ROTC members gain valuable experience on weekend training trip

Cadet Gim Reo looks out the window of a helicopter just before take off from DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport on Friday afternoon.

By Kyla Gardner

Marseilles | Cadet Randa Hamadeh runs through the forest as fast as she can; down one hill, up another. Thorny bushes grab her uniform and whip across her face.

This is crazy, she thinks.

Her squad of 12 cadets was sent on a reconnaissance mission to gather information, undetected, about enemy forces. She didn’t expect the enemy to start shooting. She feels surprised, but not panicked.

Hamadeh finds the rest of her cadets, waiting about 100 yards away, for backup and they all tear back to the front lines.

As she lays down to position her M-16 rifle, a thorn slices the top of her nose and blood runs down her face, but there’s no time to do anything about it; she has a squad of 12 cadets to lead in combat.

Rifles sound from both sides and the enemy retreats.

This isn’t a real battle, but a simulated mission that the NIU Army Reserve Officer Training Corps uses to test the leadership skills of its cadets.

Over the weekend, 77 cadets went through field training exercises (FTX) at the Marseilles Training Center in Marseilles, Ill.

The Missions

During FTX, third-year ROTC students serve as squad leaders of groups of about 12 cadets, planning and executing simulated missions against any enemy force.

The FTX missions are based on a scenario of a fictional country trying to invade another. The scenario is used to train personnel at every level on command in the army, said Lt. Col. Stephen Ashpes.

Saturday, each squad performed six missions from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The day was almost non-stop; the cadets had just a few minutes in-between missions to sit down, refill their canteens and eat some army-issued snacks.

Missions varied in their difficulty and purpose. Goals were to gather information about an enemy, ambush enemy forces or take over an enemy area.

On Sunday, the battalion split into two patrols of about 28 students each for a more complicated three and a half hour mission.

Also in leadership positions during the mission are team leaders, usually second-year ROTC students in charge of a three to four cadet team.

During missions, cadets practice tactics like moving through the forest in formation as quietly as possible, searching enemy bodies and looking for hidden explosive devices. Cadets carried real M-16 rifles but shot blanks.

All military missions, real or simulated, end with what is called an after action review, Ashpes said.

“The intent is not only to review what you’ve done, but also what could be done better and how it could be done better,” he said.

Ashpes said the reviews are a very important process for the cadets. They are not critiques but guided learning.

After Hamadeh’s mission, her squad, along with the cadets who role-played opposing forces gathered in a circle to evaluate, under the guide of Lt. Col. Jon Thompson, the mission they just experienced.

Leadership Testing

During Hamadeh’s mission, the addition of a variable she wasn’t expecting tested her mental agility – her ability to adapt under an unexpected situation.

“If I sat down and put it on paper, I probably wouldn’t have done the same thing,” Hamadeh said later. “You have 15 seconds to decide what to do.”

ROTC instructors and fourth-year cadets evaluate the squad leaders on 17 leadership skills including mental agility, interpersonal tact, communication and confidence.

The training at Marseilles allows cadets to be evaluated using specific examples of their leadership qualities, Thompson said.

“We do similar things on campus, but we cannot replicate this training environment,” Thompson said. “This allows us to get a much more thorough evaluation of them.”

The Marseilles Training Center is primarily an Army National Guard Center, Ashpes said, but it provides NIU ROTC about three square kilometers of varied elevation area to train on.

In the summer between their third and fourth year, cadets go to a month-long Leader Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis in Washington.

The LDAC puts cadets through similar mock-missions to evaluate their leadership. Cadet’s scores from that training will heavily influence their national rank among the about 6,600 cadets who graduate each year from ROTC programs, Ashpes said.

That rank affects what job graduates of ROTC can get, like whether they can enter active duty or work in the branch of the army they want, said Thompson.

ROTC’s purpose is to train officers for the U.S. Army. Students who complete the four-year leadership training program, made up of classroom, experiential (like FTX) and physical training, can serve in many different branches of the army in leadership positions.

Hamadeh said she feels more confident for the summer LDAC after her experience at FTX.

“I feel a lot more prepared,” she said. “It makes you think on your feet.”

A Learning Experience Outside of the Classroom

“We pride ourselves on being a learning organization,” Ashpes said about ROTC.

Ashpes said, on campus, the focus for cadets is on academics first, so it is nice to get them away for a weekend to focus solely on their military skills.

Eric Hall, a second-year cadet and team-leader during the FTX weekend, said FTX was a comprehensive test of his military skills and knowledge.

“What you learn [since] the first day of class is all put into use out here at FTX,” he said. “It’s fun to test your skills and see what you’ve learned.”

Cadet Lauren Armendariz worked as an enemy combatant during the missions and said the experience let her view the missions in a new way.

“Sometimes it’s good to put yourself in the enemy’s shoes and see things from that perspective,” she said.

First-year students hold no leadership positions over the FTX weekend, but they have the opportunity to observe the cadets who have completed more of the program in leadership positions.

“I feel the freshman and sophomores learned a lot [Saturday] from watching me succeed and fail,” Hamadeh said.

Ashpes said it is good for first-year students to learn to be a follower first while taking note of how the older cadets lead in the positions they will soon fill.

Cadet Andrew Norte said it was his first time on an FTX weekend and the best part was seeing the classroom tactics he has learned in use.

“Everything is so fast,” he said. “We spend 20 minutes reviewing a tactic that takes two seconds. But that’s how long it takes for someone to die on your team.”

ROTC does similar exercises in a small patch of woods on campus behind the Convocation Center, but the FTX experience is on a much larger scale, Ashpes said.

“It’s invaluable to students,” he said. “It really makes them feel like they’re in the military environment.”

Out of the Comfort Zone

On Friday, cadets boarded Blackhawk helicopters to fly to the Marseilles Training Center.

The pilots navigated the Blackhawks low over the tree line, reaching speeds of over 140 knots, or 160 mph.

Hall said the helicopter ride sticks out in his mind as a memorable moment from the weekend.

“It’s something you don’t get to do everyday, something not every college student gets to experience,” he said.

Cadet Maria Natal-Garcia said she liked the experience of seeing training mortar rockets, something she hadn’t had the opportunity to witness until FTX weekend.

“Hearing them coming, seeing the flash, hearing the boom, getting up and running away, your mind is racing but the same time, it’s survival instinct,” she said.

Land Navigation

Cadets also participated in land navigation, finding points in a 3-square kilometer forest knowing only the coordinates and using only a map, protractor, compass and their steps to measure distance.

In the Marseilles woods, cadets have to wear protective eye wear so they don’t lose an eye to errant thorns.

Cadets also had to navigate at night, during which they only had a red-light flashlight to look at their compass and map. The points were identified by small canvas flags impossible to see from farther than mere feet away.

Cadet Amanda Burg said night land navigation can be terrifying the first time. The second time, it’s better, she said.

Cadet Taylor Hartsough said he finds night land navigation more exciting than scary, but the experience can feel unsettling for first-time cadets.

“After doing your first day land navigation, you’re really confident,” Hartsough said. “During night land navigation, the tables are turned on you.”

Braving the Weather, Making New Friends

Before the weekend, cadets were given training on dressing in layers, how to prevent and identify frostbite and staying hydrated in the cold, said Captain Demarco Williams.

“The biggest thing out here is safety,” he said. “Our big concern is cold-weather injuries.”

Cadets had no heating the entire weekend and experienced below-freezing temperatures. Friday and Saturday night, students slept in wooden structures.

Compared to previous years of sleeping completely outside, some cadets were thankful for the overhead protection and lighting the structures provided.

Cadet Yesenia Juarez said she is more thankful of the comforts of home when she returns from an FTX weekend.

The cold was the most challenging part of the weekend for Cadet Catherine Moritz, who said she woke to find her toothpaste frozen.

ROTC cadets also dealt with blisters because of their boots and the extensive hiking they do over the weekend, Juarez said.

“My feet hurt, but that’s part of the fun,” Hall said.

Cadet Derek Ma said the best part of the weekend is being able to bond with his fellow cadets.

“I didn’t know half of the people here before,” Hamadeh said. “I know most of them now.”

Juarez said she fell in love with the ROTC program after experiencing her first FTX weekend several years ago.

“Once you live through a three-day program like this, you get pretty close [with other cadets],” she said.