Alex Riley, a senior ROTC cadet at Boston College, was in a poetry class the day the 2,000th US soldier was killed in Iraq. A classmate turned to him and asked: "Do you really want to do this? Do you really think it's the right thing?"
Another time, when ROTC cadets were manning a recruiting table during a club fair, two students concocted an impromptu protest sign by scribbling on a pizza box: "BC wants you to go home!" At Boston University, the ROTC office was vandalized last year. And when BU cadets held military exercises on Magazine Beach in Cambridge, a city official objected. At Northeastern, there have been occasional fliers or banners opposing the Iraq war.
It's not always easy being a student in the Reserve Officers Training Corps during an unpopular war, especially on liberal college campuses. Though some classmates thank the cadets and midshipmen for their service, others question or even challenge those in uniform.
Indeed, not all ROTC students themselves subscribe to the war in Iraq. They aren't allowed to criticize it while in uniform, but "as college kids, they can do what they want," says Captain Howard Trost, who leads the Navy contingent at BU.
Maura Leo of Belmont, an Army cadet at BC, says she doesn't "necessarily agree with the political aspects of the war." But as a nursing major, she wants to take care of soldiers. ROTC students must spend a month in training the summer after their junior year. Leo, 20, was assigned to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where she saw soldiers with amputated limbs and severe burns. That experience led her to change her plans, from pediatric nursing to emergency care.
Despite a controversial war that has claimed nearly 3,800 American lives, college students in the Boston area are still signing up for ROTC, which offers free tuition - and certain deployment. The enrollees will be commissioned as officers upon graduation and deployed within a year, many to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"The big thing on a lot of people's minds now is that they know going into ROTC that they're going to war," says Captain David Gowel, a training officer assigned by the Army to MIT. "When I started at West Point in 1998, I didn't know that." Like all the other Army faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gowel has served in Iraq. He believes the war has resulted in a break-even deal for ROTC programs, with some students signing up out of patriotic fervor, and just as many declining because they don't want to end up in Iraq.
Despite the generous scholarship package, some parents have mixed feelings - of pride and fear - about ROTC. Matt Cisto, a Boston College senior from Oxford, Conn., faces deployment within a year of graduating. "The chances are pretty high that I'll go to Iraq. I feel like by the time it comes I'll be ready for it," says Cisto, an athletic-looking history major.
His mother says she is naturally concerned. "We told him he did not have to do this. We would have sent him to college," says Laurie Cisto. "I do understand there is peril they face, but it really takes a special kind of person to have the commitment and patriotism to want to do that."
Peter Sceusa, a ROTC student at BU, says his parents didn't encourage him to join - but "they weren't going to tell me no." His father is a retired New York City police officer. "My dad did not want me to be a police officer," says Sceusa, 20. "And then I turned around and joined the Army. I don't think that's what he had in mind."
Captain Trost at BU has noticed a shift in parents' attitudes. "It used to be that parents wanted their children to join," he says. "There's a lot more caution now. Our nation is more savvy about what war means. It means people dying, and it could be your son or daughter." His son is a ROTC sophomore at Washington State University.
In Boston, ROTC operates under a system in which officers are sent to the schools by their service branch to administer the program and teach courses such as military operations and tactical leadership. Many schools team together in a consortium. MIT, for example, also administers the program for six others: Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, Endicott College in Beverly, Gordon College in Wenham, and Salem State, for a total enrollment of around 70. General David Petraeus' son, Stephen, is a junior in the ROTC program at MIT.
BU has agreements with Bentley, Bridgewater State, and Stonehill colleges, UMass-Boston, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy; this year, 264 students are participating. Northeastern University serves as host battalion for about 120 students from BC, Suffolk University, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and a student or two from Berklee College of Music, Emmanuel College, Roxbury Community College, and Regis College.
In return for scholarships, ROTC students agree to spend eight years in the armed services, usually half in active duty, half in the reserves.
At Northeastern, Lieutenant Colonel John McClellan oversees the battalion. He has commissioned about 18 officers a year for the past 10 years. For students and parents, he says, the threat of being sent to a war zone looms large. "They understand what the lifestyle entails and what kind of risks they'll be exposed to after graduation."
The lifestyle on campus is pretty rigorous, too: it's basically a part-time job of about 20 hours a week, in addition to a full academic load. At BC, the 33 cadets wake up before dawn three days a week to report for physical training: push-ups and sit-ups, a half-hour run, then a series of stretches. On a recent day, they're finished by 8 a.m., and Riley, a senior from Pomfret, Conn., heads to the weight room, then the library, then class. At noon, he's already put in six hours while many of his friends are still asleep.
Riley rarely parties during the week. But the scholarship has saved his family $170,000 - something his father, Andrew, calls "an absolute joy." Moreover, he believes ROTC has been a boon for his son's personal growth. "How many college students are up till 3 playing video games and drinking? You can't do that if you have to get up the next morning and go running with a drill sergeant." If Alex Riley gets into medical school, as he hopes, his deployment will be postponed and he will become an Army doctor.
At BU, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lee has been in charge of the Army contingent for three years. His first graduating class has been to Iraq, come home, and is preparing to go back. One of his students from Bridgewater State College was killed in Iraq last year.
On a recent night, he and other ROTC officials held a reception for the students. As Army, Air Force, and Navy officers introduced their faculty, young men and women in dress uniform listened attentively, hands clasped in front or behind. Lee told them most of his staff has served in Iraq, in special forces or flying helicopters. He introduced one faculty member by saying: "If anyone has any questions about what it feels like to be blown up. . . he's been in a vehicle hit by an IED [improvised explosive device]."
No one, it seemed, had any questions.