Cadet Command Sergeant Major Alec Fromm (left), agribusiness senior and cadet command sergeant major, briefs a squad of cadets before they move to complete their mission. Brendan Matsuyama / Mustang News

On Nov. 4 and 5, students participating in Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs congregated at Camp San Luis Obispo for a two day event known as their fall Field Training Exercise (FTX). Local applicants for the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School (OCS) — including a number of Cal Poly students — arrived Saturday morning, joining the cadet’s training.

The cadets spent about 12 hours on Friday and about 17 hours on Saturday at Camp San Luis Obispo, a California National Guard Base adjacent to Cuesta College.

As full-time college students, ROTC cadets simultaneously pursue a bachelor’s degree while taking military science classes and participating in field exercises and labs to prepare them to become officers in the United States Army. The fall FTX is just one of their field exercises.

Cadets from the Fighting Mustang and Surfrider Battalions — the formal names of Cal Poly and UCSB’s ROTC programs respectively — arrived Friday, receiving instruction on weapon systems and day and night land navigation.

The next morning, after a night spent in sleeping bags and tents, the cadets marched to the Leader’s Reaction Course (LRC) and met up with a group of Marine officer candidates. Together, the Army cadets and Marine candidates completed the LRC and confidence courses Saturday morning.

UCSB cadets and Marine candidates left around noon on Saturday while Cal Poly cadets continued on into the afternoon, conducting squad-level combat simulations in the hills surrounding Camp SLO.

A look into training, day 2: A mix of shenanigans and seriousness

Leader’s reaction course

By the time the cadets completed their road march from the campsite to the training area, the morning fog began to roll in, shrouding the mountains around the camp in a thick cloud blanket. Fatigued from a night of land navigation and sleeping in the elements, the cadets joined the Marine candidates in a march into the LRC compound.

The LRC was composed of several challenges that each squad cycled through. As they entered, squad leaders took charge of their cadets, leading them to their assigned challenges.

Each challenge was slightly different, offering a variety of critical thinking and leadership challenges for the future officers.

“[The LRC] is designed to place stress on the leadership of that individual,” Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Gillen, professor of miltiary science and head of Cal Poly’s ROTC program, said. “[To] force them to be effective communicators and think about how to solve these problems with non-standard solutions.”

Cadets simulate an escape from a prisoner of war camp. Participants were not allowed to talk during the challenge and could not touch the ladder they were provided to the wall. Brendan Matsuyama / Mustang News

In one challenge, cadets posed as prisoners of war in an enemy camp and had to escape without verbal communication.

Materials were limited for all challenges and some had additional restrictions. Missions  ranged from moving a barrel over an obstacle to building a bridge over a gap with boards that were too short. 

In addition to being a test of leadership, resiliency and problem solving, the LRC served as a learning opportunity for newer cadets.

At times, failure was almost expected by the cadre for certain challenges. For the especially hard challenges, the cadets were evaluated on their resiliency and how they reacted to failure and continued to perform under stress.

The more experienced Army cadets and Marine officer candidates who have graduated OCS observed the challenges and conducted after-action reviews with the participants. These reviews highlighted what they did right during the challenges, but also what could have been improved.

Overall, the cadre were pleased with the cadets’ performance on the LRC.

“They seem to be coming together as a team,” Gillen said. “I’m really happy. I haven’t seen anybody that has gotten hurt or failed to at least attempt to accomplish the obstacle or the task.”

Confidence courses 

After completing the LRC and marching further into the camp, the cadets and candidates were greeted by the confidence courses: the rock climbing wall and the high ropes course.

Cal Poly cadet captain and aerospace engineering senior Ryan Holland prepares to help a cadet down from the zipline at the end of the high ropes course. Brendan Matsuyama / Mustang News

After a short rest, the cadets donned climbing harnesses and bright orange helmets and prepared to conquer the challenges ahead of them. Each cadet tackled the confidence courses differently; some approached with apprehension, others with confidence and some with downright silliness.

Agricultural business senior and Marine OCS applicant Ryan Foster attacked the rock climb with confidence. After taking off with such enthusiasm that he accidentally kicked off a foot hold, he ascended the wall, reaching the top in 2 minutes and 47 seconds.

Others were nervous. When asked how she felt about the rock climb, kinesiology freshman and first-year cadet Nicole Foster expressed mixed feelings.

“It’s a mixture of excitement and a little bit of nervousness,” Foster said. “Just because of the adrenaline rush makes me shake too much. Because I can rock climb. I’m confident in that, but sometimes it gets too much and you can’t move.”

From the perspective of a non-climber, it seemed as though at any moment the cadets could lose their grip and fall to their doom. However, these courses were safe.

“These [courses] are very safe regardless of how they feel,” Gillen said. “But they’re overcoming a mortal fear of falling or getting hurt to accomplish them. So that’s a really good confidence builder.”

Cadets with command positions within the battalion acted as belayers for the climbers, ensuring that if they did slip, their harness would prevent them from falling.

The high ropes provided another challenge. After making a modest leap from a log balance beam to a rope net, the cadets climbed up, hooked their harnesses into the course and moved across ropes suspended around 30 feet in the air. Their harnesses kept them safe but the illusion of danger forced the cadets and candidates to perform regardless of their discomfort.

The course culminated in a zip line that elicited responses varying from screams of terror to a particularly humorous tribute to Harambe.

“Cowabunga!” Captain Dominic Senteno, soldier and instructor for Cal Poly’s ROTC program, yelled as he launched himself down the zip line at the end of the high ropes course.

One cadet channeled the spirit of the iconic 1980s freedom fighters from the movie “Red Dawn,” crying out, “Wolverines!”

As the last cadets began to cycle through the high ropes and rock wall and the UCSB cadets and Marine candidates began to leave the camp, Cal Poly cadets remained. They “policed” the area, fanning out and picking up any trash that was left.

After returning their climbing gear and grabbing their field packs, they piled into vans and drove deeper into the camp to continue their training.

Movement to contact

As Cal Poly cadets arrived at their rally point further into Camp SLO, they began planning the next phase of the exercise.

The ROTC cadre and senior cadets gathered at the battalion’s tactical operations center, simulated by two canopy tents and a few folding tables. There they established standard operating procedures and determined the objectives of each unit within the battalion. Meanwhile, the subordinate cadets relaxed in a shaded area, waiting to be called into formation.

Next, they began lane training which is when cadets were divided into squads with each squad given two objectives to be achieved sequentially. Squad leaders were tasked with planning the mission and coordinating with her or his subordinates.

Cal Poly cadets Alex Deatherage (left) and Zachary Slavich (right) stand at parade rest as the Fighting Mustang battalion is addressed by cadet captain Ransom Cutshall (middle). Brendan Matsuyama / Mustang News

After the battalion was addressed by aerospace senior Cadet Captain Ransom Cutshall, fourth squad moved out and took up a position at the bottom of a dried up creek bed flanking the tactical operation center.

Under the command of agribusiness senior Cadet Command Sergeant Major Alec Fromm, the cadets set up security around the creek bed, allowing Fromm and agricultural management systems junior and Cadet First Sergeant Zachary Slavich to begin planning.

Fromm and Slavich constructed a makeshift sand table map in the dirt out of rocks and colored yarn to help visualize the area. Rocks represented prominent land features, including several hills around their objective. Blue string signified two creeks in their path, white string signified roads, and red string signified their planned route.

After carefully planning their mission, Fromm called in his squad in for the briefing.

“Four squad will conduct a movement to contact on objective honey badger,” Fromm said. “We’re basically approaching knowing they’re going to be in this area …”

Fromm proceeded to give the squad its operations order, providing the cadets with key information on the mission, environment and plan of attack. Once it was clear his cadets understood what was expected out of them, fourth squad moved out.

The squad maneuvered alongside a hill, eventually reaching a heavily wooded area.  As the column halted every so often, the cadets would scan the area, ensuring there were no enemy forces nearby.

After crossing another creek bed, the squad began to ascend a hill covered in thick vegetation. What was just a rock with a bit of red string running over it became a daunting obstacle, compounded by the weight of the cadet’s rifles and assault packs.

As they arrived at the peak, the squad halted and surveyed the road below that they had to cross to reach their objective. After a brief pause, the cadets continued on.

The cadets moved through a barbed wire fence, some climbed over, others climbed through and still others held open a gap for them. After making their way up and over a roadway embankment, they continued on, knowing they were nearing their objective.

Cal Poly cadets from 4th Squad hit the deck after being engaged by two enemy combatants. Brendan Matsuyama / Mustang News

Suddenly, shots rang out.

“Bang, bang, bang!” enemy fighters yelled, charging menacingly toward fourth squad with their toy weapons.

A call from the fourth squad rang out.

“Contact! Enemy, 50 meters, 12 o’clock!”

The squad separated into two fire teams and formed a triangle. After exchanging fire for several seconds, the assault fire team, led by Fromm, moved on the enemy position while the support team stayed back and covered their advance.

After a minute or two of action, two enemy fighters — played by other cadets —  laid on the ground, neutralized.

With the objective accomplished, the enemies rose, joining the other cadets who had formed up for their after action review. After evaluating the overall smooth mission, the cadets hunkered down, relaxing before they had to move out toward their next objective.

Once the day was done and the sun began to set, the cadets were debriefed as a battalion back at the rally point and began to leave the camp. Some had already departed to participate in the honor guard presenting the colors at the football game between Cal Poly and Eastern Washington at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. The others went home, or to Chipotle for some dinner, armed with newfound knowledge and confidence.

The bottom line

The fall FTX is designed to give first and second year cadets experience with leadership, problem solving and communication, while also preparing them for the larger FTX typically held during spring quarter. It also gives upperclass cadets leadership opportunities with the chance to mentor the younger cadets and evaluate their performance.

For Marine candidates, this collaboration gave them an opportunity to learn Army protocol and hone their own leadership skills.

“To work in with the ROTC is also kind of cool because you get to see a different aspect of the military,” construction management junior and applicant to the Marine Corps’ platoon leaders class John Pezzini said. “How you’re similar and how you’re different and get a basis of learning how to work together with them.”

This sentiment was shared by the Army cadets and cadre — the military and civilian instructors for the ROTC programs.

“The Army never operates by itself,” Gillen said. “The Department of Defense is a joint organization and so having Marine candidates come out and participate with us on this part of the training is a great exposure for the cadets in the Army program and the candidates in the Marine program to start working on their skills as a joint force.”

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