Cal Poly’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program linked up with cadets from California State University, Fresno and University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) on April 7 to kick off their largest field training exercise (FTX) of the year. This FTX was a three-day event at Camp Roberts on the border of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties and planned primarily by the programs’ fourth year cadets.
The exercise included night land navigation, platoon-sized maneuvers and a road march. The program’s cadre is made up of United States Army officers and senior enlisted personnel charged with instructing and advising ROTC cadets.
And they’re off
For the Fighting Mustang Battalion — the official title of Cal Poly’s ROTC program — the day started at approximately 9 a.m. The cadets stopped at Camp San Luis Obispo to draw weapons from the base’s armory before proceeding to Camp Roberts.
Greeted by muddy roads and rolling green hills, the cadets assembled at a simulated village composed of several concrete structures and began unloading their gear.
After being issued their weapons, M16A2 assault rifles and M249 light machine guns, cadets from the three schools gathered across the road from their tactical operations center (TOC) and were integrated into three platoons with a mix of cadets from all programs.
Platoons are a unit in the army comprised of approximately 40 to 50 soldiers. Being a platoon leader is typically the first command held by newly commissioned second lieutenants — the rank ROTC cadets will earn upon graduation.
Once integrated, the platoons moved to a grove a short distance from the village and set up 360-degree security around their plot. For the remainder of Friday’s daylight hours, the platoons performed rehearsals individually, going over different scenarios, such as how to react when making contact with the enemy.
Night land navigation
At sunset, the cadets were briefed on that night’s land navigation. Armed with only a map, compass, flashlight and coordinates, teams of cadets were tasked with finding five points in the darkness.
The points themselves were represented by hole punches hung on trees. Cadets had to use them to punch holes into cards they were given to verify they had found the right point.
After plotting their points and checking in, Dominique Chan from UCSB, and Spencer Christensen from Cal State Fresno, set out into the night.
The moon, only a few days from being full, illuminated the darkness. Red lights from the cadets’ flashlights and headlamps dotted the landscape. Every so often, a convoy of Army Humvees — High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles — passed by, lighting up adjacent area with their headlights.
Chan and Christensen found their first point almost immediately hanging from a tree, but it was within 10 meters of another point.
By the end of the night, Chan and Christensen were able to find five points, though they would find out that only two of them were the points they were originally assigned to locate. Ultimately, Christensen was satisfied, claiming that if he was tasked with finding a building, he would still be able to find it despite being off by a few meters.
Once all cadets returned to their platoon assembly areas at about 10 p.m., they settled in for the night. The cadets hunkered down in their sleeping systems — a waterproof, cold weather sleeping bag — as the rain came pouring down. They had to be up at 5 a.m. the next morning to prepare for training.
Reconnaissance of the village
After being issued blank ammunition, the platoons marched off towards their objective rally points (ORP).
Once third platoon arrived at their ORP, a seven-man squad comprised of the unit’s leadership broke off to conduct a leader’s reconnaissance on their objective. Meanwhile, the rest of the platoon established security around their rally point and waited for their return.
The leader’s reconnaissance halted approximately 1,000 meters from the village. The structures surrounded a courtyard that was occupied by the opposing forces (OPFOR), played by fourth year cadets. They were identified by black shirts and coats, while one high value target (HVT) wore a beige shirt.
While observing the village, the team made note of the enemy’s movements, their number, their weapons and potential avenues of approach for the upcoming attack.
After they had gathered all the information they could, the team returned to their platoon for a briefing. They hugged the treeline and the side of a hill to avoid detection from the OPFOR in the village below.
Preparing for the attack
After being briefed and conducting an after action review (AAR), 3rd platoon moved to a new ORP where they would stage their final attack. The platoon commander took a squad and scouted ahead, looking for a good support by fire position. Support by fire is a tactical concept in which one part of a unit suppresses the enemy with gunfire while another element assaults enemy positions.
Their distance from the enemy made support by fire an ineffective tactic; they moved around the village using a dried up creek bed. While that approach was mostly concealed, they briefly took artillery fire simulated by pyrotechnic training grenades.
As the team moved to observe the objective, Master Sergeant Jose Quijas, the senior military instructor for Cal State Fresno’s ROTC program and an observer for 3rd platoon, noticed something.
“Hey, that’s the rest of your platoon,” Quijas said.
In an open field below the leader’s reconnaissance, the 47-man platoon that was meant to wait and then approach from a concealed area was now approaching completely exposed. The platoon’s leadership attempted to signal them to go around on their approach, but their attempts failed.
Quijas radioed the cadre that were observing the exposed cadets to throw artillery simulators behind the platoon.
Once the majority of the platoon arrived at the leadership’s position, the cadets were pushed back by mortar fire. Third platoon got pushed away from their rally point with some cadets having to leave behind their gear. Every time the platoon stopped to consolidate, another mortar simulator would explode, forcing them to retreat.
It was at this point that the cadre and Katherine Holst, cadet battalion commander and biologcal sciences senior, instituted a leadership change.
Squad leaders and team leaders were replaced with fresh cadets and the unit began planning for their final assault on the village.
The support by fire team moved around their former rally point and set themselves up in a partially concealed position overlooking the village — though it was later revealed by UCSB Cadet Sara Cratsenburg who acted as an OPFOR that they were visible from the village.
As the assault started, the team opened fire on the compound. Yellow and purple smoke poured out of smoke grenades that were thrown in the middle of the village.
“Shift fire!” the cadets yelled as the assault element advanced further into the village.
Once the entire platoon moved into the village, the support by fire team joined them. They took cover behind a destroyed helicopter mounted on a pile of rubble, one by one moving into the village as the attack progressed.
Two cadets attempted to clear a rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG) from a neutralized OPFOR roleplayed by Ransom Cutshall, aerospace engineering senior and fourth year cadet. However, they were eliminated when it was revealed that Cutshall was wired with a fake improvised explosive device and that he had been lying in wait for a cadet to fall into his trap.
As the attack progressed, more cadets fell to explosive booby traps. One frustrated cadet who had taken over 3rd platoon after the platoon leader was neutralized frantically yelled for his squad leaders shortly before the end of the exercise.
At the conclusion of the attack, the platoon regrouped and conducted an AAR.
During the AAR, the cadre and senior cadets offered advice to the cadets. Lieutenant Colonel Travis Rayfield, the UCSB professor of military science, stressed the importance of communication and effectively delegating duties to subordinates.
“Take initiative,” Rayfield said. “Force communication.”
Lastly, the cadets went on to do a four-mile road march. They received instruction on certain skills, such as how to properly use a gas mask. But the training wasn’t over; the cadets were soon attacked by OPFOR along the way.
The spring FTX officially ended the following day, April 9, with Cal Poly cadets returning to campus that afternoon.