For anyone who has stumbled through the USC campus at 5:30 a.m., PED, the physical education building, is not a welcoming sight. The place is built like a fortress, its windows infused with an eerie red glow and the disembodied head of a Trojan sticking out of the front.

Seriously. It’s staring at you.

And, quite frankly, if you’re passing PED at 5:30 in the morning, you’re probably not just a little worse-for-wear yourself, which might make it all the more strange to see a group of people out front stretching, joking and getting ready to work.

“I wake up when my friends are going to sleep,” jokes Tomas Ibarra, a USC alum and part of the Army ROTC.

The students in the ROTC, or Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, know that what they do, they do for a reason. One day they will be made officers in the U.S. Military straight out of college, commanding enlisted soldiers on the battlefield, maybe in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Today, however, they’re awake at 5:30 a.m. and getting ready to run three miles.

“I like to get my classes done with as soon as I’m done with training,” Ibarra says. “Sometimes I shower, sometimes I don’t. That can suck for my classmates.”

There may be some truth to the army adage, “We get more done before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.”

But in that statement lies a separating line between ROTC students and the rest of the USC population, between the military life and “most people.” And now, as the wars overseas rage on inconclusively and an increasing number of people are coming out against the conflicts, that line seems ever more apparent.

The ROTC has been around as a program since the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916, and USC welcomed the Navy ROTC program in 1926, but the concept of a military presence and training in universities has been around since 1862 when colleges were given government land grants in exchange for the installment of service programs.

The whole concept is that students of academic excellence who join the program will train to become the leaders of the military rather than enlist, giving them leadership opportunities that the enlisted will never get.

“We call ourselves a leadership development program because that’s what we really do,” says Lieutenant Colonel Robert Huntly, professor of military science at USC. “We produce young men and women that are going to be able to lead America’s sons and daughters.”

Upon graduation from the ROTC, students are commissioned officers in the U.S. military and given the according pay scales, opportunities and responsibilities associated with the job. In addition, many students who join the ROTC are given handsome scholarships to pay for school as they train.

In exchange, they devote a minimum of four years of their life immediately after college to military service.

For Golden Broughton, that was never a problem.

“I’ve never thought that four years is very long,” Broughton relays.

An alumna of the USC Air Force ROTC program, she’s going on to become a pilot which, because of the strenuous selection process, requires a 10 year commitment. But her eyes are locked on that pilot’s chair.

“Only five percent of people fly,” she says. “The rest are there to make sure you get off the ground. If you want to be a pilot, you have to be the best.”

Though her initial interest in the ROTC was born out of a need to pay for college and a family history in the Air Force, Broughton says that the program quickly became an important part of her life.

“I had the option to opt out, but it became more than just a scholarship,” she says. “I appreciate the ability to give back to the country in order to keep it the way it is and make a life for other people, and I like how the military is run and the structure of it. It’s a job, and it’s a job I was willing to do.”

Others, like Ibarra, never considered another life.

“Straight out of high school I wanted to join the military but my parents, mostly my mom, told me don’t go,” he says. “It was that time of barely going to Iraq with the war, so she gave me the no on that.”

“I’ve always felt the duty to serve in the military, and I wanted to get an education,” Ibarra says. “ROTC prepares you to be a leader and an officer. A little different than being enlisted, but you still get that sense of something greater, of it being more than a job. That’s mostly what I’m driven to.”

Josh Epstein, a senior at USC and a ROTC member, has a very different story. Epstein left USC after two years and enlisted for three only to come back to finish his training and education through what the ROTC calls the “Green to Gold Program.” Both his active experience and ROTC training have been useful for him and his “battle buddies,” or members of his enlisted unit.

“You get a useful set of skills,” he says. “I have a job on the side because one of the things I learned on active duty was how to manage records. A lot of guys who were in the service with me never had a college education, and they got out to Lockheed Martin and Boeing and make six-figure incomes.”

But the Green to Gold Program allows Epstein to expand his opportunities on campus and off. Upon exiting the ROTC, the student is granted the bar of second lieutenant automatically and can climb the ranks of the commissioned officer hierarchy from there. A regular enlisted can eventually become a Sergeant Major, but cannot receive commissioned status unless he or she undergoes the necessary leadership training.

Not only does the ROTC program lead a student on the path to a military career and very defined post-college plans, it takes care of one or two other big issues … like tuition and room and board. Scholarships are a major recruiting tool for the ROTC program, Huntly says. This may not be too surprising since, depending on the scholarship, the ROTC can cover not only the student’s tuition but also supply a living stipend for everyday costs like food.

“A lot of people come in for the benefits, for the scholarship and the money,” he says. “We attract them by going to high school events and college fairs.”

Though the scholarship wasn’t what attracted Landon Derentz, a USC alum and public relations officer for the Air Force, it helped him make the decision to choose a life in the service.

“I grew up next to El Toro marine base. Most of the people I admired were marines,” he shares. “In high school I looked into ROTC, and I got a scholarship that pays for a significant portion of USC. That solidified that choice so I had a direction of service and a direction in being a part of the military.”

Derentz continues, “Once I had that scholarship, it solidified my future.”

He has been an officer in the Air Force for the past three years and has been deployed to Iraq and North Korea. But Derentz isn’t done benefiting from his decision, he says. In fact, he leads a double life - Air Force officer by day and graduate student by night.

“In my free time I’m pursuing a grad degree at night,” he begins. “By the time I get out of the Air Force, I’ll have four years of active duty, gone to war, pursued a master's degree … In four years out of college I’m pretty set up.”

And then, law school is looking pretty attractive. For Derentz, what started as a passion and solid economic decision has turned into not one, but two careers, and he’s never regretted a single moment.

“I know where my friends are now four years out of college, and there are a lot of different approaches to what they're doing, so I feel like I’m at the same level as my most successful friends,” he says. “I’m curious at times for what it would be like if I hadn’t done it. I think it’s such a healthy experience that such few people go through.”

The ROTC gives each student scholarships up until their sophomore year and then asks them to make a choice: do they, or do they not want to pursue a life in the military?

Of course, there’s a slight catch to ROTC scholarships. What you’re not paying for in money, you’re paying for in time, commitment and maybe blood.

The reality of the situation is, of course, that these students, young men and women from the ages of 18 and up, are training for battle. Whether they fight on the lines or serve from other positions, they’ve chosen a career fraught with danger whose ultimate price may very well be their lives.

It’s a sobering thought for ROTC students, particularly in a time of war when the possibility of being called up after graduation feels so real.

“I’m willing to pay the price, and that’s my commitment. I’m going to do what I’m told regardless of whether I want to or not to the best of my abilities to take care of my soldiers to come back home,” Ibarra says. “If I had a choice I wouldn’t go out there and risk my life, but that’s part of why I joined the military.”

For these students, war is an unfortunate reality, but not one from which they shy away.

“You never want to go to war, it’s not the first option. But somebody has to do it, and I’m able and willing,” Broughton agrees. “When people hear I’m in the ROTC, their first reaction is: ‘Are you going to be sent to Iraq?’ I kind of hope so. I didn’t join the military to sit around. I joined to fight.”

The notion of fighting and dying for one’s country gets a mixed reaction these days as fewer people support the war in Iraq, and Congress throws up an ever-increasing number of bills trying to bring troops home. Though USC is hardly a UC-Berkeley in political leftness, there are relatively few people for the war.

Unfortunately, this sort of ideology can manifest itself against the students in the ROTC whose uniforms make them walking symbols of the war and all it entails.

“I did have friends who were mocked walking down the street in uniforms,” Broughton reveals. “It’s more the everyday knowing that you’re serving your country when so many people have a problem with you; you sit in classrooms and have professors say negative things about the president and the war, and you can’t say anything.”

Though most of the ROTC students agree that the atmosphere is fairly supportive – of them if not the war itself – it can still be disconcerting to hear slams against the military from the people that the ROTC students feel are being benefited by their service.

“If I get a bad comment from other people, in my opinion I can’t stoop down to their level and come back with some other type of remark,” Ibarra says. “Most of the time I just shake my head. You have the right to give me that remark because we’re out there giving you that right. That’s what the U.S. is all about. You have that freedom, and we give you that freedom by fighting.”

Eventually, these students will be fighting for a cause they believe in, whether the battlefield is in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. Until then, they will study, attend class and train for the day they might lead soldiers into battle.

“I know that at this moment I’m not prepared,” Ibarra says. “I know at the end, once I’m standing there with my group and I’m commissioned, I will be ready.”