mother, Patty. “It definitely has had its very highs and its very lows, and those have been times that have been challenging for her and for us as parents. She knew it was not going to be easy, but she was mentally and physically prepared for it.”
Patty and Joe Sacco especially admired the cadre overseeing their daughter’s ROTC experience. Each of the veterans has at least two tours of a year or more in combat.
A field artilleryman who has taught economics at West Point, Carroll came to Loyola two years ago after returning from the Middle East. He and his wife, Lora, who also served in the Army, have both served overseas—including a six-month overlap when she was in Afghanistan and he was in Iraq and his mother-in-law cared for their three children. Bennett is a single mother who has been deployed twice, including one tour of duty after her son was born. She came to Loyola after 13 months serving on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.
“It’s the best and the worst time of your career,” she said. “Your family suffers when you’re gone, but it’s what you’ve trained for your whole career.”
With more than 90 cadets, ROTC is one of the largest student organizations on campus. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the students wear their uniforms as they go to classes and participate in daily student life. In recent years at Commencement, the longest applause has been given when the newly commissioned ROTC cadets are introduced. But as the cadets bond as a unit, thriving in a military culture that is starkly different from the typical college experience, they also stand apart from the rest of the community.
“I guess the common perception is that we don’t really fit in here,” Sacco said. But she sees no contradiction in having an ROTC unit based on a Jesuit, Catholic campus. “St. Ignatius was a soldier. A lot of people don’t put two and two together.”
At the commissioning ceremony this spring, as their proud parents watched, Rev. Brian Linnane, S.J., president of the University, spoke to the new officers. Other students benefit from seeing the cadets’ commitment, he said, as a reminder of “the importance of vocation and of sacrifice and of doing something for a larger cause.”
“At universities [ROTC cadets] encounter ideas and ways of life they may not particularly like, but yet today they have committed to protect and defend those ideas,” he said. “This is really a very extraordinary commitment, an extraordinary faith.”
That faith carries the soldiers from the Greyhound battalion forward.
“If you think about it, the goal of war is peace,” Sacco said. “I joined the military to bring peace to the nations we’re at war with, to bring justice and legitimacy to the people who are there now. If I can be a part of helping that, then I’m 100 percent OK with that.”
Carroll, who enlisted in the peacetime of 1993, puts it simply: “It is the soldier who above all desires peace.”