Wall Street Journal: A Marine's Story: From ROTC to War and Back

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BETHESDA NAVAL HOSPITAL, Md. — Is Lt. Dustin Ferrell the kind of man you’d like walking your campus?

At many American universities, this is no idle question. Only three years ago, this 25-year-old Marine officer was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, where he participated not only in the Reserve Officers Training Corps but in the debate over its presence on campus. ROTC, he says, helped prepare him for what he describes as “a calling”: leading Marines. And that’s exactly what this first lieutenant was doing in southern Iraq in the early days of the war when his Humvee crashed — and only a battlefield tracheotomy saved his bride from becoming a widow before her first wedding anniversary.

“It always troubled me that the critics [of ROTC] would go on and on about how they despised war — as though we don’t despise war,” he says. “For us war isn’t about ‘getting action.’ It’s about seeing the wives and mothers and kids who have lost a Marine in our care.”

The reference is personal. Although Lt. Ferrell has lost most of his teeth, although his shattered jaw will remain wired shut for six weeks and though he is this evening still speaking through a tube in his windpipe, he knows his Purple Heart makes him the lucky Marine. Sgt. Nicholas M. Hodson, his Humvee driver, was not so lucky; he was killed in the same crash when their vehicle was either hit by a rocket-propelled grenade or swerving to avoid one. As soon as the wire comes out of his jaw, the lieutenant says, he needs to go see Sgt. Hodson’s wife, to talk about her late husband and make sure she’s being taken care of.

In contrast to the Ivy campuses from which the military was largely banished in wake of Vietnam, Notre Dame remains home to one of the largest ROTC scholarship programs in the nation. In fact, says President Emeritus Theodore Hesburgh, only the Naval Academy has commissioned more new ensigns. Yet the debate continues, with a small but persistent segment of the community asserting that ROTC is incompatible with the mission of a Christian university.

Father Hesburgh is not one of them. As long as we live in a world stained by original sin, he says, nations will need armies. And as long as we require military forces, he believes it ought to be part of the university’s mission to ensure they are populated with men like Lt. Ferrell.

“It’s proper to all the things we do here and the patriotism we owe our country,” says Father Hesburgh. “It’s standing up for freedom, even when it’s tough.” This is not some Donald Rumsfeld clone; this is a man who helped start up the Peace Corps and put the first signature on a local peace petition questioning the Bush administration’s entry into the Iraq war. And Father Hesburgh has company in Rachael Ferrell, the young lieutenant’s wife, who gently lets it be known that honoring her husband’s service does not necessarily make one a hawk.

But there is another, less accommodating view. The Rev. Michael Baxter, national secretary for the Catholic Peace Fellowship, bristles at any suggestion that in challenging ROTC’s presence on campus he is “making general statements on the moral status of people in the military.” To the contrary, he says, the CPF’s aim is simply to “encourage people to follow their consciences” in accord with Catholic teaching on war and peace.

Well, yes and no. The CPF’s declared aim is to raise a “mighty league of Catholic conscientious objectors.” Fair enough; principled pacifism certainly represents one honorable tradition. But the CPF does not appear to make much room for conclusions reached by other consciences. Indeed, reading through its material, one would be hard-pressed to find any acknowledgment that there exist military men and women who have examined their consciences, who know the catechism teaching that soldiers who discharge their duties honorably contribute to the common good — who, in short, sound an awful lot like Lt. Ferrell.

Now, at Notre Dame the anti-ROTC chorus is much more muted than elsewhere. As the student paper reported last week, a recent anti-ROTC demonstration drew only nine protesters. The disagreement has been civil, too. Still, as at other universities, a minority has nonetheless succeeded in framing the question thus: Is ROTC fit for our campus?

That’s not an unreasonable question. But it ought not to be the only one. During a ceremony at the Kennedy School two months after 9/11, Harvard President Larry Summers suggested another framework for looking at the military: in terms of the duty the academy might owe the polis. Of all forms of public service, said Mr. Summers, we need to remember the “special grace” attached to those prepared to sacrifice their lives for our nation.

Over the east door of the main church at Lt. Ferrell’s alma mater, that understanding is literally carved in stone: “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Inside, the way is illuminated by a light fixture fashioned from the World War I helmet of a military chaplain. It was before the altar of this same basilica, in his Marine dress uniform, that Dustin Paul Ferrell was married just eight months ago.

“I don’t have a problem with people who choose pacifism,” he says. “But we’re idealists too. And the officers I know believe that in choosing to serve we’re living up to our ideals, not putting them aside.”

_Mr. McGurn is The Wall Street Journal’s chief editorial writer. __ _

_ _ April 24,2003 _ _

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