“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?”