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Cadets March to Honor Legacy of ROTC Alumni
Embracing legacy and history has been a long standing order among the Corps of Cadets at The University of Texas at Arlington. Members of this ROTC unit know that when they put on their uniform, strap on a helmet or stand at attention in formation, thousands of student soldiers have come before them and felt the same sense of service commitment and patriotic pride.
It's no wonder then the current crop of cadets looked to honor the group's alumni by duplicating a 126-mile trek to Fort Hood nearly 50 years later.
In 1960, 16 cadets marched to Fort Hood from what was then Arlington State College in a show of support for the college, which was evolving from a two-year institution to a full-fledged, four-year university. That ROTC class would be the first to participate in a collegiate Army training summer camp at Fort Hood in Central Texas.
"There's a bit of a debate as to whether the march was ordered or volunteered," said Retired Col. Joel Ward, one of the original marchers who later taught military science at UT Arlington and led the University's ROTC program. "For me, when I got to Vietnam and was in combat and had completed the march, I knew how far down I could reach and maybe reach down even further."
In 2010, more than 40 cadets volunteered to undertake the five-day journey. Lt. Col. Albert Alba said he was impressed that his cadets wanted to honor the alumni by organizing the anniversary event.
"This is a cadet-led event," he said earlier this year. "This is not something the cadre [department's faculty] implemented."
The march would take cadets from Mavericks Stadium in Arlington to the north gate of Fort Hood just outside of Gatesville. The 126-mile route wound down country highways and farm-to-market roads through the northern tip of Texas' famed Hill Country. Cadets and Military Science faculty spent months planning the march, organizing food, tents and support services, and raising money to cover expenses.
Major Ricardo Diaz, Senior Military Science Instructor, said initially asking cadets to voluntarily give up the first half of their spring break was a hard sell. But as the March event drew near, more and more students got involved. Participation, Diaz said, "slowly snowballed" to include most of the Corps.
Support from alumni also grew as word spread. Several of the original marchers attended a pep rally for the cadets a few days before the march. Retired Major Gen. Will Latham, a captain and an assistant professor of military science and tactics at Arlington State College ROTC program, was the rally's keynote speaker and challenged the cadets to support one another as they worked to complete their mission.
"The support form the alumni was tremendous," Diaz said. "We had the Hall of Honor event [for the Cadets Corps Alumni Council] a few weeks before the Long March, and it was announced we were still short of funds for food, and folks responded to help. We had a flood of checks and cash donations. It was a tremendous indication of support from the alumni."
Even more surprising, Diaz said, was the show of support for the cadets as they marched through several Central Texas communities. The ROTC program is often the first experience of military life for students before they leave college to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. Diaz said while he and his fellow faculty members have seen such goodwill firsthand, the show of community support - men, women and children along the street clapping or waving American flags - was a first for most of the cadets.
"We talked about it, mentioned it, sometimes our cadets would see it on the news," he said. "But this was the first time they saw support for organized military group. It was great to see their first experience for something like that."
For five days, cadets marched through the countryside, sleeping in tents or church recreation halls or community rooms, eating hot meals cooked by the support staff or members of the community. On the final day, the group was welcomed to Fort Hood by the base's deputy general and a contingent of active-duty soldiers. Students talked to newspapers and television reporters and blogged online about the experience and the pride of being a part of a storied legacy.
"It's a pride that's bigger than you," said Cadet Erik McCaffrey before the group left. (McCaffery was named a nationally ranked "top cadet" earlier this year.) "You're doing something for the unit, for ROTC and for the university. It makes me proud to be from UT Arlington. It also makes me proud that we might share something with that group of 50 years ago once we finish the march."
In 1960, Latham said, the Long March served as a motivational tool and source of inspiration for the two-year college cadets who were transitioning to a four-year institution. He knew his cadets would be competing with others from Texas A&M, the University of Texas and New Mexico Military Institute and needed something to "pump up their confidence."
Fifty years later, the march would hold the same motivation.
"Soldiers are encouraged to think, 'You can always die, but you can never quit,'" Latham said. "These cadets are becoming those soldiers."
(Herb Booth contributed to this story.)
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