ROTC is back at Southern Oregon University — and it's bringing a lot of money with it.

ROTC is back at Southern Oregon University — and it's bringing a lot of money with it.

SOU on Thursday enrolled its first two students in the federal Reserve Officer Training Corps, which entitles members to receive up to $10,000 annually for tuition, $5,000 for expenses and $1,200 for books.

"Our phone's been ringing off the hook," said Staff Sergeant Jesse Austin, an Oregon National Guardsman, SOU assistant professor in military science and Iraq War veteran.

"A lot of high school seniors or their parents are asking about ROTC for the four-year scholarships."

"It changed my plans dramatically," said Ryan Holley, a married man with children, who is taking military science at SOU and expects to join the ROTC soon.

"I was going to go in the active Army and OCS (Officer Candidate School) and try to finish my degree online,

while juggling my Army work," said Holley, a junior in criminal justice. "This makes it so much easier."

Holley said he expects to qualify for more than $15,000 in assistance for tuition, expenses, books and computer supplies.

ROTC has been absent from SOU since 1993, so for the last 16 years SOU students had access to military commissions only through Officer Candidate School. That program is administered through the state National Guard and is not campus-based, said Guard Lt. Col. Keith Ensley, chairman of the school's Military Science Department.

Using OCS, college students could take military science courses on campus but had to go to OCS "boot camp" elsewhere — and were eligible for far fewer benefits, Ensley said.

Jessie Hecocta, a senior from Klamath Falls majoring in health and physical education, says she hopes to join both the ROTC and the Guard soon — and that she thinks the Guard will help her repay existing college loans.

"But it's not about the money," she said. "I've always been interested in the military and planned on enlisting. It's about the experience and my passion for it."

The first two students in SOU's new ROTC program, Cadet Thomas Blaser of Milwaukie and Sgt. Justin Neville of Cave Junction, said the scholarship means they will graduate debt-free.

"I'm excited to go in ROTC and be an officer," said Neville, an Iraq War veteran and criminal justice major, who's getting the full amount. "I'll come out of college with extra money."

Blaser, who wants to be an infantryman, said, "It's a good opportunity to become a leader in the Army, plus it has great medical, dental and educational benefits — and the pride of being an Army officer.

Students who join the National Guard are eligible for an additional $5,000 a year in Federal Tuition Assistance grants, said Ensley.

Members of ROTC get their officer's commission into the National Guard upon college graduation, Ensley added, then get their choice of reserve (one weekend a month, plus two weeks in the summer), active reserve (full-time job in their home area) or active duty. With any of the three choices, activation and deployment to the Middle East is likely. The obligation is four year's service.

Rogue Community College students may take the SOU Military Science courses — and most transfer to SOU because the ROTC scholarships are available to students of SOU, but not RCC. So far, 12 students have applied for ROTC, said Ensley.

For their commission, ROTC members must take a syllabus of 24 Military Science credits, in such courses as Adaptive Team Leadership, Adventure Training, Land Navigation, Army Tactics and Military Policy.

"They can pursue their own degrees — and we pay them handsomely to take our courses," said Ensley.

To qualify for ROTC and earn the full scholarship, Ensley said, students must have a 2.5 high school grade-point average, a minimum 920 combined SAT score and the ability to finish college by age 30.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.