ROTC resurgent on college campuses where once scorned

War has generated interest, units say

War On Terrorism

November 18, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MADISON, Wis. - The bricks are still charred in one corner of the Red Gym at the University of Wisconsin here, burned by a bomb hurled by anti-war protesters trying to destroy the offices of the ROTC, or Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

But that was another time and another war.

Today, even on this legendarily radical campus, uniformed ROTC members drill at will and train to become military officers without fear of disdain or worse from what one student newspaper calls "the peace-mongers." ROTC units, which bore the brunt of campus opposition to the Vietnam War a generation ago, now bask in the widespread support for the military and the war in Afghanistan.

"This is one of the top liberal campuses in the country - there are a bunch of hippies out there - but since Sept. 11, we've gotten nothing but support on campus," said Alexandra Vogel, student commander of the Navy ROTC unit here. "We get thumbs-up and cars honking at us when we're in uniform."

At 21, Vogel hadn't been born in January 1970, when protesters firebombed the gym, closing it for a couple of weeks but missing their target - ROTC offices were in the southwest corner of the building rather than the southeast section that was hit.

It was one of a series of attacks on ROTC buildings on college campuses across the country as anti-war students sought to rid their schools of the military's most obvious presence. At Kent State University in Ohio, for example, it was the torching of the ROTC building that prompted officials to call in the Ohio National Guard, members of whom would open fire on protesters and kill four people in May 1970.

And in Madison, the firebombing of the gym similarly was a prelude to a deadlier event - in August of that year, protesters bombed the Army Mathematics Research Center, which they suspected of doing work for the war effort. Again, their bomb - a destructive fertilizer concoction similar to what Timothy J. McVeigh used to strike the federal building in Oklahoma City - missed its target: It killed a young physicist who was working in another section of the building, Sterling Hall, and who opposed the war and the university's support of the Army research.

The fatal bombing took much of the wind out of the peace movement's sails. Since then, Madison has mellowed - even as it retains its leftward tilt.

A coalition of peace activists has been staging events against the current war - last week, a group of them fasted to raise money for Afghan relief - but rallies and teach-ins are as likely to take or at least include a pro-war stance these days.

Support emerges in some of the unlikeliest quarters here.

"It's a very different war," said Paul Soglin, a Vietnam-era campus radical who went on to become Madison's mayor. "We are on the right side this time."

Soglin, who served 14 often colorful years as mayor, once giving Cuban President Fidel Castro the key to the city, now works as a financial planner in Madison. If there is one sure sign that he has joined the mainstream, it's this: About a half-dozen years ago, he was invited to be the featured speaker at an ROTC banquet.

"I don't know who was more shocked at the invitation, me or some of the older alumni in the room," Soglin said.

Little blame for corps

Today, the us-vs.-them attitude that separated ROTC from the rest of the Madison campus seems to have vanished. Even those who are opposed to the war don't necessarily hold the local ROTC units responsible. And, rather than being the target of campus rallies, ROTC units now are often welcomed participants.

"Here on the Madison campus, right after the Sept. 11 attacks, there were a lot of peace activities that didn't fit with my beliefs or the pulse of the campus," said Mike Duffey, 23, the organizer of a new group called Students in Support of America. "We organized a rally, we had members of the band play the national anthem, we had the ROTC unit do a color guard. It was an effort to balance the dialogue on campus."

For the ROTC members, the support is welcome though not necessarily new. In their teens and early 20s, they're a generation removed from the days when the military - and its campus representative, the ROTC - was the enemy.

"My mother was here in the 1970s when they bombed the ROTC," said Joseph Apkarian, 19, a sophomore from Grand Rapids, Mich., and a member of the Navy ROTC who plans to join the Marines. "But she's changed a lot. She loves the idea that I'm going to become a Marine. She's even run in the Marine Corps marathon."

Lobbying for return

ROTC's fortunes on college campuses rise and fall with that of the military in general. Many of the nation's elite universities, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford, kicked ROTC off their campuses in protest of the Vietnam War. Some, though, might have a change of heart: A group of Harvard alumni, including former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, is lobbying the school to bring back ROTC.

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