Last week, like many other Fresno State students, Army ROTC cadets prepared for a weekend adventure – an adventure where learning was the mission.
The three-day getaway took 68 cadets on a fight against the elements, a journey trekking through Camp Roberts in San Miguel and a life-changing experience that will mold them into officers of the military.
“They come together in a mixed formation of people and go out and do what it is that our seniors – when they commission to become lieutenants – will eventually be doing in the
Army,” said Major Boyce Buckner, department chair and professor of military science and leadership. “And then for our freshman, sophomore and junior classes to train and prepare them for their summer camps that they go to in Fort Knox, Kentucky.”
The Fresno State Bulldog Battalion was joined by two more units: the Mustang Battalion from California Polytechnic State University and the Surfrider Battalion from University of California, Santa Barbara at the camp.
The Field Training Exercise (FTX) planning was in the works since April of last year. Throughout the fall semester, cadets learned basic military and team building skills. In the spring semester, training was ramped up, Buckner said, to prepare them for spring training.
The AROTC program, offered in many high schools, colleges and universities, is geared to prepare students to become military officers once they graduate.
Day 1 of FTX began at 4:30 a.m. Friday as all cadets and cadre (military science professors who are also active-duty Army officers) arrived at Fresno State.
Dressed in full uniform with rucksacks on their backs, packed with personal belongings and sleep equipment, the cadets listened to Buckner as he kicked off the weekend’s events.
“If you haven’t flipped your switch on for game time – it is game time,” Buckner said as the cadets stood in formation. “We have an awesome chain of events ahead of you. I promise you. We are going to go out, and we are going to have some fun because this is really what it is all about. So if you haven’t gotten yourself hyped yet, if you haven’t gotten motivated yet, if you are not excited to go out there, you have a nice bus ride to get that right. And as soon as we get out there, I want you guys to go out and kick some butt.”
During the two-hour drive to the camp, the cadets who were unable to sleep talked about the rainy weather and how it would have a heavy impact on the day’s events.
“They need to accept it,” said Cody Friend, Fresno State’s cadet battalion commander and nursing major. “The faster they accept they are going to be soaked, the less it is going to suck.”
Once arriving at Camp Roberts, the sleeping cadets awoke and peered through the windows of the bus to the world that awaited them – the rain had only just begun to drench the landscape.
Stepping off the bus the fourth-year students, better known as the MS 4s, began taking charge, guiding the lower-level cadets.
“Because they have been through the program for four, five years, they are helping us manage the training event,” Buckner said explaining the seniors’ roles. “They are basically becoming part of the cadre through this whole operation. They will be the ones teaching classes – cadre will be backing them up, of course. And they will be the ones who are walking with the platoons trying to coach the leadership.”
The first order of business was three-small unit classes in which the cadets learned Level 1 skills, such as basic land navigation – how to plot and do route planning with just a compass, a military map and a protractor – tactical combat casualty care and Army communications.
“In the classes we are teaching some of the basic things that you would use as a soldier. Hopefully our cadets can walk away with this and be able to apply them to the skills that we are going to be using later on in training,” Friend said. “We are going to be putting them in situations that are a little stressful, and they are going to have to make decisions under pressure. So, hopefully, this will help their decision-making skills, improvisation, make them better cadets and, hopefully, better leaders in the future.”
Once classes were over it was time for chow, as the cadets called it. Lunch was an MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat), which is an individually packed field ration. Each MRE includes a different entree that is heated up with a special heating pad. Inside the brown plastic bag, other items can be found like and a side dish, dessert, patriotic cookies in the shape of the Liberty Bell, powdered beverages, gum, etc.
Upon finishing lunch and classes, the three battalions received their weapons and integrated. The cadets walked through a simulated village of concrete buildings with wooden doors and windows, then lining up outside one of the buildings.
“They will be coming into an unfamiliar environment, mixing with people they have never met before and becoming a team, and being able to train and to grow and learn from each other,” Buckner said. “The way that we train in the Army ROTC across the nation is every single ROTC program sends its cadets to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to train. When you think of how large of a group that is – how diverse of a group that is – you are taking everything from the culture of California and mixing it with the pride of Texas and everything else that you could possibly imagine, so we want to expose them to that.”
After integrating, each platoon left the village and went into an open field to find the area in which they would select as their sleeping grounds. Each platoon patrolled their area and secured its perimeter, just as it would if it was in enemy territory.
“The reason why you create patrol bases is to avoid detection by eliminating movement,” said an UCSB cadet. “When you are out in the field and you are in enemy territory, you have to make sure to have a secure place where you can continue to do mission prep where they enemy won’t be able to find you.”
To familiarize themselves with the environment, the last order of business was a nighttime land navigation. Using their basic soldier skills and a red-light headlamp to see, the cadets were given five points to plot on a map and find in their nearby environment.
During the night, a third of each platoon stayed up, protecting the rest of the troops from any enemy activity while they slept under the night sky. They looked for anything in the distance, listened for sound and smelled anything to detect the enemy, said Tyler Fry, an MS 4 criminology major.
Day 2 started at 5 a.m. with hot chow for breakfast. The rain had subsided and the cadets were looking forward to their boots drying.
The first lane, or event, of the day was a reconnaissance mission, where cadets went out into the field to observe and/or identify enemy activity. Each lane, a different MS 3 cadet was put to the test to act as team leaders.
“It’s random, and you never expect it,” said Alfredo Hernandez, an MS 3 criminology major. “They throw you a mission, which you have to conduct, and you have little time to rehearse for it, so that’s a challenge.”
During the recon lane, Diana Vargas, an MS 3 public health major, was in charge of the first platoon. Her job was to make sure her cadets were safe as they scoped out the enemy and their equipment and ultimately completed her mission.
“It’s a personal challenge. You have to lead so many people. It’s kind of nerve-racking when you think about how many people you are responsible for, and you have to make sure they are OK at all times and getting everyone through the mission together,” Vargas said. “I tried to be very confident in myself – at times it’s very hard but at the end of the day, you have to remember you know what you are doing.”
Meanwhile, the enemy – which were the MS 4s – were back at the village preparing for an attack from the three platoons.
“We are on the rooftop scouting out, guarding these buildings, and we are waiting for them to come over a hill or bridge,” said Hondo Arpoika, an MS 4 criminology major. “When we see them, we are going to initiate fire. They will come in, wipe out the enemy and take over the village.”
Using AK 47s, RPGs and 50-caliber simulators for noise making with no bullets, the incoming cadets were pressed to see how they move their platoons tactically and how they were thinking.
“It’s to give you a heads-down, bullets-flying scenario,” concluded Arpoika.
When the cadets revealed themselves from the landscape, they came face-to-face with the enemy and suffered casualties, but ultimately took over the village.
To finish off the day, the platoon’s last mission was to seal the village. To do so, they went on a 5-mile ruck march around the perimeter of the village. During their excursion, the cadets were given intelligence that the enemy was throwing what seemed to be grenades from a white van. The platoon leaders took precaution and, soon enough, encountered the van, which attacked the platoon in the dark resulting in casualties.
“It was chaotic. At first my head was head-spinning,” said Hernandez, who was one of the leads of the first platoon during the last mission. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I stuck through it and got the mission done. They challenged us in a variety of ways. Squad leaders, team leaders and even squad members have to take charge and lead sometimes.”
“We found out the enemy was in the area, so we are likely to expect activity tonight,” he added.
And, in fact, the enemy did attack as the cadets slept. At 5 a.m. on Day 3, again the noise simulators and pyrotechnics were put to use as the MS 4s and cadre ambushed the sleeping cadets.
Everyone woke up, grabbed their guns and pushed back as the enemy tried to regain control of the village.
“The cadets were introduced to simulations where they took simulated casualties, and they had to react to that and be able to react when losing leadership and step up into the spots they weren’t originally assigned,” Friend said. “They handled it very well and reacted quickly. That was the whole goal of our training – to use critical thinking and make them make decisions under pressure. I think we accomplished our mission.”
The three-day FTX came to an end with each of the cadets learning valuable skills, which would help make them agile leaders in the military.
“I feel like our cadets came out here with the best of attitudes. It was raining on Day 1. It got cold and they were tested and yet you still see smiles on their faces. You see how motivated and how hard they are working and that they just really want to take the most out of this opportunity,” Buckner said. “Being at this point in my career to be able to see who is coming in next into the Army and the potential they have, the drive, the determination, the selflessness – those are things that I think America really hopes for in its leaders.”
Special report: Editor-in-Chief Diana Giraldo joined the Bulldog Battalion for its annual Field Training Exercise, April 7-9, 2016 at Camp Roberts in San Miguel California. Giraldo followed the cadets throughout the entirety of the training exercise to report on the story.