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Army ROTC cadets conduct field training in Michigan

Matt Bramanti | Monday, March 29, 2004

FT. CUSTER, Mich. – The Fighting Irish Battalion lived up to its name last weekend, as Notre Dame’s Army ROTC unit conducted training exercises at Ft. Custer, near Battle Creek, Mich.About 85 Notre Dame ROTC students joined more than 200 cadets from Central, Western and Eastern Michigan Universities and the University of Michigan for the weekend-long field training exercise – dubbed “Operation Snow Warrior.”The battalion left Pasquerilla Center Friday afternoon and drove to Ft. Custer. Upon their arrival, the cadets – clad in camouflage fatigues and combat boots – stowed their equipment in barracks that once housed German prisoners of war during World War II. The cadets then assembled behind the base’s headquarters building for a regimental activation ceremony, where personnel from all five universities were put under the command of Lt. Col. Kelly Jordan, Notre Dame professor of military science. After an honor guard unveiled the regimental colors – a gold flag bearing the shield from the Notre Dame seal – Jordan encouraged the cadets to use their time at Ft. Custer effectively. Jordan, a former instructor at West Point who has a Ph.D. in history, compared the weekend’s opportunities to the Allied invasion at Normandy in 1944.”Just like Eisenhower had a 36-hour window on D-Day, you’ll have a short window to make the most of your training time here,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great things for you.”The FTX is intended to prepare students for the Leader Development and Assessment Course, taken during the summer after the cadets’ junior year. The LDAC, held at Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., is a 32-day course that prepares cadets for careers as Army officers. Cadets – who are commissioned as second lieutenants before graduation from Notre Dame – receive full scholarships in return for a four-year commitment to active duty.Jordan went on to encourage the senior cadets to prepare their younger colleagues for the rigors of LDAC training and evaluation.”For you [seniors], this is your time to pass on your knowledge,” Jordan said. “Let’s go out there with fire in our eyes and warrior ethos in our hearts.”Following the ceremony, the cadets returned to their barracks to unpack and review infantry tactics and procedures, then retired to their bunks for some much needed rest. They would need it.Outside, Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon assembled in formation. “B-Three, party with me!” the cadets yelled as they snapped to attention.Platoon leader and junior Shawn Kotoske ordered his troops to don their Kevlar helmets for the march to breakfast.”This is a combat situation, people,” Kotoske joked. “The food will be bad.”The student-soldiers then marched to the mess hall by unit, again sounding off with pride.”Warrior Forge, here we come!” Bravo Company shouted into the pre-dawn chill, a reference to the Army’s nickname for LDAC.Cadets then filed into the mess hall by squad, and had about five minutes to wolf down a meal of scrambled eggs and sausage, liberally doused with what one cadet called “the Army’s favorite condiment” – hot sauce.Sophomore Avery Mortimer said military food isn’t exactly great.”It’s edible,” Mortimer laughed. “It keeps you going.”And the cadets certainly kept going. Following breakfast, they traveled to a training area for a land navigation course. Cadets used maps, compasses and protractors to find seven designated points – trees marked by orange signs – scattered throughout the heavily wooded two-square-mile area.Some cadets, like junior Richard Moss, found it difficult to complete the course in the allotted three hours.”Yeah, it was tough,” an out-of-breath Moss said, arriving at the scorer’s table with only seconds remaining on the clock.The bulk of the weekend, though, was occupied by cadets practicing situational tactical exercises – known as “sticks lanes.” These 90-minute drills test cadets’ leadership and tactical acumen in a simulated combat environment. Squads of about 10-12 cadets receive an order, detailing their objective. Objectives vary from lane to lane, but may include attacking an enemy observation post, ambushing hostile forcers or conducting a reconnaissance mission. The opposing force, or OpFor, for the weekend was the fictional Caquetan Army’s 81st Rifle Regiment.Upon receiving the details of their mission, squad leaders briefed their troops, establishing the chain of command, movement routes, rules of engagement and other facets of the missions.The lanes are meant to accurately simulate combat conditions. Cadets carried real M-16 rifles, specially adapted to fire loud, but harmless, blanks. They wore GI rucksacks, packed with enough gear to simulate a real combat load. They applied camouflage face paint to Army specifications – black on the high areas, green on the low. The frequent chop of National Guard helicopters above added to the realism. ROTC instructors paid close attention to the squad leaders’ instructions, listening for mistakes that inevitably came back to haunt the squad. When one leader failed to plan for the evacuation of wounded troops, an instructor threw an “arty sim” – a pyrotechnic device that simulates the whistle and explosion of incoming artillery fire. He then designated “wounded” soldiers who had to be evacuated, testing the cadets’ ability to react to unforeseen circumstances. As the cadets of Bravo Company, 2nd Platoon, 1st Squad gathered to plan an ambush of approaching OpFor troops, they got some words of wisdom from Eastern Michigan’s Master Sgt. Jay Hudson, a self-described “airborne ranger extraordinaire.””I want to see aggressiveness and violence of action,” Hudson bellowed.The cadets hid behind a small ridge overlooking a dirt road. When the OpFor troops approached, that violence of action became a reality, as 1st Squad opened fire, immediately “killing” several of the enemy. However, not everything went according to plan. As a squad member tried to drag a “wounded” OpFor soldier out of the road, the enemy leaped up, producing a grenade.Hudson chided 1st Squad’s members for their failure to properly search their wounded prisoners.”The way we train is the way we’re going to fight,” Hudson cautioned.In another lane Sunday morning, the instructor, Capt. Mike Gallagher, warned 1st Squad about the enemy troops’ combat readiness.”Their morale is high,” Gallagher warned. “They will fight aggressively if engaged.”As squad leader Kelly Thompson, a Western Michigan student, began moving her troops forward, Gallagher wished them “happy hunting.”And they were successful. When 1st Squad attacked Objective Bayonet – an OpFor observation post – the cadets routed the enemy in just a few minutes. Two cadets trained with suppressive fire on the OpFor position, pinning down the troops under a hail of simulated automatic-rifle fire.Moments later, a smoke grenade sent a billowing green plume through the woods, signaling members of 1st Squad to shift their fire, to avoid hitting their own troops.”Assault through!” Thompson yelled, ordering her cadets to take the objective. 1st Squad swarmed over the enemy post, “killing” all three OpFor soldiers in a matter of seconds.”Rough day at the office,” Gallagher laughed as a vanquished OpFor soldier fell to the ground.Senior cadet Devin Miller said cadets should be self-assured if they want to be effective commanders.”If you don’t speak with authority, you’ve already lost the battle,” Miller said. “Confidence in decision-making is the deciding factor.”In addition to imparting tactical knowledge and leadership know-how, the exercises also taught cadets about the laws of war and proper handling of prisoners under the Geneva Conventions. Cadets were instructed how to treat noncombatants, not to fire at unarmed personnel and to evacuate prisoners from combat areas as soon as possible.Following Sunday’s closing ceremony, cadets trucked back to campus, where they spent several hours in the basement of Pasquerilla Center, cleaning their rifles and equipment. Cadets praised the annual training event, saying it was an opportunity to put classroom concepts into practice.Junior John Dickson said the weekend’s tactical missions strengthened the battalion’s knowledge of contemporary warfare.”It was a lot of good training, and it was pretty fun,” Dickson said. “Everyone learned a lot through the STX lanes.”Senior Leon Gil praised the Notre Dame ROTC instructors who planned the event, saying it was run more smoothly than in previous years.”The new cadre are doing a great job, especially with the freshmen,” Gil said.Noreen Walton, a sophomore at Saint Mary’s, said she enjoyed the weekend’s events. ROTC cadets from Saint Mary’s are combined with Notre Dame students in the battalion.”It’s a great time, and everyone is getting a lot of good experience,” Walton said.