There are plenty of unforgettable moments that MSU ROTC cadet Blake White has from a trip to Uganda as part of the Cultural Understanding and Leadership Program (CULP) this past summer. One of those memories was quite unexpected and caused him to not be able to look at his wristwatch the same way again.
There’s nothing special about his watch. Just a Casio G-Shock digital watch you could find at most department stores. No flashy colors. Pretty basic. Nothing fancy or overly expensive.
When he went to Koome Island in Lake Victoria, Uganda, White and the group he was with were surrounded by more than 40 Ugandan children, most between the ages of five and seven years of age. Several of them were crying tears of joy. They were rubbing his skin and hair, as some of them had never seen someone like White before. They gravitated toward his watch, which was confusing to the junior exercise major but made sense upon closer examination.
“The only people that would normally have a watch on were the village elders,” White said. “We kind of came to the conclusion that people that had watches on had power.”
It was one of many instances on this trip that changed White’s perspective as he contrasted his experience in the U.S. with that of a country where there is a lack of access to healthcare and other resources and where violence and infection are prevalent, but a place like this is exactly where White wanted to be.
Uganda is a landlocked country in East-Central Africa and one of the poorest nations in the world. People in rural areas depend on farming as their main source of income. Many people lack access to drinking water and proper sanitation, as well as access to healthcare and other services.
White said ever since he was a little boy growing up in Lexington, he had a desire to serve his country. While he didn’t necessarily grow up in a military family (his grandfather served in the U.S. Navy), he vividly remembers being in kindergarten during the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and how the teachers in his school stopped everything they were doing and how parents were coming to pick up their kids early from school. When he got home and started asking questions, the tragedy of those events immediately gave him a sense of purpose.
“I remember going home that day, my dad was like, ‘something bad happened. This is what’s going on.’ I understood enough that people were in trouble,” White said. “I knew I wanted to do something about it.”
White attended Tates Creek High School and transferred to Henry Clay High School and enrolled in the school’s ROTC program. After researching ROTC programs at various universities in Kentucky, he said a meeting with former MSU military science professor and retired Lt. Col. Robert Mason was what “sparked my fire to look into this school.”
Thanks to White’s academic performance, he received a full scholarship to MSU’s ROTC program and found that despite the sacrifice of his personal time or the physical demands, he knows the program is changing him for the better.
“I fully expected that it was going to be a leadership school, a leadership program…it’s teaching future cadets to be leaders for the country,” he said. “The biggest thing I like about it is they try to make us, with what we have, the best person we could be. They try to figure out what’s best for us and what our future career is going to be.”
As he continued to train in both hot and freezing cold weather and strengthen bonds with his fellow cadets, he had his sights set on being accepted into CULP, a program that allows ROTC cadets to gain vital leadership skills and awareness of cultural differences throughout the world. Cadets are chosen based on GPA, physical training (PT) scores and extracurricular activities. Out of approximately 10,000 ROTC cadets that apply from across the country, only 1,200 are selected.
When it came time for White to express a preference on where the CULP program would send him, he could have selected a place more similar to America. He opted for a different experience.
“I honestly wanted the worst possible environment they could give me because I wanted to feel what it was like to live in poverty or live in a different area that was not the United States,” he said.
White’s experience in Uganda included participation and observation in The Aids Support Organization (TASO) HIV Projects, training operations for the yearly United Nations Exercise Justified Accord 2018 and providing humanitarian aid. He helped deliver medicine in cooperation with TASO and interacted with dozens of villagers in one district who are living with HIV. Because of a lack of access to services and healthcare, about 1.3 million Ugandans are living with HIV/AIDS, or approximately six percent of the population.
White was sometimes overwhelmed by the experience in Uganda. He still remembers the dirt huts and strong odors due to a lack of proper sanitation. He was advised not to drink from the tap and villagers often would walk for miles to haul containers of clean water. In rural areas, as much as 20 percent of the population may not have access to drinking water.
During his trip, he learned the history of the many atrocities committed by the country’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and spoke to victims of the LRA, including a child named David who was captured and whose brothers were killed when a bus he was riding was raided. Uganda’s history is one fraught with violence, human rights concerns and political struggle. White reflected that seeing these conditions and talking with people in the villages motivated him to work for change.
“I want to have an impact and help people. I want people to live in peace. I don’t want them to live in hate,” White said.
But even in these circumstances, White fondly recalls the kindness, hospitality and spirit of the Ugandan people. He remembers the singing and chanting he heard when his group arrived. He witnessed people going about their daily lives absent many of the services and luxuries that Americans and White himself may take for granted, with smiles on their faces and hope in their eyes. It’s the look many villagers had when White took a picture with them under a tent at the center surrounded by more than a dozen Ugandans who were HIV positive.
“Everyone wonders why we spend money. Everybody asks me why we need to be in another country. When I was on CULP, I found the answer, and it was during that picture,” White said. “It’s important that the United States provides stuff like that for third-world countries because it can become a huge outbreak throughout the whole world.”
As he plans to compete for active duty in the hopes of serving in combat arms, he is thankful that MSU’s ROTC program has already provided him with an opportunity he will never forget.
“Just the little time I was there for three weeks, I felt like I made an impact on people’s lives. Even if it’s those little kids that have never seen a white person before. Never touched a watch,” White said. “The ROTC program, I honestly don’t think they get enough recognition for the things they get to do. This is where I wanted to go, and they gave me and provided me with what was necessary to be able to go.”
For additional information about MSU’s ROTC Eagle Battalion and military science program, visit www.moreheadstate.edu/military.