April 6, 2009

For ROTC, Woods are Proving Ground

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This weekend, Cornell Army ROTC students joined cadets from Rochester Institute of Technology and Syracuse University on the muddy fields of Ithaca’s Mt. Pleasant for “Operation April Blood”, a four-day field training exercise.
Students were divided into small squads of 12 for the weekend of intensive training.
According to Officer Matthew Meyers, a physical training instructor from Cortland College, which is part of Cornell’s ROTC program, the training provided cadets a better simulation of the real army experience, where they must collaborate effectively with people have never met, according to Officer Matthew Meyers, a physical training instructor from Cortland College, which is part of Cornell’s ROTC program.
Freshmen and sophomores engaged in team-building activities such as paintball, rock wall climbing in addition to serving on squads led by juniors, who had the opportunity to put their leadership skills to the test under the evaluative eyes of fourth-year cadets.
In the Field Leader’s Reaction Course, an entire squad had to climb to the other side of a wall without touching it. Although some of the training scenarios were not realistic, they allowed students to hone critical thinking, teamwork and leadership skills.
Katherine Dixon, an RIT junior, led the construction of a tripod to support a beam that the squad climbed across–but only after some of her teammates balanced the beam on their helmets for additional support.
“These exercises are about the means to the end, rather than a focus on the ends,” Jeff Mullen ’10 explained. “They put us in uncomfortable situations; it’s about the leaders doing their job effectively and for the rest of us to act as a resource and follow their instructions.”

[img_assist|nid=36594|title=Camping out|desc=ROTC members perform a field leaders reaction course at the training camp at Mount Pleasant on Saturday. See cornell.com for slide show of the weekend’s events.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
As they carried out the missions a few cadets recited together the Warrior Ethos –– “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
Third-year cadets also put their leadership skills to the test by commanding their squad to knock out a bunker in the Squad Tactical Exercises. The squad leader was responsible for developing and executing a plan to complete the mission, including reacting to changes in intelligence and the unexpected presence of enemy fire.
The outdoor simulation gave squad leaders the opportunity to apply their knowledge of group psychology, infantry tactics, and military doctrine.
“In the classroom, students learn about the science and prescribed doctrine of military tactics … but tying it to the terrain is where the art comes in,” Lisa Dwyer, Cornell ROTC’s Scholarship Enrollment Officer said.
As Holden Fenner, a junior at Syracuse, led his squad traversing 350 meters across two ridges and streams to reach the bunker, cadets hid behind trees to survey and secure the surrounding area from potential enemy threats.
Fenner had to decide whether the extra time required to maneuver around heavy brush to ambush the enemy bunker from behind would prevent his squad from completing the mission within the assigned limit.
Despite the complexity of the simulation, “it’s actually not about tactics,” Charles Webster, a fourth year Cadet from RIT who evaluated the Squad Tactical Exercises said. “What we’re really testing is how the squad leaders work with their subordinates and perform under stress. You learn the tactics you need for real army missions before you are deployed. Here, it’s all about leadership training.”
This weekend’s exercises were designed to prepare cadets to succeed at their high-stakes training camp this summer at Washington’s Ft. Lewis, where they will be evaluated and ranked by officers they’ve never met. Then, a national board will use these rankings, in combination with those submitted by each ROTC program, to rank all the junior cadets in the nation. The top third of students get to choose their military specialty branch, the middle third get their second choice, and the bottom third are divided up to fill the remaining positions.
Fortunately for Fenner, Webster declared the performance of his squad the second best he had seen all weekend.
“It’s like any big win,” Fenner said. “The fact that my mission was decently successful gives me confidence going into the summer evaluation camp.”
Despite the cold, which had previously forced the cancellation of numerous training events due to several cold weather injuries, the morale of Holden’s squad was high. As they marched back to the main field through deep mud after the completion of their successful mission, their soulful army march songs brought warmth to a chilly afternoon.
“It’s been a great training opportunity,” Mullen said. “The tough thing about ROTC is that we have to haul 15-20 credits on top of it. We don’t get the chance to do hard-core training often.”
Although the extent of field training is limited to one exercise like this weekend’s per semester, the flexibility of the Army ROTC schedule allows students to take advantage of other opportunities on campus. Freshmen and sophomores spend six hours per week training, whereas juniors and seniors commit 10 hours per week. Some cadets even participate in intercollegiate sports.
“We want students to have a well-rounded college experience,” Dwyer said. “If you wanted all army, all the time, you could go to West Point … At Cornell, ROTC is a regular student organization. Some of our courses teach students how to engage the enemy, but cadets also meet students who they’ll be in touch with for the rest of their lives.”
Students choose to participate in ROTC for a variety of different motivations.
One cadet said, “Both my parents are officers. It is part of the lifestyle I grew up in.”
Mullen, his fellow cadet, said solemnly, “9-11.”
Living only 45 minutes away from New York City while he was in eighth grade, Mullen said the terrorist attacks made him know he wanted to do something to help his country.
The ROTC program is steeped in Cornell tradition. According to Dwyer, until 1962, all male Cornell students had to participate in ROTC, and teaching military science was included in Ezra Cornell’s original charter. There are even several civilian students in ROTC classes such as marksmanship and Military Science I.
“Some of our courses are even great for students interested in business,” Dwyer said. “They give a different take on leadership. It’s not just study, study and study, but you actually go out into the woods and apply it.”