To War and Back–earning a Purple Heart along the way
Only a few years ago, Lt. Dustin Ferrell (ND ’00), a 25-year-old Marine officer, was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, where he participated not only in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) but in the debate over its presence on campus. ROTC, he says, helped prepare him for what he describes as “a calling”—leading Marines. And that’s exactly what this first lieutenant was doing in Iraq in the early days of the war when his Humvee crashed and only a battlefield tracheotomy saved his bride from becoming a widow before her first wedding anniversary.
“It always troubled me that the critics [of ROTC] would go on and on about how they despised war—as though we don’t despise war,” Ferrell says. “For us war isn’t about ‘getting action.’ It’s about seeing the wives and mothers and kids who have lost a Marine in our care.”
The reference is personal. Although Lt. Ferrell is still speaking through a tube in his windpipe, he knows his Purple Heart makes him the lucky Marine. Sgt. Nicholas M. Hodson, his Humvee driver, was not so lucky; he was killed in the same crash when their vehicle was either hit by a rocket-propelled grenade or swerving to avoid one. As soon as the wire comes out of his jaw, Ferrell says, he needs to go see Sgt. Hodson’s wife to talk about her late husband and make sure she’s being taken care of.
Notre Dame remains home to one of the largest ROTC scholarship programs in the nation. Yet the debate continues with a small but persistent segment of the community asserting that ROTC is incompatible with the mission of a Christian university.
As long as we live in a world stained by original sin, says Father Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame President Emeritus, nations will need armies. And as long as we require military forces, Hesburgh believes it ought to be part of a university’s mission to ensure they are populated with men like Lt. Ferrell. In case you were wondering, Hesburgh is not some Donald Rumsfeld clone; this is a man who helped start the Peace Corps and put the first signature on a local peace petition questioning the Bush administration’s entry into the Iraq war.
At Notre Dame, the anti-ROTC chorus is more muted than elsewhere. A recent anti-ROTC demonstration drew only nine protesters.
Harvard President Larry Summers suggested another framework for looking at the military: in terms of the duty the academy might owe to the polis. Of all forms of public service, said Summers, we need to remember the “special grace” attached to those prepared to sacrifice their lives for our nation.
—Editor’s note: excerpted from an article by William McGurn (ND ’80) published in The Wall Street Journal.