Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Of brass and khakis

long read

Harvard students learn military life, on land, sea, and in air

Two gray vans with smoked-glass windows and U.S. government plates idled at the curb on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. Quickly, a line of unusually well-dressed teenagers streamed into each, and the vans swiftly pulled away.

Was this the opening scene of a thriller? In a way. The teenagers are entering freshmen at Harvard and other area colleges, and they were in their opening moments of military service as midshipmen fourth class (MIDN 4/C), the entry level of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC). Ahead of them are four years of academic and military education, followed by commissions as ensigns in the Navy or second lieutenants in the Marine Corps.

Before entering those vans that late August day, the Harvard freshmen first swore an oath to serve their country. There are currently 21 Harvard undergraduates in local ROTC units, including nine with the Navy, seven with the Army, and three with the Air Force. Two students at Harvard Extension School, both seniors, are in Army ROTC.

The oath-taking ceremony had special meaning for Harvard, which had stopped formal recognition in 1970 and 1971, although its students continued to participate in ROTC through a consortium based at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston University. But last March, Harvard and the Navy signed an agreement to bring an NROTC presence back to campus, and opened the door to officer-training programs run by the other services.

The change hinged on the legal demise of the military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which the University viewed as discriminatory because it disallowed service by anyone who was openly gay.

That policy expired on Tuesday, and two NROTC offices officially opened in the Student Organization Center at Hilles in the Quadrangle off Garden Street.

“Granting openly gay and lesbian citizens the opportunity to serve the nation creates new possibilities for men and women to pursue their aspirations, to grow as leaders, and to devote themselves to the noble work of supporting and defending the Constitution,” said Harvard President Drew Faust at the opening ceremony at Hilles. “It not only affirms our shared interest in an inclusive society, but also deepens the reservoirs of talent on which the military so vitally depends.”

Those who are in ROTC, she added, “combine learning and service, thought and action to the benefit of humanity.”


Sebastian Raul Saldivar of Dallas was one of the Harvard freshmen who took the oath on Aug. 21. “I remember watching 9/11 unfold in a third-grade class,” Saldivar explained as his main inspiration to serve. “I saw innocent and helpless men and women attacked. I knew I wanted to protect. I saw so many Americans unite to help, I knew I wanted to serve.”

The terror attacks, he added, were “the first time outside of a movie theater I witnessed evil. I knew I wanted to be on the other side.”

Joseph Brennan, another Harvard freshman entering NROTC, said the discipline and dedication required by the program would help generally in life. But he offered a more basic reason for joining. “Service to my country and beyond has always been a calling for me,” said Brennan, who is from Boerne, Texas, “and joining the military was the best way I saw to heed that call.”

Saldivar and Brennan joined the other NROTC candidates for the oath ceremony. Their first lesson in military bearing — how to stand at attention — came even before the oath, which was administered by U.S. Navy Capt. Curtis R. Stevens, commander of the NROTC consortium, which also includes Boston College, Tufts University, and — for nurses only — Northeastern University. He told the gathered freshmen, “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Learning how to stand at attention began six intense days of indoctrination into the military, which would be completed before any of the freshman set foot on their new campuses.

When they arrived at MIT and broke into squads, Brennan reported to a basement classroom lined with photos of military aircraft and portraits of American naval heroes. His squad got a second glimpse of military life: paperwork. They filled out service agreements, travel voucher profiles, emergency contact sheets, and forms about medical data, drug policy, and even the locations of their tattoos. The initial barrage they faced in the Navy involved paper. “My first advice,” said one instructor to the midshipmen: “Have a pen.”

Upstairs, two hairdressers, hired for the day, were busy clipping away. Curly locks piled up on the floor, largely from the men, who soon were nearly bald. (Only one women midshipman needed a trim, just enough to keep her hair off the collar.) During any down time, the new midshipmen stood at attention reading the “gouge” book, a manual of basic Navy lore, from insignia and Navy fleet information to the chain of command and general knowledge. “Gouge” is Navy jargon for the skinny, the scoop, the final word on something — the answers to the test.

In less than two hours every new MIDN 4/C had been issued 26 pieces of gear, including “bag, duffel” and “boots, black 9-inch, steel toe.” They packed it all into big green sea bags. They changed from jackets or skirts into Navy or Marine physical training gear. Saldivar, wearing his new gold Navy T-shirt and blue running shorts, sat to try on the boots. “It’s nice to get out of that suit,” he said.


At midday, the midshipmen picked up box lunches and filed into vans for a two-hour ride to Naval Station Newport. There they would awaken at 4:30 a.m., make their beds tight in two minutes, run from place to place, and obey shouted orders from older midshipmen, including squad leader MIDN 3/C Catherine Brown ’14.

“The greatest thing about yelling,” remembered MIDN 3/C Christopher J. “CJ” Curtis ’14, “is you get to yell back.”

But the stress in Rhode Island only pushes so far, said Stevens. “This is not boot camp,” he said. “But there’s fire to it.” There’s inspiration too. Stevens, a 29-year Navy veteran who retires next year, said the indoctrination sessions are student-run, which is “the best leadership experience we get to do.”

MIDN/3C Catherine Philbin ’14, who participated in the Rhode Island “indoc” last year, said teamwork was a big lesson, along with perspective. “A lot of it is learning you won’t be perfect,” she said, “but you do your best.”

Stevens also sees the earliest weeks of midshipman service as a compressed introduction to the values that an officer embraces: “honor, courage, commitment, and discipline.”

Those values enhance and complement the college experience too, said Stevens, who spent his early career as a submariner. “They know how to behave,” he said of the midshipmen, even in little ways. Stevens remembered telling one NROTC mother that her son would learn how to iron his own shirts. “She just beamed,” he said.


At its core, becoming an officer is also about the NROTC program’s strict academic requirements: eight naval science courses, which cover history, leadership, ethics, and amphibious warfare, as well as technology, including courses on a ship’s engineering and weapons systems. NROTC midshipmen on scholarships also are required to take two semesters each of physics and calculus.

Summers are also an important part of the path to becoming officers. For entering freshman, there is the week of indoctrination. The next three summers are expansive explorations of careers in the Navy and Marine Corps. Midshipmen work and learn side-by-side with active-duty line officers.

Exploring careers is most explicit the summer before the second year of college. Midshipmen like Curtis and Philbin spend four weeks in CORTRAMID, or Career Orientation and Training for Midshipmen. Midshipmen third class (MIDN 3/C) spend a week learning about each of the Navy’s main options: surface warfare, submarines, aviation, and the Marines. “That’s the nice thing,” said Curtis, a lithe 19-year-old who is the NROTC’s fitness officer this semester. “You get to see it all.”

Think of CORTRAMID as summer camp, but complete with machine guns, attack submarines, helicopter simulators, bail-out training, swimming pools rigged with parachute drags, and a 20-minute ride in a two-seat turbojet that does steep dives and parabolic barrel rolls. “It was a beautiful day,” said Curtis of his over-the-ocean aerobatic training flight at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. “It’s cool to see the water upside down.”

Then again, aerobatics in a T34C trainer can impart up to three Gs of inertial acceleration to those in the cockpit. It makes an occupant feel leaden, and sometimes nauseous.

When Philbin went on her orientation flight this summer in San Diego, she had a plastic bag tucked into the front of her flight suit. Earlier in the day, one instructor issued a warning about what to eat beforehand. “Bananas taste as good coming up as going down,” he said.

“I lot of people got sick when they pulled Gs,” said Philbin. “But I liked it.” Aviation is not a career track she is likely to pursue — she wants the submarine service — but the CORTRAMID summer allowed her a bit of stick time on an aircraft, a stint at sea in a surface vessel, and time at nearby Camp Pendleton, where she slept under the stars, fired a grenade launcher, and kicked in the door of a suspected terrorist house, M16 in hand.

Curtis recalled, “I lost my voice the second day, and my legs were toast” from quick-marching around Pendleton’s sandy hills. He studied amphibious vehicles, hunted for weapons caches and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), learned how to extract intelligence from a captured house, and fired a variety of weapons — the M2 .50-caliber machinegun, the M4 rifle, and the belt-fed M240 machinegun. “Every week has been a blast,” he said. “Each experience is very different.”


Curtis, a San Diego native whose father is a Navy SEAL, is not saying yet what his career path will be. But he knows one thing about the Navy: “I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my life.”

During her aviation week, Philbin did more than take a head-spinning, 20-minute trip in the T34C. She learned about hypoxia — oxygen deprivation — in a gray, steel training chamber that simulates high-altitude unpressurized flight. She flew a simulated SH-60B Seahawk helicopter (“I came in a little hard, sir,” she told an officer afterward), and she spent an afternoon in water-survival training.

The highlight for her was swimming in a saltwater pool in a flight suit, helmet, and steel-toed boots. Speed was not the point; staying alive was. “No one here is Michael Phelps,” said one instructor. The secret to the survival breaststroke is treading slowly. Pull, breathe, kick, and glide as you edge through the water, head up and bulbous, like a turtle. “We take the swimming part seriously,” said Capt. R. Brad Robinson, a naval flight officer. “We do a lot of flying over water.”

Robinson, who commanded the training cycle that Philbin and Curtis were in, oversees the NROTC unit at the University of Florida.

Sampling the four main career tracks, one intense week at a time, “gives them a heads up,” said Robinson, a 28-year Navy veteran. The so-called “officer service selection” does not come until the summer before the students’ senior year, he said. But long before that, most midshipmen “know what they want to do.”


Second-year midshipmen have four weeks of lectures, adventure, physical effort, and exposure to Navy jobs. The submarine service may offer the most challenge. Less than 5 percent of Navy personnel elect to go on long deployments while gliding under the sea in a war machine that — depending on rank — offers its warriors just three to nine square feet of living space. Then there’s the sensory deprivation. “There’s one window on a submarine,” the Navy joke goes. “The window on the washing machine.”

When Curtis came aboard for a tour, the USS Hampton (SSN-767) was moored and matted with seaweed. The Hampton is one of six Los Angeles Class fast attack submarines in the San Diego-based Submarine Squadron 11. Launched in 1992, it is a sleek propulsive tubular craft that is 365 feet long, 50 feet high, and designed to hunt and kill other submarines.

In the control room, past the manhole-like hatches and the narrow ladders and interior decks, Curtis peered through the periscope at his hometown. The duty officer, Lt. Ron Hatt, explained the trim controls, ballast, and other balancing factors that make the sub handle “like an aircraft” underwater. Curtis was full of questions, about turning radius, power generation, and emergency drills, as well as the effects of currents, strong seas, and water temperature on undersea performance. “Those are good questions,” said Hatt. “You should definitely go submarines.” In answer, Curtis just smiled.

Earlier in the day, at Naval Base Point Loma, Curtis underwent “wet training” at the O’Kane Submarine Learning Center. At the bottom of a two-story cylindrical simulator, nine midshipmen at a time are put through a drill that simulates undersea disaster in the boiler room. Ten leaks spring from valves and flanges, some with enough water pressure to knock a person over. The seawater is a chilling 58 degrees, the lights suddenly go out, and students are left with just electric torches, Kevlar gloves, Adams clamps, and balls of twine. Seal the leaks or “die.”

Afterward, in dry clothes and wearing his smile again, Curtis shot hoops on a sunlit patio. With his Kevlar gloves still on, he pumped in a few jump shots and reflected on the drill. “I’ve missed cold water,” said Curtis, who grew up with the Pacific Ocean’s frigid surf. “Water is supposed to be 50 degrees.”


Now back at Harvard, Curtis and other NROTC midshipmen — two freshmen, four sophomores, two juniors, and one senior — awaken at 5 a.m. to attend military science classes at MIT. They work out one to three times a week. And every Wednesday they wear their uniforms on the Harvard and MIT campuses, barely drawing a glance from undergraduates.

With the rancor of the Vietnam era far in the past, other students are simply curious about ROTC, said Evan Roth ’12, a midshipman first class. They wonder what it is, how it works, and what it requires, he said. Eventually they get the idea that military service is a form of public service, a unique kind of civic duty — a notion, said Roth, “that sometimes gets lost at elite universities.”

Sometimes that curiosity turns to envy, said the Dunster House government concentrator. Last summer, many of his friends had jobs at big financial firms, working in offices for 12 hours a day. Meanwhile, Roth took a summer training cruise for junior officers. He flew into Hong Kong and sailed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destinations that made his friends have second thoughts about their own planned careers. “At this point,” said Roth, “they’re kind of jealous I won’t be sitting behind a desk when I graduate.”