NORTHFIELD, Vt. (AP) — Almost 200 years after Vermont native Alden Partridge set up the nation's first private military college on the banks of the Connecticut River, thousands of young women and men across the country are perpetuating his dream of having civilian-educated officers leading the nation's military.
On Thursday, some of the nation's top military officers will be at Vermont's Norwich University, the descendant of the school created by Partridge in 1819 in Norwich, Vermont, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, now known as ROTC, which produces about 70 percent of the nation's military officers.
After Partridge, an 1806 graduate of West Point, founded the school that evolved into the present-day Norwich University, the idea of civilian schools that train military officers expanded throughout the growing United States. Now about 275 colleges and universities across the country host ROTC programs.
The size of the military has grown and shrunk over the decades, but the need for young officers remains. Now as the United States eases out of 15 years of war in Afghanistan that followed years of fighting in Iraq, the Army is shrinking, but the number of officers for the regular Army, National Guard and reserves being commissioned through ROTC remains steady at just over 5,000 a year.
"We all know we are going to be fighting again," said Norwich University President Richard Schneider, whose school, now located in Northfield, is expected to commission about Army 80 officers next month. The school is also expected to commission 11 into the Air Force and 32 into the Navy and Marines.
The two-day symposium on the Norwich campus in Northfield is scheduled to be attended by 12 general and flag officers, who will be focusing on what roles ROTC and citizen soldiers will play going forward.
On Thursday evening, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, an ROTC graduate of Princeton University, will give the keynote speech. On Friday, a panel led by Gen. David Perkins, the commanding general of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, will look at the role ROTC will play in the next century.
Many of the nation's top military officers were trained to fight a traditional war against the Soviet Union. Now, threats that young officers must confront are changing daily and they must be trained to adapt, Maj. Gen. Peggy Combs, the commander of the Army's Cadet Command, which oversees the ROTC programs, told The Associated Press in an interview.
"For the future in this dynamic and evolving, very dangerous world that is unknown we have to develop an ROTC, I believe, of thinkers, folks that are confident in their ability to develop a situation, think their way through a problem, both critically, creatively, systematically and most importantly, in our business, ethically," said Combs, who attended Syracuse University as an ROTC student and ended up making the Army her career.
Before President Woodrow Wilson signed the Defense Act of 1916, Norwich and dozens of other colleges supplied officers to the military, but the soldiers, sailors and Marines received direct commissions from their branches of the armed or from their state's militia systems, said Leo Daugherty, the historian for the U.S. Army Cadet Command.
"It was very haphazard," he said.
Norwich has ROTC programs for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Over the course of those four years, the students are taught the military basics, but they are now, as Combs said, being asked to become thinkers who can lead the military against evolving threats.
"They have a wide breadth of things we have to put into their kit bags before we validate and say 'OK, This young person is the type of American that we want to put in charge of America's sons and daughters,'" said Army Col. Eric Brigham, who oversees the Army ROTC program at Norwich.
Seeing Norwich recognized for its role as the birthplace of ROTC is giving the current students a sense of pride.
"It reminds us of what our roots are and why we're here, what you can achieve and what you can do," said Norwich junior nursing student and ROTC cadet Annelies Heni, 20, of New York.