Student reservists prepare for possible duty in Iraq

By Andrew Moesel

As military mobilization heightens in the Middle East, many Illinois college students in the Army Reserves and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) are preparing to fight in an increasingly likely war with Iraq.

The Illinois Army and National Guard Reserves–which officials estimate are composed of one-third to two-thirds full- or part-time students–have called up a significant number of students to support its efforts in the Gulf region. Currently, at least two students in the College have left school to serve duty, but more may follow in the near future.

“At this point, I know of two students that I have personally dealt with that have left to serve in the Army Reserves,” said Susan Art, dean of students in the College. “There may be a handful more students [that have left], but I can’t be sure.”

These two students have already left the country and were unavailable for comment.

Students are not required to alert the University of their position in the Army Reserves, making it difficult to estimate the number of participants in the organization.

Art added that there may be more students in the graduate or professional schools that have been called to active duty of which she is unaware.

The Sun-Times reported that over 20 reservists have left for military service at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and 16 students have taken similar leaves of absence at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It’s a sacrifice, but it’s well worth it,” Claudio Torres, a senior at Northern Illinois University, told the Sun-Times. “It will be a different type of education. I’ll be learning in life.”

Most universities have attempted to both academically and economically support those students serving in the military.

Often colleges allow students to place their credits on hold for an indefinite period without financial repercussions upon re-entering the college.

“Any division in the University makes all the accommodations necessary for students and tries to do it in a way that will not be economically harmful in any way,” Art said.

Governor Rod Blagojevich has also shown his support for student reservists, passing legislation that authorizes tax-return check-offs that will create a fund to help families of cadets ease their financial burden.

Many students say they joined either the Reserves or ROTC, or both, to receive the monthly stipend, which in some cases can be considerable, in order to help pay for college.

A senior participating in both the Army Reserves and ROTC can earn up to $800 a month, plus varying book and tuition expenses.

While the percentage of reservists in the College is comparable to other schools, recent participation in ROTC has dropped.

Three students entered the program last fall and two this winter, but all of these candidates have since dropped out.

Officials blame this low participation on the difficulty of commuting to training facilities, which are located at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the Illinois Institute of Chicago (IIT), for reservists and ROTC cadets.

“The University of Chicago, because of its distance away from UIC, is very hard to recruit,” said Captain Mitchell, supervisor of the southern Chicago ROTC. “We only have a couple of staff for that area that can be at certain schools at certain times, and it’s hard for students to always have to transport themselves.”

Second-year in the College William Matthew McKinstry said early morning training events at IIT can be demanding. “It’s a lot to ask of students at a school where the climate isn’t conducive to the military, in general,” said McKinstry, a psychology and human development concentrator and a member of the ROTC Air Force.

The University’s lack of participation is not consistent with the general trend, according to Mitchell, and he has even noticed a small increase in interest among potential college students.

“It’s a little similar to right after 9/11, when we experienced a slight blip in recruitment numbers,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell noted a similar “blip” directly after the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago, and believes that success in Iraq could cause another short-term rise in enlisted officers.

Unlike those military reserve programs, ROTC cadets cannot be called to service while in college. And, although ROTC has not recently intensified any of its regular training activities, cadets are increasingly aware of their responsibilities after graduation, a course that could take them far away from home.