Long-standing exception allowing Norwich ROTC nursing students to be civilians may end

Tara Lyons (left) and Clara Leister, both civilians, will be commissioning as Army nurses in May. They oppose a proposed ROTC change that would bar that in the future. Bailey Beltramo photo

Tara Lyons (left) and Clara Leister, both civilians, will be commissioning as Army nurses in May. They oppose a proposed ROTC change that would bar that in the future.
Bailey Beltramo photo

(Third in a series on ROTC)

Clara Leister will be commissioning into active duty service as an Army nurse this May.

Though Leister, 21, from Hartland, Vt., may be wearing scrubs during her service time more often than her combat uniform, she has proved she not only meets the Army standard but far exceeds it since transferring to Norwich at the start of her sophomore year.

She has rappelled off mountain tops and performed competently at the Army’s Mountain Warfare School. She rucked, swam, shot, and ran her way to earn the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge. And she has attended every summer military training opportunity afforded to her, including the Cadet Leader Course (CLC), and the Nurse Summer Training Program (NSTP).

However, what she has not done is elect to wear the uniform of a cadet while pursuing her commission. In the future if proposed changes are adopted, that will no longer be possible.

The proposed change the colonels of ROTC are attempting to institute is to bar civilian nursing students from having the chance to commission with any of the school’s military branches, as of fall 2017. The old policy is one that has out-grown the original problem it was intended to solve, explained University President Richard Schneider.

Schneider said the policy originated from Norwich’s merging with Vermont College. The nursing program was originally run out of the sister school, but the major moved on campus when the schools merged in 1972.

The original nursing course was a “2-plus-2 program” he said: Students would take two years of nursing classes, sit for their registered nurse licensure exam and then finish with two more years of school before officially earning the degree.

It was a disaster for Corps of Cadets students trying to commission. “Basically, every student that had an ROTC scholarship flushed out of the system. They didn’t make it because it was too hard. You couldn’t keep up with the corps, you couldn’t be a rook. You just couldn’t do it.”

Because the nursing role in the army is not a combat arms position, the university president at the time, President Emeritus W. Russell Todd, authorized nursing students to contract with the military and forgo the cadet uniform.

The 2-plus-2 nursing program was shut down when Schneider came into the presidency, replacing it with the current 4-year Bachelors of Science in nursing major. The change proved to be a positive one as the school has since graduated and commissioned a number of successful nursing students from the corps.

In the years since, the exception has faded to the background but not out of existence: a small handful of civilian students still continue to commission as nurses while living apart from their cadet peers.

Since they represent such a small population of students, it has made senior nursing student Tara Lyons pose the question about the proposed change: “Why is it such a big deal?”

Lyons, 22, from Cape Cod, Mass., explained that at the moment there are just five students in the entire school who are civilian nurses and contracted. That’s an even higher number than some years past.

However, for the three heads of ROTC, it is a big deal. As Col. Andy Hird put it, “we three colonels believe that [the exception] is an arbitrary opportunity. Other disciplines or activities, such as college sports, demanding majors and double majors, have similar demands on their time as nurses. So just allowing nurses as an exception is arbitrary and should be eliminated.”

Hird, the head of the Air Force ROTC Detachment, professor of aerospace science, and acting spokesman for these changes, additionally listed some key reasons why this one exception stands out as needing a change.

One example: No other senior military college in the nation has this opportunity for its students. Why should Norwich?

Also, at the end of the day, ROTC is commissioning officers into military branches regardless of whether they are future pilots, future nurses, or future soldiers. If students are all going to be officers, should they not all have the same training experience?

However, in the midst of the colonels’ agreement there is some dissension.

Both Hird and Col. Rob Kuckuk, the head of the Navy and Marine ROTC programs and Professor of Naval Science, agreed that the blanket exception for all civilian nursing students to contract should be removed. But in addition to that, they would like to see case-by-case exceptions for any academic major left open for consideration.

Kuckuk’s first priority, he explained, is to find the best individuals he can get into the service and admittedly some of those individuals might be civilian students. But he doesn’t know the potential that is out there because those students are barred from the commissioning track.

“It is impossible for me to say that civilian students can’t do just as well as Corps of Cadets students,” he said.

Hird agreed. “Effectively, we ROTC’s are headhunters for a company,” and their targets are quality, well-developed individuals who will make good officers.

He envisions these case-by-case exceptions applying to athletes, those with demanding majors and students with a mixture of the two; it would all be dependent upon the case made.

Hird explained that there are students, both bright and athletic, who could make good candidates but have decided the corps commitments would take too much away from those other interests.

Take Eric Beecy for example. Beecy, 21, is a Vermont native from the nearby town of Stowe and has grown up an Air Force brat through his father’s years of service.

A senior, Beecy is preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps this May with his commission into the Air Force as a second lieutenant and newly certified nurse.

His father was also a professor here at Norwich for a number of years during his childhood so Beecy was no stranger to the Corps of Cadets and the kind of lifestyle it entailed as he applied to colleges during high school.

“It’s a great way to learn discipline, to learn how to prioritize, to build your character, and to build your leadership,” Beecy said. But he felt those lessons had already been learned at home from the influence of growing up in a military household.

Everything else about Norwich however proved to be exactly what he was looking for: a small school close to home, competitive athletics, nursing and the chance to commission as a civilian. Beecy wasn’t convinced cadet life was for him, but he knew the school was the perfect fit.

He came to Norwich originally pursuing a naval scholarship but was denied it due to the competitive process his first year. Far from deterred, he set his sights instead on the Air Force. “I made sure I committed to get some sort of contract or scholarship freshman year,” he said.

“The really attractive thing [about coming to Norwich] was I could be a civilian, and I could be a nurse, and I could be Air Force ROTC and get a little more freedom to do extracurricular activities.” For him, the corps lifestyle just wasn’t a good decision for pursuing his personal interests.

The decision to remain a civilian has worked for Beecy. With the extra time to devote to his own studies freshman year, he secured a scholarship with the Air Force. “I was an average class student and knew I needed all the time I could get to do well.”

Opposed to the view of allowing case-by-case exceptions is Col. Eric Brigham, the Dean of the National College of Services, head of Army ROTC, and the professor of military science. In his eyes, if students are looking to contract while living a civilian lifestyle, they can pursue many other schools that provide that option.

“I believe that the corps of cadets provides a [military] context to a human life that is different than a civilian context,” he said. Referring to the current exception he continued, “If we are going to put them on active duty, it would be in their best interest, and the Army’s best interest, to put them in the Corps of Cadets.”

As the biggest of the four military branches on campus, Colonels Hird and Kuckuk recognized the fact that Col. Brigham operates under slightly different restrictions.

The first is a game of numbers. The Army department already has enough cadets to pull from, Col. Brigham explained, and does not need any more avenues opened up to additional officers.

Next are the needs of the Army. Col. Brigham stated that there is currently no demand right now to take on more active duty nurses and it is here that Title 10 of the United States Code, outlining the role of the U.S. Armed Forces, comes into play.

Title 10 was set in 1956 after the overhaul and merging of the former Title 10 with Title 34. It outlines the role of all the nation’s armed forces. Within the 817-page document is a clause that gives the professors of military science at the six senior military colleges the ability to put its commissioning graduates directly into active duty if they so choose. It’s an immense power as the Army is the only branch with the ability to do so and ROTC graduates of civilian schools must compete nationally for available slots.

“In doing so,” Col. Brigham said, “I think I have the authority to say [commissioning students] need to be in the Corps of Cadets.”

In addition, the current surplus of nurses is the result of past needs in the Army that are not current any more. Col. Brigham explained, the way that the Army managed its hospitals caused an increase in the need for nurses. Those needs have since changed.

And on top of it all, Col. Brigham was adamant in the superior quality of officer that is produced by experiencing four years in the corps.

“It’s not even close,” he said, referring to the difference in lifestyles, “you live a different life, and four years of the life means something.” It produces a level of quality that the Army is continuously trying to maintain.

Lyons and Leister, however, would argue otherwise. “I honestly don’t think there will be much difference between someone who was in the corps, and someone who was civilian,” Lyons said. “In other branches of the Army maybe, but not in nursing.”

Leister supported Lyons’ statement, saying she doesn’t feel that being a civilian student in any way affects their performance as cadets or as future officers. “I know Tara is extremely well established in her Nation Guard Unit, and has already been given a letter of acceptance (LOA) to commission with them.”

For the two nurses, much as it was for Beecy, the civilian lifestyle has simply afforded them the chance to accomplish everything they wished to participate in to the best of their ability, while still providing the chance to commission.

For example, both senior students have been varsity athletes throughout their responsibilities of nursing clinicals, and ROTC obligations. “Clara and I were waking up for lift, going to class, going to army training, going to sports practices, and then finally sitting down for homework at eight o’clock at night,” Lyons commented.

There are certainly those in the corps who successfully handled their leadership responsibilities and nursing studies, she explained, but often times they forfeited the chance to play a sport. Of the four cadet nurses who are commissioning, only two play sports, she said. One student did so for just a semester and only one has managed to do so for all eight.

So there are sports, there are corps responsibilities, and there is nursing. In an environment where grades are everything, pick two.

The pair has done everything and in no way shirked their army training responsibilities. Leister pursued Mountain Warfare School and the German badge just because the opportunities presented themselves and she wanted the challenge.

“There are lots of opportunities available, and just because I am a nurse, and a civilian, doesn’t change the standards, or the fact that we are still meeting them, and even exceeding them. I think that is something that is often times looked over,” Leister said.

Both students even volunteered for Cadet Initial Entry Training (CIET) Lyons said. It has since been made a requirement for all cadets. However, the summer after their sophomore year it was an optional training opportunity; they willingly took in order to catch up on training they had missed throughout the school year, due to conflicts with classes.

But despite the proven benefits and success for Leister, Lyons and Beecy, the exception is likely facing its final sunset.

Schneider confirmed his plans. “I am going to recommend to the Board of Trustees that we drop the exclusion for the nurses,” he said.

He still plans to speak with the new director of the nursing program, and current contracting nurses before the decision is finalized. “I want to have the privilege of looking them in the eye, and say do you think future students could do it?”

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