0500 hours: The lights of the first platoon barracks illuminate the room, still dark from the past evening. Cadets struggle to come to their senses because it is only 20 minutes until first formation and they still have to shave. And so the hustle and bustle that consumes the day begins. Fourth-year cadets prepare for active service side-by-side with newly contracted and un-contracted college students, eager to relive the oldest Army motto, “Hurry up and wait.”
This is the Fall Field Training Exercise or FTX, a full weekend at the National Guard’s Camp near Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It is here that 31 UCSB cadets stand side-by-side with 43 students from Cal Poly in efforts to become officers in the United States Army.
Welcome to the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps. UCSB’s ROTC Battalion, the Surfriders, is training to lead America’s soldiers as second lieutenants after graduation.
“In fact, graduates this year are almost certain of seeing duty in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Lt. Col. Martin E. Stokes said.
0520 hours: The first formation of the day lines up for inspection while the stars provide the only light. It is here that both schools are divided equally into two platoons consisting of three squads each. The idea is to practice the formations, commands and protocol necessary for an officer in the Army.
“Right face!” commands second platoon Sgt. Damaris Sanders. With this order, the long day ensues as the cadets undertake a full schedule of exercises aimed at team building and officer field experience.
“The Fall FTX is really our recruiting event,” Stokes said. “The aim is not only to help train our cadets, but to offer a hands on experience to students who are interested in joining ROTC.”
Move, Move Move!
0600: The cadets arrive at the obstacle course, a 15-minute march from the barracks. The headlights from three cars light the course for the next hour, until the sun finally rises. The dew from the previous evening leaves the course wet and treacherous.
First Class Sgt. Stephen Hall of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo says the course is monitored closely.
“Most importantly, we don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Hall said.
The course is just what you would expect from the Army, with an eerie similarity to the Bill Murray film “Stripes” with rope climbs, barbed wire, balance beams and walls to jump over that lead up to a huge ditch invisible in the dark.
“Don’t forget to jump over the ditch,” Hall reminds the battalion. Spotters from each battalion are placed along each obstacle to ensure that no one gets hurt.
The slow rise of the sun marks the end of morning exercises. The battalion marches back to the barracks for inspection and then to the mess hall for a hot breakfast.
Paintball and Rappelling
“They say that [the Army] does more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day,” Stokes says following the hectic morning. “This morning isn’t any different.”
0900 hours: The morning’s events have led the cadets to the Gladiator Paintball Park on the other side of the post. The next five hours are spent playing paintball on the two large urban-style courses in the park in which teams of 20 cadets battle it out in a death match fashion.
Fourth-year law and society major Nat Higgins leads the group, gathering up fellow cadets for a charge up the left flank. However, this paintball match is not like the ones on Fox Sports Network West, as soldiers take their time holding points and keeping cover. Every hit is done carefully and precisely, as if it were real.
Higgins said the five-hour paintball session, besides being a good time, is helpful in both building camaraderie amongst the ROTC cadets and strengthening individual leadership and tactical skills.
“Paintball really is all about teamwork,” Higgins said. “These exercises help us in working together, although of course it’s not like a real firefight.”
Each soldier is completely covered in paint – one Cal Poly cadet has a welt the size of a golf ball on his neck from the second match. Not even the Daily Nexus photographer can avoid catching a few paintballs in the crossfire.
1400 hours: The battalion makes it to Fort Merriam for some rappelling exercises. Here, cadets simulate a real life rappelling situation by rappelling down a rocky cliff face.
Miles Tatum, a third-year history major and aspiring JAG for the U.S. Army, said he was glad to practice rappelling at the FTX.
“Should we ever find ourselves overseas in this position, it’s good to have practiced it,” Tatum said. “This is all just one big learning experience.”
Despite the long weekends and hefty amount of hours put into the ROTC, Tatum said that these exercises have become routine for him.
“Military science and ROTC is now just an extra curricular activity, although it will soon be my life,” Tatum said. “I have still been able to have my college experience, going to DP on the weekends and having fun.”
When it is time for food on the post, it is almost certainly on the go, thanks to an Army invention known as the Meal Ready to Eat. The lightweight MRE is a completely portable meal soldiers use out in the field when they are without access to kitchen services. The 24 different meals in the MRE arsenal are given out at random, the favorites including Chili with Beans, Hamburger Beef Patty, Chicken Salsa and Tuna in Pouch.
“I’ve had thousands of these,” Master Sgt. James Thorpe said, referring to the MREs as cadets take turns devouring 3,000-calorie meals between paintball matches.
Each MRE comes complete with a flameless heater – a pouch that heats up contents placed inside it solely by adding water. A chemical reaction inside brings the small amount of water to boil.
Second-year history major Chris Torrez said as long as the food has beef in the title, he is good to go.
“My favorite is beef stew,” Torrez said. “But I mean, these are MREs; you have to learn to love them.
In 2005, several UCSB students and professors rallied against ROTC and attempted to ban the group’s presence from campus via a resolution sent to the Academic Senate. The protesters wanted to remove ROTC from campus because they disagreed with the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which stipulates that its recruits are to keep their sexual orientation private.
Although the resolution failed, Stokes, who is the new head military instructor for UCSB’s ROTC program, said he has vowed to create a new, positive attitude on campus about the ROTC. He said he plans on improving communication and publicity of the for the program.
“I feel like I can really give to these students,” Stokes said. “I’ve given 18 years of my life to serve my country. I, too, started my military career in ROTC at [the University of] Nebraska-Lincoln, and I admire these students for the four years they are willing to put into [ROTC].”
Thorpe, a soldier with more than 18 years of experience, keeps a watchful eye on the cadets from the sidelines.
“I like to be stern with them, but I want them to work with me,” Thorpe said. “They need to know that I’m serious, but they [also] have to know you care.”
Thorpe said he is a firm believer in leading by example. He still posts perfect scores of 300 on the Army’s physical fitness test, which includes running 2 miles in 10 minutes and 50 seconds.
“If you can’t teach what you know, you ain’t nothing to the Army,” Thorpe said.
To the Shooting Range
0800 hours: “Fire when ready!” shouts Sgt. Jeremy Brown, among a team of ROTC cadets armed with M-16 A2s. The weapons resonate harmoniously as the cadets blow off round after round toward the target.
It’s now Sunday, and the FTX has split into two different groups: Ranger Challenge and the rest of the FTX participants. After receiving breakfast, the Ranger Challenge team makes its way to the firing range as the remaining cadets stay back to clean the barracks.
“If your weapon jams up, call for me,” Brown says, urging cadets not to make a dire mistake with their weapons. “Don’t try to fix it yourself.”
Out on the range, both Thorpe and Brown are teaching skills for next week’s Ranger Challenge competition, an annual contest in which UCSB, UCLA, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and CSU Fresno compete in different disciplines.
As the firing squad team members continue to work on their accuracy, zeroing the site on their weapons, second-year economics major Kevin Higuchi practices his aim for the Ranger Challenge Competition.
“[Shooting] is really the epitome of the Army outdoor activities, as far as cadets go,” Higuchi said.
Cadets fire in two-person groups, with the shooter alternating after firing a certain number of rounds. The pairs fire upon fixed targets marked by numbered lanes. Brown said breathing is the main cause of soldiers missing the target during practice.
“When you breathe in, your entire body moves and that moves your gun,” Brown said. “You have to exhale before you shoot.”
A Coalition of One
Amid the political strife accompanying the U.S. Military Operation Iraqi Freedom, cadets in the ROTC who are graduating within the next few years are almost guaranteed to be stationed in the Middle East at some pont. Higgins said he does not expect everyone to support the mission in Iraq, but he said he urges them to support U.S. troops in general.
“When people look at me and say that I’m a baby-killer, I just say that I’m just a guy trying to pay for college,” Higgins said. “The Army has its humanitarian side, too, and many jobs are outside of combat.”
Higgins said he is aspiring to become a military police officer.
Meanwhile, Stokes said the ROTC program at UCSB is a very helpful option for many college students
“We offer scholarships to pay for either tuition or room and board,” Stokes said. “We also offer stipends for school fees, for example a $400 books stipend per year.”
ROTC trains college students to become officers in the U.S. Army in fields ranging from infantry and artillery to medicine and engineering. Stokes said ROTC offers students the opportunity to improve their leadership capabilities and to make themselves more attractive in the job market.
“These guys all know that they may end up in either Iraq or Afghanistan,” Stokes said. “If you can handle the stress of the Army, chances are you can handle the stress of a desk.”