November 10, 2021

USD Sets Sights on Strengthening Rising ROTC Program

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.

As the program has seen improvements in recent years – most notably rising 100 spots from last year to No. 37 on the ROTC’s national Order of Merit Scores (OMS) list – USD is committed to further investments that will strengthen the program and help develop the next generation of South Dakota military leaders.

The following is an excerpt from "Instilling a Sense of Service." The full feature can be read online.

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.

Veteran Patriots Plaza

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,” says Gestring. “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.”

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, S.D., 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.

“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.”

Preparing for the Future

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.

Patriots Plaza WASD

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.

“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.”