Then: Graduating into the Real World, Armed

Editor's note: Last May, some of the 17 UNH seniors commissioned as second lieutenants in a R.O.T.C. ceremony were highlighted in a New York Times article, reprinted here. Read also an update on what the former students, now alumni, are doing.

From the second seat in the front row of the auditorium, Rachael Brown '04 rose and marched onto the podium, standing before the flags of her state and her nation. She wore the crisp olive coat and skirt of her Class A uniform, and her black flats gleamed with a spit-shine. As a captain strode across the stage and toward her, she raised her right hand to be sworn into the United States Army as a second lieutenant.

Three rows from the back of the same room, Karen Brown gazed on this most improbable spectacle. Here was the daughter she had told about her own days protesting against the Vietnam War, the daughter who had led cross-country ski trips through the White Mountains, the daughter who had made that Bulgarian cheese casserole for the international dinner in her dormitory. And that daughter was culminating four years in the R.O.T.C. program at UNH and taking up what soldiers call "the profession of arms."

After Rachael, 22, had recited the oath, Karen Brown walked to the podium. She had on sandals and a batik peasant dress, and her corn-silk hair fell straight to her shoulders. At the appointed moment, she pinned the second-lieutenant's bars on Rachael's uniform. Then she lightly patted the bars, with a tenderness that suggested she was patting her memory of a little girl she wished to protect.

Everyone else in the auditorium understood the emotions—the 17 R.O.T.C. cadets receiving their commissions, the Army officers who had trained them, the parents and siblings and friends gathered in the MUB to celebrate with them. These young men and women had entered college and R.O.T.C. in another era, a full year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; they were graduating and being commissioned into a nation fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In as little as six or seven months, after completing the officer basic course in their given specialties, some of them would be leading platoons in those lands.

If the purpose of college is to learn to think independently and to accept adult responsibility, then the R.O.T.C. cadets on this stage and the estimated 7,500 like them around the country may have been the consummate graduates in the Class of 2004. In seeking out the military, they had defied the ideological conventions of campus life and refused the privilege of the highly educated and materially comfortable to let their lessers fight and die.

These 17 had entered R.O.T.C. for different reasons. Cassandra Crosby '04 could not have afforded college without the program's scholarship. Benjamin Keating '04 had absorbed "the idea of citizenship" in his classics courses. Scott Quilty '04 and Megan McGrevey '04 embodied the second or third generation in military families. No one's path was more idiosyncratic, though, than Rachael Brown's. The child of innkeepers, of unapologetic liberals, she had sniffed out R.O.T.C. as a freshman because the athlete in her had heard its 6 a.m. workouts offered the toughest training on campus. As her interest grew deeper, the arguments with her mother began. In the fall of her junior year, Rachael not only joined R.O.T.C. formally but also signed up for the Army Reserve, aspiring to a place in the Medical Service Corps en route to becoming a doctor.

"We fought about this for years," Karen Brown recalled. "It was the fear factor more than anything. And I'm not for this war or this presidency. I constantly asked, 'Why do you want to do this?' And she would say, 'I want to do something that will help the fellows who get hurt in this war.'" She paused, then added, "Rachael has always heard a different drum."

By Rachael's own account, her decision to join the Army derived from the same idealism that makes her want to ultimately be a doctor in an underserved rural area. "I had to ask myself what I would do if the Army asked me to go to war," she said. "You can't say, 'Do I believe in the cause?' I went back and forth for a long time. But as a medical-support person, no matter what the cause is, there will be people who need care—Americans, Iraqis. This was my way of being patriotic."

The reality of service and the risk of sacrifice hovered over the commissioning ceremony. The father of one cadet, Kristen Wentz '04, is based in Iraq as a colonel, and administered her swearing-in through a teleconference hook-up from Tikrit. He told her and her comrades that, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, it was up to them to help show the world true "Army values." Two of the R.O.T.C. program's officers, Capt. Justin Chumak and Sgt. First Class David Simpson, will be deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively this summer. Of the 41 Army cadets commissioned at UNH in the previous three years, 33 have seen action in those theaters of war. Rachael Brown's best friend, a military engineer named Jen Gabler '06, has been writing to her from Afghanistan, talking mostly about the scenery and her garden, but also acknowledging, "When you get hit, you have to deal with it."

The commanding officer here, Lt. Col. Harry Prantl, himself a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, spared no sensibilities in his address at the commissioning ceremony. "Our Army is serving a nation at war," he said. "This campaign will not be short; it will require a deep and enduring commitment." Lest anyone miss the point, he added, "This is not business as usual."

Not only doves like Karen Brown fathomed the meaning of those words. If anything, the veterans in the audience realized far better than any civilian that their children were walking into the realest real world, a world of dangers infinitely beyond those of a pink slip or a broken engagement. "We have mixed feelings," said Bruce Crosby, a Navy veteran whose son Ryan '04 and daughter-in-law Cassandra were both being commissioned. "We're extremely proud. Ryan has always been patriotic. When he was a boy, everybody used to call him 'G.I. Joe.' He loves this country, with all of its faults." He drew breath. "Yet, as a father, there's always fear of him not coming back."

Mr. Crosby's wife, Suzanne, agreed. "Any parent that has a child in the military, you're totally proud and you're totally anxious," she said. "But Ryan always tells me, 'Mom, if something happens to me, know that I was doing what I loved.'"

Read also an update on what the ROTC graduates are doing

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