Apodaca: UCI launches first ROTC program in wake of 'don't ask, don't tell' reversal

Lost amid the recent media frenzy over the so-called Irvine 11 was some good news coming out of UC Irvine.

The repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which took effect Sept. 20, has resulted in the establishment of the first ROTC program at UCI. The university had previously declined to sanction the military training program's presence on campus because it didn't comply with UCI's nondiscrimination policy.

The university was able to get the program up and running at the start of the current academic year, thanks to the persistence of an enterprising student, and the cooperation of some school officials, who quickly laid the groundwork when it became clear the military's anti-gay policy would change.

Indeed, as soon as President Obama signed the bill repealing "Don't ask, don't tell" last December, the university began putting the plan in place to begin its inaugural class of U.S. Army ROTC students this fall.

"We've been prepared for it for awhile," said Sharon Salinger, UCI's dean of undergraduate education. "We moved quite quickly when President Obama signed it."

The Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps, started in 1916 to provide leadership and military training at high schools and universities, has commissioned more than 500,000 officers. More than 20,000 cadets are enrolled across the country — 20% of them women.

Among the prominent ROTC alumni are former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Wal-Mart founder Samuel Walton and NBA coach Lenny Wilkens.

"Don't ask, don't tell" was adopted in 1993 under President Clinton. It allowed gays to serve in the military, providing they kept their sexual orientation secret.

The policy, which resulted in the discharge of more than 13,000 servicemen and women over the years, strained relations between some colleges and military recruiters. While UCI was a holdout in the UC system — UCLA, UC Berkeley and others have long-established ROTC programs — many Ivy League schools also kept the doors closed to ROTC.

Many of those colleges are also now changing course. A few weeks ago, a formal ceremony was held at Harvard University to welcome the Navy's ROTC program back on campus.

At UCI, Salinger was first approached about three years ago by then-student Christian Peralta about starting an ROTC program on campus. She knew the timing wasn't yet right, but she remained receptive to the prospect if circumstances ever changed — particularly because she believed UCI could have been losing good students to other universities that offered ROTC classes.

Peralta, who graduated in June with a degree in criminology, said he understood UCI's stand on the issue, but acknowledged that the absence of an ROTC program "was tough on me."

The 22-year-old Pico Rivera resident had transferred to UCI from West Point after his first year of college, and joined a handful of other Irvine students who trekked to Cal State Long Beach for ROTC training. When he heard the news that "don't ask, don't tell" would soon be revoked, he said, "I went back and reengaged the faculty."

It didn't take much convincing, but there was plenty of work that needed to be done. One of the difficulties UCI officials faced was finding space on the crowded campus for the ROTC offices, classrooms and study areas, a problem that was solved when the biology department offered to make room.

Another hurdle was putting the ROTC courses through the gamut of academic approvals required for the new curricula.

Now the program is up and running with about 20 students signed on. Peralta, who has since been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army, has been working temporarily as an assistant recruiter. He sees ROTC enrollment at UCI eventually rising to about 80.

"It was a long journey, but it was well worth it," he said.

Peralta will remain at UCI until February, when he's due to join his Infantry division at Fort Benning, Ga., for seven months. Afterward, he'll be stationed in Hawaii.

Salinger is pleased that the ROTC program is at long last underway at UCI.

"I've been very impressed with the way they create leaders," she said. "I think it creates really strong individuals. I hope it will be something that will attract students to UCI."

While "don't ask, don't tell" was in effect, UCI took a principled stand, but very possibly lost some promising young students to other schools. The military lost the ability to recruit at a top university.

With the policy now in the rearview mirror, UCI can unreservedly assent to the ROTC presence on campus and stay true to the philosophy of acceptance and inclusion that it tries to impart to its students.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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