Ashley Gonzalez drives more before 9 a.m. than most people drive all day.

As Sonoma State's only ROTC cadet, her mornings often begin in darkness as she gets up at 4 a.m. to leave for training with the 94 other cadets in the University of San Francisco's battalion.

Some days, she's behind the wheel again by 7:30 a.m., headed to Rohnert Park to change into civilian garb before going to class. Other days, the senior nursing major is in camouflage from dawn to dusk.

On a recent Friday, she arrived in San Francisco for a 6:15 a.m. mid-term on troop leadership, then spent the afternoon in the Marin mountains commanding a platoon during a mock ambush. Her combat boots didn't come off until 7 p.m.

"It's a lot of work," she said. "I'm just looking at the end goal."

Nationally, the 21-year-old is part of a rising tide of ROTC cadets meeting the Army's growing need for officers. Five years ago, there were 26,200 students in the Army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps. This year there are 36,330, a 39 percent increase that includes an even larger jump in female cadets.

Nearly 8,200 women are enrolled in Army ROTC this year, up 55 percent from five years earlier.

The trend, however, has all but bypassed Sonoma State, which may be better known for protests against the military than for joining it. Campus protests have particulary focused against the ban on openly gay service members that Congress repealed last December.

From the late 80s to 1996, the school prohibited military recruiters on campus; in 2007, it dropped the Army as an athletic sponsor; and in 2008, faculty and students protested the Army's presence at a campus job fair.

But Gonzalez, who has only dashed on SSU's campus in uniform once, said she's encountered no antipathy, outside of a few people who can't fathom why anyone would join the military. She said her friends support her.

Sgt. Joseph Bushey, the recruiter who helped Gonzalez, said the greatest hurdle to more students following in her footsteps is just lack of awareness. Most SSU students simply don't know ROTC is an option.

It is an option — just not an easy one, a major reason why Gonzalez is on course to be just the fifth SSU student commissioned into the Army through ROTC.

Even with flexibility to do physical training on her own, she still has be in San Francisco by 6:15 a.m. as often as three days a week.

She does it while taking a full-load of classes, including two days every other week of ICU nursing rotations at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, playing intramural soccer, working Saturdays at Round Table Pizza and finding time to watch American Idol with her SSU friends. She's also doing it all without the benefit of coffee, which she gave up for Lent.

"I definitely get &‘You're the busiest person I know' a lot," Gonzalez said.

She also gets respect from ROTC leaders. Some USF students don't want to walk 15 minutes up the hill to ROTC, joked Lt. Col. Derek Reeve, professor of military science. Gonzalez drives an hour, pays gas and tolls and endures the often nightmarish search for parking in the city.

"It's the kind of person you want to be an Army officer," Reeve said.

The military was not a path Gonzalez envisioned when she chose SSU, enchanted by the campus and by a nursing program close to her family in Fairfield where she attended Rodriguez High School.

<NO1><NO>But the summer after her sophomore year, she visited a friend in the Army. The trip opened her eyes. She liked the courtesy, she liked the teamwork and she liked the idea of using her nursing expertise to tend soldiers.

And she really liked the chance to reduce her student loans. When she returned to California, she began researching the Army, focusing on enlisting in the Reserves, which would give her a signing bonus and limit her time commitments to the Army to weekends and summers.

But there was no guarantee she wouldn't be deployed before graduating, and she wouldn't be able work as a nurse, a role the Army limits to officers. A day before she was supposed to take her oath of enlistment, she tearfully backed out.

That set Sgt. Bushey researching ROTC as an alternative. At first Gonzalez was dubious she could handle the commute to USF and the busy city driving.

But her mind was made up after she attended four weeks of no-obligation training at Fort Knox, Ky. last summer. There she fired M-16s, rapelled down a 50-foot tower and ultimately won a scholarship that now pays her tuition to SSU, gives her a $450 monthly stipend and provides $1,200 for books.

Not everybody expected her to stay when she joined the battalion last August. The USF ROTC pulls from several schools, none nearly as far away as SSU. Some joked about how long she'd stick it out, but that was just fuel to continue, she said.

"I really like to show people I can do it when they're doubting," she said.

Gonzalez said she can envisage a career in the Army beyond her four-year commitment. She feels no fear about possible war zone deployments, though she admits that may be because any such assignments remain far in the future. In some ways, though, the years ahead could be calmer than the present.

"Sometimes it's very stressful," she said. "I just keep the end in sight, when it's going to be nursing and Army together instead of two completely separate things."