Before Ship’s traditional commencement revelries geared up on May 7, a more intimate ceremony honored the achievements of a select group of graduates in Old Main Chapel. That morning, seventeen ROTC cadets—the largest class to graduate from SU—were commissioned as second lieutenants in the US Army. In the last thirty-five years, Ship has commissioned 550 cadets, joining the more than 500,000 second lieutenants who achieved the rank through the Army Reserves Officers’ Training Corps over the past century.
ROTC cadets make up 75 percent of leadership in the US Army, according to Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Matt Sober ’96, recently retired professor of military science. Officially launched by President Woodrow Wilson through the National Defense Act of 1916, ROTC produces the largest number of officers in the American military.
This year, ROTC, through all of its branches, celebrates 100 years of excellence. Today, there are more than 275 programs established at colleges and universities in all fifty states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Shippensburg University’s Raider Battalion joined the ranks in 1981 when then-President Anthony Ceddia established the ROTC program, and today our cadets rank among the best. In 2015, Collin Brackin ’16 was named US Army Cadet of the Year out of more than 5,300 cadets nationwide. SU’s cadets also ranked first out of forty-two colleges in the Northeast for their leadership performance in 2015.
“Our students are service-oriented. There is no question of service,” Sober said. “They want a college degree, and they want to serve.”
The need for ROTC today is the same as it was in 1916, said Dr. Joseph Hasper, ROTC enrollment manager. “The Army has a continuing need, even in peacetime, for college-educated officers. The officers who are trained through ROTC are a vital part of our country’s defense.”
But ROTC doesn’t benefit the military alone. It enhances the university community.
“ROTC adds value to everyone’s college experience—not just the cadets who enroll in the program,” Hasper said. ROTC cadets help during events like move-in day, homecoming, open houses, and orientation.
“Just having ROTC available gives students another reason to make Shippensburg their college choice.”
Best of Both Worlds
ROTC allows students to “try on the military,” Sober said. As a freshman at Ship, he enrolled in ROTC, but admitted, “I was struggling with the way the Army did things. I wasn’t sure it was for me.”
Thanks to an excellent support system, as a junior he decided he wanted to do the Army full time, and by senior year, he wanted to join a combat arms branch.
“I walked out of here on May 11, 1996, with a good paying job and adventure ahead,” Sober said. “Only ROTC does that. It gives kids opportunities.”
ROTC provided Sober with something like a large fraternity. He benefited from bonding with a group of people who shared the same goals and norms, while the Army benefited from the students’ diversity of thought, creativity, education, and culture.
Sober has a special connection to Ship’s ROTC program. He was contracted in the office where he later held the title of professor of military science—a rarity. “I did a lot of pushups and weapons assembly in this office (as a student).”
After serving in fifty-six countries and accomplishing missions such as improving security connections in Africa, keeping peace in Bosnia, and completing the first mechanized airlift in the Balkans, Sober set his sights back home. “People said I was crazy. It was a long process,” he said. “But I understand the balance of being a cadet and a student. There is something unique about Ship’s students, and I relate to it well.”
Many students at Ship in the ROTC program come from blue-collar families. Often, they are the first in their family to attend college, Sober said. He described students as competitive, service-oriented, and gritty. “It’s a different caliber of students.”
Liz Scheivert ’16 was commissioned before commencement this May as an officer in the US Army Reserves. She will work as a military police officer out of Boston. Scheivert has extended family in the military and said she felt ROTC “kind of always fit.”
“I liked the structure, I liked ROTC, and I wanted the college experience. I just knew in four years I wanted that gold bar.”
ROTC provided discipline to her college routine and helped her develop leadership skills. She said she learned critical thinking, time management, organization, and empathy. She called training “fun, but demanding” and said the program opened up endless opportunities.
“I would not be where I am today without my ROTC,” she said. “It’s fun. It can be stressful junior and senior year, but it’s worth it.”
Officer In Training
Ship’s ROTC program attracts students from a range of backgrounds, interests, and career goals, Hasper said, but “they seem to have in common a forward-thinking mindset and a willingness to lead.”
In many ways, the ROTC experience mirrors that of any college student. They follow a regular class schedule and participate in activities like athletics, student government, clubs, intramurals, and fraternities. Beyond the demands of the traditional college experience, cadets do a morning workout and take a military science class each semester with a lab. They also complete a field exercise in the fall and spring, learning fundamentals such as using a map and compass, camping, and problem solving. The summer after their junior year, they spend five weeks at Fort Knox, Kentucky, for training. Scheivert said they take pride in a cadet-run program.
“You have to be extremely self-driven,” she said. “Your time management skills have to be impeccable with school work, other activities, PT, and planning events.”
Sober explained that SU’s ROTC has six cadre, which is not enough to run everything, so the cadets take ownership of several aspects of the program. “We let them go to the edge of the cliff but don’t let them go,” he said. “We keep a cadet chain-of-command. All programs do that, but we really empower our cadets.”
Over the years, Hasper said the program put a stronger emphasis on academics in an effort to address the need for leaders who can navigate the digital age and conquer complex issues. He said they expect students to be responsible, proactive, resourceful, resilient, persistent, and adaptable. “In a nutshell, we expect them to start acting like leaders from day one.”
The increased rigor of the program is evident to Sober. Since his days as a cadet, there is a clearer focus on experiential learning and creative problem solving. “We needed to improve our curriculum. We’re looking for thinkers.”
But for those willing to rise to the challenge, that rigor is only added motivation. Brackin came to Ship because of an ROTC scholarship and made the most of his time in the program. “I wanted to do both. I was looking for something of a normal college career,” he said. “I wanted to be a successful student and ROTC gave me that framework.”
Although Brackin wasn’t initially sure what he wanted to do upon graduating, he said he challenged himself from the beginning.
“I wanted to be as competitive as possible to keep my options open.” As cadets approach commissioning, they are ranked on the Cadet Command’s Order of Merit List.
The list assesses GPA, physical training, and performance in both ROTC training and the month-long Cadet Leadership Course held in Fort Knox. The higher a cadet ranks on the merit list, the greater chance they have to get their request fulfilled for a first assignment after graduation.
An honors student, Brackin majored in English with a technical/professional communications minor. He served on Student Senate, tutored in the writing lab, and wrote for The Slate. He held a technical writing internship at Volvo CE and organized the battalion’s thirty-sixth 5K/10K run during homecoming. He also was the first SU ROTC cadet to do a Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency (CULP) mission. His dedication paid off as he topped the merit list in 2015.
“The higher you are on that list, the more freedom of choice you have,” he said. Brackin will head to Fort Rucker, Alabama, this fall to learn to fly helicopters with the Army’s aviation branch.
According to Sober, the merit list is extremely competitive. At the time of the announcement, he said of Brackin, “You probably could put him on the moon and give him the task of trying to be the top cadet, and he could figure it out. We are enormously proud of him.”
Scheivert said, “He’s still teaching me new things, and we’re both seniors.”
Brackin credits the ROTC program for providing him with unparalleled opportunities. “It kept me on a good path,” he said. “The opportunities offered by ROTC are amazing. I’ve been around the world twice and have been on a month-long leadership training. ...We’re a demanding program. It’s not a club or a hobby.”
Hasper said an experience like Brackin’s only validates what the program is about. “The training and education Shippensburg cadets receive allows them to compete on a national level, and to hold their own with cadets from any other college or ROTC program in the country.”
Cadet For a Day
For the past ten years, cadets have organized a Cadet For a Day program on campus, inviting high school students to experience a day in an ROTC cadet’s shoes—or boots. To coincide with the 100th anniversary, Hasper said the event grew bigger than any previous year. This April, nearly seventy students from thirty-three area high schools attended.
“One of my goals is that you can’t go to Shippensburg without knowing we have ROTC. We want to let people know we’re here,” he said. The program gives high school students a better understanding of the college experience and, Hasper said, alleviates some of the anxiety of starting college.
High school students shadowed cadets through a typical college day, having the opportunity
to participate in a cadet-run ROTC class and lab. Several activities also were open to the campus community, including a rock climbing wall and an air/ground tactics demonstration with the
Pennsylvania National Guard.
“The demonstration was so complex,” Sober said. Cadets orchestrated the entire drill with a Black Hawk helicopter and two Stryker combat vehicles on SU’s practice field. The demonstration allowed viewers to see how cadets communicated with each other, made decisions, and dealt with very real situations such as casualties. Sober’s hope is that the annual event shows the community why they do what they do. “We want them to know why we serve,” he said.
“We have a very supportive environment here. … It’s as simple as knowing that Shippensburg University is here, it’s a beautiful campus, and we have ROTC.”