Nerdy, uptight, workout junkies — these are all phrases campus Air Force cadets use to describe how their peers perceive them.
Wing Commander Danielle Valaitis wants to dispel those notions. “We aren’t just this weird, isolated community. … We have a lot of cadets who do some amazing things.”
Some of Valaitis’ duties as Wing Commander include recruitment, physical training, volunteering and transitory drill objectives. Upon her graduation in the spring, she will be stationed at joint base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, where she was offered a job as a manpower analyst under the force support squadron. There, she will analyze the soldiers’ in-combat needs and the overall effectiveness of the base. Her long-term goal is to work for a state department or the federal government.
Valaitis is one of six women in the Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps program (AFROTC) at Ohio University and the only graduate student. Valaitis says her situation is “the best of both worlds” because she completed her undergraduate program how she wanted and was able to be a part of the ROTC program in graduate school. Comparing the two experiences, Valaitis says her demeanor is different now from when she was a standard college student.
As a host university, OU offers two ROTC programs: Army ROTC, which focuses on military science, and AFROTC — also known as Detachment 650 — which focuses on aerospace studies. There are about 150 students enrolled in those programs, with 45 of those students in AFROTC.
The recruitment efforts mainly focus on high schoolers who have not yet made a decision about their career path. Valaitis says that they don’t put effort in trying to recruit students after they come to college because those students probably already know what path they wish to follow.
Cadets volunteer to go to tables at events such as high schools’ majors fairs, sporting events and OHIO close-up days to talk to interested students. Cadets dress in uniform and pass out pamphlets, flyers, t-shirts and water bottles. Valaitis said they have seen improvement in recruitment statistics even this past year — there are five freshman girls — but, there is still work to be done.
The Veterans Center Awards have recognized OU as a military-friendly school since 2012, but Valaitis says there’s a disconnect between students in the program and the rest of their peers. She says OU students who study arts, history or journalism, for example, are never going to have classes with the AFROTC cadets and therefore never interact with them. This is where the divide begins.
“I think it’s important to distinguish that people in ROTC aren’t any different than anyone else,” Cadet Ethan Black says. “No one thinks they’re better than everyone else, which I think sometimes can be misunderstood. We are just picking a career path earlier, but no one’s any different from a normal college student.”
Black chose OU before he decided to join AFROTC. His mom pushed for him to go to college instead of enlisting right out of high school. Black is a junior studying meteorology with hopes of being a remotely piloted aircraft pilot. He said he has a good mix of friends in the program and within his major.
“[ROTC] definitely brings friends in very quickly,” Black says. “I didn’t struggle with making friends in college because of that.”
Cadet Arquimides Segarra-Ibañez had a similar experience. Initially, he didn’t want to join the program and thought he was going to hate it. But he says he has gotten a professional experience in his three years.
“Within a month I made the best friends, and I was in a routine and it shaped me,” Segarra-Ibañez says. “I feel like it developed me into a really good leader and a really professional person.”
Every Wednesday morning, AFROTC has a leadership laboratory where juniors and seniors teach freshmen and sophomores how to be effective leaders through military procedures. It helps prepare them for field training: a mandatory month-long summer program at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. AFROTC students from across the U.S. have to complete it and if cadets pass, they sign a contract and are considered a professional office course cadet.
Segarra-Ibañez is involved at OU outside of AFROTC. He is an engineering ambassador at the Russ College of Engineering, where he talks to future students and their parents about the college. As a junior studying aviation, he can be found flying over campus in his free time.
“ROTC is my life because I want it to be my life,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in it.”
The typical Monday or Thursday for a student enrolled in the AFROTC program begins with a 60-90-minute physical training (PT) session starting at 6 a.m. Afterward, cadets attend classes specified to their major, except they have an extra class catered to their program each semester. These classes cover topics like military history and leadership. In the evening, students are encouraged to get involved with other clubs and organizations on campus.
“You’re not always going to have as much free time as the average college student,” Valaitis says, “but at the end of the day, the goal is to make sure that you’ve still enjoyed your time as a college student before entering military service.”
There are many students in the AFROTC program who are also involved with other OU organizations, and Cadet Lanae Lang is among them. She’s a freshman studying sociology-criminology and a member of Alpha Xi Delta Sorority. She says she’s always known she wanted to be in a sorority.
“I didn’t want my full four years of college to just be school and ROTC,” she says. “You can definitely be in other organizations and do ROTC. It's just most people choose not to just for [the] sake of time.”
Lang says she sees parallels in her sorority and the detachment. Both programs have events that support friendship and bonding, and both provide mentor and mentee opportunities and potential leadership positions.
Although Lang is in the minority as an ROTC woman, she says she’s treated with as much respect as the men in the program. Lang is accompanied by two other strong women in AFROTC: the Detachment 650 Lieutenant Colonel Layla Sweet and Wing Commander Valaitis.
“I definitely think that girls can bring something different to the leadership table,” Lang says. “You know, we just think differently.”
Lang also says a huge aspect of AFROTC is standing out in the program.
“You don’t want to just blend into the background,” she says. “You want to raise your hand. You want to be one of the first to volunteer for things. That’s how you advance in the program.”
Students decide to join the AFROTC program for many reasons: financial need, interest in military service and opportunities for growth in the government. For Cadet Mihai Untea, a friend suggested it while he was in his freshman year at the University of Mississippi.
Untea said he planned on talking to an Army officer but the office was closed. He ended up stumbling into the Air Force office and decided that it would be the right fit for him after speaking with the wing commander for over an hour.
Although he was unsure at first, he fell in love with the program and has made some of his closest friends there.
“I feel like my life’s been a lot of spur of the moment decisions,” Untea says, “but none that have been bad. I’ve enjoyed every one of them.”
Untea transferred to Ohio University his sophomore year and now is involved with the German club and the Center for International Studies and the Global Leadership Certificate Program. The Global Leadership Certificate Program allows him to travel overseas in the summer to learn about environmental policy. Untea says he would like to bring the global aspect to AFROTC since cadets could be sent a variety of places after graduation.
“Especially now with such a huge, globalized world…I want to recommend programs like these to [the freshmen],” he says. “So they have more options that they can take later down the road.”
Volunteering in the Athens community is an invaluable part of being in AFROTC. Valaitis says cadets volunteered more than 285 hours of their time in the 2017-18 academic year. Some of the events they’ve participated in include: the 9/11 Stair Challenge Memorial, a 2,074-step challenge to honor the lives lost during 9/11; picking up trash after the Halloween block party; participating in Athens Area Stand Down, a program that assists the homeless; the Good Works Walk and helping veterans in the area through OU’s Veterans Service Office.
“ROTC is not just serving the military and the national military. It’s also serving the community which it’s in,” Untea says. “I feel like people don’t see that part of ROTC.”
AFROTC is primarily a military training organization, however, Valaitis says service is a core value within the organization. ‘Service Before Self’ and ‘Excellence in All We Do’ are two tenants cadets live by.
“[The tenants] push cadets to take on responsibilities and roles that go beyond their normal academic and training demands,” Valaitis says.
Segarra-Ibañez said a common misconception about the program is that all they do is work out and get yelled at, which he explains is not the case.
There’s a concentrated focus within the program on building a safe and family-like environment. Cadets bond through morale events like paintballing, hiking and volleyball at Strouds Run, bowling nights at Rollerbowl and flight dinners. During early morning PT sessions, they show their support for one another by cheering each other on and encouraging one another to keep working toward their goals.
Black says the program and his fellow cadets have pushed him out of his comfort zone and made him more confident in himself. He says this has been beneficial because he’s naturally introverted, and the program has helped him develop extroverted characteristics.
Valaitis says that cadets relate with each other on a deeper level because they go through the same rigorous summer field training and it’s difficult for their non-ROTC peers to empathize with them.
“The rest of the community has no idea what you just went through or what goes on or what you’re doing,” Valaitis says. “Then you feel worse because you’re like ‘Who do I have to share this with?’”
Lang shares this sense of community, comparing AFROTC’s team-like bond to her high school swim team.
“I feel like they’re my teammates. I am always with them and we’re working towards the same goals,” Lang says.
Athens’ social culture is one thing that Valaitis says can conflict with their duties as military officers. If a cadet is caught out on Court Street drinking underage or making questionable choices, it is up to the discretion of the lieutenant colonel to take further measures. Cadets can get in judicial trouble from the government for acting unruly because being in the AFROTC program is a professional position.
“There’s a lot more pressure on you to behave a certain way, even when you’re just trying to be a college student,” Valaitis says.
Upon a cadet’s graduation, they get sent to a base anywhere in the world. They get to indicate their preference, but ultimately the Air Force chooses where they need help and where the cadet will fit in best depending on their experience and education. Many of the cadets said the opportunity to travel is a very exciting aspect of the program and their career choice. Black says he would like to start somewhere out west in the U.S. and eventually travel overseas.
“I don’t want to get stuck somewhere in my life,” Black says. “I want to keep moving around.”
Regardless of outside perceptions of the AFROTC program, cadets say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I definitely don’t think I would be enjoying my college experience as much right now if I wasn’t in ROTC,” Lang says.