I tucked my tan T-shirt into my camouflage cargo pants. As I zipped up the matching olive and tan long sleeve Army Combat Unit (ACU) camouflage top, I looked at myself in the mirror perplexed by the idea that my body was underneath this uniform. How did I get myself into this?
Oh that’s right. Olivia Waldon, the Public Affairs Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) officer contacted the Foghorn to have some staff members join them for their fall Field Training Exercise (FTX).
Wearing the Uniform Outside
I wore the ROTC uniform for the first time last Thursday, one day before we left for training. My intentions were strategic. I wanted to know how the uniform changed how people looked at me, how I felt wearing Army gear and how it made me feel a part of ROTC.
I proceeded to Lucky to purchase snacks for the weekend trip. I usually smile at everyone on the street, but I wasn’t sure how to act. I didn’t know if there was an expected behavior that is associated with the Army, and I kept trying to hide my highlighter orange nail polish because I thought it would give me away as an ROTC imposter.
I put beef jerky into my Lucky basket, and laughed at myself. I had hated beef jerky after having gagged at an old Slim Jim I ate once. Yet somehow I felt that having it in my assault pack, the ROTC backpack I would be carrying, would help me blend in. After putting granola bars, trail mix and fruit rolls into my basket, I made my way to the personal hygiene section.
Three ROTC cadets walked behind me looking for baby wipes. They were dressed in civilian clothes, and there I was pretending I was part of ROTC.
“Which ones are you getting?” I asked. They all agreed on Wet Ones so Wet Ones it was. We wouldn’t have time to shower during the two and a half days we would be at ROTC camp. I got into a line different from theirs and paid for my things.
Arriving to the Field Training Exercise Site
I woke up at around 5:00 a.m. The ROTC bus was supposed to leave at 6:00 a.m.
I secured the black bun Waldon said I was supposed to have on with a hair tie.
I fastened the long green duffel bag that contained my sleeping bag, my sleeping mat, a wet weather bag, a poncho and a Kevlar, which is a helmet only I was given in case I participated in any tasks with the cadets. I am 5 feet tall and the duffel bag went nearly up to my chest.
I put the duffel bag aside and prepared my assault pack, the tan camouflage backpack I would be carrying most of the time. I stuffed my snacks, an extra pair of ACU trousers, matching ACU long sleeve top, undergarments and two tan shirts into my assault pack. I also had my my blue canteen, knee pads, elbow pads and black gloves stuffed into the pack. I swung the duffel bag’s dark green straps over my shoulders and I elevated the assault pack with my right hand making sure the long fastening straps didn’t touch the ground.
We arrived to the Underhill Building, located next to Lone Mountain when it was still dark out.
By the time we arrived to Dublin, the sun was up. Foghorn Photography Editor Emily Bogden, Rich Media Editor Alex Crook and Photographer Karim Iliya came with me as well. We were told we would be sleeping in the tent with the MS-IVs (Four year Military Students), in charge of planning and overseeing the FTX. The role of the MS IVs was also to mentor the MS IIIs who would be participating in the mandatory Leadership Development and Assessment Course or LDAC in the summer. LDAC consists of a 29 day test of the cadets’ military skills, focusing mainly on physical training, land navigation, first aid and a Field Leadership and Reaction Course (FLRC). Thousands of cadets nationwide meet during different months in the summer to complete LDAC.
The performance of the MS-IIIs at LDAC, influence which of the sixteen branches the Cadets will be assigned to after graduation. Due to my ignorance in associating all military with the Infantry unit, I had no clue there were other branches. ROTC cadets graduate as second lieutenants which puts them at a higher rank than if they had enlisted straight out of high school.
As second lieutenants, the cadets would be put in charge of a platoon, or group of twenty-five to fifty people. They could work in branches such as Finance, Infantry, Aviation, Armor and Transportation corps among others.
After having put away their equipment in their assigned tents, cadets sat on the concrete squares outside their sleeping areas. They began to open the brown MRE packets we had been given before we got on the bus.
I opened one of my MREs and was excited to find Twizzlers, but I wasn’t up for eating Mexican style corn and refried beans at 10 a.m., so I ate my beef jerky instead.
I saw MS-III Cadet Mike O’Connor put spoonfuls of dark reddish mush in his mouth. What was that?
“Beef enchilada. Apparently,” He said. I asked about the flavor but he didn’t elaborate. “It’s better than not eating,” he said.
FLRC was the first main activity at FTX. It consisted of 8 hours completing assigned leadership and teamwork building tasks. Two lines of wooden cubicles were connected by an elevated wooden walkway. Tasks often consisted of troubleshooting scenarios in which the squad had to confront hypothetical faulty bridges or the like. The squad leader’s goal was usually to get his or her entire squad and/or their equipment across the obstacle.
Each squad included six to nine cadets who had to attempt nine tasks. They were given about an hour to complete each one but were reminded constantly by the MS-IVs that it wasn’t so much about completing the task as testing the Squad Leader’s leadership ability. Squad leader positions were rotated among the MS-IIIs in the squad in preparation for their summer LDAC.
The Dons Batallion is divided into two companies, Alpha and Bravo, which is divided into two platoons that break off into squads. I joined a squad in one of the Alpha platoons for FLRC.
MS-III Squad Leader Patrick Sarsfield had to direct his squad in getting a heavy box that symbolized ammunition across two raised wooden platforms. His cadets couldn’t step on the black gravel in between the platforms because it represented a deep river.
Sarsfield called MS-II Cadet Stephen McQueen to assist him as Squad Leader during this task. McQueen’s promotion was notable since MS-IIs were only called upon when MS-IIIs thought they had significant leadership potential.
Later I found out Cadet McQueen was also a part of Ranger Challenge, which is the ROTC sports team. The cadets that voluntarily sign up for Ranger Challenge push themselves to complete more rigorous tasks in less amount of time which can accumulate points for their annual merit report. The results of the report may also influence the branch the cadets are placed in based on the skills they exhibit.
The protocol for the different tasks consisted of briefings on the mission, development of an execution plan, rehearsals of possible scenarios and an evaluation process. If the cadets dropped a plank into the black gravel or stepped on the restricted red poles on the floor, their squad had to count to ten delaying their mission and setting them back from completing the mission on time.
Rehearsals were a common theme throughout FTX. Operations Officer, Cadet Gregory Punsalan said thinking ahead was part of military mentality. “Rehearsals are key because in rehearsals you can figure out what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen and what’s bound to go wrong and you can focus on what’s bound to go wrong and build contingencies off of that,” he said.
After sitting in the sun observing the different squads complete tasks, I heard Master Sergeant Daniel Johnson, one of six cadre members, call my name from the walkway above the task cubicles. He asked if I wanted to lead one of the tasks.
“I don’t think I’m prepared to do that, sir,” I said nervously. “I think I would like to participate as a cadet first.”
Feeling an adrenaline rush bubble inside me, I power walked to the task Sergeant Johnson indicated to me. I was introduced to my Squad Leader (SL) Cadet Kevin Braafladt and was comforted to know I knew squad member and MS-II Cadet Eileen Flores from activities at school.
This task had two raised steel tunnels attached to a wooden board. Standing in front of the wooden cubicle, you couldn’t see the obstacle on the other side.
A cadet cupped his hands and propped me onto the right steel tunnel. He asked that I check out the terrain and describe the obstacle with detail. I explained there were three wooden posts of different heights. We needed to get a box of ammunition across to the other side by having our cadets walk across wooden planks.
A cadet slided into the tunnel on my left and placed the wooden planks over the posts. My job was to report to my SL what I saw happening and the success and complication of every step. After allowing another cadet to double check what I had reported on, I assisted in moving equipment to the cadet walking across the planks.
When the task was completed, I wanted to do another task. Intimidated by the military jargon, I didn’t feel confident leading yet, but I was beginning to understand why cadets thought these tasks were fun.
The cadets participated in three land navigation exercises. The first was after FLRC and was conducted at night. The second was during the day and the third was at night again. The different exercises varied in their challenge to improve the cadet’s navigation skills, collaborate as a team or build individual confidence. The cadets were given five reference points on their paper maps and were given white paper strips with five land navigation points to plot on their maps. The cadets had to draw an azimuth or reference vector on their map that would help them identify where they were in case they got lost. If they did get lost, they were told to turn to the white light setting on their red lens flashlights or blow their whistles.
MS-IV Cadet David Holguin was put in charge of guiding three cadets through their night land navigation course. Having completed his LDAC and being referred to me for his knowledge in land navigation, I heard him provide his wisdom to his cadets.
“It’s really important to get this right in the beginning because obviously if you’re going the wrong way or you mess up your first point, you’ve already made a plan so you have to redo everything” he said in a voice of caution.
He interjected as he saw the cadets struggling to plot their points on the map but he always gave them an opportunity to figure it out on their own first.
The cadets only found one out of the five reference points they were given that first night but as Holguin explained, the goal of the exercise wasn’t to find all of the points but rather to become comfortable with the terrain and build confidence in their skills.
The Alpha and Bravo companies separated to discuss their plans of attack and defense. As part of the Bravo Company, I listened to MS-IIIs brief their cadets on ambush techniques.
In full gear, which included my elbow pads, knee pads, black gloves and my Darth Vader looking paint ball mask, I jogged with members of a Bravo platoon ready to take over the village we were invading. The village consisted of gray buildings splattered by blue and green paint balls designed for the purpose of this exercise.
I could feel the adrenaline again, except this time I was a bit scared. I didn’t have a weapon, and I had been told paint balls could leave bruises. I had been given a bright red jersey that distinguished me as a civilian to minimize my chances at getting shot. I ran behind MS-IV Cadet Jason Hedrick who was evaluating the battle, stood firmly over the golden grass. I lay down on the ground with my stomach to the floor, holding on to my black Darth Vader mask to avoid the paintballs being shot in my direction.
“You’re dead,” MS- IV Cadet Irvin Uy told a Bravo Company cadet.
He had been pointing his weapon behind a white prop car when a paint ball hit him. Although three other cadets had made it to his location, I saw Alpha cadets shoot at them from the open windows in the building in front of the white car. The Alpha cadets also shot at the cadets hiding in the grass next to me. There wasn’t anything I could do but watch.
“Endex,” Cadet Irwin Uy said. The mission had terminated. All of the Bravo cadets were dead.
When it was the Bravo Company’s turn to defend the buildings, I was immersed in the battle. This was not a game to me and I didn’t know why I was taking it so seriously.
The main event of Sunday’s training was an obstacle course held on some of the golden hills I had seen when we first arrived. I joined the Alpha company, deciding that 5-foot Cadet Morgan Golden would be my motivation for completing the obstacles. After all, if she could do it, why couldn’t I?
I jumped different sized hurdles, faced my fear of heights by balancing myself on raised wooden beams and attempted to jump over wooden walls and climb ropes.
Lastly the cadets participated in a timed Dons Challenge obstacle course where MS IIIs and MS IIs were paired with an MS I cadet to participate in another series of obstacles together. After the entire squad had completed each of the obstacles, they were told how their time had compared to the other squads. Cadet Batallion Commander Samantha Sabo and Cadet Sergeant Brooke Lazzarini gave the winning squad a white ribbon for their merit. FTX concluded with the two cadets helping Sergeant Johnson place Dons badges on the shoulders of the MS- Is who had successfully completed FTX. They were now officially part of the Dons Batallion.
MS-III Cadet Alexandria Diaz, an ROTC nursing student, said, “Not everyone is meant for ROTC. It takes mental control.” She told me her class had started with nine nurses, of which two now remain. The demanding physical training (PT) schedule, which requires cadets to exercise as a group several times a week at 6 am, requires discipline. “You have to really want this lifestyle,” Diaz said.
Through interviews, I discovered the Dons Battalion is made up of cadets from San Francisco State, Dominican University, Sonoma State and Academy of Art University, who commute to USF for PT and for the ROTC classes all cadets receive in addition to their rigorous college course loads. Some of them wake up as early as three in the morning to be on time.
Something else Diaz said interested me. “When I first put on the uniform, within a week someone yelled out the window, baby killer,” she said. “And it was like hold on I haven’t done anything yet. This isn’t what we’re about.”
I don’t think I would have ever used the word baby-killer. I did however associate the military with mass killing and violence. Now, I realize the military is associated with more than just war. Being a part of a program like ROTC develops leadership skills and promotes teamwork.