By Kevin Flynn
Lead, follow or get out of the way
If you decide that you want to be an officer there are three ways to join up and earn the rank of 0-1.
First you can apply to a service academy. West Point, Annapolis, and Air Force follow the same formula for admission. You must apply for admission to the school and also apply for a nomination from either your Senator or Congressional Representative. Once you are accepted and receive a nomination you are admitted. All three schools require a high school diploma. Many students spend a year or two either in college, or the regular military or even in a prep school before attending. There is an age limit, you can’t be over 23 on indoctrination day.
The academies are a mix of full time military life and full time college courses. There are similarities to regular college life but also stark differences. The academies are a 24/7 officer-training program. You are always accountable and always a representative of the academy.
Regulations are incredibly strict and are enforced. The academies require balancing a full military regime with a very challenging course load and vigorous physical training. There is not a lot of dead time. Most of the officer candidates at the academies are top-notch people and represent students from every state as well as many foreign countries. There is a little more leave than in the active military, but not nearly as much as an ROTC student will have. A midshipman at Navy can expect 1 month off in the summer.
ROTC is another venue. Many colleges across the country have some form of ROTC. The scholarship pays for tuition. The intensity of each campus can vary. Someone can join ROTC directly from high school by applying for the scholarship. They usually apply to several colleges at the same time. If accepted to a college with an ROTC unit, or a college close to an ROTC unit, then that student simply drills with the unit while taking mostly civilian classes at their college. There are 4 year and 3 year scholarships. Sometimes the military is unsure and has a candidate pay for the first year of school to make sure they are worthy of the scholarship. A person in college can also apply and be accepted, but there is a deadline of no later than the end of their sophomore year.
Officer Candidate School is another option. If someone already has a degree or is already enlisted and wants to become and officer OCS is a way to move up into the leadership ranks. Typically the training lasts 90 days. For this reason they are nicknamed ’90 day wonders’. The Navy’s OCS training was immortalized in the film ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ – not everyone is just out of college either. Many OCS grads have extensive military experience. There are also people with no military experience, but with in demand skills at OCS. There are law and medical school graduates who join the military with the promise of student loan forgiveness.
Which way is the best way? It depends on the individual personality of the candidate and their career aspirations. There are great officers from each of the programs. There are terrible officers from each as well. The frequency many vary. Certainly the academies and ROTC have 4-year durations before a person is commissioned. While technically not a weeding out process, the length of time someone must perform well does eliminate a lot of sub par leaders.
There are a lot of people in the upper ranks of the military that are ring knockers- or academy grads that wear their class rings. These people really do run the services for the most part. Being a grad doesn’t hurt. However, it is really a foot in the door. No matter what path a person chooses they must perform.
It is difficult at 17 or 18 to know if a 20-year career in the military is what you want. Even if you are sure at that age, four years later, you may have changed your mind. One nice component of both ROTC and the service academies is that there is a two-year trial period. During the first two years, basically up until the first day of classes your junior year, you can leave the program and owe the government nothing. This is enough time for most people to know if they really want it or if they joined for all the wrong reasons. I think this is a great way to test the waters, try on the uniform and see if it feels right. The downside to the academies is that you must leave the school and find a new place to continue your studies. An ROTC candidate who leaves most likely can stay at the school, but will have to pay for the rest of their classes.
It is not a bad idea to apply for both ROTC and an academy, visit both and if accepted visit again before making a final decision. There may be a best way to become an officer, but it may vary for each individual. For some it might be ROTC for others it might be the academy, still others might need to have a few years to mature and find OCS is perfect for them at that point in their life. In any case a person thinking of being an officer should think about what the end result is of going through the officer candidate training- having a job leading troops.
There are designated leaders in the military. The officer ranks have specific responsibilities to lead. With rank comes responsibility. It is different than leading a sports team, where you are basically a peer with a little more command of the room. In the military you have to separate yourself socially from those you lead. You have to set the example, lead from the front, and not play favorites. You have to be somewhat distant and 100% consistent with your troops. In addition you may find yourself being in a much more administrative role than being a ‘doer’ which for some people can be a hard change to make. It is almost the difference between playing a sport and coaching a sport.
If someone is interested in becoming an officer it is a good idea to talk to officer candidates both at an academy and at an ROTC unit. It is also a good idea to do ship visits and try to go on a 1 day ship mini cruise, known as a dependents day cruise. This is a great way to talk to both officers and enlisted personnel. Ask them about their experience in ROTC or at the academy.
Find out if they are happy or if they regret their decision. Ask them what they think are the biggest benefits and biggest costs to joining the way they did.
The academies put a person in a spotlight. If a midshipman or cadet has a run in with the law or does something embarrassing on spring break and it makes the news the press will run with it. ROTC not so much attention is paid. The feeling of being under the microscope is real at the academies. Congress is constantly involved. Other schools have scandals, but because the academies are military institutions one bad apple tends to shine a light on the entire campus.
Recently a professor at the Naval Academy wrote on op ed in the NY Times criticizing the school. He pointed to every person has a law of diminishing returns. Many students at the academy reach this point during their four years there. There is burn out. Not everyone experiences this, but many do. ROTC on the other hand is only a portion of each day, if that, and only a portion of a summer. ROTC students have more free time. It seems contrary, but they may hit the ground slightly fresher having had a lot more liberty in college.
But there are benefits to going the academy way. First it is 24/7 from day one. A person gets a realistic view of what they are getting into. You work and live with the cream of the crop. You are exposed to some of the top leaders in the military. You are given opportunities every day to test yourself and to try leadership styles out. The facilities are incredible. The degree is respected. It is a degree that sets a person apart for the rest of their lives. The experience stays with you. The friendships made are incredibly close. Finally there is something to living by an honor code. Even when the code is broken, it is an exception and not a rule. It is something that is still hard in a world that increasingly asks less and less of its youth, that expects less and less. To even strive for perfection is an act that can be transformative even if perfection is impossible.