COLUMBIA — No one in Jerry Hinton’s family had ever been in the military, so the South Carolina high schooler decided an ROTC program would help him find adventure and get through college. Army enlistee D’Anna Hunter joined the service right out of high school but saw during a Kuwait deployment she could become an officer and get a college degree, too. Dustin Brown wants to fly Apache helicopters, and Matt Davis wants to be a dentist.
All of them are enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s Army ROTC program, which now ranks third nationally in overall enrollment growth over the past five years. The Reserve Officer Training Corps is one of the Army’s primary tools for turning college students into early-rising, PT-trained troop commanders.
Since the 2005-2006 school year, the Army ROTC program in Columbia has more than tripled its enrollment from 73 cadet-students to 229, officials say.
The Army ranks Texas Christian University as No. 1 in growth, going from 76 to 291 cadets over the same period. Claremont McKenna College in California ranks second by rising from 69 to 249 cadets, Army statistics show. Nationally, the number of ROTC cadets has grown in that time from 24,312 in more than 270 ROTC programs to 36,474. The Army is composed of about 570,000 uniformed men and women.
Although many do not sign contracts that commit them to serve in the military until they are sophomores, enrollment in an ROTC program helps many students pay their way through college. They are commissioned as 2nd lieutenants when they graduate and are required to serve about four to eight years in return, depending upon which type of service they perform.
The nation’s economic stresses and increases in tuition costs have also helped boost interest in the program, the students and officials said.
“I hope it’s an indication of young people wanting to serve their nation,” the USC program’s leader, Lt. Col. John Wright, said of its growth. “But I wouldn’t be a realist not to say that the economy has something to do with it.”
There are 159 men and 70 women in Wright’s program, and 26 percent of those are attending classes on scholarships. Some attend while earning money by serving in the National Guard or Army Reserve, another way that helps pay the bills, Wright said.
USC’s in-state tuition coupled with room and board and fees could run as high as $20,000 annually, depending upon a student’s major and courses taken.
Most students in the program hail from South Carolina.
There are nearly 133,000 uniformed military, civilian Department of Defense workers and military retirees living in the state.
And even though the Pentagon is planning for smaller forces in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the all-volunteer Army is in constant need of new officers. The service is also revamping its brigade structure and is looking to increase the number of officers in its ranks.
In fiscal 2011, the Army took in 5,314 2nd lieutenants. The largest number – 2,903 – came from ROTC programs. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point graduated 1,014 and 1,397 came from the Army’s Officer Candidate School, the Army said.
“We are meeting the Army’s requirements, we fulfill what the Army needs,” said Lt. Col. Matt Hackathorn, a spokesman for the Army’s U.S. Cadet Command at Fort Knox, Ky.
The Army’s program is the largest at USC. The Navy ROTC has 90 students, while the Air Force has 77, USC officials said.
Several students said they had no idea ROTC existed when they were in high school and began looking into it at the direction of their parents or other family members who served or were still serving in the military.
“I had never heard of ROTC,” said Christian Scott, of Fairport, N.Y., who is studying nursing. Because her father is a 19-year Air Force veteran and her Army brother served in Iraq, Scott said she’d learned to appreciate the challenges and the benefits of the military. Scott said she wants to help soldiers who have suffered brain trauma or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I like the military lifestyle, but I still like being a regular student,” the 19-year-old said. “I may have different priorities and plans that some other students, but day-to-day, I’m just a regular college student.”
Students enrolled in ROTC normally wear uniforms one day a week. They spend a good deal of time at the ROTC headquarters, where they have classes but also a social room and a weight room for exercise.
“Except for showing up for PT three times a week at 6 a.m., that’s a little bit different. Most college students sleep in,” Hinton, 21, said with a laugh. He said his high school sports of lacrosse and football helped him adjust to the regimen.
Lizmarie Lopez-Acevedo, 20, who went to high school in nearby Blythewood, Matt Davis of Lexington, and Daniel Calbi of Annandale, Va., said they all came from military families and had relatives who urged them to take a look at ROTC as a way to finance college and serve their country.
“My dad is a command sergeant major in the Army,” said Lopez-Acevedo, a junior sociology major. “I like having plans. I like knowing what I am doing and being with other people who have goals.”
D’Anna Hunter, 23, said she enlisted in the Army right out of high school, but realized during a deployment to Kuwait that she had the capability of becoming an officer.
“I saw how I could be an asset to the officer corps,” said the senior psychology major.
Wright said he thinks his students end up being the best advertisement for the program because of the example they set on campus. The camaraderie they share shows, and they learn to use teamwork to complete assignments for their military science courses, he said.
Many students cited learning leadership skills as a draw for entering the military.
“I joined for the adventure, and the chance to lead people,” said Calbi, 21. He said he is looking forward to being in charge of a group of soldiers as an infantry officer.
“I think it would be pretty cool to have a hand in people’s future,” said the senior, who said he’d studied corporate finance. “I want to lead people. I hope I never have to use finance again!”