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'I lucked out picking one of the best programs in the country' -- IU ROTC cadets share their experiences

July 25, 2013

War has shaped the lives of today’s Indiana University ROTC cadets, who were in grade school when planes plunged into the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

America’s subsequent wars on terror inspired many cadets to join ROTC, both to serve their nation and to benefit from the educational and career opportunities.


IU ROTC in training. | Photo By Ann Schertz

IU ROTC cadet Casey Flynn’s mother served in ROTC, as do her sisters. Freshman ROTC cadet Brandon Jordan is keeping with both his family's tradition of military service -- his grandfather served in Vietnam -- and the tradition of service by African Americans in the U.S. military going.

Former special operations soldier John Keenan served as a Green Beret in Iraq and returned to IU to take a leadership role as an ROTC cadet and an engaged business major. IU Army ROTC cadets Keenan, Flynn and Jordan reflect on the diversity and excellence of the students preparing for officers’ commissions in today’s 2-million-strong armed services.

IU’s highly regarded Army and Air Force ROTC programs combine military training and higher education, preparing cadets for successful military and civilian careers.

John Keenan: high stakes to high pressure

Keenan, an IU Cadet Battalion Commander, is one of the unit’s senior leaders -- and he brings first-hand experience of military life to IU. A blue-eyed graduate of Bloomington High School South whose father is an IU Kelley School of Business professor, Keenan began his college career at the Citadel in 2002. But in the storm of post-9/11 wars, active duty called.

John Keenan

“I’ve seen how the real army works, as opposed to just hearing about it," said John Keenan, who served in Iraq for six years. | Photo By Ann Schertz 

Keenan says he didn’t intend to pursue a career in the military, but felt compelled to serve for a brief period of time in Iraq.

“I decided college was going to be there forever,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I didn’t think we’d be there that long. But six years later, I was still in Iraq.”

Keenan, serving as a sergeant first class in Special Operations, mentored the Iraqi security forces to build human capacity.

“As the Iraq war progressed, I felt bound to contribute in the most meaningful way possible,” he says, “which for me was on a special-forces team.”

His experiences sensitized him to the importance of the private-sector economy in nations such as Iraq. While he couldn’t get into specific examples because of security classification issues, Keenan did indicate that the failure of the licit Iraqi economy drove many Iraqis into the arms of the doctrinaire insurgents, who also served as illicit financiers.

“I can say that the overwhelming number of individuals I detained for committing low-level insurgent type activities were doing so because they needed the money,” he says. “If these low-level insurgents are able to earn a living through legitimate means, then they can operate within the rule of law and won’t bolster an insurgency.”

That kind of experience gives him insight most other ROTC cadets don’t have. “I’ve seen how the real army works, as opposed to just hearing about it.”

Motivated to help countries develop strong economic institutions and structures, Keenan now studies in IU’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, where he focuses on Arabic. Time management is essential as he juggles his Middle Eastern studies, command duties, early-morning PT and ROTC classes that meet two to three times a week. The average ROTC student has a 16-hour-a-week commitment, rivaling that of student athletes. Keenan’s goal is to enroll in IU’s MBA program.

Keenan says IU’s holistic ROTC program incorporates the university’s strength in global understanding, giving cadets broader perspectives to use on battlegrounds in many of the world’s less developed regions.

“In a counterinsurgency, junior officers have to be able to relate to people, something you can learn better in a university, where you can relate to civilians, than in a military service academy,” he says.

Following IU, Keenan will commission as an officer in the National Guard. That assignment will allow him to pursue a career in another high-pressure environment: investment banking.

Casey Flynn: active duty on hold for vet school

"I have a pretty unique path as a cadet,” says Flynn, a graduating senior biology major with a 3.8 grade point average. Flynn is the IU ROTC unit’s S-2, intelligence officer and OIC (military-speak for "officer in charge"). While her leadership role is normal in today’s gender-integrated military, she nonetheless stands out.

Casey Flynn, IU ROTC

Casey Flynn said being a woman soldier has been less challenging than she anticipated. “I’m just another part of the team,” she says. “I just like being treated as one of the guys, and I think that they do that.” | Photo By Ann Schertz

Ranking in the top 20 percent of cadets in the Order of Merit list, Flynn has also been approved for a seldom-awarded educational delay, which will allow her to go to veterinary school prior to serving on active duty.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Flynn was introduced to ROTC early. Her mother served in the Air Force ROTC. Two of Flynn’s sisters are also in ROTC, at Notre Dame and Dayton.

“I have family who did ROTC and were in the military, so I always knew it was an option to pay for college. It was the only way I would be able to pay out-of-state tuition at Indiana University,” she says of her application to IU’s Army ROTC program. “I also wanted a program that would replace the team camaraderie and competitiveness I had playing lacrosse in high school.”

She chose IU because of its renowned animal behavior program. Flynn always knew she wanted to work with animals because of her lifelong involvement with animals. The army’s veterinary corps was a perfect fit for her personal interests and career aspirations, although she does not plan to make the military her career.

“I had a couple of birds, a hamster, and in high school a couple of dogs,” she says, laughingly adding their names were Guinness and Killian. “But my jobs were always working with animals: zookeeper, dog trainer, helping with military working dogs.”

There are only 400 active-duty veterinarians in the military, Flynn says. Today’s soldier-veterinarian serves a variety of roles, from treating pets on military bases and caring for the Old Guard’s parade horses to acting as counterinsurgency warriors. In Afghanistan and Iraq, military veterinarians have helped to win hearts and minds by vaccinating the locals’ livestock and dispensing public-health advice.

Through connections made in ROTC, Flynn was approved for an internship at the Lackland Air Force Base animal hospital, a $15 million facility that treats combat-wounded military dogs.

“It’s the most prestigious animal hospital in the U.S.,” she says. “Wherever there was action, we got to sit in and learn.”

That included everything from internal medicine and radiology to dog therapy and surgery, including “pretty extreme cases,” such as amputations done on wounded military working dogs.

Flynn is pleased with her ROTC career at IU. “I lucked out picking one of the best programs in the country.”

As a senior, Flynn assisted with preparing the undergraduates for the grueling LDAC, the Leader Development Assessment Course, which ranks all of the cadets in the nation. As part of her duties, Flynn is in charge of coordinating the unit’s FTX, the annual Field Training Exercise that includes four intense days of missions with other ROTC units, mirroring the battlefield’s demand for coordinated effort with disparate groups. During the FTX, Flynn says she can see how IU’s high standards compare favorably to other ROTC units.

One way IU stands out is its long and leading history of training women. Now that the Pentagon has opened up even more avenues for women, Flynn sees great things for her peers who follow.

With her career path, Flynn says the military’s policy change to open more combat positions to women won’t impact her, but she says younger women cadets are weighing their new options.

“The freshmen, they’re just excited they will actually have the opportunity to go to Ranger School or serve in combat arms,” she says.

Flynn says being a woman soldier in today’s diverse Army has been less challenging than she anticipated, whether she’s leading a mission, doing extra-curricular PT with IU athletic teams, or jumping out of an airplane.

“I’m just another part of the team,” she says. “I just like being treated as one of the guys, and I think that they do that.”

Brandon Jordan: military service a natural fit

Brandon Jordan, a freshman ROTC cadet, is part of IU ROTC’s history of diversity, which dates back to 1916 when the university had the only racially integrated unit in the country. Many of the African-American officers in WWI were Hoosier alumni. Coming from a military family, Jordan says ROTC and the National Guard were a natural fit.

Brandon Jordan, IU ROTC

"ROTC gave me my start in life, really. It’s done that for thousands," said Brandon Jordan, for whom military service is a family tradition. | Photo By Ann Schertz 

He plans to make the military his career, opting for a profession in which he can help people.

“My grandfather served in the Army, was in Vietnam as a combat medic,” he says. “I have numerous family members who were in the Army. It’s almost my job to step up and do this. I felt it was my duty to be the next to serve, considering no one else in my (family) generation is serving.”

While still at New Tech High School in Bloomington, Ind., Jordan enlisted in the Army National Guard and served an internship with IU’s ROTC unit. ROTC and summertime military training at Fort Benning, Ga., broadened his experience.

“There’s more diversity in ROTC than I saw in high school, where there were only a few black kids,” he says. “I was one of them. IU’s campus is very diverse. Fort Benning, the Army, is very diverse.”

The nation’s military has helped break down racial barriers in America. Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. secretary of state, is a notable African-American soldier who got his start in ROTC, in his case at City College in New York. Powell says, “Without ROTC, I wouldn’t have had a military career. ROTC gave me my start in life, really. It’s done that for thousands.”

It’s giving Jordan his start as well.

“I wanted to have both military training and a first-rate college experience,” Jordan says of choosing the IU Army program. “ROTC at IU -- we have a very good cadre and support. I like it so far. I’ve made some good friendships.”

Jordan says the Army’s demand for clear communication and briefing skills has helped his confidence with public speaking. He also values the positive impact of the program on his studies and life in general.

“It helps my discipline,” he says, mentioning the rigor of PT workouts that the cadets endure three times a week. “That ‘freshman 15’ they talk about -- the 15 pounds freshmen gain -- that hasn’t happened to me.”

And Jordan knows the importance of teamwork from his high school, where project-based learning in real-world applications is an essential part of the school’s philosophy. The problem-solving skills he developed in high school get a workout in ROTC and the military, where survival and victory are as real as it gets.

As he continues his ROTC commitment at IU, Jordan thinks he’s found a good fit. “It’s a great program, the cadets and cadre. It builds teamwork, friendship, communication.”

Read more online in Indiana University Alumni Magazine. To view the full stories in the current IU Alumni Magazine, join the IU Alumni Association.

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