For some, military dreams face an end
Facing the anxious cadet in front of her, Sofia Esquivel, the Human Resources Technician for the Norwich University Army Reserve Officer Training (ROTC) department, remembered the tears she had cried just moments ago while on the phone with the cadet's parent.
"I'm sorry," she said, gazing brokenheartedly at the bold words "denied" stamped on the file on her desk. "You've had this dream your whole life and you can't achieve it."
Since 2010, it has been more difficult for potential servicemen to obtain a waiver when they face a disqualification from military service, according to Esquivel. This dream -shattering dilemma leaves students struggling to find a 'Plan B.'
"I was kind of crushed because that's all I want," said Sarah Chapman, a 20-year-old sophomore criminal justice major from Jericho, Vt., who has recently been medically disqualified from service. "I just want to serve. I want to be a career officer. So, to be told that I can't even enlist or be an officer, it's kind of like, 'what do I do now?'"
"I was pretty distraught at first," said Christopher LaPrath, a 20-year-old sophomore studies of war and peace major from Pittsburgh, Penn., who faced the same situation, He was told he was medically disqualified a week after being informed that he was in good standing to receive an Air Force field training slot.
It's not just a tightening of waivers that is bringing disappointment to Norwich students. Some cadets intent upon joining the U.S. military are also finding themselves unable to achieve their goal because of a recent reduction in Army military slots allotted to the university,
For students like LaPrath, joining the Armed Forces has been a dream since childhood. "I think my dad kind of fostered that military type spirit," said LaPrath, who has been pursuing a military track since playing 'Army' as a child.
According to Esquivel, potential servicemen and women may be disqualified for a multitude of reasons to include various medical issues and civil convictions, such as a Driving Under the Influence (DUI) charge or if a student is expelled from the university.
"Basically, if you have more than two civil infractions, they are not going to get approved," Esquivel said about students seeking a contract. During the application process, even with misdemeanors Esquivel said students must supply an extensive amount of paperwork in order to attempt a waiver. "Right now you are a one-shot."
However, Esquivel said, contracted personnel are only allowed one civil offense before being disqualified. This does not include felonies, such as rape, which is an automatic disqualification.
"I certainly try to manage their expectations," Esquivel said about how she is careful to not get students' hope too high during the waiver process for fear of disappointment. "Even for me, a couple of waivers took me by surprise that they were disqualified, and I would attribute that to the fact that there is a waiver reduction right now."
Having had no prior hint, LaPrath was shocked that psoriasis (the most common autoimmune disorder in the U.S. according to the National Psoriasis Foundation (www.psoriasis.org), disqualified him from serving in the U.S. Air Force. "I want to serve my country because that's the type of person that I am, I like to serve and help other people."
Adhering to the 'selfless service' principle of the seven Army Values, LaPrath attributes his desire to join the service to his participation in Junior Reserve Officer Training (JROTC). "We formed a bond (in JROTC)," LaPrath said. "That's the type of bond you get in the military and I definitely wanted to be a big part of that."
Chapman has chased her dream of a military career since joining the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) in eighth grade and said the familial bond at Norwich helped solidify her desire to serve.
LaPrath noted the important role his family played in supporting his desire to join the military. "My family (is) very supportive of any decision that I make," LaPrath said, "but they were taken aback by the fact that I couldn't join."
"We have medical disqualification (and) disciplinary disqualification," explained Col. Steve Smith, a professor of military science for the Norwich University Army Department. Both categories of ineligibility can become obstacles to students' attempts to apply for or obtain a military contract or scholarship.
A parallel issue today, according to Smith, is the "personnel cap" within the services that disqualifies otherwise qualified students from contracting. This cap has been reached throughout NU's current junior Army class. As a result, no more juniors will be allowed to contract this year. Because 1st Brigade of Cadet Command currently has 16 students over its mission, it is difficult to contract anymore students at this time.
"We have a cap of 77 kids that we are allowed to contract within the Army (ROTC department at NU)," Smith said. "Right now, for example, we have more cadets who are qualified to contract than we are physically able to contract." "(It is) really frustrating right now because we have a lot of great students who we would love to contract and might not be able to because of medical conditions or civil convictions," Esquivel said.
According to Esquivel, the waiver process itself has become more difficult with the recent budget and personnel cuts in the Army. "It has become harder," admitted Esquivel.
In order to seek a waiver from disqualification, the student must meet minimum requirements for important components of the Army's Student Athlete Leader (SAL) concept, such as their GPA and APFT. However, even meeting the standard is not a guarantee of being accepted at the current time, Esquivel explained. "Just because they meet the minimum requirement is no guarantee that (their) medical waiver or civil conviction waiver is going to get approved," she said.
"It's no longer the minimum," Esquivel said, encouraging students to exceed the minimums in order to stay competitive for a waiver. "You have to do your maximum; the minimum just doesn't cut it anymore when it comes to medical waivers."
The changes are being driven by new military constraints at the national level. "The Army is overproducing officers," Esquivel said. "Right now the country is cutting budgets." Referring specifically to the significant number of people relieved of their jobs with the relocation to Fort Knox, Ky., after the closing of Fort Monroe, Va., Esquivel points out that the defense budget is no exception in facing a squeeze.
In order to send an exceptional contract hopeful's name to the brigade for consideration, the student needs to exceed the standards. "(To be competitive for a contract) means your GPA has to be up to snuff; that means your APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) has to be great; it's no longer just passing."
The impact of the budget cuts is evident in the various military bases closing down, in personnel being relieved, and in the increased number of denied waivers, according to Esquivel. "The military is really going into reduction right now and that is affecting these waivers," Esquivel said.
Esquivelnoted the Army department had always "seen it coming down the pipeline," but it was not until 2010 with the release of the "Memorandum of Instruction for Waiver Reduction through the United States Army Cadet Command (USACC)" regarding the reduction of waivers, that the effects of the budget cuts would be felt. "I started seeing medical waivers that usually would not be an issue getting approved, were coming back disapproved," Esquivel said.
According to Col. Smith, the Army is "drawing down to a force of about 490,000." While currently just over that goal at just over 500,000, the Army department is unable to go over their set number of contracts as they had been able to in past years.
However, according to Smith, the downsizing of the armed forces will not affect how disqualifications are processed. "The drawdown won't have any effect on how we process waivers," Smith said. "The standards are still the same."
Concurring with Smith's statement, Bryon Butler, Human Resource Specialist for Medical Actions for USACC, states that the recent drawdown in the military has not affected the way in which waivers are processed. "The Cadet Command Surgeon looks at (waivers) from a medical standpoint whether (a cadet) is fit to be in Army," Butler said. "Our standards have not changed because of budget cuts or (if) we are now full as Cadet Command deems us."
"Right now they are willing to waive medical conditions (for those) capable for serving but who don't meet the standard," said Col. Kevin Smith, Cadet Command Surgeon at USACC, who receives with Butler 35 to 40 waiver requests per day.
Col. Smith said there may be a point in the future when the Army is full to the point that the service may be even more selective with its personnel. This could equate to no longer accepting waivers for disqualifications. However, for the time being, waivers are being processed for disqualifications not affecting a cadet's ability to serve.
As with the Army, the Air Force's disqualification standards have not been altered with the budget and personnel cuts, according to Col. Scott Manning, a professor of aerospace studies, the commander of the Air Force ROTC Detachment #867, and the dean of national services. "I think a lot of cadets need to keep in mind," Manning said, "that each of the services is going to have a bar that has to be met."
Manning deals directly with students who are disqualified from service in the Air Force, and has experienced the disappointment of having to inform them of their status. "One of the hardest things I have had to do is to talk to a student that is not going to be commissioned or cannot stay on a commissioning track," he said.
As one of the representatives from the Army ROTC department who handles disqualifications and waivers, Esquivel works very closely with students fighting to get into the service. "I am constantly speaking with students," she said. "I am constantly on the phone with parents and it's always heartbreaking to me to see a student medically disqualified, especially when you want to see (them) in your program."
Esquivel not only works with students, but also their families as she tries to formulate the student's waiver package. "I've been on the phone crying with parents on the line," said Esquivel, who takes the denied waiver cases personally. "That's the disheartening part of the job."
Although in such situations it is difficult to think positively, it's important to do so when a dream is shattered, according to Smith. "Keep a positive attitude if things don't go your way. It's not the end of the world. You can still be a leader (and) that's what's great about the Norwich degree."
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