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Niagara's ROTC as good as it gets<br> Performance of cadets at university shows they belong with the best

Ryan Marquette had only 80 minutes to knock out a threatening bunker in Bond Lake Park.

The 20-year-old quickly devised a plan earlier this month to stealthily approach the enemy through the snowy woods, instead of the open field. Half of his squad then opened fire, preoccupying the bunker with the attack, while the other half flanked it, surprising it from behind with more gunfire.

"It was actually pretty difficult, even though you have a concept of what to do," said Marquette, a native of Rome in Oneida County and one of 89 students in the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Niagara University.

"It's the external pressure. You have one shot to do and do it right. There's the time constraint, and all eyes are on you because you are the leader. You really have to grasp the principles of leadership to be successful."

Marquette has, as a second-year cadet in the ROTC.

"The teaching and training we've received here has been second to none," the junior said of the school's military science professors. "They have actual experience in the Army. They have been deployed, and that's why they do such a great job preparing us for successful careers in the ROTC and the Army, as well."

Marquette and his squad of nine were successful in overtaking the enemy bunker within the allotted time during a recent squad situational training exercise, a sort of role-playing in which juniors are given a mission and lead squads to execute it.

The training is preparation for the ROTC's Leader Development and Assessment Course in Fort Lewis, Wash., a 28-day competition where the nation's 4,500 ROTC junior cadets are graded on performance in the situational training exercise, physical fitness test, day and night land navigation and other areas to determine the Army branch in which they'll serve.

This year, NU will send Marquette and 17 other juniors to this required exercise, which is viewed as a final exam for juniors.

Tunde Adepegba, a 20-year-old junior who also led a squad during the situational training exercises, started out in Junior ROTC at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School. He's excited about his chances at this summer's training exercises in Washington.

"I'm confident because of the training and support we've received," he said. "There is some apprehension, because I've never been [to the exercises], but the support system and training have been great."

NU's juniors have a reputation of doing well at the exercises -- so well that they exceed the national average of "E's," for "Excellent," the highest grade.

The university's program has an overall reputation of being as good as there is. For the last decade, the Purple Eagle Battalion has resided at the top of the rankings among the nation's 272 schools with ROTC programs based on commissioning Army second lieutenants and the quality of those commissioned.

"The cadets have put Niagara University on the map," said Lt. Col. Ivan D. Evans, NU's faculty chairman for military science. "It's a small program that packs a pretty big punch."

So big that in 2004, it was ranked No. 1 in the country. The next year, the battalion was best in the 1st Brigade, consisting of universities in New York and New England, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Canisius College.

In 2005, it also was recognized as the No. 1 small school.

Although national rankings are no longer done, the school's program remains among the top 25 percent of the country's programs, bringing home the 2008-09 Douglas MacArthur Award.

Evans said the program has been successful because it aims to exceed the standards set by the Army. For example, juniors overall at the summer training exercise tend to average 250, but NU juniors average 260.

"We train here to push the cadets to the new standard, and all programs should be trying to do that," Evans said. "It's what made us have the success we have had in the past and we'll have in the future."

The theories the cadets learn in the classroom, Evans said, are then applied in their field training exercises.

Other programs omit freshmen and sophomores from certain training exercises, but ROTC at Niagara allows some of them to participate, giving them a leg up in experience, Evans said.

"Our freshmen get to know and value how to be led," Evans said, "and out of that, they learn how to be leaders."

Sarah Shaffer, a sophomore and second-year ROTC cadet, has participated in training exercises since her first year in the program. She worked closely with Adepegba during the recent training.

"It puts me at an advantage because you get more practice, and practice makes perfect," said the 20-year-old Rochester native. "You're striving to do your best, and the more you learn from your mistakes, the better you'll get."

The success of the program has attracted cadets from as far away as California and has exhausted its scholarship offering. Army ROTC offers full-tuition scholarships, along with covering books, board and a monthly stipend. The cadets have a contract to serve four years of active duty in the Army after graduation, followed by four years in the Reserve or Individual Ready Reserve.

A cadet's typical week is filled with about nine hours of ROTC, including physical training, and classroom and lab work.

"By joining the program, it has allowed me to take advantage of every opportunity that has been put in my path," Marquette said. "It's opened a lot of doors to a lot of opportunities.

"I've been able to not only participate in them, but excel through preparation and hard work, and basically just being able to perform as result."

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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