At 6:30 a.m. on a freezing Friday in February, the lights are dark on Frat Row near the University of Minnesota campus. Some students may be sleeping off last night's party, while others are just sleeping in.

An 8 a.m. class? Get real.

But drive down a few blocks, then take a sharp right at the U of M Armory. It's a different predawn world there, as 120 young men and women sweat through a grueling workout of timed runs, push-ups and sit-ups.

These are the cadets of the Golden Gopher Army ROTC battalion. About 75 percent are U of M students; the rest are drawn from nine other metro-area colleges.

In 2007, the battalion was named the best Reserve Officers' Training Corps unit in the country in an annual contest among the nation's 273 Army ROTC programs. Criteria range from cadets' academic performance to their combat water-survival skills.

Growing student interest in military service at the U reflects a national trend. While the number of students who enter Army ROTC programs nationwide has remained relatively stable over the past decade, the number of those who complete the program and accept an Army commission rose from about 12,000 in 2004 to almost 16,000 in 2007-08, according to Lt. Col. Curt Cooper, the U battalion's commanding officer.

On Cooper's watch, the Golden Gopher battalion has grown from 47 cadets in 2004 to 120 today.

Why drag yourself out of bed on a winter morning when your fellow students are still catching zzz's? Is it the free tuition and living stipend that ROTC offers?

"You couldn't pay us enough to do this job," said Cadet Greg Holmes of St. Louis Park, a senior. "What drew me is that I want to be part of something bigger, that's going to be a part of history. I was blessed to be born in this country, and I believe in earning what you get."

At the U, but without a clue

For Holmes, it's been a long path. "When I walked in here as a freshman, I had a mohawk haircut and wore baggy pants. I didn't have a clue what to do with my life," he said.

A chance encounter with an ROTC officer acquainted him with the program's pluses. He learned, he says, that ROTC "teaches you leadership, helps you with education expenses, and allows you to serve your country in a way no other organization can."

"Next thing I knew," said Homes, "I was shaving off my hair and showing up at PT [physical training] at 6:30 a.m."

But leadership preparation requires more than doing push-ups and learning to fire an M-16 rifle. As seniors, cadets assume responsibility for everything from overseeing supplies and logistics to public affairs.

"The instructors look at you and say, 'You're in charge; make it happen,'" said Holmes. "You walk in here as a senior and they tell you, 'It's not about you anymore. It's about the people below you -- helping them to excel.'"

In ROTC, everyone has it

"Americans have this tendency to believe you either have it or you don't," he added. "We don't believe that. The Army believes that any one of us can be the next [Gen. George] Patton."

How does a 21-year-old kid become equipped to shoulder these responsibilities? In part, by immersing himself or herself in the military decision-making model -- a framework for action in uncertain conditions -- until it becomes second nature.

Does this approach equip you to find the best route for your patrol in Baghdad? You bet. But it has much broader applications -- from running a business to raising a family.

Holmes, for example, did his paper for military decision-making class on how to use the approach to buy a digital camera.

"As a 19-year old, I would have just gone for the flash," he said. "I would have said, 'I want the shiny one, or the one with the cool name.' Now I go beyond that, from defining the problem to anticipating what could go wrong."

Rankings from 1 to 4,099

Army ROTC doesn't have that "everybody's special," feel-good philosophy so prevalent today. Cadets across the nation are ranked from top to bottom during their junior year -- from first to 4,099th. Does that mean that some get left behind?

No, says Cooper. He leads the cadre, the seven instructors who work as much as 14 hours a day to ensure that cadets make it through the program's rigors.

"In the Army, you can fail, but you can't quit," said Cooper. "That's the warrior ethos. No soldier is left behind. In the end, what binds these young people together is a commonality, a brotherhood, an allegiance to duty, loyalty and selfless service."

Katherine Kersten • Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at