Captain John J. Harding, a 2004 Notre Dame graduate, is a logistics officer in Kandahar, Afghanistan for the United States Air Force.

Forever Linked And Celebrated

Sept. 3, 2014

By Renee Peggs

Few topics of conversation are more polarizing than politics and religion.

A story about military presence at a Catholic university carries enormous potential for widespread alienation, or at least strongly reactive divergence of opinion. From pacifism to terrorism, history reveals a gaping chasm as the spectrum of ideologies widens.

Love thee, Father Ted.

Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., University of Notre Dame President Emeritus, diffuses hostility at the same time as he offers a profound reminder of the hope that anchors us against the storms that threaten our unity: “War, killing, abuse of power in any form is contrary to the will of God and to the image of God in each of us. The reality of the world we live in is that we need armed military forces, service men and women who understand God’s desire for the world and work to enact it.”

With grave solemnity and abiding faith, Father Hesburgh connects past to present and military to mission as he invites each of us to BE the healing power in the world: “The University of Notre Dame calls all its students to the highest moral character, to honor and promote human life, and most of all, to strive for the greatest purpose, which is peace in all the world. It is our ROTC students who have done this and continue unfailingly to do this, and for them we ought always to give thanks.”

A History Lesson

Military instruction as part of the curriculum in American colleges and universities dates back to 1819 and the founding of what is now known as Norwich College in Vermont. At Notre Dame, a company of students – with Father Sorin’s permission and support – organized under the name “Continental Cadets” as early as 1858, only 16 years after the University was founded. A second unit known as the “Washington Cadets” formed in 1859.

Toward establishing their own gravitas and earning the respect of various campus constituencies, these Cadets acquired uniforms for themselves that were replicas of the uniforms worn by George Washington’s soldiers. Imagine Everett Golson or Cam McDaniel suiting up today in gear that was retired seven decades ago, or active-duty soldiers in Georgia being given WWII-era artillery. What we can read back into the history then is that these early Cadets served primarily a ceremonial role, operating as a kind of military sports team for the University. Today’s Irish Marauders Color Guard and Drill Team are the functional descendants of the first military organizations on campus.

Many Holy Cross priests, brothers and sisters served as chaplains during the Civil War, most notably Father William Corby, who pronounced absolution for the soldiers in the Irish Brigade before the battle at Gettysburg. While most of the C.S.C.s allied with and ministered to Union troops, there were also many who served with the Confederacy. Notre Dame was extraordinarily unique in what amounted to a moral high ground compared to other universities at the time, by virtue of its unwavering commitment to respect for all human life. The divisive spirit that pervaded and even tore apart institutions like West Point was no match for the Spirit of Notre Dame.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, Congress voted to provide free land for civilian colleges that agreed to offer military instruction to their students. In 1916, this “land-grant” system of military training was transformed into the present-day Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). On the eve of our University’s centennial year, in a watershed event for which every Domer ought to give thanks, Naval ROTC was established at Notre Dame in September 1941 through a joint agreement between University President Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, C.S.C., and Admiral Chester Nimitz, U.S. Navy.

The University had passed the test of the Civil War, but the Second World War was nearly Notre Dame’s undoing. So many of her loyal sons – both faculty and students – answered the call to fight for the Allies that the University was in danger of closing. Enrollment had dropped by 1,200 between fall and spring semesters of the 1941-42 academic year, creating a precarious financial situation for the University.

In a January 1942 radio broadcast address to Admiral Nimitz, Father O’Donnell made clear that Notre Dame understood its two-fold obligation in that crucial time: “first, to cooperate fully with civil and military authorities in the prosecution of the war; and secondly, to help her students, in every manner consistent with sound practice, to complete their education before they are called to active service.” Toward meeting these obligations, the University Council agreed to adapt the academic program in such a way as to maximize Notre Dame contributions to the War while still maintaining established standards of scholastic excellence.

Coordination with the Navy then led to the establishment of campus V-7 and V-12 programs which, like ROTC, were nationally available and federally supported to develop Naval officers. For men who had already earned a baccalaureate degree, the V-12 was a four-week crash-course in officer training that culminated in immediate command assignments to the Pacific. The Navy established five V-12 “hubs” across the United States: San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and… Notre Dame.

By contrast, the V-7 program allowed men who had little or no college education to earn a degree in three years by attending classes year-round, while also working toward being commissioned as a Navy officer.

Between these two programs in all their respective locations across the United States, the Navy put about 125,000 officers into active duty service during WWII. Even with four huge metropolitan hubs running V-12s and 30 other universities offering the V-7 program, Notre Dame contributed 25,000 of the 125,000 officers who served through these programs. By 1943, enrollment at the University was again burgeoning. The U.S. Navy was the buoy that allowed Notre Dame to stay afloat.

Says Father Ted: “The Navy supported and sustained us in our hour of greatest need. We are honored to continue our support of them and their efforts as long as the need for exceptional military personnel continues to exist in this world.”

Notre Dame And Navy: Like A bridge Over Troubled Waters

“We’re their favorite,” jokes Capt. Mike Ryan, Commanding Officer and Professor of Naval Science for Notre Dame’s Navy ROTC unit. “Why else is Navy on the football schedule every year, while Army and Air Force pop in and out?”

ROTC rivalries aside, Notre Dame and the Navy have similar values and, as Capt. Ryan – himself an ’85 graduate of Navy ROTC at Notre Dame – explains, “We each hold the same things dear: honesty, integrity, excellence, skill. Transitioning from a student at ND to an officer in the U.S. Navy is almost seamless because the same standards and expectations and level of professional performance exist for both entities.

“Observing the 25 young men and women I was able to commission in May,” says a delighted Capt. Ryan, “I have never been more impressed by the quality, the character and the integrity of the officers that we are sending in to today’s armed forces. The dual acceptance process ensures that NROTC cadets at Notre Dame are not only the brightest students that the nation has to offer, but also possess a spiritual disposition to be able to fulfill the military mission.”

To those who lean more toward the side of pacifism, Capt. Ryan offers this message: “Look at what the military is involved in nowadays, even in so-called battlefield scenarios like Iraq and Afghanistan: it’s nation-building and humanitarian relief – and that is about as consistent with a premier Catholic university as you can get. Yes, there are times when you’re going to have to effect violence in order to right wrongs, but don’t you want people who are moral, well-educated and steeped in faith-based values going into battle and making those decisions?

“When you look at the tsunami in Japan, the tidal wave in Myanmar, the typhoon that blew through the Philippines – any time you have a natural disaster, anywhere in the world, the U.S. Navy is always the first organization there, even before the Red Cross. Interwoven into the fabric of those men and women who come to us is a strong desire to serve and to save human lives. That’s why we do what we do here with Naval ROTC at Notre Dame.”

What Capt. Ryan does is transform day-one college freshmen into commissioned Navy officers, ready to serve their country upon graduation. While most of the NROTC classroom work tends to be theoretical, throughout each year people like Marine Corps officers, Navy Seals, head football coach Brian Kelly and head men’s basketball coach Mike Brey give the Cadets hands-on experience or training in leadership and motivation. And then there’s the summer cruises.

Following the freshman year, cadets spend one week with each of the four Naval communities (surface, submarine, aviation and Marine Corps) in what’s referred to as CorTraMid (coordinated training for midshipmen). [Capt. Ryan again: “If there’s one thing the Navy has no shortage of, it’s acronyms. Money – we don’t have a lot of that, but acronyms? Oh my, yes!”]

During the next two summers, cadets are assigned at an enlisted status to an operational unit, in different communities each summer. By October of the senior year, cadets have requested commissioning in one of the four communities and receive their post-graduation assignments.

Notre Dame And Air Force: Into The Wild Blue (-Gray October) Yonder

Responsibility. Maturity. Leadership. These are the watch-words that Colonel Frank Rossi, professor of Aerospace Studies and Commander of Air Force ROTC, uses for the members of his Notre Dame cadet wing in developing quality leaders for the Air Force. With gateways after both the sophomore and senior years, Air Force cadets must prove themselves early and twice in order to receive an officer commission.

As the second ROTC branch on campus, established in 1948, Notre Dame Air Force at one time rivaled all the other non-Academy institutions in the States for producing officers. Roughly 25 years ago, the Air Force cadet wing at Notre Dame boasted around 225 students, but with federal budget cuts the cadet wing will hover between 60-70 this fall, including cross-town cadets at Valparaiso University, Bethel College, Trine University, Holy Cross College and IUSB.

Return on investment is a significant factor: one way to reduce strain on the national defense budget is by reducing ROTC scholarships. A Notre Dame education costs about three times what Purdue costs… doesn’t take an aerospace engineer to do this math.

“I have a recommendation,” grins Col. Rossi. His key is quality over quantity. “If we have to have a national defense – and we do – then what better place to educate its officers and leaders than here at ND? Institutions like this are a great complement to the Academy, so in an era of declining force structure and budgets we should focus on the quality that is available at places such as Notre Dame.”

This from an ’86 graduate of the Air Force Academy! But he’s in a mixed marriage: Rossi’s wife is an ND grad and was commissioned through AFROTC here.

“My four years at the Academy were the only ones where we beat Notre Dame in football every year; we had some tremendous teams during my time there,” recalls Col. Rossi. “But all four of my wife’s years at Notre Dame, the Irish football team crushed Air Force. She said they used to give away the home game tickets when ND hosted the Academy…”

As an exercise in leadership and responsibility, Col. Rossi’s cadets play host to one of the largest armed forces basketball tournaments in the country. For 28 years, men and women from every ROTC branch have come to Notre Dame around the end of January for camaraderie, competition and the honor of cutting down the nets in double elimination five-on-five full court action.

“The cadets do all the work, the whole thing,” Col. Rossi brags. “The brackets, the logistics, recruiting the different detachments, working with University personnel to reserve facilities… We had 48 teams signed up this past year, 32 men’s and 16 women’s, from as far away as Texas A&M. My cadets made it all happen. To cap things off, one of my NCOs (Sgt. Crawford), who coaches our men’s and women’s teams, led this year’s women’s team to tournament victory, the first time we’ve ever won our own tournament! The men’s team: hmmm, maybe next year…”

One of the devastating realities of ROTC is that not everyone gets a “next year.”

On April 27, 2013, U.S. Air Force Captain Reid Nishizuka, a 2005 graduate of AFROTC and the aerospace engineering program at Notre Dame, died in service to his country in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Everyone from his professors to his friends from Alumni Hall to his fellow members of Air Force ROTC Detachment 225 remembers Nishizuka as a man of character and charisma, the kind of mature leader that Col. Rossi hopes to call out of every member of his cadet wing.

Thus was established the Reid Nishizuka Mentorship Award, which will be presented annually to a graduating Notre Dame Air Force cadet.

Notre Dame And Army: Marching Onward To Victory

Army ROTC prides itself on leadership excellence. Lieutenant Colonel John Polhamus, professor of Military Science and commander of ND’s Army ROTC, can state without reservation that his cadets are “absolutely on a par with those at West Point,” which just so happens to be his alma mater. Corroboration of that claim is readily available: last year, Notre Dame Army ROTC cadets won the Order of Founders and Patriots of America award for being the best AROTC program in the country. Additionally, in two of the last three years, cadet headquarters has presented the Fightin’ Irish Battalion with The MacArthur Award, which honors the best program in each brigade.

Word must be getting out, because LTC Polhamus and his upper classmen have welcomed more than 30 new cadets to the battalion this fall, the largest freshman class in years. “We have undertaken a bold transformation in terms of curriculum, how and what we teach,” says LTC Polhamus. “Everything is focused on leadership development and critical thinking. By the time they’re seniors, the cadets are comprehensive and competent leaders within the program. I treat them like they’re lieutenants, and give them lots of responsibility.”

That spirit has long been characteristic of Army ROTC at Notre Dame, and was quintessentially demonstrated by Lt. Patrick Dixon, ’67. Amidst a series of extraordinary acts of service and sacrifice, Lt. Dixon succumbed to fatal wounds from a heavy barrage of enemy fire in Vietnam on May 28, 1969. He had distinguished himself at Notre Dame in countless ways, not least of which was graduating first in his class among more than 900 Fighting Irish cadets.

The Dixon Challenge each fall honors the memory of Lt. Dixon among AROTC cadets at Notre Dame, and with a bit of friendly inter-platoon competition, gives those cadets the opportunity to walk in his distinguished footsteps. The weeklong Dixon Challenge includes a PT test, Warrior Night, and various friendly competitions, as well as a visit from one of Lt. Dixon’s classmates to keep his memory alive.

ROTC At Notre Dame: Then, Now, Forever.

For students interested in serving their country as commissioned officers, all three ROTC commanders agree that Notre Dame is second-to-none when it comes to military preparation in conjunction with a traditional university experience. The Notre Dame family can be both grateful for and proud of the military excellence that so many women and men have woven inextricably into the history of our University.

We add our sentiments and prayers to Father Ted’s as he offers this blessing to our ROTC students today: “I am very proud of your decisions to give a significant part of your ND time and experience to becoming officers; I am very proud of the depth of your patriotism; and I am very proud of the choices you make both here and after you leave here, choices which make you true Irishmen and Irishwomen in the best sense of the Spirit of Notre Dame. God bless you always.”