Follow Me: The Rise of ROTC

ROTC at Hampden Sydney

By Angus Kirk McClellan

In the summer of 1776, sixty-five Hampden-Sydney students joined the president and faculty to form a militia company to fight for Virginia's independence from Great Britain. 

Since then, the military and the College have regularly crossed paths in times of both war and peace. From the War between the States to 21st-century fights against Islamic radicals, Hampden-Sydney boys have repeatedly stood up to defend their homes and liberty. Today, students are carrying on that tradition in great numbers through the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

Ten years ago, however, there were only three or four students enrolled in the ROTC program at the College. Back then there were few ROTC- related activities on campus, few scholarships awarded, and aspiring soldiers had to commute to Longwood University for the required military science classes, company meetings, and almost all physical training (PT) exercises.

Since 1982, H-SC has commissioned 56 officers. This year 28 cadets are enrolled at the College, and many of the ROTC activities have shifted from Longwood to Hampden-Sydney through the Wilson Center for Leadership. That momentum has carried with it scholarships and leadership roles for students who want to augment their development into good men and good citizens with the discipline, skills, and values offered through the Spider Battalion.

That battalion is the six-school cadet unit based out of the University of Richmond and is drawn from about 36,000 total undergraduates. It is composed of cadets from the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, Randolph-Macon College, Longwood University, Virginia Union University, and Hampden-Sydney. This year’s cadet enrollment is expected to be about 120 students from those schools, with H-SC students constituting about 25% of the battalion.

Hampden-Sydney is attracting this comparatively high percentage of ROTC cadets in large part through the Wilson Center programs. In addition to ROTC, the Wilson Center offers The Freshman Leadership Program, The James Madison Public Service Certificate Program, and The Military Leadership and National Security Studies Program. Students can minor in Public Service and National Security Studies. Cadets are strongly encouraged to participate in all of these courses. Not all cadets are in the programs, but those who are have the opportunity to apply those theories they’ve learned in class to their ROTC positions to build and hone their leadership skills. 

Less than half of one percent of all undergraduates in the six participating colleges joins the Spider Battalion—and yet the percentage of H-SC students that joins ROTC is about eight times greater. “There is something in the water here,” said retired Lt. Col. Rucker Snead, director of the Wilson Center.

Student Army Training Corps 1918

About 60% of H-SC cadets’ PT is now held on campus. Some military science classes are now available at the Wilson Center. And most importantly, cadets have access to an unusually experienced group of leadership mentors: retired Lt. Col. Snead, Army ROTC advisor; Dr. David Marion, director of the public service program; retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, Wheat professor of leadership studies and former deputy undersecretary of defense of intelligence; Dr. John Eastby, assistant director of the public service program; Dr. James Y. Simms, director of military leadership and national security studies program; and Dr. Curtis J. Smith, director of the freshman leadership program and former director of the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville. Cadets also have access to retired Lt. Gen. Samuel V. Wilson.

This year there were 11 scholarships available for the entire Spider Battalion, and Hampden- Sydney freshmen received five of them—almost half. In the past 10 years, H-SC has produced five cadet battalion commanders, and more than $3 million from ROTC scholarships have gone toward Hampden-Sydney tuition.

Good men and good citizens typically have an especially clear understanding of their duties to their people. One need only look at the percentage of H-SC students enrolled as cadets. After graduating, this next generation will assume leadership roles in the military, in business, and in politics, much like their forefathers and to the betterment of their families and communities. Indeed, as Cicero said, “A certain place in heaven is assigned to all who have preserved, or assisted, or improved their country.”

This author had a chance to sit down with friends and roommates Jonathan Wirges ’15 and Joshua Gaskill ’15 of the Spider Battalion. The new cadet battalion commander and the battalion S-1 officer provided more insight into ROTC training and H-SC’s role in preparing them for their futures beyond The Hill.

Training Leaders and Opening Doors

Wirges was appointed to the highest position in the Spider Battalion at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. His primary duty is to properly manage his staff, which is responsible for personnel accountability, training, and other aspects of running the battalion. As S-1 staff member, Gaskill is responsible for personnel accountability—knowing where all 120 cadets are located, their physical and mental conditions, how to contact them, as well as other responsibilities.

Their training began in their freshmen year: “In terms of everyday challenges, your freshman year is really tough,” said Wirges. “Time management is really one of the biggest things that ROTC helped us with. You learn time-management skills that far surpass those of your peers. I know by the end of freshmen year, we were able to complete our workloads, get good grades, be involved in organizations, and be up at 5 a.m. every morning. That’s not easy here, but you’re not going to be successful if you won’t do it.”

Gaskill agreed. “It’s not easy for any college student to get up at 5 a.m. to do what he needs, to sacrifice weekends for FTXs [field training exercises]. It’s a huge commitment, and you have to work on your own to stay in shape, because the PT isn’t enough. Everything you do on campus, all your grades, it all goes toward your order of merit list in ROTC—your rank in ROTC. The more involved you are, the better grades you have, and the more likely you are to get the job you want.” 

Being a cadet in ROTC and participating in Wilson Center programs gives these students skills often necessary for managing other clubs and organizations. Gaskill was president of Theta Chi fraternity, where he learned how to “work a budget, how to delegate authority, how to herd cats.”

Wirges is on the Student Court and is a member of the Garnet and Grey Society and the Society of ’91, which is run out of the Office of Student Affairs. He is the general manager of the on-campus radio station and is secretary of Chi Phi fraternity. Like Gaskill, he is a member of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national honor society for recognizing and encouraging superior scholarship and leadership.

“ROTC really has taught me how leaders, in both a military and a civilian sense, should interact with people when they are in positions of authority,” said Wirges. “Too often you see people who are smart and well-meaning, but they don’t know how to interact with people. And ROTC really has taught me how to do that. It’s a no-excuses game. So it does get to a point, especially in your junior year, that you either do the work or you leave. That kind of mentality is beneficial, no matter where you go.”

For their latest training, Wirges, Gaskill, and other H-SC cadets recently returned from the Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC) at Fort Knox, Kentucky. There they were constantly rotated in and out of leadership positions during simulated combat missions, obstacle courses, land navigation courses, and other field training. Contracted ROTC cadets must attend the camp between their junior and senior years.

John Wirges at LDAC Camp

“The whole point is to give you a position that is almost not winnable—-they’re not going to give you a cakewalk, as if everything is going to go as planned,” said Wirges. “The cadre and senior leadership are very good at what they do: throwing roadblocks in your way to see how you react. It’s not so important that you make the perfectly correct decision, but rather that you’re able to adapt and make a decision. The lack of decision-making is what gets people killed. You can course-correct a bad decision; you can’t course-correct no decision. That’s ROTC in a nutshell.”

In their new leadership roles, senior H-SC cadets have set a high standard for performance both on-campus and throughout the battalion. As Wirges said, “One of the biggest challenges is to ensure there is tough and realistic training for all the cadets in the battalion. I can’t see what the University of Richmond is doing, but I need to be able to ensure that they’re doing the same tough, realistic training that we’re going to be doing here in Farmville. And I can guarantee it’s going to be done here in Farmville.”

For those who make the cut, who have the inherent abilities to make decisions, to lead by example, and to adapt to the training, ROTC becomes the door to a room full of possibilities.

“Not only will you become an officer once you commission and graduate,” said Gaskill, “but even since we’ve been here, we’ve been able to go to UVA to study Swahili. We went to Kenya [in the summer of 2013], and that wouldn’t have been possible without ROTC. You can go study law afterward—paid for—and even get the Army to pay for medical school. There’s a lot of cool things you can do in ROTC. And you can go to airborne or air assault school if you’re high enough on the order of merit list.” 

Both Gaskill and Wirges have requested assignments in the infantry, one of the most demanding occupational specialties in the Army. With their educations at Hampden-Sydney and their military training in ROTC, however, we can expect they will rise to that challenge.

As Wirges said, “This is such an important aspect of this school. There are few of us, this is true, but ROTC and H-SC go together. H-SC makes good leaders—and it makes Army officers better.”