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Retreat from Cities Hurts ROTC
Associated Press  |  February 23, 2007
QUEENS, N.Y. - The ROTC program at St. John's University here seems perfectly placed for an Army that's desperate for officers who are bilingual and comfortable in foreign lands. About 40 of the 120 students speak second languages, including Turkish, Korean, Mandarin, Hindi, Albanian, and Gujarati.

"I had never even heard of Gujarati until I learned I had a cadet who spoke it," says Lt. Col. Timothy Walter, who heads the program.

But instead of being hailed as a model for the Army's future, the St. John's Reserve Officer Training Corps program is a lonely outpost of diversity. In the past few decades, the Army has pulled its officer training and recruiting programs out of the Northeast and big, ethnically diverse urban centers, choosing to concentrate on campuses in the South and Midwest.

There is no Army ROTC program in the Detroit area, with its large middle-class Muslim population, and only one in Miami and Chicago. In New York City, which produced more than 500 military officers a year in the 1950s and early 1960s, the two remaining ROTC programs last year yielded 34 Army officers.

In contrast, Alabama, which has a student population that is about one-fourth the size of the state of New York, has 10 ROTC programs that last year produced 174 Army officers. The South generates about 40 percent of all Army officers, according to Pentagon statistics.

An officer's background didn't matter so much when the U.S. was focused on fighting big armies in large conventional battles. These days, though, U.S. success in places like Iraq and Afghanistan hinges on the ability of Army officers to win the trust of a suspicious and often culturally alien population. Officers must court sheiks and warlords and work closely with indigenous security forces.

At a time when the country is growing more and more diverse, the Army is struggling to build an officer corps that takes full advantage of America's multiethnic society. There are only about 1,500 Muslims in a force of about 500,000 soldiers. Arabic speakers are in critically short supply throughout the force, say senior Army officials. Even in those cities, like New York, where the Army maintains ROTC, it is undermanned and culturally out-of-synch with the people it is trying to recruit.

"We've been very shortsighted," says retired Gen. Jack Keane, who served as the Army's vice chief of staff until he retired in 2004. "We have leaders in the Army who are uncomfortable in big urban areas. They feel awkward there."

The Army's retreat from urban areas has complex roots, from antimilitary sentiment in big cities in the wake of the Vietnam War to simple economics. Urban ROTC programs have generally produced fewer cadets and are considered poorer investments than programs at large campuses in the South. Internal Army studies say the best ROTC candidates are students whose parents have served in the military and enjoy physical activity. "They may have rafted, canoed, rock climbed or sky dived," an internal Army report states. Prime candidates also have served in leadership positions at school.

ROTC, which is open to full-time college students, produces officers who are the professional and intellectual core of the Army. The program graduates about 4,000 officers a year and supplies two-thirds of the Army's officer corps. Cadets must attend classes at least twice a week and work out in the mornings three times a week. The other officers come from West Point, which produces about 900 graduates a year, and the Army's Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. ROTC graduates typically agree to serve eight years in the military after they graduate. The time can either be spent on active duty or in the reserves.

To prepare soldiers better for dealing with local populations, the Army has added language and cultural-awareness classes. At West Point, for example, cadets in the Social Sciences Department spend three days each year in Jersey City, N.J., a city of about 250,000 that includes large numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Egyptian Coptic Christians. The West Point cadets meet with local political and religious leaders. They spend the night in a mosque, meet with the Imam there and observe evening and morning prayers. During their last trip they were treated to a homemade feast from Hindu, Egyptian and Coptic Christian communities.

"The goal is to help cadets understand how a big, diverse, ethnic population works," says Maj. Stephanie Ahern, who oversees the trip.

But when it comes to recruiting officers from Jersey City, the Army has taken a pass. It closed its only two ROTC programs in Jersey City in the mid-1990s because they weren't producing many officers.

The Army's shift South began in the late 1960s at a time when anger over the war in Vietnam was prevalent on many Northeastern campuses. At some high-profile schools, like Harvard, Yale and Columbia, disagreements between the military and school administrators drove ROTC off campus. Many small Southern schools actively courted the military by setting aside new buildings for ROTC programs.

As the Army shrunk after the Cold War, it also shuttered large numbers of bases in the Northeast and relocated troops to sprawling facilities in the South and Midwest which were far from population centers and offered big training ranges. As a result, urban students today have far less exposure to the military, making them harder and more costly to recruit and retain in ROTC programs.

"We want to produce an officer corps that is fully reflective of the rich ethnicity and cultural diversity of our country," says Maj. Gen. Montague Winfield, who oversees the Army's ROTC programs nationwide. But, he says, the Army must also focus its money and personnel on areas that are likely to produce the largest number of high-quality officers at the least cost to taxpayers.

Last year, Cadet Command, which oversees training and recruitment of ROTC officers, came up 450 officers short of its goal of producing 4,500 second lieutenants. This year, the command will get about $175 million for scholarships to bring in more cadets, twice what it received in 2001. But it won't get additional officers and sergeants to expand programs to more campuses in urban markets.

"We are in a resource-constrained environment," says Gen. Winfield.

No place shows the shortcomings and the potential of urban ROTC programs better than New York. Created after World War II, ROTC was a big presence on campuses throughout New York City. The City College of New York, for example, swelled with more than 1,500 cadets in the 1950s, making it among the largest in America. Its most famous graduate is Gen. Colin Powell.

In the early 1970s, the Army began to leave the city. From 1968 to 1974, the Army closed 43 ROTC programs in the Northeast and opened 45 new programs in the South. In the early 1990s when the Army was downsizing at the end of the Cold War, it closed 70 more programs, including its remaining programs in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

For many Army officers and senior sergeants today, New York is an alien place. Master Sgt. Darrel Jolley got his papers sending him to teach at St. John's University while he was in Iraq. The official Army order listed his assignment as "Jamaica, Queens." "I thought I was going to the island of Jamaica," he says. When he found out he was going to New York, the 43-year-old sergeant says he tried to get out of the assignment. He failed.

Driving through Brooklyn and Queens Sgt. Jolley said he was initially taken aback by the clamor and the large number of people who looked as if they recently arrived from the Middle East. "There were times when I felt like I was back in Iraq. There were people dressed in those man-dresses that they wear in Iraq. The women had veils. I know I shouldn't say this, but it made me want to look for IEDs," he says, referring to improvised explosive devices.

It wasn't just the city that felt foreign. The ROTC students were also different. Many spoke with heavy accents and struggled with their English. About half of the cadets were female, a big change from Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., where he served in all-male units. Standing before his first class, Sgt. Jolley says he felt compelled to preemptively apologize for anything he might say to offend the students.

Three years into his St. John's assignment, where he teaches courses in military science, Sgt. Jolley has formed strong bonds with his cadets. Among those with whom he has formed closest ties is Yesim Yaktubay, a 20-year-old junior who attends St. John's on a ROTC scholarship.

Ms. Yaktubay, who migrated to the U.S. at age 10 from Turkey, says she was drawn to ROTC because she needed money for school and wanted to travel. Her father works as a carpenter in Queens and her mother is a homemaker. Her parents initially tried to talk her out of joining the military, and remain troubled by the Iraq war, she says. "They are from the Middle East. They have family over there and they were worried the war would spread to Turkey," she says. Her mother "kept saying I was going to get hurt or killed," Ms. Yaktubay says. Like many of the St. John's cadets, Ms. Yaktubay says she has her doubts about the wisdom of the war but "I support our troops."

As one of a handful of Muslims in the St. John's program, Ms. Yaktubay says she frequently finds herself answering Sgt. Jolley and her fellow cadets' questions about Islamic culture. The questions range from mundane queries about dietary laws to more serious ones about the role of jihad in the religion.

Ms. Yaktubay says she hopes her background growing up as an immigrant and a Muslim will make her a better officer. She plans to go into military intelligence. "I think it will help me understand people better, particularly their cultural differences and their background," she says.

Initially Ms. Yaktubay had her doubts about Sgt. Jolley, a broad-shouldered infantry soldier from western Pennsylvania. "We all expected him to be meaner and really push us," she says. Although her grades are strong, Ms. Yaktubay struggled with the Army physical-fitness test. Sgt. Jolley skipped lunch and took extra time in the evenings to help her and other recruits cut their time in the 2-mile run. "He has become like a second dad to me," she says.

Jessica Jurj came to the U.S. from Romania at age 14 and attends John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York system in Manhattan. She struggled with her grades her freshman and sophomore years because she was working as much as 50 hours a week to support herself.

Today she is one of the leaders of the Fordham ROTC program in the Bronx. Her teacher, Lt. Col. Randy Powell, who runs the program, recalls how several years ago, he took the unit he was leading to an exercise with the Bulgarian military. "I was unprepared for the level of poverty," he says. "Having Jurj on my staff would have been a huge help."

The two remaining New York City programs - at St. John's and Fordham - are both fragile. Cadets often have long commutes involving buses and trains to reach them. Ms. Jurj says she has to get up at 4 a.m. to make it from Queens to her 6 a.m. mandatory Saturday ROTC class at Fordham. On days when she sleeps late she has to pay $40 in cab fare.

Without aggressive leadership, the programs can also quickly falter. In 2000, the ROTC program at Fordham University in the Bronx was producing about five officers a year and was on the verge of being shut down. The officers, who ran the program, rarely left the Fordham campus to recruit cadets.

Today it yields about 25 officers a year. A key player in the turnaround is Maj. Mike Hoblin, a Fordham ROTC grad and native New Yorker who was assigned to the program at its low ebb. Shortly after he arrived, Maj. Hoblin began offering ROTC classes at Fordham's campus in Lincoln Center, easing the commute for students who attend colleges in Manhattan, such as Columbia and New York University. Today the Fordham program has nine cadets from NYU, up from none in 2000.

But Maj. Hoblin also looked beyond the elite campuses. He focused attention on John Jay and City College of New York, two of some 20 schools in the 200,000-student CUNY system. At the time the CUNY system was producing virtually no ROTC candidates. He started attending career days and built relationships with professors and administrators who had connections to the military. Today, about 25 percent of the 112 cadets attending the ROTC program based at Fordham are from CUNY schools.

Even as he was expanding the Fordham program, Maj. Hoblin says he was struck by the missed opportunities in New York, particularly on the immigrant-heavy CUNY campuses, where there is no ROTC presence. "I have always found that first-generation immigrants in New York City are eager to serve," he says.

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