At 9:30 a.m. the temperature read 28 degrees. The cadet I was speaking with apologized for shivering so much that his speech slurred. “You get used to it,” he said. I’m from Illinois and know that someone doesn’t simply get used to standing in the cold for two hours while they simulate strategic military attack scenarios — but for members of ROTC’s Ranger Challenge team, it’s just what they do.
I met Captain William McKinnon, dressed in uniform, at Wheaton’s football field on Saturday morning to observe Ranger Challenge training.
Two girls got out of the van prepped to go back out on the field slightly warmer. One asked, “Do we have any casualties in this one?” By “casualties” she meant the op-for, or oppositional force, will strap on what looks like cross slices of a bloody Halloween dummy to fake injuries. In this particular case, a grenade caused the injury: the two girls threw the grenade in the middle of the opposing force’s troops before running to treat them, deliver them safely to the helicopter launch pad and call for evacuation. The man holding an amputated leg reminiscent of “A Christmas Story” twitched on the ground. “Op-for has fun with it,” McKinnon said.
Ranger Challenge is the varsity sport of ROTC in which partners compete to display infantry skills such as tactical combat care first aid, throwing hand grenades and setting up helicopter landing zones. One cadet bent down and lifted a member of op-for on her back — fireman style — before carrying him across the entire football field.
The girls’ voices came in over the radio: “Line bravo, line thunderbird, line Charlie.” It’s like calling 911 in the army. “There’s no way the one with the amputated leg is a Charlie, he’s at least an alpha or maybe a bravo,” another cadet told Captain McKinnon. Alpha — in need of urgent care, bravo — urgent surgical. Our amputee wouldn’t last the 6 hours for a Charlie evac to arrive.
At the end of the lane — the term for the different missions they simulate — McKinnon always asked his troops what they could have done better. I watched the lane director mentally play back the lane, problem solving. “Cold slowed us down,” he noted, “so I should have run two groups at once.” They get a “good ranger” at the end, regardless.
Cadet First, Student Second
Later in the day, I met back up with McKinnon, now dressed in a black jacket and low-key civilian garb, and Abby Burgdorf, a senior on ROTC who was the previous Ranger Challenge captain. The new setting was jarring: deciding between coffee or tea seemed to involve lower stakes than the competition this morning. There’s a saying in the program: “4.0’s get active duty,” which means scholastics are a consideration in how well they branch after graduation. They make it look easy to be both a full-time Wheaton student and a full-time member of a government organization.
ROTC isn’t their exclusive focus; both McKinnon and Burgdorf have maintained friends outside of the cadet realm. McKinnon participated in Improv during his freshman and sophomore years, which he describes as quite “a hoot.” Burgdorf has a circle of non-ROTC friends, whom she loves to host for meals. According to senior Sarah Runey, a friend of Burgdorf’s and a fellow ROTC member who joined us for part of the interview, Burgdorf’s vegetables have “an artistic blending of skill and intuition.”
Wheaton is unique in this way. Even Burgdorf, a self-proclaimed tomboy who knew she wanted to join the military since almost out of the womb, chose Wheaton over West Point where cadets are immersed in the military world 24/7. “They’re a little socially stagnant,” she joked, and said Wheaton is a “more balanced way of getting that officer commission and a college degree. There’s just a little bit more breadth of perspective and types of people you’re interacting with.”
Even so, their experience is distinct from the typical Wheaton experience. Unlike many graduating seniors who are bombarded by relatives wondering what we’re going to do with that degree, or passing an afternoon perfecting the LinkedIn head shot, ROTC members know what they will be doing when they graduate. Each member of ROTC will be a second lieutenant and branch into a different field within the military decided by a combination of their GPA, evaluations and preferences. For a little context, those in the army fall into two categories, either enlisted or officers. They will be on the bottom of the officer spectrum, but slotted for leadership positions for the rest of their career. Therefore, the entirety of the ROTC program — from their Thursday leadership labs to their Ranger Challenge medical evac time — is focused on making the cadets the best officers possible.
If you’re like me, the presence of ROTC crosses your mind primarily on Thursdays when they dress in full uniform. This practice serves a multi-faceted purpose for ROTC members. For one, it is practiced on a smaller scale for what life beyond Wheaton will look like. “We wear it because it’s what we do,” McKinnon said.
He went on to explain the mindset behind the army’s use of uniforms. In part, it takes away the sense of individualism and fosters camaraderie between cadets, a physical manifestation of their mutual goals. But more than that, the uniform represents responsibility and integrity; cadets call each other out when the uniform isn’t being worn completely correctly. I saw McKinnon quietly point out his teammate’s off-kilter velcro at practice. It may seem to be a small thing, but the implication is profound for McKinnon and the cadets. He explained that “If you’re not able to rely on someone to hold up the … smaller, more detailed things, if you can’t rely on somebody to check what they’re wearing and wear it correctly, then how are you going to trust them in the bigger things, to have your back, to give up their individualism, to sacrifice for the team.”
Wearing the uniform isn’t just an act of camaraderie. Putting on the camouflage tangibly affects the way ROTC members see themselves as part of the Wheaton community, in the way they speak, act, and train, both physically and academically. What you wear is a sign of who you are becoming. For ROTC, it’s a reminder to both them and outsiders that they are cadets first and Wheaton students second.
A Testimony of Faith
This school-ROTC balancing act has been a crucial learning experience for each ROTC member, especially when it comes to matters of faith. There are certain freedoms they give up to join a government organization, specifically regarding expression of faith.
While they’re still able to maintain a personal faith, it cannot take on the form of “proselytizing” said Runey. There’s a term for initiating faith-based conversations once you are in action: “initiating with a subordinate.” As McKinnon explained it, “I’m not able to use that position for ministry means, so I can’t go up to soldier A and you know ‘Soldier, you should come to church with me on Sunday’ because that’s pressuring from a superior.’”
Even here on campus, their battalion includes students from outside schools which are not necessarily Christian, Burgolf said. ROTC members from other schools attend classes at Wheaton, and it would be inappropriate to initiate evangelism, at least verbally, with these peers. Both McKinnon and Burgdorf mentioned how they walk this line between faithful Christianity and professional government employee.
Instead, being a Christian means being faithful in the small things. Army culture emphasizes integrity, but Burgdorf explained that small behavioral differences are the way that Christians really stand out among their peers, “The army is a huge cussing culture … so you’ll get people asking you, ‘Why don’t you cuss?’” Burgdorf said. That initial question became a means through which she could explain her faith.
Self-Sacrifice Among ROTC
Self-sacrifice in leadership was probably the biggest theme Burgdorf and McKinnon traced throughout their time in the program. The job description for officers was learning to make decisions under pressure and nothing prepares the cadets for this challenge better than the tactical decisions made in Ranger Challenge. While they may not have to practice the tangible infantry skills after school, such as bandaging wounds or carrying a litter, they are simulating situations which they may have to direct and oversee in their careers.
Both continually referred to the camaraderie as a motivator in these seemingly impossible moments. Burgdorf says Ranger Challenge day starts at five when they go for a seven mile ruck — or run — in 20-35 lbs of gear. “Our freshman year, we covered a marathon…on Saturday alone,” she casually added. Burgdorf was glad to have teammates who helped reorient her in these moments. To illustrate, she turned to Runey, “I got a best friend out of it!”
McKinnon related the self-avowing culture of the army to Luke 9:23 where Jesus talks about picking up your cross daily: “That’s kind of the culture you have to take because that’s what we do.”
Representation to Outsiders
For ROTC members, wearing the uniform means representing Christianity as cadets. This may even include the way they dialogue with professors and students on campus about their own vocational path.
While curious outsiders are rarely, if ever, aggressive in expressing their beliefs towards ROTC members, many ask McKinnon why he’s planning to go into military service. He wanted to clarify that his reasons are not the same as every cadet, as some are joining the military due to family tradition or the scholarship, which he acknowledges as perfectly legitimate reasons. McKinnon is motivated to be the best officer he can be because he sees it as ministry. He’s wrestled with what it means to be a Christian and pursue a profession which requires violent acts.
Through study of scripture, he has come to believe that killing somebody for selfish reasons is the antithesis to love and he questions whether or not you can kill someone as a non-selfish act. Fundamentally, he’s come to think that he can love somebody even if that means ultimately having to kill. “A lot of soldiers say when they come back they weren’t fighting for some ideology or some thing, they were fighting … for the brothers and sisters right next to them, and I think that is definitely more love than it is hate.” Nonetheless, personal beliefs are unavoidable; people will always form opinions. “One of the distinctions of professionalism is carrying out your job anyway,” says McKinnon.
For the women of ROTC, that professionalism means representing both cadets in general and female cadets specifically. At Wheaton, the ratio of female to male cadets can be anywhere from 8-20% depending on the year, within the range of the overall military ratio of 14.5%, according to CNN. And while the women of ROTC noted that the Rolling Thunder Battalion does an overall excellent job of erasing distinction between male and female cadets, individually Burgdorf and Runey noted that, as females, they felt the need to represent not only what a cadet should be, but what a female cadet should be.