Leading By Example

April 15, 2003

David Leiva

Moments after the Sept. 11 attack, Army Lt. Col. Benjamin Kirkland sent his unit of cadets into a covert, defensive posture. No more marching. No more cadences at 6 a.m. He wanted them to be low-key. As a protective measure, he ordered them to stop wearing their uniforms on campus. By that Friday, the senior cadets came to him asking him to reconsider his decision. They weren't afraid, and they were proud of the uniform. The following Monday they were back in fatigues.

"It was cadet-driven," Kirkland said. "They wanted folks to know who they were."

For nearly 100 years, the military has maintained a presence at Tulane. First, as the site of a former Army training camp and now as the home to Naval, Air Force and Army ROTC. About every three years, each service brings in one person to lead the students. The military calls them commanding officers, usually only one rank away from becoming a general or admiral.

Tulane refers to them as department heads. In the summer of 2001, Air Force Col. John Chilstrom, Navy Capt. Joe Stafford and Kirkland reported for their three-year tours. And while they all wear different uniforms, speak from different backgrounds and possess different philosophies, all three have one mission--to turn 270 Tulane students into future military officers. With an armed conflict in Iraq and other international crises occurring almost daily, the final grade on students' worthiness might not be known for years to come.

One thing is for sure--their leaders want to be here. The command position is highly regarded and extremely competitive; all stood before a military selection board prior to being appointed. And the break from the action isn't bad, either.

"There's less stress for me," said Stafford, a former commander of a nuclear ship the size of four football fields. "I don't have to worry about anyone getting killed." True. They are far from the combat fields. And contrary to popular belief, ROTC cadets--called midshipmen in the Navy--are not being trained on campus as pilots, Navy SEALs and Green Berets. "They are students first," said Kirkland, who has a master's degree from Georgia Tech.

Stafford and Chilstrom also have graduate degrees. The officers' job is to ensure the military gets what it pays for. Each year, the U.S. Department of Defense invests millions of dollars on tuition for the students. In return, the armed forces are guaranteed degreed officers already indoctrinated in their respective service. The commanders come in with their own personalities and more than 25 years of experience, but they teach time-honored traditions.

The curriculum includes learning service history, fitness, ethics, customs, courtesies and leadership. Especially leadership. Chilstrom, who works in a lavish office formerly occupied by Tulane athletics director and football coach Mack Brown, has a copy of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's recent book, Leadership, near his desk.

Kirkland, the Army commander, quotes President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stafford admires Lee Iacocca for his turnaround of Chrysler. The three veterans get together over lunch and go over notes. And, once in a while, trade shots in a healthy, in-service rivalry. But it's not always fun. Sometimes, they have to make tough decisions when a student doesn't fit the mold of a desired officer. Standards can't be compromised.

"The price of failure is too high," said Kirkland, whose two sons, Benjamin and Sean, attend Tulane. While neither is in the program, he wouldn't want a sub-standard officer leading his draft-age sons, he said. Chilstrom, a fighter pilot by profession, agrees.

"[ROTC is run] in a way that I would be proud of if my son or daughter were in," he said. Speaking of pride, the three say, patriotism helped deepen the resolve among the cadets and midshipmen, but did little to swell the ranks. Enrollment numbers did not go up significantly. Even with anti-war protests taking place on campus and all over the world, the leaders have no ill will toward those carrying signs, marching and speaking out against war.

"I can't really criticize free speech rights," said Kirkland. "That's what we fight for." Stafford maintains a pragmatic view. "In America, we take for granted this freedom we have," he said. "If you're going to be free, someone has to pay for it. [Sept. 11] should be a lesson that freedom has to be protected."

While passionate about their calling, they have no say in the immediate future. All they can do is prepare the young men and women. "We're not pro-war. We're not anti-war," said Chilstrom. "Our mission is to serve our nation. We'll do our duty."

David Leiva can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000