When he arrived on campus, Ben Chiacchia ’20 was the first midshipman in the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Brown since 1971. But the University’s Naval ROTC program is not located on campus — it’s located at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, which is 45 minutes to an hour away by car.
When Chiacchia first got to the University, he “was told that ‘you just have to make it work and find a way to adapt.’”
To make the trip, Chiacchia rented a Zipcar multiple times a week to drive to his physical training and courses in military science and leadership. He made one to three round trips in a day.
“It’s a big time commitment,” Chiacchia said. “When I didn’t have ROTC because Holy Cross was on fall break, having an extra 20 hours in my life back was kind of crazy. Often you forget how much time it takes.”
ROTC programs around the country prepare college students to become officers in the U.S. military. None of the three ROTC programs at Brown — Naval, Army and Air Force — are located on campus, said Kimberly Millette, program director for the Office of Military-Affiliated Students. The Army ROTC program is located at Providence College, and the Air Force ROTC program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“Commuting between two places is a challenge,” said Catherine Carignan ’20, an Army ROTC cadet. “I want to be here (at Brown), but my enrollment (in ROTC) is a contract at Providence College.”
The University has not had institutional space on campus for ROTC programs for decades. ROTC had a large and thriving presence at Brown in the 1960s, Millette said. But in 1971, amidst student activism centered around the Vietnam War, faculty decided to vote the program off campus and sever ties with Naval and Air Force ROTC. While the University never officially severed ties with the Army ROTC program at Providence College, there were sometimes stretches of “many years” without a cadet at Brown, Millette said. When William Summers ’19 was a freshman ROTC cadet at the University, there were only four total Army cadets at Brown.
It was not until 2016, when alum activism for reinstalling the program grew, that the Naval and Air Force ROTC programs were brought back, Millette said.
Since ties were reestablished with the Naval and Air Force ROTC programs, the ROTC community at the University has grown, but slowly. In total, there are 17 ROTC cadets currently on campus, including 11 in Army ROTC, four in Naval and two in Air Force, Millette wrote in a follow-up email. Carignan said the class of 2023 has five new Army ROTC cadets, the largest class of cadets that the program has seen in decades.
But Carignan and Chiacchia said there are barriers to helping ROTC at the University grow over the long term.
“The school’s policy right now is not geared toward moving the program to campus,” Chiacchia said, which makes it hard to recruit new students. Telling them about the commute to Worcester dissuaded “90 to 95 percent” of potential Naval ROTC recruits, he estimated. “That’s an institutional blockage that’s difficult to overcome. … If they’re not already prepared to do it, you’re not going to convince them.”
Carignan added that “it was everything but the ROTC program” that attracted her to Brown.
Despite this, the ROTC program has gained increasing resources and support from OMAS and the University.
When OMAS found out that Chiacchia and the other Naval ROTC midshipmen were using Zipcar and Uber to commute to and from Holy Cross, they provided them with a minivan and a gas card, which has been “way, way better,” Chiacchia said. Millette has been working to ensure that members of all three ROTC programs are not only reimbursed for their travel but also are done so within 60 days so their reimbursements are not unfairly taxed, she said.
Carignan thinks the University has moved “in the right direction” in supporting its ROTC programs since she arrived at Brown. “They have been very intentional about opening up the dialogue, via Kimberly (Millette) or OMAS, about making (the ROTC) program more sustainable,” Carignan said. “It’s made my life easier ... (now) that there are channels to communicate asking for resources.”
As the number of ROTC cadets at the University has increased, the programs’ host schools have had to better accommodate the students’ schedules, Summers said. When he first came to the University in 2015, the Army ROTC cadets had to travel to Providence College three times a week for physical training. But two years ago, the program granted the cadets permission to do one of each week’s physical training sessions at the Nelson Fitness Center, saving them commute time, Summers said.
The cadets’ interactions with other students on campus when talking about the ROTC program have been mostly positive.
“Any conflicts I’ve had during my time here have been so respectful and based out of curiosity as opposed to animosity,” Carignan said. She recognizes that her involvement in the Army ROTC program may be uncomfortable for those not familiar with the community as well as those who are directly affected by the military, often in negative ways. “But I think that discomfort, at least in my experience, has been channeled into discussions, … which has been really constructive,” she added.
“People do a really good job now of differentiating between the politics surrounding where our Army is involved overseas and the people in the Army itself,” Summers said. “At other universities, a lot of my good friends (in the Army) said that those two things have been conflated.” But “I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody (at the University) who has taken offense with me for (being) in the Army.”
While the cadets appreciate the institutional and peer support they have received, they cite the ROTC community as the best part of the program.
“The most support comes from other students in the program,” Carignan said. “We’ve developed a very tight, family-style function on campus.”
“I’ve loved it,” Chiacchia said. “I love the other people in ROTC.”