A Different Kind of Field Trip: An Inside Look on ROTC’s Combined Field Training Exercises

As I lay belly down on the leaf-covered ground providing security to nearby cadets, I felt a smooth consistent weight sliding on my left calf. Glancing back, I was greeted with the empty, sharp eyes of a rattlesnake resting his head on my leg. Both fight and fear overcame me at this point, and I leapt to my feet as the venomous serpent coiled and warned me with his unsettling rattle. Once I composed myself, I notified some cadets and promptly set myself up in another part of the safe zone to continue my security duty for the leaders of my platoon, for I, at least for the weekend, was an ROTC cadet of the Dons Battalion.

For three and a half days I accompanied the USF Reserve Officers’ Training Corps for their Combined Field Training Exercises (CFTX) in Fort Hunter Liggett. I was there to simulate the life of a cadet by sleeping out in the wilderness, eating MRE’s (meals ready to eat), and hiking countless miles with a rucksack. Battalions from Santa Clara University, University of California Berkeley, and Davis, also joined the Dons for CFTX. I also spoke with upperclassmen cadets, addressed as Military Science (MS) IIIs and IVs, about what they get from being in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

During the CFTX, the Dons Battalion worked with cadets from the other schools to further develop and exercise their navigation and leadership skills. On the first day, we began the first activity, Day Land Navigation at sunrise. The exercise is meant to test the cadets’ ability to navigate through unfamiliar territory. Wielding only a map, a compass, and some wits, the cadets were responsible to search for four to six points embedded in the fort’s various terrains of grassy fields, steep hills, and dense forest.

Along with cadets from USF, the Dons Battalion includes cadets from San Francisco State University, Dominican University, and the San Francisco Academy of Art University.

Struggling to maintain pace with S.F. State cadets, Clinton Hill and Luke Litle, both MS-Is, we climbed a seemingly random and nondescript grassy mount.

“It’s the balance between making a plan and being sure of your plan,” Hill said as he explained in his Land Navigation technique. “You can make a really tentative, specific plan, but then once you actually execute it, you have to be sure of it. You have to be sure of what you need to do.” Completing his thought, we found ourselves on top of one of his assigned points. Hill and Litle knew their plan.

We continued our Day Land Navigation hunt for the next point on the map where I encountered USF MS-III Cadet Steve McQueen. From there, I stuck with him as he found the points he was assigned. “We’ve been preparing for things like this,” McQueen said, as we hiked along the dirt road. “There’s stuff that’s always going to happen that you are going to have to adjust to, but the seniors (MS-IVs) have done a pretty good job in preparing us for stuff like this.”

As we continued our search, he reflected on the camaraderie he built over the course of his time in the program. “You definitely make lifelong friendships in ROTC.”

For the next activity, I found myself crouching behind a tree as my squad, led by USF MS-III Cadet Julieta Prado, commenced an assault down a hill against simulated enemy combatants, hiding at the objective. Prado was squad leader for 9-13 cadets for the Squad Situational Training Exercises (STX) to test her skills in strategy and leadership. Prado led one of the many STX lanes activities which spanned the first and second days.

The MS-IIIs are facing the ROTC’s Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC) — a 30-day review for third year cadets from around the country to test their training and skill to evaluate how well each of them do in various leadership positions. This CFTX is their last major training before they go to LDAC in Fort Lewis, Washington over the summer.

“I think I did well. In the Army everything is done as a team and my team leaders had a huge part in the success of our STX lane,” Prado said. “As a squad leader, it’s my job to plan the execution of the STX lane, and it’s the team leader’s responsibility to help in the execution — and they did an awesome job as well.” Like Prado, leadership and teamwork are two important qualities each cadet obtains when in the ROTC.

On the last day of CFTX, I found myself posing as an enemy, lying in the thick, tall grass of Fort Hunter Liggett during Patrolling. Patrolling aims to develop the same skills as STX but instead of a group of 9-13 cadets, it is comprised of about 20-30 cadets in each lane, all over different landscapes. In Patrolling, the terrain is more difficult to cross, the distance to the objective is further, the mission times are longer, and the strategic movement and organization of a platoon is more arduous.

I remember bracing myself for the imminent barrage of paintballs that would soon be flying towards me. As I peered over the grass, I was impressed by the skill and technique, the organization and the discipline, and the silent but effective communication each cadet had. As I saw each squad assembling themselves along the hill for the attack, I reflected on the words USF Battalion Commander, Cadet Lieutenant Colonel Jordan Baker told me. “Everything you teach them in class, you can see them get it. You step off here and you see them actually apply it. You see the light bulbs go on.”

As the attack commenced, I held my own for some time before I was struck on the leg with a blue paint ball while I sprinted to a tree. My paintball gun ran out of air as an orange paintball struck me in the center of rib cage. I was out of the exercise. As I laid there, I saw the cadets racing to help the injured foes. As one of the cadets carried the wounded enemy, I had to agree with Baker when he said it was, “Awesome seeing them.”

One cannot get a better image of the ROTC program than spending three and a half days with them for one of the year’s most difficult training activities by immersing myself in their exercises. The personality of each cadet beams through their uniform, and the respect and honor each of them holds the commitments to those they choose to serve. One is fortunate enough to witness first hand their skill, training,  responsibility of their actions and each other, and their intellect as they perform the duties of an ROTC cadet. Spending time on the field as a cadet has certainly affirmed, if not realize, the honor and glory of what it means to be in the Reserves Officer’s Training Corps.

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