9/11 inspires Pitt student to enlist in ROTC

By Gretchen Andersen

On a Tuesday morning Seth Kerr was sitting in Mr. Myer’s sixth grade math class when another… On a Tuesday morning Seth Kerr was sitting in Mr. Myer’s sixth grade math class when another teacher interrupted to speak with Mr. Myer.

After a few mumblings, Kerr’s teacher, Mr. Myer, turned on the television. And that’s when Kerr saw an airplane hit the World Trade Center.

Ten years later, the Pitt senior in Army ROTC, Three Rivers Battalion, will soon graduate and become a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army with an eight-year commitment, leading a platoon of about 42 men and women.

Kerr is one of about 3,800 Army ROTC cadets exchanging an education for military service. For Kerr, 9/11 played a large role in his decision to enlist in ROTC.

“Had 9/11 not happened, maybe I would not have been in the Army,” Kerr, a political science major, said. “But I know what kind of role I want in order to fit in this world. I didn’t want that 9-to-5 job. I wanted a place I could implement change and make an impact. I’m a proactive person.”

Kerr said that while growing up, he had always had a respect for veterans and those in the military — his father served in the Air Force during the Korean War. But the thought of joining the military didn’t cross his mind until he was a junior in high school. Kerr, who focused on school work and played basketball, originally had other things in mind.

“When I tell people now what I do, they are shocked that I’m in the military,” Kerr said. “I didn’t like to be told what to do, I didn’t like authority, especially during high school. So I think it is funny for people to hear I’m entering a profession that prides itself on authority.”

When his father suggested he join the Air Force ROTC during high school, Kerr went for an interview with the organizers of the ROTC program at Penn State. But after hearing the Air Force was looking for students studying technology and science, Kerr — who had an interest in international relations — decided against entering the branch.

Soon after, an Army recruiter called, asking Kerr if he wanted to enlist. About to start his senior year of high school, he told the recruiter about his plans to enroll in college. The recruiter mentioned the benefits of an ROTC scholarship — which covers tuition, book fees and includes a monthly stipend — and Kerr made the decision to enlist in the Army Reserves.

After graduating high school, he left for basic combat training at Fort Benning, Ga. Kerr said the nine weeks spent away from family and friends served as a growing period for him.

“I had never been away from home for that long of a period, and you can’t really talk to people back home. It’s more of a minute conversation to call home and tell them you are alive and well,” Kerr said.

After completing the training, Kerr attended Lock Haven University and did Army ROTC there for one semester before transferring to Pitt in January 2009. After Kerr graduates, he will be commissioned to an active-duty unit in May 2012.   

As the Battalion S-3 operations officer, Kerr is responsible for training the entire battalion — about 250 cadets from three different states and many universities. His primary purpose is to plan, implement and supervise training and events, which is “like a full-time job,” he said.

Cadet Peter Hokrein, the Three Rivers Battalion commander and a second-year grad student at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, first met Kerr when Hokrein entered the ROTC program last year.

Hokrein said in an email that Kerr spends a lot of his free time working on ROTC events, such as planning white-water rafting trips.

“You will never see him standing around while others are doing the work. If there is something that needs to be done, he takes initiative. He is highly motivated and pushes himself and others at PT (physical training). His PT uniform is pretty gross, which means he gives 100 percent,” Hokrein said.

The Army ROTC at Pitt has Kerr up at 6:30 a.m. every morning Monday through Thursday for physical training, when Kerr and the other 60 ROTC cadets run at least two miles and complete core and upper body calisthenics.

Kerr said they are taught by the “best of the best,” referring to the cadre that helps teach the cadets. These are both active-duty soldiers and officers who are pursuing a degree. Military Science fourth years, who are in their last year of the ROTC program, also assist the cadre during the exercises.

One common exercise involves the Cathedral of Learning — cadets will run up, down and then up again all 36 flights of stairs.

On Fridays, they substitute exercise for edification with a Leadership Lab. The class focuses on skills such as how to conduct a raid or an ambush from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

Cadet Hannah Baker of Battalion S-1 said Kerr, her close friend, is one of the most determined and sincere people she has ever known. They met as freshmen, when Baker was nervously starting one of her first days of physical training.

“I was the new kid and everyone was buddied up. I was looking around — and although it might not seem like a big deal — he just turned around and asked if I had a partner. It really meant a lot,” Baker said.

This year, Kerr will try to get commissioned as a medical services officer. The process is competitive, heavily weighing on his GPA and Leadership Development Assessment Course scores. The course tests him on everything he’s learned in ROTC to see how he is developing as a leader.

According to the GoArmy.com website, “Medical Specialist Corps Officers are essential in treating and helping the overall health of Soldiers and their families. From medical fields such as occupational therapy and physical therapy to dietitian and physician assistant, the Army Medical Specialist Corps includes several areas of specialty.”

“I wouldn’t be kicking in doors, but in the Army, you are always mobile. Bullets and bombs don’t discriminate. Al-Qaida doesn’t care if you are infantry or medical service corps. You have to be equally trained and willing to defend yourself, if perhaps my convoy is ambushed,” Kerr said.

Kerr has known people deployed overseas, including his best friend who enlisted and was deployed to Iraq. Kerr understands the reality of his profession, yet admits it can be hard to accept the possibility of death.

“It is something I have talked about with my friends, family and fiance. I’m willing to die for something. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s not. It’s almost unbelievable and surreal. You can’t really dwell on it, it becomes an interference almost. It’s how you manage the fear,” Kerr said.