Editors Note – Nearly a dozen Gaucho alumni are serving or have served in Iraq and the Middle Eastern theater. The first of a three part series, today’s story looks at UCSB students turned soldiers, and the recent controversy surrounding the military’s presence on campus.
With their backs to a skyline of research buildings and residence halls, a squad of camouflage-clad cadets charges up the side of a blufftop ridge between the UCSB Lagoon and Campus Point.
On this sunny, breezy Wednesday afternoon last month, several dozen students from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, toting mock M-16 rifles made of rubber, understand they are training for the real thing.
They also understand not everyone wants them on campus.
With America’s war on terrorism more than three years old, and the war in Iraq just past its two-year anniversary, ROTC cadets face the new reality that graduation most likely means immediate deployment to a combat zone in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But at UCSB in recent weeks, a contingent of faculty members and students have used the Dept. of Defense’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to challenge the military’s right to train and recruit on campus in the first place.
In the context of this controversy, which picked up this week on the heels of an anti-military protest and a contentious town hall forum sponsored by the UCSB Academic Senate, the 50- to 60-cadet Surfrider Battalion, tucked away in an old army barracks building behind Phelps Hall, prepares to send its most recent graduates to war.
Sgt. Steven Lycopolus knows combat, but he also has a feel for the anti-military sentiment on college campuses that accompanies it. At 38, he’s a 20-year veteran who has fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Somalia. As an airborne Army Ranger in 1993, he helped secure the crash site of a U.S. helicopter in the incident known as “Black Hawk Down.”
Rotating out of active duty after his most recent tour in Afghanistan, he deployed to UCSB’s Surfrider Battalion in October 2004 and presently serves as an assistant military science professor and adviser to the ROTC program’s cadets.
Despite the predominance of anti-war sentiment on campus, Lycopolus, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., said the vast majority of his contact with students, while wearing his uniform, has been positive. He said he only needs one hand to count the number of times someone on campus directed a derogatory comment about the war or the military in his direction.
In each instance, Lycopolus said, the perpetrator preferred to wait until passing by rather than making the comment to his face.
“I support anyone’s right to disagree,” Lycopolus said. “I try to be tolerant because the reason we do what we do is for others to have that right to disagree.”
Several faculty members, representatives of the Associated Students government, and a handful of student groups have exercised that right to disagree over the past several weeks, staging a “die in” protest outside the ROTC building and backing resolutions in support of reviewing ROTC’s compliance with University non-discrimination policies.
The need for such a review, say backers, stems from the Dept. of Defense’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which forbids soldiers from discussing their sexual orientation with fellow soldiers under penalty of dismissal from the armed services. Opponents of the policy say it discriminates against homosexuals by restricting their freedom to express themselves.
As part of similar proposed legislation, the same faculty members and student government representatives also support banning military recruiters from campus — following in the footsteps of Harvard and Yale law schools, which banned recruiters in 2004 and 2005 respectively — for what they argue are the same violations of campus non-discrimination policies.
Lycopolus said some of those who want military recruiters off campus do not differentiate — as he thinks they should — between the soldier as an individual and the military as an institution.
“It’s easier to hate something when you don’t make it personal,” Lycopolus said. “You can dislike the policies, the war, but don’t dislike
After 20 years in uniform and extensive combat experience, Lycopolus said he does not want to feel like he wasted his time defending the freedoms that Americans enjoy, and the right of Americans to choose a career in military service.
“I can never understand the logic in trying to shut down recruiters if you don’t want a draft,” Lycopolus said. “If you don’t allow the military to create a volunteer army, what’s the other option?”
On the cusp of deployment to the U.S. Army’s third infantry division, currently stationed in Northern Iraq, Second Lt. Andrew Feitt’s uniform and black beret make him look older than his 22 years.
As one of the Surfrider Battalion’s newly commissioned officers, the controversy surrounding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” does not appear to weigh very heavily on him.
After a stop in Fort Stewart, Georgia, for additional training, Feitt will ship out to Iraq by the end of May. Trained in military intelligence, he joins nearly a dozen other UCSB alumni, from communication to convoy security specialists, currently deployed or already returned from action throughout Iraq and the Middle Eastern theater.
Having graduated from UCSB last June with a BA in history, Feitt attended intelligence officers’ school in Arizona and returned to UCSB last month. Speaking in his office in the small brown military science building behind Phelps Hall, he’s back at UCSB for a two-week stint as an adviser to new recruits and younger cadets, and to share his experiences being on active duty for the past six months since his graduation.
Feitt said the nature of the ROTC program, which combines civilian classroom life and technical military training, serves well to prepare the student soldiers for the non-combat interpersonal skills required in the present urban conflict in Iraq’s cities and villages.
In the present conflict on campus, however, Feitt said he and fellow officers in training get typecast as representing one particular type of political ideology or mindset.
“I think the best way for people to get in touch with what we are is to personalize it,” Feitt said. “If you have a friend who is in ROTC, you get a much better picture than if you just see a bunch of guys walking by. We don’t fit in one hole, we don’t fit in one stereotype.”
Feitt said he and the student cadets encompass a wide range of political opinions and religious beliefs.
“It’s like the army should be a microcosm of society and I think you see that in the ROTC program here,” Feitt said. “The difference is, once we put on the uniform, once we take the oath, we have to take our political opinions and make sure they stay under and they don’t interfere with our duty.”
On the blufftop trails around the campus lagoon where the Wednesday afternoon ROTC drills take place, the occasional jogger intersects the route of rifle-toting cadets conducting their training mission. Some of the runners do not appear to notice the green-clad men and women crawling through the thick brush and shouting “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!” to simulate gunfire.
Others cock their heads and stare, but without breaking pace.
Lycopolus greets them as they pass with a smile and a, “good afternoon.”
Feitt, Lycopolus, and Cadet Lt. Alex Newsom, 22, casually observe and instruct the younger cadets as they practice land navigation, radio communication and engage an “enemy” force positioned on the high ground surrounding Campus Point.
The guns and the mission are fake, but by simulating the deaths of squad leaders — and then the deaths of backup squad leaders — the ROTC instructors work to mimic the tension and stress of real combat situations.
“We show them that action A produces reaction B, then we’ll throw in variant C,” said Lycopolus, while watching a squad of cadets set up a 360-degree security perimeter. “We want to get them out of their safety net to judge their potential.”
For Newsom, a native of Beverly Hills and this year’s top cadet, the safety net of life at a party school in a subtropical climate is disappearing quickly. He graduated from UCSB last June with a degree in political science and is presently awaiting his deployment orders, which could come any day. They will mostly likely call him for active duty in Iraq.
“We’re normal folks who live out on DP in Isla Vista,” Newsom said. “And a year from now we’re going to be halfway around the world.”