Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A ROTC officer reflects

Retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington is not just any retired Army officer. He wrote one of the best memoirs of the Vietnam War, and also went to Iraq to review Army intelligence operations there early in that war, producing a  good critique of intelligence failings and warning against the abuse of prisoners. That study has ...

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Retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington is not just any retired Army officer. He wrote one of the best memoirs of the Vietnam War, and also went to Iraq to review Army intelligence operations there early in that war, producing a  good critique of intelligence failings and warning against the abuse of prisoners. That study has never been declassified because he never classified it — but he only made two copies.

There is a verve in his memories, as well as a dig at West Point. Here is his note:

In 1975, I founded a new Army ROTC Detachment at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa (immediately upon my return to the States after the fall of Saigon). I was a captain, 34 years old, and made major a year later. Three months before I set foot on the campus (which was permitted only after the anti-war faculty senate voted to allow me to open an ROTC presence, by one vote, as long as I did not bring weapons on the campus), some anti-war types threw rotten vegetables at a pair of Marine recruiters. My boss, the PMS at nearby University of Tampa, advised that I might consider not wearing my uniform while on campus, but I declined his suggestion, saying that if I couldn’t wear the uniform on the campus, we simply did not belong there. Within three months, I had 200 cadets, many of them VN War enlisted vets. These were the years of the so-called Vietnam Malaise, and anti-war winds were still blowing strongly. But the reception I got was surprising.

As soon as I hit the campus, all sorts of faculty members came out of the closet to admit that seeing the uniform was a sight for sore eyes, and offering their support. I would up teaching as a guest lecturer in classes ranging from Poly Sci to history, to sociology, even speech. And the more exposure I got, the more rapidly the new ROTC program exploded.  By the end of the year, I sent 52 cadets to the Ft. Bragg Advanced Camp, one of the three largest contingents from any school. The Bragg encampment is the six-week training all ROTC cadets get between their junior and senior years, barracks living, obstacle courses, marksmanship, field training, all of it evaluated, every day. My cadets finished in the top 5 of 103 schools at the camp, beating VMI, the Citadel, and a host of other military schools and major ROTC campuses. They told me that the cadets from full time military schools were cynical and, overall, seemed to expect that because they were from such schools, the whole thing would be a walkover. I stayed in the USF job four years. In year two, we came out second in the camp. In the third year, one of my cadets came out #1 in the camp and copped the Commandant’s Sword-the first female to ever accomplish this feat. Our school again finished second of 103. In the fourth year, we won the trophy as the top school at the camp, including VMI, Citadel, Georgia Military College, etc. Then, in a nose-to-nose competition with the #1 schools from the Ft. Riley and Ft. Lewis ROTC advanced camps, we came out on top and the school was awarded the “Warriors of the Pacific Trophy” as the best ROTC institution in the United States. The secret was, I picked smart kids, made it clear that they could not major in ROTC, that their grades were crucial, and that leadership came from those who could excel. Magic…..

(Read on)

 

When my cadets were commissioned and went on active duty, they kept in close touch with me for years. Their reports about life in the active army seldom varied. They were superlatively prepared, and astonished that lieutenants from the USMA tended to be jaded, narrowly focused, expected the Army to prostrate itself at their West Point feet, and in general, were a major disappointment to my officers, who had put the academy grads on a pedestal in their own minds, only to find out that their ROTC training had prepared them far better than the boys from the Hudson. During my thirty years of active duty, I met some fine officers from West Point, but also a number of them who were unimpressive. I once spent a week living with F Company at the USMA, during what they called ROTC Week.  Its purpose was to show us ROTC types what our academy brethren did to earn their gold bars. I found the week to be an eye-opener, and left the campus thanking God that I was a Duquesne University student in ROTC and not a prisoner in that place. (Political Science class that week featured the professor showing 8×10 photos of the cabinet and chain of command to see if the cadets could identify them) I have always believed that the Academy’s specialty was to take a first class bunch of students out of our high schools, and give them a second class education. 

By the way, my first commissionee in 1976 was 2LT Paul Celotto, who was an All-American swimmer at USF. Next week, at the invitation of the USF PMS, I am speaking at the commencement ceremony in Tampa. In the audience will be Colonel (ret) Paul Celotto, Special Ops. Paul will then join me on the stage to administer the oath to Cadet Diane Celotto, his daughter. Full circle……………….Stu”

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1