Standing atop a shaky 30-foot scaffold outside of the Sigma Pi fraternity last Wednesday afternoon, 19-year-old Sam McLaren looked fearless, a quality that will be useful three weeks from now when he joins those fighting in Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. McLaren, who signed with the Marines in high school, was part of the University of Minnesota’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program before withdrawing from his classes and the program to go on active duty.
“I like the lifestyle,” McLaren said. “I excel [and am] comfortable around those types of people.”
Though McLaren’s choice to leave the ROTC program and the University is unusual, the ROTC program has grown dramatically, professors said.
Right now there are approximately 290 students in all three branches of the ROTC program combined, according to professors.
The Military Science, or Army, ROTC branch has seen an increase from 125 students in 2008 to 153 in 2009, said Maj. Gary Mundfrom, assistant professor of military science.
The Air Force program has almost doubled the number of cadets since last May when there were 33; now they have 64, Lt. Col. Joel Fortenberry, a professor of aerospace studies at the University, said. The increase could be attributed to a step-up in spreading the message about opportunities the program offers, especially for those in technical fields, Fortenberry said.
ROTC professors said enrollment has increased steadily since 2004.
The ROTC program provides scholarships for students, but many join because they want to give something back to their country, Mundfrom said. Fortenberry said the same is true for the Air Force program.
“They have a genuine desire to serve our country,” Fortenberry said. “It’s a calling, not a job.”
McLaren joined the Junior ROTC program while attending high school in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Students in the Army ROTC program have three service options after they graduate: eight years with the National Guard or the Army Reserve or going on active duty for four years. Air Force ROTC cadets go into active duty after graduation.
McLaren left last Sunday for Alaska to spend a week with his family before his deployment. He will then go to San Diego for two weeks to receive his gear and prepare for combat. He will leave from California for a yearlong tour in Afghanistan.
McLaren originally thought he would leave in December, but his deployment date was moved up and he was unable to continue taking online classes.
The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001 and in Iraq since March 20, 2003. McLaren said he believes he will have to do more than one tour.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the end,” McLaren said. “Even if we don’t have to worry about Afghanistan, you still have to worry about Iran firing missiles.”