For cadets, war simulations are no game

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Ten ROTC cadets lay prone, shoulder to shoulder, waiting to fire their M-4 carbines. 


“Lock and Load. Turn your selector switch from safe to semi. Engage your target.” Each cadet loaded a magazine, centered the front sight posts inside the rear sight aperture, exhaled smoothly and squeezed off three quick rounds. 



On April 15, a Minnesota Daily reporter traveled to Camp Ripley in Little Falls, Minn., and observed three days of Army ROTC training.


With each pull of the trigger, compressed air – not a cartridge – kicked the rifle back.


The virtual rounds plinked into a target projected on a screen some 20 feet across the room, and a computer connected the dots, showing the cadets how consistently they shot.


After a few tries, half the cadets had “zeroed” by putting two consecutive bursts within a four-centimeter circle. They stood up and watched their peers who, like first-year Cadet Faith Gilbertsen, struggled to find the mark.


She was losing balance by crossing her legs, her sight picture was obscured because she had been taught to shoot with both eyes open and she wrapped her index finger too tightly around the trigger, the senior cadets told her.


“It definitely made me see that I need to work on a few things,” Gilbertsen said.


She didn’t zero that night, but by the end of the weekend, she was beginning to reach out to targets on the 300-meter live-fire range.


Lying prone, Army ROTC cadets fire on the M-4 carbine simulator. Instructors as well as upperclassmen, many with experience from previous deployments, are responsible for much of the instruction at the three-day camp.


When she graduates, Gilbertsen, like most Army ROTC cadets, will commission as a second lieutenant in command of a full platoon of soldiers, likely in a warzone. That transformation from civilian to commander isn’t fast or easy.


“We can teach them only so much that’s book-based,” said Capt. Ryan Curl, Army ROTC enrollment officer. “Most of what they do is going to have to be based on their knowledge and experience.”


Thursday: 2200


Looking up at the clear northern Minnesota sky, Cadet Sean DeBruzzi said it was nice to be out of the city. At its heart, Camp Ripley, a 53,000-acre site north of Little Falls, seems as far from civilization as possible.


A carpet of maple and oak leaves covers the vast forest and makes silent cadet movement nearly impossible.


Fields and marshes break up the haphazard thickets of aspens that cloud cadets’ line of sight.


Friday: 0200


After a night on the simulator and field stripping an M-4 carbine, cadets bunked in modest barracks.


Trading off every half hour, some woke from their narrow cots to pace the building for fire guard duty.


They joked that the concrete and brick barracks weren’t likely to go up in flames, but in pacing the halls, cadets were preserving tradition and looking for discipline, not fires.


Friday: 1000


Shielding his face from the sun with a wide-brimmed Stetson and dark sunglasses, a wiry bus driver – a civilian contracted to shuttle the cadets between training exercises – spoke as loudly about American politics as did his stars-and-stripes vest.


He lamented the “unpatriotic” direction he said the country has taken.


“It will take at least one more civil war to get this country right again,” he said to the few cadets within earshot.


Silence.


“That’s the great thing about America,” Cadet Battalion Cmdr. Chris Holbrook said. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion.”


The discussion ended there.


Far from the battlefield, poll numbers show increasing national polarization over the war in Afghanistan.


Though soldiers and officers keep their political views under wraps, they often become the focal point of war debates. As recently as Thursday, anti-war protestors marched past the Armory where ROTC is based.


The demonstrations rarely become confrontational, but if they do, cadets have little room for debate.


“It’s nothing that getting into a shouting match or poorly representing the country I’m serving is going to help at all,” junior Cadet Kate Roberts said.


“We are here to protect those freedoms,” said Maj. Doug Leonard, one of the cadre, the administrators and officers who instruct cadets. “We hope that people understand that if we didn’t have a strong military in this country, we’re not guaranteed that we would have these freedoms forever.”


President Barack Obama has announced that he plans a full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. Last December, Obama laid out a strategy for Afghanistan that has sent an additional 30,000 troops to that country and a drawdown beginning in mid-2011. It is estimated that in May or June, the total number of American troops in Afghanistan will surpass those in Iraq for the first time since 2003.


With 316 deaths, 2009 was the bloodiest year in the eight years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.


Friday: 1200


The third-year cadets found themselves at the foot of obstacle 11, a bridge of two ascending ladders that met at a peak some 15 feet above the ground.


Decked in full Army combat uniforms with 3.5-pound Kevlar helmets and fake M-16s slung over their shoulders, cadets wove through the rungs.


They ambled over the first rung, swung back down under the second and pulled themselves back over the next.


Cadets were careful not to speak – a patrol of the “Chinese Hoard” was near.


According to their orders from “Operation Weaving Strength,” the ladder bridge crossed more than gravel and leaves; beneath it ran the “Killer Lava River.”


Any noise might jeopardize the mission, so the squad leader commanded his cadets with nothing more than hand signals and overt gestures.


Such exercises, according to cadre, aren’t about the enemy or even the setting; they’re about forcing the cadets to lead.


The goal: get cadets they don’t know to trust them and follow their command.


“There has to be a practical exercise where they can be put in charge of something and make mistakes,” Curl said.


All cadets attend the Field Training Exercises at Camp Ripley, but for juniors, FTX is an important proving ground before they spend a month at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, or simply Fort Lewis, in Washington state leading, being led by and being graded against more than 4,000 other cadets from across the nation.


For those juniors, the weekend at Camp Ripley is a three-day prologue to crucial simulations to come.


Prepping for Fort Lewis, juniors at FTX rotate into the squad leader role, commanding cadets from other schools to execute the missions.


“As a leader, you need to get people motivated to do something they don’t necessarily want to do,” said Holbrook, a journalism major who was previously deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. “That’s the standard of a successful leader.”


The Army has standardized tests for skills such as marksmanship and even land navigation, but there are no metrics for leadership, Leonard said.


“We’ve got four years with them as a cadet to assess their honesty, integrity and whether they would make a good officer,” Leonard said. “Four years is plenty of time to decide if they’re the right type of person to be leading other soldiers.”


Even with solid leadership, soldiers make mistakes.


When junior Cadet Rebekah Rovik slipped off a rung and fell five feet into the “lava,” the squad got a chance it wouldn’t find on a battlefield: The cadets counted to 20 and started the operation over.


Friday: 1600


At FTX, cadets plan and execute missions, wielding fake M-16 rifles, AK-47s and AT-4 shoulder-fire missiles. Even while pointing their “rubber ducks” downrange and yelling “bang, bang, bang,” the cadets are told to “carry it like its real.”


Junior Cadet Jacob McLellan, a cultural studies major at Northwestern College in St. Paul, said he “played Army” with his siblings as a child. Now, with raised stakes, he’s doing it again.


“We’ll joke around once in a while and say, ‘Yeah, this weekend we’re going to play Army,’ or whatever, but there is structure to it.”


And consequence.


“These are other people’s lives, whether they’re the enemy or not,” he said. “[That] makes it real.”


Also real for the cadets at FTX were the wood ticks and the fear of Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks.


Two senior cadets spent the daylight hours stamping out dozens of the parasites that crawled at them from all directions over a gravel road.


When one senior cadet showed the cadre a strip of tape on which she had stuck 18 of the ticks she pulled off herself and others in only three hours, the commanders began to reconsider the decision to make the cadets unroll their sleeping bags outside for the night.


The ticks were just a “small example” of the unexpected situations officers are forced to address, Maj. Gary Mundfrom said.


“You’re trying to juggle in your mind two or three different alternatives,” he said. “You know that you’re not going to do all three of them; in fact, you may do none of them, you may do a hybrid.”


The cadre decided that busing the cadets and trucking their rucksacks and bags back to the post would be too time-consuming and laborious.


Instead, they settled for a group tick check and bivouacked under the stars, with the ticks, as planned.


Friday: 2100


After wolfing down a hot meal of shrimp spaghetti alfredo, broccoli stems, bread and milk – a welcome break from the vacuum-sealed rations they normally eat in the field – the cadets hunkered down to listen to seniors lecture on topics as diverse as field hygiene and making an impromptu “hooch,” or lean-to, out of an Army poncho.


With no clouds overhead, the daytime heat dissipated quickly.


As the seniors wound down, the cadets zipped up their mummy bags and tried to block out the sounds of the C-130s flying overhead from the runway only two miles away.


Saturday: 0400


The cadets woke three hours before sunrise to find the field and their sleeping bags dusted with frost.


“It’s easy to lay around, watch TV, hang out, eat chips, eat pizza, watch some more TV, take a nap, maybe take another nap,” Roberts said. “I enjoy those days, but I just don’t get the sense of fulfillment from that kind of stuff that I do when I come out here and I run around in the woods and I learn stuff and I’m up 18 hours in a day and I sleep six and I get back up and do it again.”


Saturday: 0900


At the far end of the live-fire range, green plastic life-size targets appeared little bigger than toy Army men.


As the targets popped up from behind mounds staggered as far away as 300 meters, first-year cadets such as Grant Imhoff leveled their rifles, found a bead and fired.


With each squeeze of the trigger, Imhoff sent a 5.56-mm “Penetrator” anti-personnel round downrange at close to 3,000 feet per second and a brass casing to his right.


On most of his shots, Imhoff also knocked the target back to the ground.


At FTX in the fall, Imhoff scored 17 out of 40. On Saturday he hit 28.


“It made me realize I need to get in and practice on the [simulator] and be a little more dedicated that way,” he said.


Outside, nerves and wind are a factor, Imhoff said, but after a winter of practicing, he found himself consistently scoring 37 and as high as 38 on the simulator.


“There are ways you can get through ROTC without making the extra effort,” he said. “But I think it makes a world of difference to do it. It shows in the people we have going the extra mile.”


Saturday: 1400


With an enemy patrol in the area and his soldiers waiting for orders, squad leader Jacob McLellan was deciding how to set up an ambush.


McLellan looked over a terrain model, laid out the operation and led his troops to set the trap.


The squad reached its objective, got in position and hunkered down to wait for the enemy.


The mission started “perfectly,” McLellan said.


When two figures in camouflage Army-issue pants carrying what looked like shoulder-fire missiles walked into the ambush, McLellan gave the command to open fire.


His squad fired for 10 seconds, then waited.


The two continued to advance, so McLellan ordered another volley.


Then, a squad leader’s worst nightmare: McLellan realized that the two were friendlies.


The two cadets who were playing reporters in the exercise screamed out that they were media, not combatants. McLellan ordered a ceasefire and led a team of cadets to aid the reporters.


McLellan ordered the wounded reporters to be carried away and resumed a watch for the enemies, trying to salvage the mission.


“If this was real, it would have been disastrous,” McLellan said later.


At times, it has been.


A video released in early April by investigative web site Wikileaks shows an Apache helicopter gunning down two Reuters reporters in a case of mistaken identity.


For McLellan, the mission was part of a training exercise, and within an hour the pretend reporters would recover from imagined wounds and would be preparing to rattle the next round of cadets.


Maj. David Boisen reflected on the incident in light of the video.


“I hope he learned his lesson,” he said. “It’s better to do it now when no one gets hurt.”


From students to officers


Upon graduation, Army ROTC cadets commission as second lieutenants and take command of a platoon with soldiers who may have as much as a decade of service.


“If you’re incompetent, it’s going to show right through,” said Cadet Battalion Cmdr. Chris Holbrook, who has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. “That right there undermines the entire leadership of that unit.”


The commitment to service differs among cadets.


For many, that means at least four years of active duty service – or eight years as a reservist in the National Guard – the exchange some cadets make for full tuition, books and fees.


“The first question I ask when they come to my office is, ‘Why are you here?’ ” said Capt. Ryan Curl, Army ROTC enrollment officer. “The best answers are the ones that don’t involve scholarship money. The best answers are the ones talking about feeling a need to serve their country, feeling a need to challenge themselves, to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”


Curl has seen the “ebb and flow” of recruiting in times of war and peace. Today, 160 Army ROTC cadets wander the halls of the Armory building, but when Curl joined the cadre five years ago, that number was closer to 80.


The down economy and the Middle Eastern wars’ retreat from newspapers’ front pages have contributed to that growth, Curl said, adding that current cadets come from a generation whose lives “have been centered around giving back to the community.”


During World War II, the Armory was so overrun with cadets training to be officers in the Pacific and European theaters that some military science classes were moved to the basement rooms of Memorial Stadium. To meet its need for space during the period, the Navy ROTC program annexed Nicholson Hall, dubbing it the USS Nicholson.


The Army ROTC program is as old as the University itself, and for the first half of the University’s existence, enrollment in the program was mandatory.


Now, cadre say that not everyone is fit to be an Army officer.


“It’s not something that’s for everybody. It’s not supposed to be,” Curl said. “It’s very specific people who can handle the rigors, that kind of stress and the sacrifice.”


Many who join don’t see the Army as a career, and the Army is fine with that.


“We fully encourage people to plan on joining the Army just for a few years and get out and let them go with a résumé that’s going to look really good with four years of experience in the Army,” said Maj. Doug Leonard, a military science instructor who teaches first-year cadets.


“Just committing to do three or four years of service is a huge step for me,” junior Cadet Kate Roberts said.


Graduating cadets could end up anywhere the Army has a presence; the United States has tens of thousands of troops in Germany, Japan and South Korea. But the current class all joined with the knowledge that they will likely deploy to a war zone.


Curl said many of the cadets volunteered during an especially difficult time for the nation’s military.


“Look at where the Army was then,” Curl said. “We were in the middle of the surge, it was a tough time, and yet they still wanted to serve their country; they still want to join the Army. To walk into that environment and say, ‘Not only do I want to be a part of it, but I want to be a leader in that,’ I think is impressive.”


Cadets know they’ll be shouldering a burden, but most say they’re not afraid.


“I guess the excitement overshadows the fear,” first-year Cadet Grant Imhoff said. “It probably won’t set in directly. Right now I’m just on the high of being nervous and excited.”