Yale’s cadets and midshipmen ready to look ‘sharp’ for the President’s Review

When Andrew Heymann ’15 joined Yale’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) midway through his sophomore year, the unit was in its fledgling stage, and he wasn’t sure what to expect as a new officer in training on the campus.

For Heymann, the inaugural President’s Review on Thursday, April 30, demonstrates just how far the program has settled in on campus in a few short years.

Heymann is excited to be among the 75 Navy midshipmen and Air Force cadets who will don military attire to march in formation for the President’s Review, which takes place at 11 a.m. in the John J. Lee Amphitheater of Payne Whitney Gymnasium, 70 Tower Pkwy. The event is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a reception.

Yale President Peter Salovey will serve as the “reviewing officer,” at the public event, inspecting the officers-in-training as a commanding officer would do in a traditional military review. The midshipmen and cadets, in turn, will salute the president.

“There is long military tradition of the troops being presented to the commanding officer, or to special guests or reviewing officers,” explains Captain Vernon P. Kemper, the commanding officer of Yale’s NROTC. “It’s a way to show off the battalion to the reviewing officer.”

“Yale has had a history of service in government and military life dating back to its beginnings. The students here have long distinguished themselves for their service in so many ways.”

Adds Colonel Phil M. Haun, the commander of the Yale’s Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) unit: “The President’s Review is a visual manifestation of our ROTC program at Yale, where we are essentially saying, ‘We have invested in the program for several years at Yale now: What have we got?’

“Our Navy midshipmen and Air Force cadets have been marching and drilling separately over the course of their training, and have recently been doing that training jointly to prepare for the President’s Review,” he continues. “This is really good training for our cadets and midshipmen, where they see that this kind of exercise is not just behind closed doors. They’ve got to do in front of a crowd, and this first joint event is preparation for the kind of joint exercises and missions they will undertake when they serve in the Air Force and Navy in the future.”

Yale’s Navy and Air Force ROTC programs were re-established on campus in the fall of 2012 after a four-decade long hiatus that began during the turbulent Vietnam War era. In the first year, there were about 20 students combined participating in the NROTC and AFROTC programs on campus. Today, that number has grown to 75. This includes 41 midshipmen (all of the students in the NROTC detachment are from Yale) and 34 cadets (13 are Yale students and the others come from neighboring Connecticut colleges who are trained in the university’s ROTC program).

Kemper, who now oversees the largest NROTC in the Ivy League, says that he is not surprised by the growth of Yale’s program.

“Yale has had a history of service in government and military life dating back to its beginnings,” he says. “The students here have long distinguished themselves for their service in so many ways.”

During the President’s Review, 10 Air Force cadets and 10 Navy midshipmen will also be honored with awards from the Yale Veterans Network and the Yale Veterans Association, as well as from other local veterans’ groups.

“The President’s Review serves as an acknowledgement from the university of the hard work these students have put in throughout the year,” says Commander Keith Lanzer, executive officer of the NROTC unit.

To mark the inaugural President’s Review, YaleNews spoke to Heymann, his fellow NROTC midshipman Gabrielle Fong ’16, and two members of the AFROTC — Sierra Jackson ’18 and Madeline Skrocki ’17 — about their experiences in ROTC. Here is what we learned.

Andrew Heymann: Helping to make a home at Yale

Heymann, who hails from Portland, Oregon, says he chose to attend Yale with the expectation that it would reinstate ROTC on its campus. Being part of ROTC allowed him to begin his naval training while also working toward a joint degree in electrical engineering and computer science, and swimming competitively as a member of the Yale Bulldogs men’s swim team. He is captain of the team this year.

When he considered his college choices, he says, he realized that serving in the Navy incorporated many of his interests, giving him the opportunity to travel, to regularly incorporate physical fitness into his lifestyle, and to hone his leadership skills.

“I love the water,” says Heymann, who has been swimming competitively since grade school. “So when looking at the various branches of the military, it was not a hard decision for me.”

The ROTC’s rigorous academic standards and physical training, as well as its focus on leadership development, were also appealing to the Yale senior, who this year will be one of two midshipmen from Yale in the NROTC’s first graduating class since the unit was re-established.

“During my time here, it’s been a big growing process for the ROTC,” he says. “When we started, all we had was the history and tradition of ROTC at Yale, and we had to tap back into that history while also paving the way forward. We’ve really come a long way.”

Heymann says he is proud to have helped play a role in the development of his unit. In addition to offering feedback and advice about the program in its early stages, he also helped write the code of honor for Yale’s NROTC. The honor code sets standards of behavior for the young men and women in Yale’s unit training to serve in the U.S. Navy.

Students in both the NROTC and the AFROTC dedicate between six to eight hours a week to the program, on average. In addition to their five Yale courses, they take an additional ROTC-specified course each semester, and participate in hours of leadership and physical training.

For Heymann and other members of the NROTC, these extra courses include “Introduction to Naval Science,” “Navigation,” “Organizational Leadership,” “Seapower,” “Naval Engineering,” “Naval Weapons Systems,” and “Naval Operations,” and “Leadership and Ethics.” They currently receive Yale credit for only one of their courses: “Military History of the West Since 1500” (taught by historian Paul Kennedy).

"The network of people at this place is unparalleled, and interacting with people and having meaningful discussions is as important to me as the other things I do."

Having that extra course load each semester means Heymann wakes up early for his 7:30 a.m. naval science class twice a week, and he also takes part in a naval science leadership lab for one-and-a-half hours one day a week.

“The lab is reserved for whatever needs to be done, such as specific training or drills, guest speakers, or planning for particular NROTC events,” he explains.

As a member of the swim team, he also practices every afternoon for two hours and on Saturdays (when there are no swim meets) for several hours. “I basically have a 20-hour-a-week commitment to swimming,” says the Yale senior, who competes in the 200-yard breaststroke and the 200-yard individual medley.

“It’s a busy schedule with my ROTC and swimming commitments, but I am pretty disciplined,” remarks Heymann. “I work the fastest and best when under a time crunch.”

In fact, he says, one of the highlights of his time at Yale has been having so many days when his various commitments allow him to move from his NROTC classes and activities to his Yale courses to swim practice, and then ending the evening at an activity for Scroll & Key, the secret society to which he belongs.

“Those are the days I really feel that this is what makes being at Yale so cool,” he says. “There are just so many different opportunities to take advantage of here. And I still make time just to talk to people and hang out. The network of people at this place is unparalleled, and interacting with people and having meaningful discussions is as important to me as the other things I do.”

Heymann’s goal is to become an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) officer in the Navy. After graduation, he will spend a year-and-a-half being trained in scuba diving and other water skills. He will then spend six months learning about the detection, identification, and safe disposal of explosive chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; this will be followed by additional training in jumping out of planes, the intricacies of using and preparing parachutes, and related skills. If he passes each of these highly demanding training regimens, he will be assigned to a naval EOD unit.

“I’ll be happy in whatever location they place me,” comments Heymann. “In my opinion, there are no bad jobs in the Navy.”

Heymann adds that he is excited for the opportunity to serve and defend his country.

“I’ve always been interested in public service,” says the Yale student, who, while still in high school created a STEM academy for elementary and middle school students interested in robotics. “I love giving back to my community, and I don’t think there’s any better way to give back than to defend the country. It might sound cliché, but I believe strongly that we need people to come out of Yale and go everywhere in the world. So much talent and experience comes out of this campus, and I think we have a responsibility to share that diversity in different fields all over the place.”

As a member of the first class of midshipmen to graduate, Heymann looks forward to his naval commissioning ceremony, which take place after Commencement. So, too, does his commanding officer, Kemper, who also leads the NROTC at Holy Cross College.

“I’m a parent, and my daughters have recently graduated,” Kemper says. “I get the same lump in my throat at the end of the year when I see our midshipmen raise their hand to take the oath of commission and go off to dedicate themselves to service to their nation. That pride doesn’t get old.”

Sierra Jackson: Reaching for the sky

Freshman Sierra Jackson, a cadet in the AFROTC, came to Yale with a private glider’s license, and aspires to serve as an Air Force pilot.

She is among six freshmen in the AFROTC, and the only woman among them, but is unfazed by her singularity.

“It’s like having a bunch of brothers,” says Jackson, who hails from Hawaii. “The great thing about ROTC is that we all take care of each other.”

During her freshman year, she has been enrolled in a survey course, “The Foundations of the United States Force,” which provides an overview of the basic characteristics, missions, and organization of that branch of the military. In her sophomore, junior, and senior years, she will take courses on “The Evolution of the United States Air Force Air and Space Power,” “The United States Air Force Leadership Studies,” and “National Security Affairs/Preparation for Active Duty,” respectively. Next year, she will also be enrolled in Kennedy’s military history course.

In addition to her coursework, Jackson joins other cadets for physical training twice a week and participates in the leadership laboratory, which also meets twice a week. The AFROTC leadership laboratory focuses on marching, drill exercises, and leadership development.

Jackson’s father served in the Army, and she enjoyed taking part in a junior ROTC program in high school.

“I love the military lifestyle,” she says of her decision to enroll in Yale’s AFROTC program. “I like the idea of working toward something greater than yourself and serving the country.”

“I love the military lifestyle. I like the idea of working toward something greater than yourself and serving the country.”

The Yale freshman, who is majoring in mechanical engineering, says she was particularly excited that she could train for her future career but study a wide range of subjects at Yale.

“I’d like eventually to go to test pilot school, but if becoming a pilot doesn’t ultimately work out, I think engineering is really fun,” says Jackson, who is studying Japanese this semester and will go to Japan this summer on a Richard U. Light Fellowship for more intensive study of the language.

A member of Yale’s water polo team, Jackson acknowledges that her commitment to ROTC and to a sport can make for a challenging schedule, but she has no regrets.

“On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I wake up at 5:30 a.m. for physical training at 6 or 6:30 a.m., and then my practices for water polo are 8 to 10 p.m.,” she says. “I end up doing problem sets on Thursday nights after practice when I am tired. But you really have to choose what you value, and I do feel that I’ve made the right choice for me.”

Jackson adds that Yale is the “perfect place” to train to be a military officer.

“In the military, you have to work with civilians who often do not have the same opinions as you do,” says the freshman. “Here, I’ve had a bunch of conversations with my suitemates about the military, and my choice to serve. There’s an extra time commitment, yes, but I’m getting to engage and talk with people from all different backgrounds.”

Jackson is also readying herself for the field training she must complete after her sophomore year. To be accepted into field training, she will have to meet certain physical fitness requirements — including a 1.5-mile run — and have a respectable G.P.A.

“For field training, we go to a military base for 30 days for intensified training. It’s like boot camp, where you do military drills, are tested on our academic knowledge, and have leadership training.”

As pilot selection is a highly competitive process, Jackson says that it’s important for her to stay focused and disciplined to meet her goal, but she tackles those challenges with eagerness.

“No one says that Yale is easy or that doing AFROTC is easy,” she says. “But we sometimes have to give up certain freedoms in order to gain others. I think serving my country and protecting it, so that other people can have this freedom to have a university like Yale, is invaluable. … I’m very happy where I am right now. I think this is where I’m meant to be.”

Gabrielle Fong: One of a few future careers

As part of her Yale NROTC training, Yale junior Gabrielle Fong spent part of last summer stationed aboard a Navy aircraft carrier in Norfolk, Virginia, where she was able to shadow some of the enlisted crew members. She also stood watch on the ship’s bridge with some of them.

“It was a great opportunity to see what the Navy has to offer,” says Fong, who hopes one day to serve on a ship. “It was an amazing experience to be out on the water in a Navy vessel, especially an aircraft career, and to see planes take off and land.”

She is also grateful for the training that she is receiving from her Navy instructors in the program.

“We are being taught by three active Navy lieutenants who just came from the fleet, either serving on a submarine, an aviation squadron, or a ship, and they use their experience to teach us,” she says.

Fong, who came to Yale from Kentucky, hails from a family with no military background, and joined the NROTC because she believes the military fits her strengths.

“I like order and discipline, and I like the camaraderie,” she says. “I’m excited to serve my country and to learn valuable leadership skills.”

Fong is majoring in history at Yale, and took a year of calculus and physics at Yale as part of her NROTC requirements, in addition to the naval science classes required of midshipmen. She also attends mandatory physical training sessions at least once a week.

Despite her extra NROTC course load, she still makes time to tutor students in math and English once a week at the Fair Haven Middle School and is an Education Studies Scholar. As part of the Education Studies Scholar Program, she must take a minimum of four extra courses in the area of education, have a field experience, and take part in a Capstone seminar in her senior year.

“I thought, ‘Man, am I going to get booed if I am walking around in my uniform?’ The truth is, I have gotten nothing but support and respectful curiosity."

“I’m a big believer in having many careers,” she says, “and teaching is on my list of things to do. I’d love to get involved in education policy in Kentucky. I have an allegiance to my state, and a lot of hometown pride, and in the future, I hope to affect some changes in education policy there, as I am aware of the struggles the Kentucky public school system faces.”

Fong is on the board of the Yale Model Congress, an organization that plans a Model Congress conference for more than 1,000 high school students annually. In her role as director of delegations, she was responsible for all communications and organizational matters between the Yale group and the more than 100 high schools and their advisers.

“I did a similar program in high school, and I like being able to help facilitate that for other high schools in the area,” she says. “It is a great opportunity to give back in a way that has meant a lot to me.”

The Yale junior is also helping to start a new service organization, the Student Alliance for Veterans at Yale, which will focus on serving local veterans by bridging with various Dwight Hall student organizations.

Fong acknowledges that when she first arrived at Yale, she was a little nervous about how her involvement in ROTC would be received by her classmates. She will be one of two females from NROTC to graduate from Yale next year.

“I thought, ‘Man, am I going to get booed if I am walking around in my uniform?’” she recalls. “The truth is, I have gotten nothing but support and respectful curiosity. The most common question I get is ‘Why would you want to join the military?’”

Fong has felt encouraged by the support the university gives to ROTC, as well as to the various veterans’ organizations on campus.

“Yale just hosted a Veterans Summit, which I attended,” she says. “Veterans’ issues have come to the fore here. Many of our Eli Whitney Scholars have been veterans, and I’ve had the chance to meet many of them. General [Stanley] McCrystal teaches here, and in my freshmen year he invited naval midshipmen to a reception. I can’t imagine a smoother transition than what I have experienced.”

At Yale, Fong has studied Chinese (her father’s family is originally from China), and she hopes to one day become a foreign area officer, or military attaché, to China. Before then, she is eager to commission into the U.S. Navy as an ensign in surface warfare.

More immediately, Fong says she is excited to process in front of Salovey at the President’s Review.

“We will look great,” she says. “We’ll look sharp. It’s exciting to have him come out and recognize us. I’m really proud to be part of the NROTC program and feel very fortunate that I could come to Yale and do that.”

Madeline Skrocki: A part of the whole

Sophomore Madeline Skrocki decided in her junior year of high school that she wanted to serve in the military, and concluded after a visit to the Air Force Academy that she would be happier in the ROTC program at Yale.

“I decided I wanted to join the ROTC because of the balance I would have between student life and military training,” says the Yale student, who will be a third-generation Air Force officer in her family.

Skrocki grew up in nine different places by the time she came to Yale, but her family mostly lived off the military base, and none of her friends were from military families.

“My dad is navigator in the Air Force, and I always took pride in knowing what he did, which was so different from what my friends’ parents did,” she says. “I want to give back, and I really want to serve the U.S. government and to see the world,” she says. She and Jackson are the only two female students from Yale in the AFROTC.

This summer, Skrocki will spend a month in Alabama and Mississippi completing the field training that is required for her commission into the Air Force. She aspires to be a pilot, flying Air Force cargo planes as her father does.

A ballerina since childhood, Skrocki is the treasurer of the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company, a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority on campus, treasurer of the Yale Texas Society (her parents are originally from Texas but now live in Hawaii), and treasurer of the Hawaii Club. She also serves on a coalition for the Yale College Dean’s Office exploring the culture of leadership at the university.

“One of the big misconceptions, I think, about ROTC students is that they live two lives — one as a Yale student and one as a military student."

“ROTC is a small part of what I do here but it is definitely a very important part,” says Skrocki. “One of the big misconceptions, I think, about ROTC students is that they live two lives — one as a Yale student and one as a military student. For me, it’s all integrated into who I am as Yale College student, and my ROTC training is not something divorced from that.”

She notes that her friends on campus see her every Thursday in her Air Force uniform, every Monday sporting her sorority letters, and often in the dining hall with her ballet pointe shoes draped over her shoulder.

Skrocki is majoring in political science, and believes that the field has helped her to critically evaluate politics and history, and even helps prepare her for some of the questions she faces as a member of the Air Force.

“Last Veterans Day, a friend shared his opinion that we shouldn’t thank veterans for their service,” she recalls. “I messaged him about it, and we engaged in a great conversation. For me, it is enlightening to have these conversations, and it is one of the things I love about being at Yale. We have diverse perspectives and can respectfully share them with one another!”

Likewise, she says, being in ROTC gives her a “unique” perspective that she can also share with her Yale peers.

“What’s great about the ROTC coming back to Yale is that even though we are a small population, we’re now having the opportunity to have an open dialogue about the military at a liberal arts institution. We’re not trying to close ourselves off and make ourselves independent of Yale. We’re very much a part of Yale College. It’s wonderful to be able to have a lot interesting conversations with people all over campus, and one of the reason I chose Yale over a military academy is so that I could have that opportunity.”

Skrocki has enjoyed taking part in a Veterans Day ceremony on campus, and attending the Veterans Summit and a 9-11 remembrance, among other events. She, too, is looking forward to the President’s Review.

“I think it’s going to be an outstanding event,” she says. “I believe it’s the first time President Salovey will be explicitly engaged in a military-hosted event, and this review will be one of the first public events hosted by ROTC.”

Skrocki notes that the Yale campus has a number of military memorials and other artifacts of military history, and believes that the return of ROTC to campus is a benefit for the entire University community.

“Since the beginning of Yale’s history, since Nathan Hale, Yale and the military have been intrinsically related,” she says. “The motto ‘For God, for Country, and for Yale’ is very fitting for midshipmen and cadets.”