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Military Appreciation: Naval and Army ROTC Units Continue a Long and Proud Tradition of Contributing to University Life

On a sunny Tuesday last month, a C-31 Friendship aircraft took to the skies over Hampton Roads, with a payload that was decidedly nonmilitary.

Twelve faculty members and administrators from Old Dominion University were aboard. Overcoming their fears, the ODU staff members performed tandem parachute jumps with the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army's parachute team.

Returning to the office, the ODU contingent - which included such high-ranking university officials as Dean of Students Geneva Walker-Johnson and Vice President for Administration and Finance Bob Fenning - raved about their once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Organized by Lt. Col. Bill Brown, commanding officer of the Army ROTC at ODU, the trip was one more example of how, quietly and without fanfare, the branches of the U.S. military have become indispensible to the university and ingrained in campus life.

"When you enjoy something so much, it is just natural to want to share with other people," Brown said.

"I was amazed at the excitement and interest everyone showed about this jump. It was very easy to find members of the ODU family who were interested in taking part of this tandem jump, and most of them agreed to it immediately. There were a few who emailed back and said 'No way No how,' but the next day were calling and asking if they could go.

"I was truly amazed and honored by the courage and professionalism showed by all of our ODU jumpers."

With May designated as Military Appreciation Month, it's an appropriate time to reflect on the deep military tradition at ODU, which dates back to before World War II.

At the annual Military Council presentation to senior administration officials April 29, ODU President John R. Broderick told senior officers of the Army and Naval ROTC units that their contributions to the campus are not lost on school officials.

"One of my sayings is that people judge the whole university by the part they know. And the feedback we get consistently is what tremendous representatives of the university you folks are," Broderick said.

It's been that way for decades.

In the book "Old Dominion University: From the Great Depression to the New Millennium," the authors describe ODU's partnership with the military as a "five-star relationship."

"This region is essentially a military region, and Old Dominion would not be here if the Navy weren't here. I think a very specific contribution is Old Dominion acting as the basic educational arm of the military service in the area. Basically, we are the Navy's university in this area," noted former ODU President Alfred B. Rollins Jr.

The first students in civil aeronautics and flight training completed their courses in May 1940 at the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary, as ODU was known at the time. Nine graduates joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, another nine enlisted with the U.S. Navy and one became a member of the Royal Air Force.

Immediately following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Engineering Defense Training Program changed its name to the Engineering War Training Program. War training and vocational courses were offered.

The war training courses included aircraft aeronautics, general engineering science, civil engineering and drafting. As more and more men were called to duty, female students enrolled in the courses to help on the home front.

Ultimately, the school was credited with making an incalculable contribution to the war effort. ODU's reward has been even more long-lasting. The connections forged with various branches of the U.S. military have continued and grown stronger in the decades since the war ended.

Town-N-Gown was founded in 1965 as a nonprofit organization designed to foster relationships among Norfolk (town), national defense forces (N) and Old Dominion University (Gown). Started as an informal social club, Town-N-Gown was eventually recognized as an organization on campus, allowing the group access to ODU facilities and resources. Within a few years, membership had grown to nearly 500, with a large military contingent.

Around the same time, the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) made its re-appearance on campus (it had existed for a short time during the Korean War). In 1969, the unit was reorganized and has been flourishing ever since.

At the Military Council meeting in April, the sheer scope of the Army and Naval ROTC activities on campus was clearly in evidence.

"We're very involved in the campus and in the community," said Capt. Mike "Breeze" Barea, commanding officer for the Naval ROTC.

A record enrollment of 249 Naval ROTC members at ODU this year, and another projected record of 253 students for the 2010-11 academic year, solidifies the Hampton Roads Naval ROTC Consortium (which also includes Hampton and Norfolk State universities) as the largest such unit on the East Coast.

The ODU contingent is responsible for bringing in $3.2 million worth of tuition, staff salaries and operating budget from the U.S. Navy. On top of that, the students excel in the classroom, boasting a grade point average of 3.20.

The Army ROTC also hit a record-high enrollment in fall 2009, at 295 members. Currently, the unit is 250 members strong, and is responsible for attracting $2.75 million worth of U.S. Army investment on campus.

Lt. Col. Brown said the unit is on pace to beat by 50 percent its mission requirement of preparing 16 lieutenants annually who are mentally, physically and emotionally ready to lead American soldiers.

"This has been an exciting year for us. We are doing great, and we're so excited to be a big part of a growing ODU campus," Brown said.

Following the commissioning ceremony for Army and Naval ROTC graduates, Barea and Brown - who are leaving their posts at the university this summer - both spoke at length about how their time at Old Dominion has been challenging and rewarding, and how they've felt inspired by the growth of their units along with the campus.

In 1988, ODU continued its commitment to the armed forces in 1988 through the creation of the Military Career Transition Program, the largest of its kind in the country.

Operated through the Darden College of Education, the program is targeted at college graduates who are leaving or retiring from the military and want to start a teaching career. The state's Troops to Teachers program, also housed at ODU, has received national acclaim, placing more than 1,000 military veterans in classrooms since its inception.

The hiring of Capt. Dick Whalen in 1993 as ODU's director of military activities further cemented the school's relationship with the military, a partnership that continues to grow and evolve.

"People don't realize that fully one-quarter of this university - its students, staff and faculty - have a direct connection to the military," he said. "It's a relationship that translates into millions and millions of dollars for the university, and a pool of talented graduates for our service academies."

Whalen said the school's role is to "provide higher education opportunities to active-duty military personnel, their families, reservists and the retired, and Old Dominion is established on most military bases throughout the area to do just that."

In 1994, university officials began talking with leaders of the Department of Defense's Joint Training, Analysis and Simulation Center in Suffolk about a possible partnership. After more than two years of lobbying state and federal officials, a process in which Whalen played a key role, ODU received a five-year, $12.2 million contract from the U.S. Atlantic Command to conduct engineering research at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC).

Today, with VMASC as the pivot, ODU is one of the world's leading research institutions in the field of modeling, simulation and visualization. John Sokolowski, himself a retired Navy officer, is the executive director of VMASC. "With the military's expertise and support, we have helped build a roster of faculty across disciplines that specialize in doing collaborative research, with an eye to helping government, the military and private industry meet their strategic goals," Sokolowski said.

There are dozens of examples of the partnership between the military and ODU proving fruitful for both sides. One breakthrough happened earlier this month.

ODU was selected as one of 15 schools nationwide with expertise in maritime engineering to join the Naval Engineering Education Consortium (NEEC).

The agreement, struck with the U.S. Navy's Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), will support the NEEC in educating and developing world-class naval systems engineers for the Navy's civilian acquisition and engineering workforce.

Oktay Baysal, the dean of ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, said the training of skilled military engineers is already occurring at the university. "If you look at the engineering management master's degree program, the large number of Naval ROTC students completing undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees at ODU, and the commitment the school has made to distance learning, it's clear we're well positioned to contribute to the vital job of supplying smart, motivated engineering graduates to the United States Navy," Baysal said.

At last month's Military Council meeting, Broderick made one final point about the marriage of military and academia at ODU.

"I'm not sure folks recognize just how much the military branches contribute to Old Dominion, in research dollars, faculty and talented students," he said.

This article was posted on: May 21, 2010

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