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Editors’ Pick: College and Commitment

Fallon Rossi’s life in Navy ROTC

Click the slide show above to hear Fallon Rossi describe her day as a battalion officer in ROTC.

Most days last year, Fallon Rossi favored a wardrobe of reds, pinks, and oranges, chunky silver jewelry, and head scarves to hold back her unruly curls. Each Wednesday, however, her wardrobe became a little more regimented.

The College of Arts and Sciences senior’s day typically began in Navy-issue sweats at the Track and Tennis Center for an early-morning physical training session. Then, back in her dorm room on Bay State Road, she shined her shoes, polished her belt buckle, and tucked in her khaki uniform.

“I have a lot of these crazy clothes, and sometimes I find myself picking out something that’s the most radical thing I could wear,” she said. “Not to make a statement, just to show this is who I am when I’m not wearing my uniform. But personality-wise, it’s not that different. I always carry the weight of being in the military.”

A psychology major who worked with troubled children, a gospel singer, and the self-identified “hippie” of her unit, Rossi was also a battalion officer in Boston University’s Navy Reserve Office Training Corps (ROTC). More than 250 students participate in Air Force, Army, and Navy ROTC programs at BU each year; Rossi specialized in surface warfare and upon graduating in May 2006 was commissioned as an ensign. She is now an administration officer on the USS Reuben James, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In her first days at BU, Rossi had feared that being a member of the military would mean losing her individuality in drills and rules. But after four years in ROTC, she’d come to feel that the Navy didn’t diminish who she was — it made her a better version of herself.

“When I was a freshman, I was scared,” she said. “I was scared to commit to something so great; I was intimidated by the formality, by the structure. I felt like I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be an individual.

“And I’ve found that not only are you encouraged to have a personality, you’re encouraged to use it. Not only to find your niche, but to find how you’ll serve best as a leader.”

In the Navy now

Unlike most ROTC students, Rossi didn’t enter BU with a military career in mind. She had already decided to attend BU when she learned about ROTC and realized that she didn’t have to go to a military school to receive the training.

“It seemed like a fairly obvious decision,” she said. “The Navy was going to offer me a scholarship to attend BU, full tuition, and in return they were offering me the opportunity to train to become a leader. Which to me was like, ‘Free school, plus become a leader? Yeah, OK, I could do that.’”

But when she began her freshman year, she found herself twice as intimidated as the average first-year: in addition to starting college, she was committing herself to the Navy for four years of college, four years of active duty, and four years of reserve duty. The physical training was difficult, and the structure and the formalities were like “a whole new world,” she said.

Over the course of the year, she learned how to salute and whom to salute and found out just how much of her silver jewelry she was allowed to wear (two rings, plus small earrings). She got used to polishing her shoes, belt buckle, and nameplate in her spare moments, and learned that a quick and acceptable military hairstyle could be achieved by winding her hair around a sock. Morning PT became easier.

She figured out how to balance her workload with her ROTC obligation and other activities, rising early for her Naval Science classes and scheduling study sessions around battalion meetings. “As a freshman, your responsibilities are slim to none — in retrospect,” she said. “At the time, it didn’t seem that way.”

Three years later, when she was named a battalion officer for her senior year, she was able to laugh at what she had initially considered an overwhelming amount of responsibility. But by that point in her career, she knew how to handle all her obligations: by scheduling every hour of her busiest days, down to the 9 a.m. coffee break.

“Wednesdays (my uniform day) are the most ‘interesting,’” she wrote in an e-mail last spring. “Or just very, very long.

0500-0515 – Wake up time! 171 Bay State Apt 6
0545-0700 – Morning PT. BU Track and Tennis Center
0700-0715 – Back to apt, change into uniform
0730-0900 – Leadership and Ethics class. SMG 228
          0900 – Starbucks time! SMG
1000-1200 – Graduate Psych Class. PSY 155
1200-1500 – Supply Officer errand time. Sovereign Bank, NROTC unit, LAST MINUTE EXAM REVIEW :)
1500-1600 – Psych class (exam!). CAS 326
1600-1800 – Navy Leadership Lab. SMG 105
1830-1930 – Battalion Staff Meeting. NROTC unit
          2000 – Return to apt.

“Then, maybe some eating,” she said. “Maybe some homework.”

As the supply officer, Rossi was responsible for providing the necessary materials for battalion activities — everything from drill competitions to study sessions. Her errands could mean shopping for new computers, purchasing drill colors, or on one particular day, returning unused insignia to the Boston Navy ROTC headquarters at MIT. Getting everything done between classes was made easier last year because she and her roommate, Midshipman Thea Peck (CAS’06), co-owned a black Jeep.

Responsibility — social, financial, and ethical — plays a big part in the ROTC training for seniors, in the classroom as well as in battalion activities. Within a few months, each midshipman would be leading a unit of enlisted men and women, making decisions that would affect an entire ship’s operation. Learning how to manage money was as much a part of that as learning the Geneva convention.

“I assign all the students a section of things to teach, because in a couple of months, they’re going to be out in the fleet and actually conducting training,” said Captain Robert Holland, who taught last year’s senior Leadership and Ethics class. “The law of armed conflict is one thing that we’re required to teach because of the profession we’re going into, but we’ve also got everybody doing a budget for their first year when they graduate. It’s all part of their training right now.”

“Weapons, engineering, naval history, the basics of who to salute, when to salute — those are all stuff you do pretty much as a freshman,” Rossi said. “Now it’s time to learn how to lead, because … it’s time.”

Off duty

Outside of her unit, the midshipman specializing in surface warfare studied peace.

The maternal instinct that helped Rossi lead her unit extended to her psychology research in family violence and her work at a home for children who have witnessed trauma. “I really have a great dedication to children who have seen a lot of trauma,” she said. “My work as a counselor this year has really affected me.”

The summer before her senior year, she went straight from Navy training to Nepal, where she spent July and August volunteering in an orphanage and working in a hospital.

The graduate research team she joined last year studied theories of world peace and moral disengagement from armed conflict.

And on Sundays, she sang with the University’s Inner Strength Gospel Choir.

The idea that being a member of ROTC is incongruous with any of these, she said, is a “huge misconception.”

“I have a shirt from ROTC that says, ‘Pray for peace, train for war,’” she said. “It means a lot to me because every single member of the military will tell you that they wish there could be no war. My job will be to command a division of men and women and literally just to care for them in every aspect of their lives.”

A commitment to the call

There are two ways of looking at an ROTC officer’s obligations and responsibilities — Rossi described them as “macro” and “micro.”

On the macro level, she is now an officer in the U.S. Navy, responsible for defending the country and serving in battle, if necessary. Her awareness of this role — her membership in this organization — is why she declined to discuss politics or the current conflicts involving the U.S. military. “We are part of an organization that is higher than ourselves and higher than our personal opinion,” she explained. “Unfortunately, it’s an area that I’m not allowed to have an opinion on, publicly.”

Of the possibility of deployment, she said, “Within the commitment is a commitment to the call of duty.”

But then there is the micro level: for instance, at BU her day-to-day responsibilities as a supply officer, making sure every battalion member has the equipment and insignia they need, and her role in the battalion’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation, trying to help other midshipmen find a balance between ROTC, school, and fun. There was also her participation in the Fitness Enhancement Program, providing an extra hand to struggling underclassmen, and her efforts to know every battalion member’s course schedule and hometown.

“We’re kind of the parents of the battalion,” she said, “which is my favorite job.”

It is the most important thing she has learned as a midshipman. When she was commissioned as an officer last May, Rossi knew how to pilot a ship, how to use advanced naval weaponry, how and when to salute. She had learned how to keep her shirts tucked in and her hair pulled back, and how, in a pinch, to spit-shine her shoes.

And she had learned, as she had hoped four years ago, how her own inclination to care for people, whether in a hospital in Nepal or aboard a frigate, could translate into leadership.

“People see us as officers, like ‘Shoot ’em up’ — that’s the image,” she said. “But the most important thing I’m doing is taking care of other military members. That’s our job.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

This article was originally published on BU Today on November 21, 2006.