Welcome to the Army: Lessons learned

By Johnathan Hettinger

Editor’s note: This is the second 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.

 

CAMP ATTERBURY, IND. —What the hell did I get myself into? 

Throughout the entire weekend, I keep reiterating that question in my head. From the first moist night sleeping on the cold, hard ground surrounded by half-dollar-sized bugs to being lost in the woods with rain- and sweat-soaked boots to eating cold, slimy, barely edible MREs, the question keeps coming up. 

I ask the cadets if they ever feel this way. The most common response is, “All the time.”

While these four days are miserable, the field training exercise prepares the cadets to be soldiers. It puts them in situations impossible to simulate on a college campus.

The cadets get the chance to try things they’ve never tried before. Many shoot guns for the first time. Many experience a new level of sleep deprivation and a new level of discomfort for the first time. Many fail at new tasks. Many get yelled at for one reason or another.

They learn from their experience.  They learn from their mistakes. They get a taste of the United States Army.

***

“Where the fuck is Lee?”

One of the brethren is missing. He hasn’t returned from his land navigation.

Lee isn’t a rookie. He’s an MS4, a veteran — the same MS4 in charge of FLAC. He’s done land navigations before. He passed at LDAC. But he isn’t back.

He left on his land navigation late. He has his cell phone on him, but he isn’t answering.

It starts with people casually asking where Lee is. Slowly, the cadets and the instructors get more worried. The teasing turns to concern. It’s beginning to get dark. Where could he be?

“Did anyone see Lee?”

A few people did, but that was hours ago.

“Does anyone know which points he got?”

The MS4s are able to see which lane he took. Based on where the few cadets saw him, they think they know what points he was finding.

After he is more than a half hour late, the instructors decide to plan a search.

The cadres consider giving the cadets a chance to plan the search but decide against it. Sgt. Major Staub takes over the search. Experience takes precedence over training for now.

The first platoon will go north. The second platoon will head south.

A few MS3s tell me I can’t come. This is no longer a training exercise; they don’t want to take care of me. I object because this is where the story is. Cadet Gray, an MS4, says I can come if I keep up. I promise I will, and Chubb says he will take care of me.

Each platoon loads onto a bus. The cadets seem anxious. They hope their fellow cadet is OK, but they are excited for a chance to use their training. They talk about what possibly could have happened to Lee.

Imaginations run wild. He might’ve fallen and broken his ankle. He might’ve gotten lost. He might’ve tripped and hit his head and passed out.

As the bus turns out and drives about 50 meters, we see the black minivan in front of us slow to a stop.

A muffled shouting is heard.

“We found him,” it sounds like.

The bus quiets. The message is confirmed.

“They found Lee,” someone shouts.

The tension among the cadets turns to relief and mild amusement.

They are glad Lee is found, but they find the anticlimactic ending funny. They rallied the troops, came up with a plan and were ready for a big adventure, but Lee just walked back like nothing was wrong.

We return to camp, and Lee tells the instructors his story: He didn’t get lost. He was using his cell phone to tell the time and forgot he was in the Eastern Time Zone. He thought it was just now time to return.

Sgt. Staub gathers the battalion to talk about what just happened and what could have been done to prevent it. They should have made sure everyone knew they were on Eastern Time. Also, cadets should understand their technology.

“It was an honest mistake,” Staub said to the battalion. “In a training environment, we’re allowed to make mistakes, but now we have to learn from those mistakes.

“It’s very important to understand that, when you have someone out there who is lost, it’s not just panic and send everybody out into the woods to find them. You have to remain calm. You have to gather data and information on the individual. You have to set priorities of work on what everybody is going to be doing.

“(It’s important) when you get something last-minute that you remain flexible mentally and physically. Because that’s the way the military works.

“It’s not a blame game thing. It’s not to poke fun at the individual. It’s so everyone can take something from this and realize that the day you commission in the United States Army is not the day that bad things and bad situations can happen to you. They can happen to you now.

“People who survive things are people who plan, people who have situational awareness. Keep that in mind.”

Lee’s OK.

A lesson is learned.

***

The MS4s saved the worst part for last.

It’s a nippy morning — 46 degrees and dark.

After three long, miserable days, the cadets have to go on a ruck march, a run with their 50-plus pound backpacks, on Sunday morning. They are leaving at 4:30, earlier than any other time they’ve done any activity, and they won’t stop or eat until they arrive at the rappelling tower six miles away.

I am not in any sort of shape to be doing that, so I go with the photographer and Staub. We drive along the road.

The cadets move as a pack. The only sound is heavy feet and heavy breathing.

When the cadets finally arrive at the rappelling tower, they seem utterly exhausted. Everyone is silent. They need to catch their breath. No one is interested in conversation.

Rappelling is the only training event left. It’s supposed to be a fun activity; an activity the cadets couldn’t do on campus. But right now, no one is interested.

They just want to go home and go to sleep.

But the sun is about to rise. And at sunrise is the initiation ceremony.

Unbeknownst to the MS1s, the MS4s have been planning a ceremony to help initiate them into ROTC. They have set up a circle of tiki torches by the rappelling tower and brought a bass drum from campus. They move the battalion into the circle.

Battalion Commander Carmichael leads the ritual. He gives a brief history of ROTC and the role the cadets play in the Army. He then welcomes the MS1s into ROTC.

“Dear cadets: You have fulfilled all of your responsibilities during the FTX. You no longer act individually, but as a team. You now represent the Fighting Illini Battalion. Take pride in your role as a cadet. Serve your future soldiers tomorrow with your hard work today.”

The entire battalion then recites the cadet creed:

“I am an Army Cadet.

Soon I will take an oath and become an Army Officer committed to defending the values which make our nation great.

Honor is my touchstone. I understand mission first and people always.

I am the past — the spirit of those warriors who made the final sacrifice.

I am the present — the scholar and apprentice soldier enhancing my skills in the science of warfare and the art of leadership.

But above all, I am the future — the future warrior leader of the United States Army.

May God give me the compassion and judgment to lead and the gallantry in battle to win. I will do my duty.”

Chanting ensues.

“I-L-L!” “I-N-I!” “I-L-L!” “I-N-I!” “I-L-L!” “I-N-I!” “I-L-L!” “I-N-I!”

The volume increases. The pace quickens.

“I-L-L!” “I-N-I!” “I-L-L!” “I-N-I!” “I-L-L!” “I-N-I!” “I-L-L!” “I-N-I!”

The cadets run into the middle of the circle. They yell. They hoot. They holler. The MS1s, the MS2s, the MS3s and the MS4s become one.

***

Why do the cadets do this? Why do they put themselves through all of this? Why do they willingly choose to spend a weekend in the central Indiana woods instead of on campus?

Many say they do it for the free education. Many say they do it because they want to serve their country, but Cadet Craig offers another perspective.

“A lot of us do this for the job, the money, whatever, but this is what makes it worth it,” Craig said. “Look at us.”

The cadets are standing around draped in blankets, sipping hot coffee, eating breakfast, smiling, laughing, moving slowly because of the pain of a six-mile run after three days of strenuous work and no sleep. They look happier than they have all weekend.

The atmosphere is pure joy. The worst is over. The cadets survived the weekend.

“We just did a weekend of work, and we’re all still together having a good time,” Craig said.

Cadet Hackmiller, an MS1, can already tell the relationships make ROTC worth it.

“Normally, I’d think it cheesy and weird,” he said of the initiation ceremony. “But I thought it made sense here since we just spent four days in the wet, in the cold, sleeping three or four hours a night.

“I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend. Or every other weekend. Or even once a month. But once a semester is nice.”

***

On the bus ride home, I feel like shit. I’m dirty. I’m tired. My feet hurt. I’m sore. I’m behind in my classwork.

Cadet Gardiner, a sophomore and MS1, introduces herself and we begin talking. We discuss her transfer to the U of I and her desire to join ROTC. We talk a little bit about her major (Molecular and Cellular Biology) and her first weekend in ROTC.

Gardiner had never shot a gun before; she said it was easily the best part of the experience.

She conquered her fear of heights, going down the rappelling tower. When she fell upside down on her dismount, she got back on the tower. 

We talk about how she has to pull an all-nighter tonight, just as she did the night before the field training exercise, to complete her schoolwork.

My phone buzzes — I get a text, and I answer it. I go back to say something to Gardiner, but she’s asleep.

I turn around to talk to the people in the row behind me; they’re asleep, too. I turn my head to the left, to the right, and then back again. I realize that after everything — five land navigations, shooting practice, rappelling, a six-mile ruck march — every single person other than me has fallen asleep.

This was my weekend.

This is their life.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and

@jhett93.