Friday, March 18, 2011

The Zot Offensive

by 13 Stoploss

Thursday, 17 February, 2011
The cadet’s are supposed to have an open path to the court.
In their way, peppy cheerleaders in ruffled-white skirts sit next to the school band resting their instruments atop Cadet Jesus Leon’s pre-marked pivot points.
Leon, a quiet third year cadet and Color Guard Commander, marches the formation between the cheerleaders and the band on the side of the court, but the cadets are out of step; their movements are limp and passive.
He gives the command for a series of “column lefts” and “column rights” around the obstacles, but on the last command, a column left, Leon turns right. Flustered from altering the practice plan, he walks into the American flag.
From the front row, an older veteran grunts, struggling to hold his salute.
The Thursday night basketball game has yet to start; but on the court at the Bren Events Center, UCI’s ROTC Color Guard Team continues with their task.
When the ceremony ends, Leon marches the cadet’s in a more direct route off the court. Cadet Andrew Ravn, a lanky third year cadet and the color guard’s Cadet in Charge, fails to lower the American flag and walks straight into the basketball hoop.
Hundreds of UC Irvine basketball fans erupt in laughter.
The cadets, too ashamed to be seen, disappear.
For Christian Peralta, a fourth-year Criminology major and UCI ROTC Battalion Commander, the opportunity to perform in front of a large crowd is the kind of outside recognition he hopes will bring positive attention to UCI’s ROTC Company, a USC Trojan Battalion detachment, because UCI, like many Ivy League schools, does not officially recognize ROTC.
Thursday night’s pregame ceremony was supposed to be a last-minute tune-up for Sunday’s big event—a Color Guard ceremony for 9,000 people at the Anaheim Convention Center. Instead, it exposed how unprepared the cadet’s were.
In January, when Peralta was contacted for the Color Guard event, he reminded the cadet’s to practice early and often. But by mid February, between midterms and girlfriends and weekend training exercises, the Color Guard team pushed off practice until the week before the big event.
“They told me they were ‘ready,’” Peralta says, “but I should have intervened earlier.”
After Thursday’s embarrassment, the cadet’s knew they could do better and vowed to perfect the routine. Late Thursday evening, and for several hours each on Friday and Saturday, Peralta assembled the cadet’s atop an empty parking structure in the blowing rain and wind for “training scenario’s” he hoped would build confidence.
To simulate crowd noise, he blasted the radio from his van so the cadet’s would have to listen for Leon’s commands. For visual distraction, he shined flashlights in their faces and threw obstacles on the ground while they performed marching and facing movements. Then, to stimulate confusion, he ordered the cadet’s to dizzy themselves by spinning in circles with scuba masks over their faces.
“I know Thursday was really stressful for them,” he says, “but they’ll get it.”

Sunday, 20 February 2011
At 0530, the streets are wet and it is cold. Misty white globes hang from the streetlamps above the parking lot, illuminating Peralta and the cadet’s as they finish packing the van.
“Tham,” Peralta yells, “Do we have everything?”
After checking the equipment, Shawn Tham and another cadet jump inside the Honda minivan and pass out in the back row, resting their heads on the fogged windows. A Eurotrance beat blasts from an iPod as Peralta lectures Ravn about dissension within the platoon. In the weeks leading up to this morning’s event, says Peralta, there’ve been errors in communication, insubordination, and a lack of focus. Jan Ignacio, a soft-spoken fourth-year cadet sitting behind Peralta, says that morale is low and the MS3’s (third year cadet’s) need to step it up.
Ravn stares out the passenger window, listening but neither affirming nor denying the charge.
“This is what I’m talking about,” Peralta says. “What if this was a tactical movement? Ravn, call Leon and tell him to stay with me—behind me!”
For Peralta, this morning is one of the last big events before graduation and one he hopes will be a valuable experience for the MS3’s, especially after what happened at the Bren Events Center on Thursday. Cadet Life is much different than real-world Army, he says, but the MS3’s still need to take it more seriously.
“You guys are lucky,” he tells Ravn, “MS3’s don’t have to deal with all the politics.”

0557 and it’s still dark when the van arrives. The Anaheim Convention Center looks like an airport. Street signs and flashing lights and arrows point in different directions and there are driveways to a dozen different parking structures.
            After lapping the city block, Peralta finds Loading Dock D. Inside, thousands of thin, silver-legged chairs with small green padding line the center of the room, each with a flier announcing the Keller Williams Family Reunion 2011. On the back wall, strobes project moving clouds and cheesy, inspirational messages. Seven 30-foot wide flat screens fill the front stage beneath a black industrial ceiling with catwalks and lighting platforms shining red and blue and yellow lights onstage. There, three sisterly looking middle-aged women in sweat pants and heavy makeup sing in front of a dozen jazzy-lounge musicians jamming for the sound technicians backstage.
            Peralta and Ignacio lead the cadets through an aisle toward the main stage where monitors, pointing toward the musicians, count down to show time: the cadet’s have 174 minutes to forget about Thursday.

10 January 2011
The Zot Offensive, Peralta’s campaign to bring ROTC to UCI before graduation in June 2011, began after President Obama’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December 2010.
“Now is our time,” Peralta said. “With DADT gone, the university can’t hide anymore.”
In a mass email directed to ROTC cadre and supporters, Peralta’s plan called for ROTC coverage in the student newspaper, arranging a meeting with student government and finally, resending the ROTC proposal to the Dean’s of the schools of Social Science and Social Ecology—the two schools who had previously shown interest in sponsoring a Military Science program.
The meeting with student government paid off immediately—Peralta, Veteran’s Liaison, Alex Louie, and UCI student veteran and California State Director of Student Veterans of America, Dave Curry, received an invitation to the Chancellor’s luncheon on 10 January to reintroduce the ROTC proposal.
But the optimism Peralta and the others shared going into the Chancellor’s luncheon ended prematurely, as Chancellor Michael Drake, who arrived to the meeting late and left early, nixed the plan before it started, citing budget constraints from new Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed cuts to education.
“Based on our financial budget crisis assessment,” said Chancellor Drake, “we cannot further add new services to the existing services and programs we have today.”
According to Peralta, the military provides everything the university would need, including military science instructors, office furniture and equipment, technology and computers, student textbooks, uniforms, transportation to training sites, scholarships, room and board, and stipends while complying with all applicable university and school policies.
“He didn’t even listen to us,” Peralta said of the Chancellor. “He denied us for budget reasons, but it’s practically free to the university.”
The setback was just the latest in a string of curiosities that date back to April 2009.
After receiving a letter of recommendation from then Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez, Peralta’s proposal was redirected to the Academic Senate. There, six different Vice Chancellors, Directors, and Dean’s who had previously engaged with Peralta concerning sponsorship, ceased communication.
“I’m not saying there was an official policy or anything,” Peralta said, “but it was definitely strange. They wouldn’t return emails or answer phone calls and they were never available when I went to their office hours.”
In June 2009, Peralta received a letter of recommendation from Sharon Salinger, Dean of Undergraduate Education, regarding course credit approval for Military Science classes. It was an important step for the proposal, but which mattered little until the cadet’s had actual campus space. By October 2009, ASUCI External Affairs denied the cadets’ request for university space during the Student Center renovation, despite the availability of several empty and unused offices.
The cadets were shocked.
“If we just had a small room for instruction, or a place to store our gear,” said Peralta, “that would be a great first step.”
In April 2010, two years after Peralta first began working on the ROTC proposal, ASUCI Legislation voted 14-0-1 in support of an ROTC Military Science program.
Peralta, among other supporters, rallied the School of Social Ecology for host support. After several meetings, the school of Social Ecology, toeing the bureaucratic line with the likes of Harvard and Columbia, rejected the proposal based on DADT’s discrimination to “students that identify with being lesbian, gay, transgender, or queer.”
Because UCI’s ROTC is not officially sanctioned, growth of the campus club is determined by limited funds from private donations. Peralta fears that if he and others cannot win over the obstinate administration, including Chancellor Drake, ROTC will not increase in size while demand for the scholarships and stipends, as a result of heightened fees, will only increase.
“When I left West Point for UCI, there were around 5 Cadet’s, but we’ve double our numbers every year I’ve been here,” Peralta said.
UCLA, Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Barbara all have ROTC programs, but the 25 UCI ROTC cadets have to enroll in Military Science courses at Cal State Long Beach. ROTC cannot function as a club without support and recognition by the school, and until it gets that, it won’t be recognized by the military. Without an officially recognized program, the club will not get scholarship money from the military, and the club will continue to turn down qualified applicants.
“We’ve had over 70 email inquiries for 2010-2011, and that doesn’t include the interest from students coming up to the booths during Welcome Week. We could grow,” he mentioned, “but we need a home.”

0642, 20 February 2011
            At the bottom of the stage, Ravn and Leon meet the stage director, a retired Army commissioned officer working in Los Angeles. He gives the cadet’s a quick tour of their route to the stage and then leads them behind the curtain to Green Room 3, a staging area filled with coffee, tea, pastries, and fresh fruit around a large, circular wood table to lay their bags.
            Wide-eyed and nervous, the cadet’s look like boys in their fathers’ old war uniforms. Their jackets are large and loose fitting and the pants hang from their hips, bunched at the feet.
            Sizing them up, the director asks, “Who is the cadet I spoke with via email?”
            “That would be me, sir,” Peralta responds.
            Peralta’s uniform is tailored to his athletic frame and he stands like a professional soldier. Over his left breast, he wears a Sharpshooter marksmanship badge, the coveted Air Assault badge for completion of the Army’s Air Assault School, and the National Defense Service Medal, the ribbon awarded to military personnel for honorable service in a time of “national emergency.” Although Ravn and Leon are in charge of the Color Guard Team, it is clear that Peralta, who is not participating, is the cadet in charge. 
            As MS4’s, Peralta and Ignacio are responsible for planning and coordinating events for the MS3’s under the guidance of their military science instructors. But as the cadet with the most experience, including having spent the previous summer with an Active Army infantry unit in Korea, it is Peralta who inspects and corrects the young cadet’s.
At rehearsal, the cadet’s are sloppy. They have no rhythm, and the director, working with several dancers offstage, pauses to watch them in action.
Peralta runs from cadet to cadet, grabbing the butt-stock of an M1 Garand rifle here, and positioning it there. He snatches one cadet’s arm and tells him to be more forceful, more deliberate, and demonstrates with authority.
When they can’t stay in step, he gets in their faces.
“Guys, what are we doing here?
“Tham, step on that X! That’s your spot!
“Turn around, try it again!”
In the corner, Ignacio says that it has been a frustrating month. “We’re used to being in control,” he says, “but we’re kind of passing this on now.”
0658. The walkthrough with the band isn’t going well. With the drummer laying down a marchable beat, the cadet’s can’t keep step or proper spacing while ascending the stairs.
“Gentlemen,” Peralta yells, “you need to get in step!”
When the cadet’s finish three dry runs, the stage empties and the cadet’s return to the staging room for a light breakfast.
“That,” Peralta whispers to Ignacio, “was ugly.”

It’s hard to imagine that Christian Peralta has any free time. The calendar on his laptop shows the prime colors for large blocks of each day—one color for classes, another for ROTC, and another for meetings and appointments—beginning at 0600 hours and ending well into the night. There is a remarkable absence of white—his “free time,” which does not include dinner with his girlfriend or the weekly get-togethers with the folks.
Outside of studying Criminology at UCI and Military Science at Cal State Long Beach, Peralta teaches a University Studies class to incoming UCI freshman, takes scuba classes on the weekends he isn’t training for ROTC, and is a Level I certified CrossFit trainer.
His iPhone beeps and vibrates without end. On his laptop, he’s constantly changing and updating his schedule between phone calls, emails, text messages and unscheduled meetings with potential recruits.
Everything about him shows passion, but also reservation and attention to detail. When confronted with a task, the ever-mindful Peralta attacks with fiery resolve. In those moments, his dark eyes converge for complete concentration, a skill he attributes to a childhood spent playing video games like Final Fantasy and Counter Strike. But when the intensity of the moment recedes, his eyes relax above a sheepish, white smile.
From a young age, Peralta remembers the grade school uniform policy at a large private school and strict teachers who instilled in him a desire to excel. There, he gained a sense of structure and order that made sense to him, an understanding he carried through high school, where he played Tennis and maintained excellent marks.
            One day after school, he was browsing the Internet and found the military’s flashy West Point Academy website. “Best of the best,” he remembers seeing, and later found inspiration reading David Lipsky’s book on the United States Military Academy at West Point, Absolutely American.
He was hooked.
But After two rejections from the academy and a brief stint with Psychological Operations in the Army Reserve’s, Peralta’s Commanding Officer nominated him for entrance to West Point. Peralta’s parents were ecstatic when he accepted.
The dream quickly faded, though, as the Pico Rivera native grew frustrated with the hazing and the stodgy traditionalism of “Beast Barracks” memorizations. Then his long-distance relationship failed and he became depressed. Despite being in the top quarter of his class, he was miserable and yearned for a more traditional college experience. Toward the end of the school year, he began to look for a good university with ROTC closer to home.
“It took my parents a while to get over it,” he says, “but they’re really supportive now.”
Peralta was stunned when he got to UCI, however. After visiting the campus, gaining acceptance and arranging all the costs for tuition and transportation of his goods from West Point, he hadn’t met with any of the cadet’s at UCI. He was frustrated and embarrassed to discover that UCI didn’t actually have an ROTC program and that it was a campus club made up of five students who enrolled in Military Science courses at Cal State Long Beach.
“I was so happy to come home,” he remembers, “that I didn’t really do my homework concerning ROTC. I’m still happy I came here, but it’s been a difficult journey.”
Now, as a fourth-year student at UCI, Peralta’s main focus has been to bring ROTC to UCI. He recently stepped down from running the Cadet Battalion to focus on the ROTC proposal, which has been met, so far, with both consternation in some parts and acceptance in others.
“It doesn’t benefit me after I leave,” he says, “but I’m doing it for the other cadet’s. My girlfriend says that I live vicariously through the younger cadet’s, but if we can get space on campus, they’ll be that much better.”
In June, Peralta will graduate with Military Science honors, among the top 10% of ROTC cadet’s in the country. It is an achievement he downplays as interesting, but less exciting than the end goal—receiving a commission as a Second Lieutenant into the United States Army, where he will continue on to the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools before serving in Hawaii. 
            “I’ve always felt a pulling to service,” he says, “like there’s something in store for my future—something more than myself. Graduation and commission is sort of like a self-actualization—I’ve just always wanted to serve.”

0748, 20 February 2011
Backstage, behind each of the seven flat screens, a projector rests on a raised platform, playing a horizontally reversed video on repeat. Several of the cadet’s sit staring at the mammoth projections of reversed female dancers in tight clothes jumping and twirling and smiling and bouncing across the stage. It is the most excitement they have had all morning.
At 0801, some of the cadet’s disappear to the bathroom. Others try to nibble on pastries and sip cold water. Leon, alone in shadow fifty paces from the group, practices his movements and commands with a commissioned officer’s gold-heeled saber. His face is taut and pale, his eyes dark but determined.
“He didn’t take the Thursday performance too well,” Ignacio says.
“He’s a solid guy,” Peralta adds, “but he beat himself up pretty good.”
Noticing Leon, the two gunners stand to practice their presentation and ordering of arms. Their movements are sharper, but one is still quicker than the other. Ravn joins them to call out the commands while Peralta counts.
One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand. Good, that was really good!”
At 51 minutes to show time, the director walks up to the group with a big smile. The cadet’s gather around quietly, but their eyes soon hollow.
            “How you guys doing? Comfortable? Confident?
            “Don’t worry—you’ll be fine!”
            His fake speech impresses upon the cadet’s the severity of the performance. He could have as well said, “DON’T FUCK UP.” Instead, each pair of blank eyes stares at the ground. Today, the cadet’s learn, their recorded performance will open the Keller Williams Realty Family Reunion, where 9,000 realtors will attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest “Cha-Cha” dance.

            At 0830, the stadium-like noise of 9,000 North American realtors seep into the room, but backstage, thirty minutes before show time, it is cold, dark and quiet.
Peralta sits in a semi-circle with the others, tagging the cadet’s in snapshot photos and with status updates to his Facebook profile while the MS3’s crack jokes about each other’s girlfriends. The MS2’s sit with their heads between their legs as a Beach Boys mix tape plays on loop in the background.
            All of the cadet’s tap their feet, anxiously waiting for show time.

18 January 2011
A week after the Chancellor’s Luncheon, an article published in UCI’s student newspaper called to attention several prominent Dean’s for their suspicious behavior concerning the ROTC proposal. Specifically, the article called into question whether a political bias existed within the university administration. Such a policy would run counter to 2002’s Solomon Amendment, a “federal law that allows the Secretary of Defense to deny federal grants (including research grants) to institutions of higher education if they prohibit or prevent ROTC or military recruitment on campus.”
The administrators called out in the article were pissed. ASUCI President Sitara Nayudu, under administrative pressure, demanded the newspaper pull the story because the student journalist was not present for the Chancellor’s luncheon.
As a result of the attempted censure, Dave Curry approached his connections with the Orange County Register and lobbied the California Student Veterans of America. Peralta, more determined from the rejection at the Chancellor’s luncheon, stepped up with an email campaign to Chancellor Drake and other influential administrators for support.
The plan worked.
Alex Louie, the ASUCI Veterans Liaison under Student President Nayudu, was given a message to send to Peralta: “Stop emailing the Chancellor. Things will be moving forward.”
In early February, Peralta and Curry met with Dean Salinger of Undergraduate Education. On the top floor of Aldrich Hall, overlooking Ring Road, Dean Salinger approached Peralta and Curry with the idea that, if Peralta could find a sponsor for physical office space, it might be possible to start a Military Science Minor, or in the very least, Military Science classes taught by UCI faculty would count as “work load credit,” under the Division of Undergraduate Education.
The next day, Peralta emailed every Dean on campus with a request for sponsorship—essentially, an inquiry for office space. Although he expected the Schools of Medicine and Engineering and Arts to decline, among others, an unlikely hero, Dean Albert Bennett of the School of Biological Sciences, replied with curious interest. Ironically, due to budget cuts, Dean Bennett’s new Biological Sciences tower had several empty offices and a large basement storage room—more space than the Cadet’s could have realistically imagined.
0855, 20 February 2011
            At the five-minute warning, Peralta escapes to the soundboard next to the stage to video record the performance. At the rendezvous point with the Color Guard team, Ignacio delivers a brief, pregame pep talk.
            “You’ve trained for this moment—YOU GUYS CAN DO IT! Make D Co. proud, HOOAH!”

            At 0900, the ball drops.
The clock hits zero and the middle-aged crowd of mostly women swoon and scream. It feels like a cheesy rock concert with all the plastic balloon tits and facelifts and leopard print miniskirts in the crowd.
Throngs of screaming realtors stand in the aisles and in the back and sides of the room. Neon lights dance across the hall as if an epileptic was put in charge of a lighthouse during a storm.
The noise is deafening and regional banners and streamers wave above the audience for Pasadena and Mesa and Buffalo and Alberta, Canada.
            Then the bass drum kicks and Leon’s cadence caresses the audience to silence.
            “Left… Left… Left-Right.”
Then louder—“LEFT… LEFT… LEFT-RIGHT.”
            The cadet’s split the audience with military precision. Their movements are crisp and deliberate with equal spacing and pomp. At the stairs, Leon calls for a half-step to keep the front and back elements of the team in time. When all have ascended, he resumes the forward march until Ravn is centered on the stage, facing the crowd.
            The middle-aged sisters in Navy-esque uniforms sing the Star Spangled Banner and O’Canada.
            In perfect harmony, the MS2’s present arms. Ravn and the other flag-bearers display the colors. Leon, at front of the formation, locks his saber arm forward for the duration of the tunes, then yells the command for all 9,000 to hear.
            “Order, ARMS!”
            The rifles and the flags and the saber all return to position in a single, synchronized moment.
            Peralta quietly smiles and the 9,000 realtors roar with deafening applause.
Two-minutes later, he’s backstage congratulating his men for a job well done. Then he unbuttons from his own jacket the Cadet Ranger Challenge Fourragere and presents it to Cadet Leon.
            “For a job well-done, you deserve it,” he says.

            On 01FEB2011, Dean Albert Bennett, of UCI’s School of Biological Sciences, emailed Peralta to confirm that he had identified office space for the cadet’s. A week letter, the cadet’s and their advisor, Major Victor Stephenson, met with Dean Bennett and his associate for a walkthrough and inspection of the proposed office space.
In an email to Dean Salinger at Division of Undergraduate Education the next day, Peralta writes, “We are very happy and content with the proposal and wish to go forward with the initiative…”
            Pending a final “Memorandum of Understanding” between the School of Biological Sciences and the Commander of the USC Trojan Battalion, LTC Robert Kirkland, the UCI cadet’s will launch a multi-phase occupation of the new office space as soon as they receive the keys.
            “Our fingers are crossed,” Peralta says. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

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