When cadet Kevin Poon arrives at St. John's University in the dark of early morning for physical training, he stands among about 80 other cadets in the football field encircled by the school's red track, quietly waiting for 6 a.m. and the start of warm-up drills. He says hello and nods to some, all of whom are dressed like he is in gray "ARMY" t-shirts and black shorts.
About half of the cadets, like Poon, are idly shifting their weight and glancing around sleepily before they have to form a series of lines and stand at attention. They are commuters. The other half talk and laugh amongst themselves, their shouts piercing the cool morning air as they while away the minutes. They are non-commuters who live, work, and train together on campus.
Poon, a bespectacled Asian American sporting a buzz cut, is a senior at St. John's ROTC in Queens, one of only two Army ROTC programs in New York City. He has persevered through four years, since he was a freshman, but he thinks of his fellow cadets more as professional partners than friends.
"I have a working relationship with my comrades," Poon said. "I do what they ask. They do what I ask. No hostility, but no intimacy."
Poon's experience is typical among cadets in the Northeast, where ROTC programs are few and far between. New York City is home to nearly 600,000 students and 80 colleges. The city's population of 8 million is equivalent to Virginia's, yet the city has only four ROTC programs on college campuses, compared with Virginia's 11.
Many New York schools severed their ties with the ROTC during the 1960s, when anti-war protests broke out across campuses in the Northeast. When the draft ended, the military slipped even further into the background, where it has remained ever since. In response, the Armed Forces have stopped making much of an effort to recruit in the area. Even City University of New York, the third-largest public university system in America and the one that commissioned General Colin Powell, no longer has an ROTC program.