Welcome to the Army: The making of a leader

By Johnathan Hettinger

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series in which the reporter spent four days with the Fighting Illini Army ROTC battalion cadets at a field training exercise on Sept. 19-22. The following story contains profane language.


“Walking down the street one day
Met a total stranger.
He asked me what I wanted to be
I said an Airborne Ranger.”

“Airboooooorne,” the leader sings.
“Lock and load, pull the trigger, shoot the son of a … WHEW,” the squad echoes.
“Rangers lead the way,” the leader sings.
“Die, die why won’t you, die?” the squad echoes.

“I’m sitting in my foxhole
Sharpening my knife
Up jumped the enemy
I had to take his life.”

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

“Lock and load, pull the trigger, shoot the son of a … WHEW.”
“Rangers Lead The Way.”
“Die, Die why won’t you, die?”

“My buddies in a foxhole
With a bullet in his head.
The medic said he’s wounded,
But I know that he’s dead.”

“Lock and load, pull the trigger, shoot the son of a … WHEW.”
“Rangers lead the way.”
“Die, die why won’t you, die?”

“I hear the choppers coming.
They’re flying overhead.
They come to get the wounded.
They come to get the dead.”

The Fighting Illini ROTC battalion’s second platoon, second squadron, sings a cadence as it trots through the central Indiana woods at a breakneck pace on a Saturday night.

The goal? To find more land navigation points than the seven other squads to earn a reward of skipping out on an early morning cleanup when the cadets get back to campus from their field training exercise, or FTX.

This is the fifth and final time this weekend the cadets have gone out in the woods trying to locate points that they had been assigned and had plotted on a map, but it is the first time they departed as a squad.

Cadet Chubb, an MS3, or junior, leads the squad. Chubb’s not a big fellow, around 5-foot-8, but he commands respect. He is able to walk all of these miles and lead six other cadets — and one embedded reporter — through the woods just one day after being released from the hospital.

He didn’t have to go out on this land navigation tonight because he was still ill, but what kind of leader would he be if he didn’t? Not the kind of leader, not the kind of soldier, worthy of the United States Army.


The battalion has been on the FTX since first formation on Thursday at noon at the Armory.

In the past two and a half days, cadets have learned how to shoot rifles, have practiced throwing grenades, have gotten lost in the woods and have slept on the cold, wet ground in 50 degree weather. I’ve been with the battalion every step of the way, trying my hand at many of their exercises and experiencing life as a cadet for the weekend.

Chubb has been my guide through most of the exercise. He was at the initial meeting for the project. He helped me gather my supplies for the weekend from the Armory. He made sure I had everything an hour before first formation, so I would be able to run back and get things I needed (thankfully, I was able to run back and get more snacks and a ball cap). I have tagged along with him for most of the weekend, except for the land navigations and his trip to the hospital. If I have any questions, I go to him.

I’ve met many other cadets in addition to Chubb, and, together, they all help define what a cadet is and what all of the members of the battalion aspire to be. There are clear differences in the cadets at each age. The MS1s seem overwhelmed. The MS2s seem to be grasping things but lacking in confidence. The MS3s seem to be confident yet concentrated. They seem to grasp how important this exercise is for their future.

This weekend means the most to Chubb and his fellow MS3s because they are in the critical third year of the program. Following this year, third-year cadets nationwide go to the Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis in Washington to see how they stack up against the nation’s other cadets.

Because of this, the MS3s are in charge of executing the entire exercise, which the MS4s plan. They must demonstrate their leadership abilities; they must show that they can lead other soldiers.

In addition to being in charge of all of the underclassmen, the MS3s also have to prepare themselves for LDAC by refining different skills, including land navigation and shooting.

At LDAC, these skills will be detrimental to their success.

For now, the MS3s will be judged on all of this by the MS4s and Fighting Illini Battalion “cadres,” or instructors, for a grade, making this weekend all the more important for their development as soldiers and leaders.


In ROTC, the future leaders of the United States Army, the MS4s and MS3s, are teaching other future leaders of the Army, the MS2s and MS1s, but none of them are in the Army just yet. The cadets don’t know what the Army is like. They don’t know what it takes to lead soldiers, but they are charged with teaching fellow college students what it takes to be an Army officer.

Each year, the cadets improve and impart their knowledge on the cadets younger than them.

For the freshmen, the FTX is their first major assignment as cadets. They oftentimes seem lost and clearly struggle the most during the training.

The sophomores are more comfortable, and many excel at events, though it is often clear where their deficiencies are, and the older cadets make the MS2s’ place known.

The juniors are leading and clearly know what they are doing, but they still make mistakes.

This much can be easily seen.

The seniors, however, are a mystery to the underclassmen. While the underclassmen are out working their butts off, walking through the woods in the rain or taking target practice on the range, what do the seniors even do?

Cadet Kim, an MS4, remembers asking himself the same question during his freshman year when he first saw the public affairs officer, an MS4, shooting photographs.

“I wanted to be the guy with the camera,” he said. Kim eventually got the job. It’s harder than he realized. 

Each of the seniors is in charge of one event, so I decide that in order to understand what the seniors go through, I should follow one.

I decide to follow Cadet Lee during the Future Leadership Assessment Course, where the cadets are given a real-life situation and must solve a task as a unit at seven different stations.

I am immediately overwhelmed.

“Where is Lee?”




Everyone seems to be asking for Lee or asking him what to do. All of the tools are in the wrong place because the camp changed the number on each station since the numbers were given to Lee. Some of the groups are unable to perform their tasks with the materials they are given. Lee has to fix it — now.

Lee tells me what a German general says following World War II.

“The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.”

He says this several times, so I think he wants to be quoted, but I like what he says.

This is chaos because every cadet is scrambling to figure out how to complete a task that is impossible with the tools they have been given. It’s chaos because every senior is trying to get Lee’s attention. It’s chaos because Lee has to figure out which station gets which materials while everyone is yelling at him.

Lee’s life is currently chaotic, and the younger cadets don’t realize it. They may be slightly annoyed, but they aren’t aware of the stress that Lee is under. If I were with the underclassmen, I wouldn’t have noticed it, either. It makes sense that no one thinks the seniors are doing anything because while Lee shoulders all of that stress, no one really notices.

While Lee is running around trying to stop the chaos, Battalion Commander Carmichael and his right-hand man Cadet Albers are in charge of him, helping, but they are also frustrated that Lee isn’t prepared.

While the underclassmen learn how to accomplish tasks as a team and how to lead people in difficult situations, Lee experiences the insanity of organization.

Leadership takes both abilities. It takes the ability to make quick decisions under pressure. It also takes the ability to plan for a large group of people.

Eventually, Lee is able to get everything in its right place. He walks to each of the seven stations and tells the MS4s grading each group that everything is in place.

As the event calms down, Albers, Carmichael and Col. Stetson, charged with leading the Fighting Illini Battalion, call Lee over to evaluate what just happened.

Lee could’ve done a better job. That much is painfully obvious.

Stetson tells Lee he should’ve come earlier to survey the situation. He should have made sure all the supplies were in place before starting the training exercise.

I decide to continue to follow the seniors throughout the afternoon while the underclassmen go on another land navigation.

The seniors joke, but they also work — hard.

They clearly care. They spent hours deciding the best way to help the underclassmen prepare for LDACs. They’ve gone through everything the underclassmen are going through three times, but this is a new level, a new type of work.

They joke around and have fun, but being a senior isn’t a free ride. They’ll be in the Army in nine months, where they will still be on the bottom rung, at least as far as officers go. They don’t exactly have it easy. They know they still have much to learn.


“I am a puddle of water. I am a puddle of sweat.”

It’s Friday afternoon, and Cadet Craig and Cadet  O’Neil, MS2s whom I accompany on a land navigation, walk back to the road after we found our first point amid thorn bushes and short trees on the edge of an open field. It isn’t really raining now — it’s more misting than anything — but it poured for a while earlier during the hand grenade assault course. We were lucky enough to be covered by a small, metal awning during the hardest part of the downpour, but the rain continued later, dampening both our clothes and our spirits.

Still, the grass and the Indiana jungle are wet enough to make sure we didn’t come out as dry as we came in, swatting us with wet leaves and damp branches. It is also warm out, too warm to comfortably wear my rain gear, but not so hot that it’s worth getting thorned in the arm.

Our boots are wet, from both water and sweat, and they’re only getting wetter. We have three more hours of this, and then another three hours of this tonight after a short break for dinner.

We walk along the road and pass the first trail before doubling back. We decide not to follow the path.

Instead we go back on the road and decide to try to make a straight shot for our next point.

We go back to the former intersection and decide to do a pace count.

As we walk along the road, the complaining continues.

100 meters.

200 meters.

300 meters.

400 meters.

500 meters.

Or is it? Craig and O’Neil can’t remember.

Shit. Did we just go 400 or 500?

Craig throws his head back and lets out a groan.


O’Neil, who has been named the mapkeeper for the group, gets it out and starts to study.

“This is your fucking fault,” Craig tells O’Neil.

She ignores him and continues to study the topography. We just went over a hill, maybe that will help. But we just went over at least two hills, and there’s at least another hill up ahead.

She doesn’t know.

They decide to enter 20 meters apart and see if they can figure anything out from that. If we go in and don’t see anything, then we’ll turn around and try to enter again, Craig explains.

I follow O’Neil into the woods.

She walks a good distance, and we hear Craig trampling through the brush. We walk toward each other with no luck.

We enter again.

“We are actually lost.”

And again.

“We are only 50 meters away. We can find this.”

And again.

“This is the kind of point that you don’t fucking find — ever,” Craig says.

With that sentiment, we decide to give up on the point and go back out, abandoning the idea of continuing the search.

While we walk out of the woods, Craig encounters a new problem.

“There’s a spider in my nose!” O’Neil and I hear Craig shout. “There was just a spider in my fucking nose.”

Craig is able to rid himself of the spider, and we go toward our next point. We walk along the road until it comes to an end. We have a point nearby that should be easy to find, and we head down the boulevard between the trees at the fence marking the end of the base.

At first, the path seems easy, but soon we wind up in the middle of a swampy area. We take careful steps, trying to avoid drenching ourselves. Soon, it is inevitable, and we are all ankle-deep in chilly water.

We run into Chubb who tells us the path only gets worse up ahead with thorns and branches. We don’t need to go too much further. At 220 meters, we go 10 meters into the woods. We find a second point!

Between the intolerable wet and the impassable trees, Craig and O’Neil decide to try going through the woods instead of returning to the swamp. We find a path and follow it toward our next points. The rain quickens, and we splash our ankles in a creek.

“I am actually a puddle now. I was only kind of a puddle before,” Craig says. “We’re soaking wet. We’ve found two points. It’s muddy as fuck.”

“You just need to embrace the suck,” O’Neil says, countering with a common Army creed.

We go up a hill and look around. We are on a path, but we don’t really know where it goes or where we are. We don’t really know what we’re doing, but we somehow find the general area where our point is supposed to be and scour it.

“Throw me a fucking bone,” Craig pleads to whoever will listen.

After the duo splits up and searches, they can’t find it. They are about ready to return when O’Neil finally spots the head-level sign. After a brief moment of joy, the cadets return to camp.

“I fucking hate our puddle,” Craig says on our way back to camp.

We get back at 7:52 — eight minutes to spare. Only two of our points count. The middle point, the point in the swamp, was off by one point, but it was close. Many other cadets made the same mistake.

We get a break for dinner. We eat an MRE — a Meal, Ready-to-Eat — change our socks and are right back in the field for night land navigation. After the day’s events, I decide to keep with Craig and O’Neil along with Cadet Brutlag, another MS2.

We’re back in the puddle, only, this time, it’s dark. We’re given our new set of points, and we set two goals: find a point and don’t go in the swamp.

But after searching for two separate points with no success and time quickly running out, it appears our two goals are contradictory.

And the cadets decide that they need to find at least one point more than they need dry feet.

We go through the swamp. We find the post we’re looking for and take the same path back, through the same swamp.

We make it back to the road and find a group of cadets, many of whom are the same MS2s who tried to find a point with us earlier, sitting on the road, with their backs propped against each other.

Craig and O’Neil decide to join, while Brutlag seems hesitant. He says this could get them in a lot of trouble.

A few of the other cadets question whether they should do this around their resident reporter, but cold, wet and tired feet rule out over any reservations.

“We’re not ready for this shit,” Craig says.

I ask what they would be doing if they were on campus. A few people respond: “I’d be drunk.” “I wouldn’t be drinking, that’s for sure,” one says sarcastically.

But, instead of getting drunk like most college students on a Friday night, they are out in the woods.

After a five-minute or so break, the cadets decide to go their separate ways. We head back east to look for the same spot we’ve missed all day. We get to the woods, but the cadets decide it isn’t worth it to go through the thorns and the mud. There are 45 minutes left. We will just walk until it is time to go back to base. We survived the day. We get to sleep soon.

“I’m a puddle through and through. I’m a puddle, how about you?” Craig says as we walk back.


As the second battalion, second squadron returns to camp Saturday evening, the cadences are replaced by the clomping of boots and heavy breathing.

The squad took too long to find its seven points and realized it was as far away from camp as possible on the land navigation course. We have to run back if we hope to get back in time for the points to count.

Chubb rallies his troops. We take breaks from running. Everyone is tired from the weekend, and some are falling behind. Chubb’s encouragement helps them keep up along the way.

As we run back, the sky is illuminated by explosions, and the air is filled with a chorus of gunfire. The Army is running drills at the camp.

We check the time, and we pick up the pace.

We get back with seconds to spare. We realize that our seven points are one lower than the winner. The squad will have to be back and ready to clean up Monday morning, but the cadets don’t seem discouraged. They did what any United States Army officer would do — they gave it their all.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.