Christin Enriquez, squad leader of First Squad, Bravo Company, takes a final look at the diagram that he has drawn with sticks and laminated symbols in the ground underneath a shady alcove of trees.
The symbols and sticks represent the two, four-soldier fire teams of his squad, landmarks and enemies.
His platoon leader has ordered his squad to patrol down a road in search of enemy forces. He’s been warned that they have improvised explosive devices (IEDs). He’s been briefed that a high-value target (HVT) is in the area and to search enemies for intelligence. Another squad from his platoon has been tasked to provide 360-degree security for the unit, allowing his assault and support elements to practice drills before they “step off” for the mission. He’s preparing his briefing to ensure that his squad knows exactly what to do if they are attacked by enemies or an IED.
While he is not in Afghanistan, this is as close as Enriquez, a junior business major at Cal State Fullerton and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet, has come to real combat and squad leadership. Enriquez is one of about 250 cadets who traveled to Camp Pendleton last weekend to participate in a biannual field training exercise (FTX). His squad is a mixture of cadets from CSUF, University of Nevada Las Vegas and San Diego State.
From Thursday to Sunday, cadets practiced land navigation, moving as a 30-person patrol and small, squad level training exercises. Up at 5 a.m. and asleep by 1 a.m., cadets were sleep deprived, physically fatigued and mentally drained after the four day trip.
With temperatures reaching 80 degrees, Abe Rodas, a senior cadet and kinesiology major at CSUF, said there were a number of cadets who suffered heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Drinking water was not a recommendation, it was an order.
This FTX event is designed specifically to prepare junior cadets for the ROTC Leadership Development Assessment Course. Completed by all Army ROTC cadets across the country, the 29-day course in Ft. Lewis, Washington is a final test for future U.S Army officer. The scores that they earn in exercises on the course will influence what unit they are commissioned to after they graduate from the program. This grueling event is affectionately referred to by cadets as “LDACistan.”
Jose Valadez, a junior psychology major at San Diego State and an ROTC cadet, said the worst part is sleeping outside and the bugs that crawl into cadet’s sleeping bags.
“There’s like ticks and fricken weird ass beetles and spiders,” he said. “You might have something crawling up your nose and you won’t even know.”
At FTX, cadets are operating in the fictional country of Atropia. Located in the Caucuses, their residents speak Spanish and are similar in culture to Afghanis. Enriquez’s job is to complete the mission in the allotted time table, acquire valuable information and get his squad of nine through unscathed. Dressed in combat fatigues, carrying real rifles and 30-pound assault packs, this squad training exercise (STX) lane is preparing the cadets for a real combat scenario.
An evaluator follows Enriquez through the course, grading everything from his communication during the mission briefing to his ability to respond to a changing scenario while conducting the mission.
As he steps off, Enriquez quickly spots an IED. As he moves forward down the road past the bomb, he and his squad fails to see two more, inflicting harsh casualties and slowing his advance. With his assault and support teams weakened, he comes into contact with enemy forces, shooting at him from across a stream.
A chorus of “bang bangs” erupt from both sides of the creek. Due to high winds, dry conditions and fires on the Camp Pendleton base, cadets were not allowed to use blank rounds to simulate fire. After fire ceases from the enemy position, Enriquez’s assault element moves through a ravine littered with poison oak to search the enemies for intelligence.
Played by senior ROTC cadets, the opposing forces (OpFor) attempt to make life difficult for freshman through junior level cadets. The pair of OpFor that Enriquez’s squad has encountered have decided to surprise cadets by playing dead and unloading on cadets while they search the area.
As the squad approaches the dead enemies, one explodes to a shooting position in a fury of bang-bangs and the other throws a grenade before he is shot down. Pressed for time to end the mission, the assault element returns to the squad without searching the downed enemies for valuable intel.
Squads completed a total of five STX lanes.With his ability to speak Spanish, he was able to control an unruly Atropian civilian and coordinate and assault on a bunker.
“I just took charge,” he said. “Whoever was around me … we just got online.”
Leaders change in every STX lane in order to evaluate all of the junior level cadets. Valadez, one of Enriquez’s squad members, led the same nine man unit through an ambush exercise early in the day. He set up his squad along the road and called in an imaginary Blackhawk. He asked that the helicopter be outfitted with rockets and miniguns and to engage enemies at danger-close range. His squad was able to take out the OpFor without firing a shot.
“I have to owe it to my squad though. They were super motivated and they have been since day one of this FTX. And that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “As long as you have a good squad to get you going, its going to get you going and it’s going to keep things flowing.”
While senior cadets run the FTX events, a cadre of instructors from the university provides input and support for the event.
Frank Marscelli, a retired sergeant first class army special forces soldier and military history instructor at San Diego State, said he has seen extraordinary growth from cadets throughout their four years in the program.
“By the time they become a captain, they are getting ready from this time on to actually already have that experience in terms of how to deal with people they are going to lead at the squad level, the team level and the platoon level,” he said.
He added that organization and the ability to lead a group when “shit hits the fan” is very applicable to work in the civilian world.
“They are walking away with a skill that is very hard to come by these days,” he said.