For cadets, war simulations are no game

Over the course of three days spent on the obstacle course, in the woods and on the firing range at Camp Ripley, 160 University of Minnesota Army ROTC cadets honed the skills they’ll need to be officers.

Little Falls, Minn. - March 16, 2010 - Cadets march two kilometers to their bivouac after eating hot chow for the first time since leaving Minneapolis.

Ian Larson

Little Falls, Minn. – March 16, 2010 – Cadets march two kilometers to their bivouac after eating hot chow for the first time since leaving Minneapolis.

Ian Larson

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

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

With each pull of the trigger, compressed air âÄî not a cartridge âÄî 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 âÄúzeroedâÄù 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.

âÄúIt definitely made me see that I need to work on a few things,âÄù Gilbertsen said.

She didnâÄôt 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. 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 isnâÄôt fast or easy.

âÄúWe can teach them only so much thatâÄôs book-based,âÄù said Capt. Ryan Curl, Army ROTC enrollment officer. âÄúMost of what they do is going to have to be based on their knowledge and experience.âÄù

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 cadetsâÄô 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 werenâÄôt 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 âÄî a civilian contracted to shuttle the cadets between training exercises âÄî spoke as loudly about American politics as did his stars-and-stripes vest. He lamented the âÄúunpatrioticâÄù direction he said the country has taken.

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

Silence.

âÄúThatâÄôs the great thing about America,âÄù Cadet Battalion Cmdr. Chris Holbrook said. âÄúEveryone is entitled to an opinion.âÄù

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.

âÄúItâÄôs nothing that getting into a shouting match or poorly representing the country IâÄôm serving is going to help at all,âÄù junior Cadet Kate Roberts said.

âÄúWe are here to protect those freedoms,âÄù said Maj. Doug Leonard, one of the cadre, the administrators and officers who instruct cadets. âÄúWe hope that people understand that if we didnâÄôt have a strong military in this country, weâÄôre not guaranteed that we would have these freedoms forever.âÄù

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 âÄî a patrol of the âÄúChinese HoardâÄù was near. According to their orders from âÄúOperation Weaving Strength,âÄù the ladder bridge crossed more than gravel and leaves; beneath it ran the âÄúKiller Lava River.âÄù

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, arenâÄôt about the enemy or even the setting; theyâÄôre about forcing the cadets to lead.

The goal: get cadets they donâÄôt know to trust them and follow their command.

âÄúThere has to be a practical exercise where they can be put in charge of something and make mistakes,âÄù 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.

âÄúAs a leader, you need to get people motivated to do something they donâÄôt necessarily want to do,âÄù said Holbrook, a journalism major who was previously deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. âÄúThatâÄôs the standard of a successful leader.âÄù

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

âÄúWeâÄôve got four years with them as a cadet to assess their honesty, integrity and whether they would make a good officer,âÄù Leonard said. âÄúFour years is plenty of time to decide if theyâÄôre the right type of person to be leading other soldiers.âÄù

Even with solid leadership, soldiers make mistakes. When junior Cadet Rebekah Rovik slipped off a rung and fell five feet into the âÄúlava,âÄù the squad got a chance it wouldnâÄôt 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 âÄúrubber ducksâÄù downrange and yelling âÄúbang, bang, bang,âÄù the cadets are told to âÄúcarry it like its real.âÄù

Junior Cadet Jacob McLellan, a cultural studies major at Northwestern College in St. Paul, said he âÄúplayed ArmyâÄù with his siblings as a child. Now, with raised stakes, heâÄôs doing it again.

âÄúWeâÄôll joke around once in a while and say, âÄòYeah, this weekend weâÄôre going to play Army,âÄô or whatever, but there is structure to it.âÄù

And consequence.

âÄúThese are other peopleâÄôs lives, whether theyâÄôre the enemy or not,âÄù he said. âÄú[That] makes it real.âÄù

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 âÄúsmall exampleâÄù of the unexpected situations officers are forced to address, Maj. Gary Mundfrom said.

âÄúYouâÄôre trying to juggle in your mind two or three different alternatives,âÄù he said. âÄúYou know that youâÄôre not going to do all three of them; in fact, you may do none of them, you may do a hybrid.âÄù

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 âÄî a welcome break from the vacuum-sealed rations they normally eat in the field âÄî the cadets hunkered down to listen to seniors lecture on topics as diverse as field hygiene and making an impromptu âÄúhooch,âÄù 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.

âÄúItâÄôs easy to lay around, watch TV, hang out, eat chips, eat pizza, watch some more TV, take a nap, maybe take another nap,âÄù Roberts said. âÄúI enjoy those days, but I just donâÄôt 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 IâÄôm up 18 hours in a day and I sleep six and I get back up and do it again.âÄù

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 âÄúPenetratorâÄù 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.

âÄúIt made me realize I need to get in and practice on the [simulator] and be a little more dedicated that way,âÄù 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.

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

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 âÄúperfectly,âÄù 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 leaderâÄôs 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.

âÄúIf this was real, it would have been disastrous,âÄù 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.

âÄúI hope he learned his lesson,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs better to do it now when no one gets hurt.âÄù

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.

âÄúIf youâÄôre incompetent, itâÄôs going to show right through,âÄù said Cadet Battalion Cmdr. Chris Holbrook, who has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. âÄúThat right there undermines the entire leadership of that unit.âÄù

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

âÄúThe first question I ask when they come to my office is, âÄòWhy are you here?âÄô âÄù said Capt. Ryan Curl, Army ROTC enrollment officer. âÄúThe best answers are the ones that donâÄôt 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.âÄù

Curl has seen the âÄúebb and flowâÄù 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 warsâÄô retreat from newspapersâÄô front pages have contributed to that growth, Curl said, adding that current cadets come from a generation whose lives âÄúhave been centered around giving back to the community.âÄù

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 UniversityâÄôs existence, enrollment in the program was mandatory. Now, cadre say that not everyone is fit to be an Army officer.

âÄúItâÄôs not something thatâÄôs for everybody. ItâÄôs not supposed to be,âÄù Curl said. âÄúItâÄôs very specific people who can handle the rigors, that kind of stress and the sacrifice.âÄù

Many who join donâÄôt see the Army as a career, and the Army is fine with that.

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

âÄúJust committing to do three or four years of service is a huge step for me,âÄù 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 nationâÄôs military.

âÄúLook at where the Army was then,âÄù Curl said. âÄúWe 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, âÄòNot only do I want to be a part of it, but I want to be a leader in that,âÄô I think is impressive.âÄù

Cadets know theyâÄôll be shouldering a burden, but most say theyâÄôre not afraid.

âÄúI guess the excitement overshadows the fear,âÄù first-year Cadet Grant Imhoff said. âÄúIt probably wonâÄôt set in directly. Right now IâÄôm just on the high of being nervous and excited.âÄù