Tag Archives: FTX


“Claymore set and ready to kill, sir,” said third-year cadet Joe Wyatt with both a straight face and a wry tone as he placed the imaginary remote-control explosive in the dirt.

It was the second day of fall FTX, Army speak for Field Training Exercises, and the cadets of USF’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program were braving the dry heat typical of rural Alameda County.

The operation order, the third of the day for the squad I shadowed, had called for both a demolition (read: explosion) and an ambush on the enemy. After Wyatt struck the butt of his blue dummy rifle in the dirt to simulate the mine’s placement, the reconnaissance team returned to where I and a few other cadets were pulling security. The cadets of the Dons Battalion had been beneath the unrelenting, cloudless Amador Valley sun for twelve hours. I reminded myself of this as I pointed my blue rifle through chest-high grass, keeping vigilant for the hostile forces that weren’t there.

The cadets rose at 5:30 in the morning, and made their way to a set of 16 outdoor cubicles where first- through third-year cadets would negotiate the Field Leadership Reaction Course. Before the battalion could split off to tackle the three sets of obstacles they were assigned, the cadets  had to spend a chilly, impromptu 45 minutes learning field tactics from MS-IV’s, or fourth-year cadets, who had suddenly realized that the sunlight required to actually see the 16 obstacles would not be available for quite a while.

Practicing missions wouldn’t happen until after the cadets marched in formation for 3.1 miles in what in any other context would have been an extremely pleasant afternoon.

The mid-morning march with assault packs over the arid, rolling foothills of Camp Parks in Dublin, California had taken a toll on the cadets, who were continually—almost doggedly—reminded to hydrate themselves throughout the day. The effect on the cadets was visible: some had to be woken up as the MS-IV’s later gave a lengthy, much rehearsed presentation of an operations order, which my squad and I were now practicing.

Our ambush was successful. The simulated explosion disabled the enemy; the wounded target, played convincingly by fourth-year cadet Joe Estalilla, was searched and processed as an EPW, an enemy prisoner of war.

Estalilla stretched out the final hour before hot chow—a much-anticipated cooked dinner—with an evaluation of the op-orders we executed. Mercifully, the sun was setting behind the Hayward hills, and the first taste of sweet shade in a long while accompanied it.

Later in the evening, the cadets formed up after hot chow to begin a second round of night land navigation. For the third time at these exercises, every cadet save for the fourth-years (or MS-IV’s) would be finding obscure metal poles stuck in the dirt with a number stuck to it. To do this, the cadets made use of a strip of coordinates, a compass, a topographical map, a protractor, and some wits, all under the favorably-lit conditions of a nearly full moon. As I prepared to make a third land nav circuit, this time with first-year cadets Clinton Hill and Darren Singh, I asked myself the central question I came here to ask the MS-IV’s: Why?




USF’s Army ROTC has been around since 1930. Today, the program, headquartered in the Underhill Building wedged between a stately Rossi Wing and USF’s community garden, has more than 90 cadets on its rolls. Although the building is unassuming, cadets and cadre (officers and non-commissioned officers that ensure cadets are properly trained) all have pride in saying that USF’s ROTC is the best in Northern California. But the cadets in the Dons Batallion aren’t just drawn from USF.  Students from San Francisco State and other schools in the Bay Area help comprise the Dons Batallion. Native San Franciscans, southern Californians, Oklahomans, New Yorkers, New Jerseyans, and even Belorussians are represented in our ROTC body.

FTX is, primarily, a testing ground. MS-I’s, MS-II’s, MS-III’s, and MS-IV’s are the Army ROTC’s military science designations for freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior cadets, respectively. At FTX, the ones who run the show are the MS-IV’s. In contrast, the cadre play a background role in the running of this three-day enterprise.

To say that the MS-IV’s are not tested because they don’t do the obstacle courses, are not lying prone in the ground to plot coordinates in a Coast Range wilderness, or are not ambushing an imaginary target through a prickly field of nettle like the other cadets is to be surely mistaken. Their roles as the organizers, presenters, and leaders of FTX is tough preparation for service in the Army immediately after graduation.

And the MS-IV’s will indeed serve. First and second-year  cadets  can opt out of Army service by dropping out of ROTC. To become a third-year cadet and beyond, however, program participants must contract with the Army, effectively promising to devote a set amount of years to the U.S. armed forces’ largest body. The MS-IV’s I spoke with had every intention of fulfilling that obligation. The question I had for them was, why chose the ROTC to serve?




“I have wanted to be a Marine since I was, like, 7,” said Jean Paul Dugyon, an MS-IV. The cadet with a family military history in both the Philippines and the United States cited his Marine uncle as a driving force behind his decision to join ROTC, which was decision he made at first only reluctantly.

“I didn’t want to stay here,” said the Bay Area native. “I wanted to go away from home, like to Texas. But by the time I was admitted to USF I changed my mind. I got a tour of the ROTC and of the nursing program, and right away I fell in love,” said Dugyon, who after reading “All Creatures Great and Small” at age 12, had wanted to be a veterinarian.

“I fell in love on Valentine’s Day, the day I made my first visit to USF after I was admitted,” he said. “By that time, I knew I wanted to go into the military and be involved with health.”

The connection between the nursing program and ROTC is a strong one. MS-III Morgan Golden, who was out of commission with a stress fracture, was manning the nursing station at one side of the TOC, or the tactical operations center, which was actually a tent the MS-IV’s pitched at the three-way junction of an unimproved road. “They treat me really well” Golden said of the battalion, who had her managing logistics during FTX.

“I want to be nurse in the Army,” she said right away. For Golden, who grew up in an air-force town in Oklahoma (population 20,000) and whose family “has a long history in the military,” her focus was clear.

“The thing about the Army is that it’s such a great community of people,” Golden said as she set up the reception area to treat the torrent of cadets with blister-ridden feet that would come later in the day.  Golden valued the institutional camaraderie and community the Army provided. ”If I don’t have a chance to continue with the army, I could obviously get a civilian job, but then I wouldn’t know what I’d do.” she said.

As an MS-III, Golden was no longer a first or second-year cadet. She was now emerging as a mentor to younger cadets. “I was nervous at first. I didn’t want to mess up anything” she said. “Next year will be a bigger test.”





Max Mobley was taking that test now as an MS-IV. After showing me how to properly prepare and consume a wholesome meal ready-to-eat (MRE), he oversaw a squad of cadets tasked with negotiating a given obstacle—like transporting crates containing important cargo over a river of black gravel—in tight, full operation-order procedure.

Mobley knew he was joining the ROTC since his junior year of high school. This cadet was the third nursing major I interviewed, but reversed my impression that the nursing-ROTC route was a common, or even easy one.

“Our class started out with seven or eight nurses when I was a freshman,” he said. “Now we only have three or four, with only two graduating on time.” According to him, the expense of attending USF is prohibitive to the point that when most cadets who expect an ROTC scholarship are not granted it, they have no choice but to drop out. “ROTC would have been the only way they could fund a USF education,” he said.

Mobley reached for the bigger picture when describing how his role as a MS-IV mattered. “A lot of these people,” Mobley said of his cadets, “could be leading a platoon of 40-45 people in a year or two. In a few years, that could become a company of 200-250 soldiers. You need to make sure you’re MS-III’s are ready.”  The opinions he gets about ROTC range from people who think, “ROTC is a lot more intense than it is,”  to others “thanking [us] for our prior service, which is awkward, because none of us have been deployed.”



“You just have to listen and take notes,” said MS-IV Mandy Hernandez, talking of the sometimes negative reactions and “bad looks” she receives from people as she walks around the USF campus. Her schedule this semester requires her to wear her ACU (army combat uniform) to three consecutive classes, some of which are not entirely receptive to the idea of the military.

“It’s hard to study and wear your combat uniform at times,” she says.

Though Hernandez has no “crazy lineage” of family in the military, some in her family have served in the armed forces. When she first told her parents she was joining ROTC in the middle of college, her dad was entirely supportive, but her mom was less receptive.

“I joined my sophomore year,” said Hernandez, “I had a lot of friends in ROTC. I had talked to them, and I realized I needed more structure. I was kind of crazy as a freshman.” The skill and physical training ROTC provided was valuable for her, she said.

Being a female in what has traditionally been a male domain has presented few problems for the cadet, “I’ve always had really positive experiences,” she said. “I’ve never had a problem with being a female here, though I know there’s been a lot of bad publicity with the Army.”

While some cadets were attracted to ROTC for the direction it provided, some needed no urging. “I knew I wanted to serve since I was 13,” said Wes Milligan, MS-IV, who attends San Francisco State and served as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. Starting off as an MS-III in the battalion once he returned to the U.S., Milligan was the cadet battalion commander—that is, the chief cadet—of this FTX. The September 11th attacks were Milligan’s impetus to join the armed forces; when he turned 19, he joined the Army.

I asked if coming to do ROTC with so much prior service under his belt was akin to going back to the beginning. “Obviously some of it is going back to basics, and sometimes people ask me ‘why aren’t I tearing my hair out [dealing with such basic material]’, but I think that’s not the right attitude to have. I’m always in a position to learn something,” he said. “The cadre is very knowledgeable, and I’m always learning something new.”



Because he started as an MS-III, Milligan never had the chance to experience life as an “underclassman” in the ROTC. For him, the experience was essentially as a mentor to incoming cadets.

“You take these willing cadets that are blank slates, that are really eager to learn, that are willing to serve their county, and it’s easy; it’s like not even going to work or going to school. I enjoy doing it,” said Milligan, “you invest a lot of time and effort into them and you see good things being produced from it. You see [a cadet] thrive in this environment and it’s partly because of what you’ve done.”

Former Army Reservist and MS-IV Gary Gardner saw the Army life as a profession rather than a lifestyle: “Its good, it’s clean, and it’s a great way to stay in shape,” he said. The Army, for him, was an organization he took pride in, analogous to an individual who devotes a good amount of his professional life to a corporation in the civilian world.

Mike O’Connor, who is preparing to become an Army pilot, found himself in ROTC only after his parents insisted he attend college rather than enlist in the armed forces right after high school, saw the Army path as a lifestyle. “I’m a first generation American,”  he told me. “When my parents immigrated to the United States, we were given so much opportunity,” he said, noting that serving the in the armed forces was his way of showing gratitude to the United States.

Joe Estalilla, the MS-IV who was my first interview, gave me the uber-detailed 24-page FTX plan he was charged with writing up. He accompanied myself and MS-I’s Clinton Hill and Page Femia during a night land navigation session.  Remembering his first night land navigation, Estalilla commented, “It’s surreal that I’ve made it this far.”  For him, knowing that he could go from a first-year cadet with zero knowledge of the military to a position of authority in the battalion inspired him.

As we talked about his plans to continue with the Army after graduation, about people’s impressions of ROTC, and of other things, our party rested for a moment at the summit of an exceptionally steep hill. The responses of each of the senior cadets, I thought as I looked out over a clear Dublin night sky, tied back an observation cadet Mobley had made earlier.

A special kind of leadership, one not easily found elsewhere, is being taught in ROTC. “It’s not an easy road, but it’s definitely worth it,” Mobley said. “If you can apply to the civilian world the leadership capability the Army builds—who wouldn’t want that?”

My Weekend With ROTC

Fatima by Emily Bogden

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.

Military Food
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.

Land Navigation
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.
Obstacle Course

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.

Lessons Learned
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.