Carrying a light machine gun, the heavyset Hondo Arpoika hikes slowly up a hill, the mud on his boots softening his step. His squad’s approach is a stealthy one … left, right, left, right.
Taking enemy fire, Arpoika dives to the wet, soft ground and lines up his machine gun. The shooter is just a few meters in front of him. His squadmate calls out, but Arpoika looks left to see another enemy coming.
He turns to pull the trigger, but nothing happens. With a jammed weapon, he’s left defenseless, outflanked by the enemy. His last words: “Chang! Left, left! I’m jammed!”
A few minutes later, Army forces took down both Arpoika’s killer and the one at the top of the hill. During a frantic dash to secure the area, Michael Boschee walked over to Arpoika with orders to carry his body away for medical evacuation.
He looked down at Arpoika’s “lifeless” face.
“I’m not carrying your fucking body,” Boschee said.
Fort Hunter Liggett
As Cal Poly’s campus enjoyed its first weekend of spring quarter, a small group of students headed to Army Fort Hunter Liggett for a weekend of mud, rain and military-grade weaponry. Two Mustang News reporters embedded with the Cal Poly Army ROTC unit for three nights in the hilly terrain of southern Monterey County.
Arpoika and Boschee were squadmates in the joint-ROTC Army field training, just two of more than 100 cadets from University of California, Santa Barbara; California State University, Fresno and Cal Poly to participate in three days of field exercises to prepare them to be officers in the Army.
The cadets — or officers-in-training — spent the better part of Friday and Saturday simulating missions in Atropia, an imaginary country divided into northern and southern factions. The cadets were fighting against the South Atropian People’s Army, otherwise known as SAPA, much like how the real Army fought northerners in the Vietnam War some 50 years ago.
More important than the success of the missions, though, was the training they gave cadets for LDAC — the leadership development and assessment course ROTC students from across the country take after their third year in the program. Fourth-years have all gone through the month-long assessment already, so they try to pass down their knowledge to the juniors preparing for this year’s course in Fort Knox, Ky.
LDAC is 29 days of intense training for the students who participate, and a way for the Army to test the physical and mental strength of its future leaders. During their time at what is the Army’s largest training exercise, this year’s juniors will be subjected to tear gas, climb obstacle courses designed to test their fear of heights and get variable amounts of sleep, often waking up before the sun rises.
In preparation for LDAC, the third-years were the ones taking charge in all the simulated missions at Fort Hunter Liggett. They were expected to lead into battle squads of between eight and 10 cadets, as well as platoons that numbered close to 40 students.
During the missions, they attacked, raided, ambushed and scouted enemy forces played by current soldiers serving in the National Guard.
Enemy soldiers wore traditional Arab scarves and tunics — one way the Army tries to simulate for the cadets what modern combat zones such as Afghanistan might look and feel like. The cadets carried real weapons, slept outside in freezing temperatures and were expected to treat the missions they went on not as exercises, but as you-better-move-or-you’re-dead situations.
Still, there were times it was hard to take the situation seriously. ENDEX — or end exercise — signals the end of training missions. Everyone stops, lowers their weapons and kneels in a circle around their evaluator. It suddenly goes from simulated ammunition and artillery flying through the air to an unrealistic break in the action. That single word stops everything.
Some of the older students on the bus ride up told me about how ENDEX opens the door for laziness among the cadets. Why sprint to the end of the mission when you know ENDEX is coming? Why bother finishing first aid if the mission is about to end?
ENDEX, someone told me, is the “devil” of ROTC training.
Further detracting from the authenticity, blanks were the only things fired that weekend. And you didn’t “die” unless one of the fourth-year evaluators called out that you have been shot dead. More than a dozen times, I saw cadets on the ground, weapons ready to fire, when everyone knew there would be no enemy nearby.
Does it cheapen the simulation, I wondered, when the Army’s future officers are pretending to ready their rifles with the knowledge no one’s coming?
At least once, a cadet appeared to be sleeping on top of his M-16 during an hour-long break in the action. What kind of training does that provide?
“We try to be careful in terms of muzzle awareness and how we carry ourselves and the attitude we are exuding when we’re out here,” said Jasper Bolton, a mechanical engineering senior and fifth-year cadet who will commission as a second lieutenant when he graduates in June. “You want to treat it like it’s real. And I admit that that’s hard to do sometimes.”
“The nice thing about blank rounds is it gives you all the flash, all the bang, with none of the impending death,” he said. “So it’s a perfect training tool.”
More important than simulating real danger and building bravery in cadets is giving the students the chance to learn the mechanics of conducting a field operation, Cal Poly ROTC instructor Master Sgt. Timothy Malmin said.
“The reality of it is, an ROTC cadet, we’re not trying to turn them into infantry soldiers,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is learn leadership. And the best way to learn leadership, the Army says, is to do infantry tactics.”
And while the Army undoubtedly doesn’t want to drill falling asleep on your rifle into a permanent habit for these cadets, there are elements of training where repetition can only help.
For example, Army troops are taught to echo the commands they hear, magnifying the sound of any one soldier tenfold. This is one of the tactics they must drill and drill and drill again, because accidentally forgetting it could be deadly.
“It’s fucking loud out there,” fourth-year cadet and Cal Poly modern languages and literatures senior Zach Newman said. “So what do we do? We repeat the hell out of (a command). We echo. So you hear it not once but 30 damn times … Because that could save not one life, but 10 of your friends’ lives. Ten of your best friends’ lives.
“That could be a father, a brother, a son — you don’t know. So we don’t dick around with it. If somebody’s not doing it, we will scream it in their ear. If somebody’s not going to echo it, we’re going to echo it. We’ll scream the word ‘sound off.’ We’ll drill it into their head over and over and over and over.”
Much of that training comes in the mock missions the cadets run. The seniors set objectives, such as attacking or ambushing an enemy, which lower-ranking cadets carry out as best they can.
The cadets’ movements are rough compared to those of trained infantry, Malmin said. In the seven missions I watched, the squad or platoon leaders had to backtrack almost every time, often because troops moved in a way they didn’t expect, or the hilly terrain took a sudden change. Mostly, the mistakes just wasted a few minutes. But sometimes, they resulted in the “deaths” of cadets.
“Those are the situations you have to face, unfortunately, as a leader, and you can’t always control the circumstances,” political science junior and third-year cadet Tyler Creasman said after losing nearly half his squad in a training exercise. “And I couldn’t control how they react. Any battle is the force of two wills pitted against each other. And if they’re going to outsmart us, then it might have to come down to how you react to it.”
Creasman wants to commission as an officer working in military intelligence — something that could place him in situations very similar to ones he faced at Fort Hunter Liggett. But for most of the cadets there, what they were learning isn’t what they’ll be doing once they graduate.
There are 16 career fields in the Army that ROTC students can apply for once they graduate, several of which could involve desk jobs or other roles geared away from the front lines. They range from aviation (a popular choice among those at the weekend training) to engineering to military intelligence, and can lead to careers on active or reserve duty, as well as in the National Guard.
“Most of these guys, these men and women, they’re going to go on and be officers in non-combat-oriented jobs,” Creasman said. What they were doing that weekend was “testing leadership that’s universal for officers.”
My experience as a journalist on these mock front lines of Atropia was intense, to say the least. I didn’t know what to expect on the bus ride north from San Luis Obispo, and I couldn’t imagine myself crawling around next to a machine gun operator just 24 hours later.
The officers-in-training were hesitant around my camera operator and me when we arrived, awkwardly carrying our bulky bags and camera gear. Our luggage alone made us stand out, in contrast to the cadets’ efficiently-packed rucks and meticulously-cleaned rifles. The Cal Poly students had some idea what was going on and why we were there, but the Cal State Fresno and UCSB students seemed a little miffed. Between the dirt already accumulating on their rucks and the sweat starting to soften their hard military faces, they weren’t exactly ready to pose for prom pictures.
I turned back to my camera to start programming settings for the sunny day that greeted us at Fort Hunter Liggett. I peeled through the different layers of my bag to find the lens I wanted, and then I heard it for the first time.
The Fresno State delegation had fallen into formation and given the first “hooah” of the training, something I came to know as the most important word in Army language. It means everything: yes, sounds good, I’ll do it, get moving … the list continues. But with that first “hooah,” I knew the games were on.
The training dragged on at times (“hurry up and wait” was the cadets’ unofficial motto for getting yelled at to move quickly, only to sit around for hours afterward), especially during the first day. Higher-ranking cadets — all seniors in at least their fourth year of ROTC — passed out weapons, and the others snacked on their MREs (meals ready to eat).
I fiddled with my MRE, using an old pocketknife to break apart the plastic holding it together, while the cadets easily peeled it apart as they’d all done a number of times before. Malmin, who was one of the subjects on a documentary on the war in Afghanistan, walked over and asked if I knew what I was doing. He must’ve known I had no clue.
Malmin showed me how to prepare my fajita meal (honestly, Army “chow” is not that awful for a few days), and I felt like a sort of badass cooking my own food out of just the contents in that plastic bag.
As the water in my MRE boiled, I looked over to find several of the Fighting Mustangs were already done eating.
After more “hurry up and wait,” military instructors briefed the cadets on safety for the weekend and started skills training. They learned how to shoot M-16 rifles and M-249 SAWs, operated radios and formed a temporary field base. Security guards positioned themselves with rifles at the ready in a rough rectangle, prepared to strike at anything that came their way.
They took turns guarding the area for the night, and the fact it was too cold to sleep meant we could hear the cadets carrying their rifles by our tent, waiting for an attacker to come out of the night.
Obviously, no one did.
‘This is who I am.’
Our first mission took us to the side of a steep hill where cadet Bolton and UCSB senior Faith Sumpter briefed the squad commander, a third-year cadet from Fresno State. Enemy forces were camped out near a weapons cache, and it was our job to secure it in the most peaceful way possible.
But the cadets, who had been at Fort Hunter Liggett for 24 hours without firing a single round, were itching to see some action. As we crossed our line of departure — the point of no return — the intensity of the 10 or so cadets made them seem like different people than the ones I had breakfast and joked with that morning. Communicating with only hand signals and whispers, they moved slowly and precisely through the tall grass, a few looking around to see if anyone was coming for an ambush.
Once we saw two enemy fighters, any chance of a peaceful resolution went out the window. The SAPA forces had at least one machine gun, and they didn’t look afraid to use it. Later, the National Guard soldier playing the enemy told me he knew there was no way he’d make it out of there alive. “We were just going to dig in for our last stand,” he said.
And the opposing forces — or OPFOR, as the Army calls them — dug in. Hard. After minutes of trading fire, the cadets overwhelmed the OPFOR, “killing” them both.
Or so we thought.
As we moved in to secure the area and weapons cache the SAPA forces were holding, one of the supposedly “dead” bodies rolled over and lobbed a grenade into the air. We all hit the ground — the cadets because they were trained to, and me because I was legitimately afraid of what a mock grenade might be able to do at close range.
This enemy tactic, a few cadets told me, can be a fairly common occurrence in Afghanistan. Taliban or other militant fighters will sometimes booby trap bodies with grenades or improvised explosive devices.
Because of this, troops take special care checking bodies, going through a detailed and methodical procedure each time they move into an area after a firefight. While one soldier points his weapon at a distance, another lays on top of the corpse and rolls it over, checking for any explosives underneath.
In the explosion we faced at the hands of the now actually “dead” SAPA fighter, the senior evaluators running the mission yelled out that Brianne St. Pierre, a Cal Poly cadet, lost both her legs. As another cadet rushed wrapped her in bandages, the evaluators made a second announcement: St. Pierre had died. It was the squad’s first casualty.
St. Pierre’s death would have been tragic, if it was real.
An animal science junior, she didn’t join the Army training program until her second year at Cal Poly, putting her a year behind others in the program. She didn’t know what she wanted to do after college, she told me the day after her “death,” until a roommate suggested checking out ROTC.
Joining the Army was a leap from her original plan to become a companion animal veterinarian. But now, dressed in her Army Combat Uniform with dirt smudged under her eyes, she said it’s who she was meant to be.
“Now that I look back at it, this is who I am,” St. Pierre said. “This is who I’ve always been. It’s about trying to find yourself.”
Though she came to ROTC on her roommate’s suggestion, St. Pierre said she stayed because she wanted to make a difference in others’ lives. Now, when she walks home in her Army Combat Uniform, strangers thank her for what she’s doing. The thanks stir conflicting emotions in her, she said, because those strangers don’t know she hasn’t been deployed to Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter.
She and the other cadets are students first, as Malmin put it, and warriors after that.
“I don’t know if I should be like, ‘Oh, I’m in ROTC,’” she said. “So I just usually nod or say, ‘You’re welcome.’”
Of course, St. Pierre wasn’t doing any nodding or talking as she lay “dead” on the ground with rain clouds approaching. She was more upset she didn’t see the grenade coming toward her, though she was soon brought back to life when the fourth-year in charge yelled “ENDEX.”
We spent the rest of the day completing more missions: We ambushed two unsuspecting SAPA fighters, lost nearly half a dozen cadets when Arpoika’s machine gun jammed halfway through a battle and performed reconnaissance on an enemy position at the edge of a steep ravine.
Halfway through the next day of missions, something happened that made me question why anyone would be dedicated enough to put themselves in front of a bullet on the other side of the world. As we moved toward a SAPA position where a local “drug lord” was supposedly hiding out, an enemy mowed down three cadets I was following close behind. I was spared in the simulation because as a journalist, I wasn’t “in play.” In the real world, there was no way I would have avoided the spray of bullets.
Talking to the cadets, some of whom had worked overseas for the military, there was no consistent answer as to why they wanted to put themselves in these kinds of dangerous situations. For some, such as St. Pierre, it was about helping others. For others, being part of a military family served as their source of inspiration. Undoubtedly, the desire to fight for freedom and “abstract values,” as Creasman called them, played a part for many of them.
But when the weapons were firing, they weren’t thinking about these “abstract values.”
“The best way to convince you that what you’re doing is reasonable — is just and has a good outcome — is by surrounding you with people you love. Or at least people you care about,” Bolton said. “And if you can generate that kind of collaborative, cooperative and caring environment, there’s almost nothing you can’t do.
“You’ll hear that if you talk to soldiers, you’ll hear that over and over and over when the bullets start flying, you’re not thinking about the politics, you’re not thinking about the religion, you’re not thinking about your country’s involvement. It all goes out the window. All you’re thinking about is you and the guy next to you.”
Right until ENDEX.