The University of South Dakota’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) has long been a pillar of academic excellence, professional achievement and athletic prowess on the university’s campus – exemplifying key traits that make USD great. For more than 100 years, the ROTC program has instilled a sense of service in its students, establishing strong legacies among the community.
USD’s Army ROTC prepares students to become leaders, not just in the U.S. Army but also in any profession they pursue. USD has a long history of graduating outstanding cadets who have gone on to do great things, and it is not without the training they received in our ROTC program. Sheila K. Gestring, USD President
A Distinguished History
The campus’ battalion precedes South Dakota’s statehood. The Prairie Fire Battalion started in 1881 under the instruction of Civil War veteran Col. John L. Jolley. Although no officer was assigned to the university after South Dakota became a state in 1889, all male students were required to enroll in military instruction. An Army infantry unit was first established at USD in 1919. Just five years later, the ROTC program achieved the “distinguished college” rating, and a group focused on military and academic excellence – the Scabbard Blade Society – was founded.
USD’s ROTC program also helped bolster the U.S.’s World War II efforts, with a military camp established in 1942. As many as 600 recruits resided at USD at any one time. Several USD alumni from that era would go on to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, including Capt. Joe Foss (’39), Capt. Arlo L. Olson (’40) and Col. George E. “Bud” Day (’49).
Since 1969, students’ participation in ROTC has been voluntary. Now, freshmen and sophomores can take military science coursework without any service obligation, but to continue to the advanced course in upperclassman years, they must commit to commission after graduation.
“For over 100 years, USD ROTC students have been excellent representatives for the university,” USD President Sheila K. Gestring says. “The program has commissioned over 2,200 second lieutenants and more than 30 colonels into the U.S. Army. This is evidence of the quality of the program, the high-quality students recruited, and it will only continue to grow and excel in the future.”
Enrollment in military science courses and the number of cadets has ebbed and flowed over the years, says Maj. Adam Kirschling, chair of the Department of Military Science. He notes that the Army spreads ROTC programs across the nation – there are two others in South Dakota at SDSU and the School of Mines – so it’s not necessarily the primary reason ROTC students choose USD.
“But we’ve done very well,” Kirschling stresses. “Being a smaller program, both within the university and compared to other ROTC programs, our students get a lot more 1-on-1 instruction.” Those close relationships between the cadre – military science instructors – and students means more individualized assessments and guidance that can help cadets choose the right path for them.
“That’s what’s great about our program: The opportunity to be in a smaller classroom environment provides more hands-on teaching, coaching and mentoring by our cadre,” Kirschling adds.
A Legacy of Service
Although ROTC isn’t USD’s main recruiting tool, it is an important opportunity for many students, especially those whose families have a legacy of military service.
For Col. John Hirsch, USA Ret., patriotism is a defining characteristic of his family. His dad served in the Navy during WWII and then went to USD for law school. Hirsch grew up in Tripp, South Dakota, where his father had his law practice, and graduated from USD in 1970 as a commissioned lieutenant. He would go on to actively serve for 28 years, with assignments across the U.S. and in Vietnam, Germany and Korea.
“It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” Hirsch says of his decision to participate in ROTC. “I had the opportunity to do a flight training program as part of ROTC. I had never flown before and I really enjoyed it. That gave me opportunity when I was commissioned to be a pilot.”
While he was active duty, Hirsch says he and his family moved 20 times for his various assignments. That likely influenced his sons, Scott and Josh, to follow in his footsteps and participate in ROTC while at USD.
“My kids did the same thing,” Hirsch explains. “Scott did tours on active duty with the Army National Guard and the Army Reserves before deciding to change careers. He was a business major a USD and is now with Great Western Bank. Josh followed more in my footsteps. He has been on active duty for 23 years as a logistics officer and is now a full colonel serving as a Brigade Commander in Germany. They always enjoyed moving with us.”
Although he’s been retired from active duty since 1998, Hirsch says he owes a lot to ROTC.
“It created my life,” he reflects. “To think back to when I got commissioned, the military has been my life and continues to be through the active duty of one of my sons. It’s something that’ll always be with me.”
Carter Yungwirth, currently a medical biology senior at USD who has been in ROTC since his freshman year, had a similar introduction to military service.
“My dad was a big instrument. He was in the South Dakota Army National Guard for 15 years before I was born,” Yungwirth says. “While he sort of steered me, it was more knowing that the Army would pay for school and I would learn a lot in the military – from being able to travel, to survivalist skills and self-improvement.
“ROTC went hand-in-hand in that,” Yungwirth says. “By becoming an officer, it’ll hone my leadership skills while setting myself up for the future. It made the most sense for me.”
And it already has. This past summer, Yungwirth secured an internship through ROTC at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) in Maryland where he studied countermeasures to chemical warfare agents and how to neutralize those threats in the body – ties to both his field of study and interest in service.
Hirsch was able to complete the ROTC Flight Program as a senior at USD and go on to the Army’s Helicopter Flight School after graduation. Yungwirth – who has already accepted a position as an aeromedical evacuations officer after he commissions – will also complete that training in Alabama after he graduates.
“USD’s Army ROTC prepares students to become leaders, not just in the U.S. Army but also in any profession they pursue,” Gestring says. “USD has a long history of graduating outstanding cadets who have gone on to do great things, and it is not without the training they received in our ROTC program.”
The Program Today
USD’s ROTC program today is similar to what it always has been in terms of introducing young adults to military service, teaching them leadership skills and giving them opportunities, such as scholarships and travel, that they might not have had otherwise.
The program currently has 45 cadets, though not all are contracted or will commit to commissioning in the end. Department chair Kirschling says he’s not disappointed if a student decides not to sign a contract.
“It brings an awareness of the military to other students,” Kirschling says. “Physically, mentally and ideologically, the military isn’t for everyone. But for those who have a sense of service, duty, loyalty and patriotism, USD’s military science program is a great opportunity to learn more and get a general understanding of the U.S. Army and military.”
Over the summer, a group of contracted juniors traveled to Fort Knox to complete the Advanced Camp. “Seeing what they’ve learned over past two years to apply in those real-world scenarios at camp makes me feel great about program,” Kirsching says. “Past cadre have set us up for success.”
A group of USD’s top cadets also recently completed the Ranger Challenge – ROTC’s varsity sport, as Yungwirth put it – where ROTC programs compete against the other programs in their task force to test solider proficiencies through physical and mental challenges. Yungwirth says they ranked on par with the rest of the programs, adding that he’s noticed improvements in USD’s performance every year.
“I’m proud of our cadets who competed in the Ranger Challenge,” Kirschling says. “That’s an experience they’re able to bring back to our battalion and share their knowledge to make us stronger in the coming years.”
To prepare for challenges like these, ROTC does physical training three times a week. There is also the class portion of military science coursework, as well as a lab. During the two-hour lab, cadets get hands-on training at the smokeless range – essentially a virtual reality shooting range, Kirschling says – and with land navigation and Army communications tactics.
The efforts of previous cadre to set the program up for success are paying off. USD’s ROTC rose 100 spots from last year – to No. 37 – on the ROTC’s national Order of Merit Scores (OMS) list. Those rankings are based on cadets’ performances in academics, leadership and physical fitness.
“It is a great achievement to rise 100 spots in the OMS list, and this ranking is a testament to the hard work, talent and determination of our ROTC students,” says Gestring.
Preparing for the Future
As USD’s ROTC looks to build on its momentum, Kirschling is bringing significant experience, vision and motivation to lead the program.
Kirschling has served in the U.S. Army for almost 17 years. Originally from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area, he was an ROTC graduate at Ripon College and commissioned as a second lieutenant. He’s had four deployments, including to Iraq and Afghanistan, and was stationed in Alaska before coming to USD in Spring 2021.
“From my experiences in ROTC at Ripon, I had a professor of military science who became a figurehead and someone I wanted to model my career after,” Kirschling explains. “I applied for this position so that I could hand that same experience – of mentorship and guidance – down to other cadets.”
Kirschling’s contract at USD is for three years, though it could be shorter or longer depending on his next assignment or professional aspirations. While he’s here, he has three intentions: To increase awareness of the program throughout the region, to help cadets leverage their experiences into their future careers – whether in the military or civilian life – and to help cadets find the right component where they’ll thrive.
From the awareness perspective, Kirschling notes they’ve seen growth in military science underclassmen. “We’re seeing a lot of friends of current cadets, roommates and fraternity brothers decide to explore our program.”
Kirschling also plans to increase the program’s exposure at high school college fairs and tabling events to share how the Army can help students reach their goals. Yungwirth adds that the program’s move from the Burr House to the DakotaDome – where they do their physical training – has also helped increase their visibility among peers and campus leaders.
From a university perspective, investing in the state’s military leaders is a priority. In addition to moving the ROTC program to the DakotaDome, USD is looking to further enhance its training facilities to construct a rappel tower, obstacle course, ropes course and more.
The university is also committed to funding scholarships to recruit high-quality cadets – since 2015, 128 half-housing scholarships have been offered to aid this effort – as well as memorials to recognize the sacrifice of military service members. A year ago, Patriots Plaza was dedicated. The plaza – located in the middle of campus between the Muenster University Center and Al Neuharth Media Center – features a display of American, South Dakota, POW/MIA and USD flags honoring the three USD alumni Medal of Honor recipients, other veterans and the centennial of Army ROTC at USD.
Yungwirth and Hirsch agree with Kirschling that ROTC and military service aren’t for everyone, but the benefits can’t be overlooked.
“I look at it as patriotic duty that young men and women do,” Hirsch says. “Without the sacrifices of these men and women who do their jobs in the U.S. and around the world, our country wouldn’t be what it is today. Our strength is the result of sacrifices and contributions our military members made in the service and in their civilian lives. It’s good character building.”
“Have an open mind,” Yungwirth encourages. “Think about where you want to be and what your goals are. If the military falls within that or can help you reach your goals, it’s a great opportunity. If it’s not something you want to do, there’s no pressure in joining. You can dip your toes in and take a military science class as a freshman or sophomore to experience and if you like culture and the benefits suit you, you can commit to more. It’s definitely not for everyone but there’s a lot of opportunity from experiences and travel that excites people and that’s why they do join.”
“It’s a great launchpad once you get some of that foundational education as young adult. It really gives you limitless career opportunities, both within the service and in civilian life,” Kirschling says.