8 Life Lessons I Learned from Navy ROTC

8 Life Lessons I Learned from Navy ROTC

101111-N-8590G-003 JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Nov. 11, 2010) Navy ROTC cadets from Jacksonville University march in the Jacksonville Veteran's Day Parade. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gary Granger Jr./Released)

After graduating high school in 1986, I attended Boston University and was a member of their Navy ROTC[1] program in a non-scholarship status. I only lasted at BU for a year (long story, short: I was not mature enough for college yet), but I learned some important lessons in that brief time wearing the uniform of our nation’s Armed Forces. Ironically, while I wasn’t mature enough to handle the responsibility of college, my ROTC experience did give me some valuable life experience that I’ve tried to keep with me in the intervening three decades.

The 8 Important Life Lessons I Learned from ROTC are:

  1. Don’t make excuses.
  2. Apologize sincerely.
  3. Get it done.
  4. Stick together.
  5. Earn your honors and respect those earned by others.
  6. Discipline leads to success.
  7. A quick wit can turn a negative to a positive.
  8. Ultimately, success isn’t always what you think it is.

Don’t make excuses

One of the first lessons I learned was to not offer excuses when confronted with an error or challenged by a superior. Rarely does anyone care why you did what you did, and if they do that’s a question that they will ask you later. What they want to hear from you in the moment is how you will fix the error.

The first element of my ROTC experience was indoctrination week. We were loaded on a bus outside the ROTC house at BU and transported to the US Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, about a week or so before the start of my freshman year. As we arrived, the senior midshipmen– the upperclassmen who have leadership roles in the battalion–greeted us by running us off the bus and into formation standing at attention through the effective method of yelling in our faces. That was nothing compared to what we experienced next, which was a real-life US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant[2], giving us an idea of the challenges we’d meet in the next week.

As for the lesson, I noticed right away that whenever even the smallest violation was brought to the attention of a 4th class (i.e. one of us freshmen), if the unfortunate soul tried to offer an excuse, the questioner would fly into an affected rage. “Bettinelli, you’re shirt is untucked.” “I’m sorry, sir, but I was dressing when you called us into the hall…” “WHAT?!!!! Drop and give me 20!” But if we just apologized and kept our mouths shut otherwise, well, we might still get punishment, but the reaction was milder: “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

Even after Indoc week was over, and the boot camp atmosphere dissipated, the lesson was still clear. If you do something wrong, take responsibility and don’t make excuses. Even if it’s not your fault, suck it up and make it right.

In life, there are plenty of screw-ups who make excuses, but everybody remembers the guy who doesn’t make excuses, fixes his mistakes, and doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Apologize sincerely

When you do make a mistake, make your apology sincere. Don’t just offer some weak, pro forma apology that crosses your lips without a second thought. As a corollary, just because you’re dressed down doesn’t mean you have to apologize. Sometimes the best response is “Yes” or “OK” rather than “Sorry”, if the apology would be unwelcome or meaningless.

I saw several instances where a midshipman crossed a superior or, heaven forbid, the Gunny, and when his response was a weak, “Oh sorry,” receiving a full measure in return because it shows such a lack of respect. In an attitude of respect there’s always a hint of fear, not necessarily fear of injury to your self, but fear of injury to the other. There should be a fear of offending, of letting the other person down, or of appearing not to give them their due. Respect is always earned and if you don’t pay what is due, then don’t be surprised if the person comes to collect.

On the other hand, a sincere and swift apology often mollified the offended party quickly, letting you go on about your business without further repercussions.

Get it done

A task or a deadline isn’t to be taken lightly. If you have a job to do, then do it. No excuses. You will be judged not necessarily on your capacity to do work, but on your willingness and tenaciousness in doing it.

This goes right along with making no excuses. My experience in NROTC was that the battalion’s midshipman officers expected that when you were given an order that it would be carried out. They didn’t come back to check on you to make sure you were doing it and when it was time for it to be done they assumed it would be. If you’re unable to finish the task, for whatever reason, then say so forthrightly, no excuses, with the proper sense of regret and apology.

Then if your failure to complete was the result of circumstances beyond your control, well, sometimes he didn’t care and took it out on you anyway. Life’s not fair, Francis. But don’t make excuses and make it worse. Certainly, don’t whine and snivel about it.

Stick together

No matter what, you stand with your teammates. One of the training games they liked to play was to find fault with one guy and make the entire squad or platoon do some sort of punishment for it. It’s not designed to make us resent the one who screwed up. After all, sooner or later, we’re all going to take a turn as the screwup. No, it tells us that we’re all in the same mess together and that we’re only as strong as the weakest among us so we better damn well make up for the weaknesses of each other.

There was one guy in my class who got under the Gunny’s skin for some reason. Maybe he was just a little too cocksure at first, a little too physically fit. Maybe Gunny just didn’t like his looks. Maybe he saw potential in him and wanted to test him. Whatever the reason, Gunny was constantly finding fault with him and that meant we all suffered a bit. But that didn’t lead to resentment. In fact, we ended up banding together behind him, boosting his spirits and helping him to overcome whatever deficits came his way.

I remember that on one of our last days in Newport, they marched us out to a field after a week of drills and standing at attention and not daring to express any emotion but eagerness. As we arrived, we saw a barbecue set up and we were ordered to “Have fun!” After determining this wasn’t just another training trick, we all fell to easy camaraderie and laughter. Pretty soon we were gabbing about our experiences and especially those of our classmate who’d suffered under Gunny. It wasn’t long before we were laughing hysterically over our friend’s misfortunes and vowing to stand beside him come what may.

That lesson would bear fruit throughout our year together as we helped each other, whether it was ensuring everyone got to drill on time, or helping with uniform troubles, or providing extra studying assistance in difficult classes.

Earn your honors and respect those earned by others

My goal when entering ROTC was to become a Naval Aviator and eventually go on to become an astronaut. When I was in high school, I found at an Army-Navy surplus store a pin that depicted the insignia of a Naval astronaut; which were the regular gold wings of the aviator with a comet flying through them. I put the pin in a plain ball cap and took to wearing it around as a sign of my ambition. Eventually, I just took it for granted.

So one day, I’m walking down the street at school and meet one of the officers in the NROTC unit, a US Marine major who happened to be a Naval Aviator. He gave me an odd look as he greeted me, but I didn’t think anything of it. Later on, I received a summons to a meeting with another of the officers. He asked me about the pin and showed it to him.

He explained to me that only those who’ve earned the right should wear insignia. I had not finished flight training, never mind been commissioned an officer in the Navy and so had no right to wear the wings of an aviator. Looking back now, it’s improper for stores to even be selling them.

It’s good to aspire to a goal and to have reminders that encourage you on the path, but that’s different from appropriating that which is earned by those who wear it. An aviator puts in many grueling hours of training to win his wings and then risks his life every day in the duty which they signify. An astronaut puts in even more training and takes even greater risks. If just anyone can wear those wings then it cheapens their meaning. When I see someone wearing the wings, it should be a sign of something.

A priest wears a Roman collar and it means something. If just anyone were to wear the collar, then it would lose its sign value. If I wanted to wear the wings, I would have to earn them.

Discipline leads to success

This was more of a negative lesson for me. My freshman year in college ended up essentially as a disaster, because the part of school I enjoyed and worked hard at was the military training, while the rest of my studies were neglected. In high school, I had skated by in my classes with only half efforts. I didn’t get all As, but mainly Bs, even though I know with more work I could have got As. Unfortunately, that didn’t work in college. You have to do all the work.

You also have to go to class. I was still living at home and commuting to school so it was a lot like high school still. But I was now responsible for myself. I had to get on the train and go to school. And once at school I had to go to the classes. I didn’t. I spent a lot of time in the computer labs on the primitive version of social networking they had in 1987. (One day I’ll tell the tale of how I romanced the beautiful upperclass girl through my words, and how shocked she was to find I was just a shy freshman in person.) I spent plenty of time reading novels and hanging out in the wardroom at the ROTC unit.

Eventually I crashed and burned. I flunked nearly every course. I was put on suspension from NROTC which didn’t matter because I also lost all my financial aid and had to drop out.

If I’d had the discipline and stuck to my studies with half the zeal I did drill and studied the military science topics, I might not have graduated at the top of my class, but I would have succeeded. I might even have won an NROTC scholarship.

A quick wit can turn a negative into a positive

One of the tricks the upperclassmen liked to play on the freshman during Indoctrination week involved some late night sneaking. As part of our formation as military men, each room of two freshmen on each floor of the barracks spent one hour per night on watch, walking up and down the empty hallway.

On this particular morning, my roommate and I woke up to something peculiar. There was trash all around me on my bed and on my roommate’s bed. Empty potato chip bags, candy wrappers, and soda cans. Even worse, our door was closed, which was a clear violation of regulations. In my sleep-addled state, I did recall that after our watch our door had been left open as required.

As we stared uncomprehending at the mess in our room, the door banged open and in rushed a gaggle of senior midshipmen, all screaming at us to stand at attention and then berating us for holding a party, for smuggling in contraband, for violating the orders about the door. Of course, this was all a ploy to rattle us and to have an excuse to mete out more disciplinary and character-building punishment.

It worked a little bit and we were on the verge of something unpleasant when one of the seniors asked me a fortuitous question:

“Do you deny all this, Bettinelli?”
“Yes, sir!”
“Really, so am I to assume instead that some Commie spies snuck in here last night, had a party while you slept, and left all this evidence behind?”
“That would be logical, sir!”

That was the fateful line that turned the day. While his tone remained outraged and perhaps his voice went up a few octaves, I could tell this amused the midshipman a bit.

“Logical! Who are you? Mr. Spock?” Before I could respond, he gave me an order. “I want you to grab the tips of your ears and go stand in the hall. And every time I call out for Mr. Spock, I want you to grab your ears and come running!”

And that’s how I was the first freshman to receive an official call sign, a cool nickname that could only be bestowed by an upperclassman. It’s a pretty cool call sign too, because often they’re determined by something stupid you do, a prominent physical trait, or even an embarrassing pun on your name. I thought being Mr. Spock was cool!

Ultimately, success isn’t always what you think it is

The most important lesson I learned comes from having dropped out of NROTC and college after all. For a long time, I’d had my life’s journey mapped. From the beginning of high school I’d known I wanted to become an astronaut and the way I’d do that would be by getting an engineering degree, becoming a Naval Aviator, eventually making my way to test pilot, then applying for NASA’s astronaut program, and so on. I didn’t even get out of the starting gate.

The next five years after that were not good ones for me. While all my friends were at college and then graduating, I was working in a factory in a dysfunctional work environment, getting drunk when I could, ditching work, barely socializing. I’d come home from work, and wouldn’t bother to change into something clean. I was wallowing.

After that, I got a job at a Christian bookstore and church supply store where my mother worked. That was a nice place for a few years, but I still wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what God wanted from me. I didn’t understand why He’d let me fail so spectacularly.

Let’s leap ahead to the end: If I’d stayed on my original path, I’d never have met Melanie and we wouldn’t have my five beautiful kids. My sister would never have met her husband and their eight kids wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have my job working in social media for the Archdiocese. I doubt I’d have had the time to discover a joy in writing and a talent for it that could be honed.

In my freshman year at BU, I thought I knew what success looked like for me. It turns out that God had a better plan for me, something that I couldn’t imagine, and although I had to travel a dark road to get here (and I still have a long, undoubtedly bumpy road ahead), it’s well worth it.

So why did I have to endure all that in the first place then? I figure it’s because I needed to learn these eight lessons from my time in NROTC. I haven’t always correctly applied them, but they’ve been helpful nonetheless. And while I still experience a tinge of regret now and then, I’m grateful to have had the experience and that my life took the path it eventually did.

  1. ROTC is short for Reserve Officer Training Corps, a program by which college students study to become reserve officers in the military while attending school and taking a normal course load.  ↩
  2. As part of the Department of the Navy and the Naval Service, the Marines train their officer-candidates alongside the Navy’s in the Naval Academy and NROTC, although they have a separate Officer Candidate School for post-college officer training.  ↩
1 comment
  • Terrific post Dom. I was in your place but in another branch of service. Stupid of me
    but I ended up quitting. I’m too old now to join any military service.

    There are some negatives of a typical ROTC unit in college. A lot of the units only care
    about scholarship students, figuring the rest won’t make it anyway. There’s a heavier
    emphasis on academics as opposed to the military side. Some other problems at
    the units are lack of cohesiveness, no information given out promptly.

    ROTC is an excellent extracurricular activity for college. i will always recommend it to people,
    with a degree of caution (always try to stay informed of cadet activities, cadet clubs, etcs).

    Number one on your list I agree with, paraphrased, never quit! Quitters never win.