A platoon maneuvers their way to the top of a hill through the prickly bushes of the San Diego desert. Suddenly, an explosion. Enemy forces come out shooting, and the platoon immediately suffers two casualties. Chaos breaks out.
Fortunately, this isn’t real combat. It’s a field training exercise that puts cadets with the Cal State Fullerton ROTC battalion through patrols, terrain navigation challenges and live-fire exercises to test the abilities cadets have learned throughout the semester and to teach new skills.
The battalion spent their weekend at Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base in the country, for the yearly challenge.
Explosives and blank rounds are used to give cadets the most immersive experience possible.
Amid all of the chaos, communication is usually the first to break down.
When a platoon leader receives orders, he or she must communicate them down the chain of command through squad leaders and team leaders to the individual soldier who carries out the order.
Sending down orders though the chain of command is important to make sure every cadet is on the same page, but sometimes orders from the platoon leader may not make it all the way down to every single cadet.
This may be the first time cadets have dealt with commanding such a large force, and the extra links added to the chain of command create a new challenge.
“We use a crawl-walk-run mentality,” said Lt. Col. Kelley Donham, a professor of military science and ROTC coordinator. “In the fall semester, we’re at the crawl stage, almost, getting to where we can actually assemble into larger formations, but by this time, they can assemble into large formations, command large formations and … use more of that critical thinking that we are trying to drive home.”
The biggest benefit of the field exercise is for the cadets to finally extend their knowledge that they learn every Friday and apply it to a more real-world setting, said Cadet Private Joshua Cole, a freshman.
“Normally we have class and then we conduct a minor lab at Cal State Fullerton’s campus, but we’re so limited as to what we can do,” Cole said. “We can’t operate with actual rifles, we can’t shoot actual blanks, so getting to come out here and use this area is far better.”
For freshmen and sophomores, the trip gives the cadets a taste of what to expect in the Army before signing a contract as a junior committing to enlist as an officer.
While the exercises are a learning experience for lowerclassmen, they are an important test for the juniors. Juniors are evaluated by senior cadets to see what they can improve so they are ready for the leadership development assessment course (L-DAC), a national ROTC event.
The L-DAC is the biggest test for juniors, and it determines if they qualify to graduate from ROTC and become an officer in the Army. This is where they find out if they are able to move on as senior cadets; if not, they have to repeat the test.
As instructors, the best one can hope for is that the next patrol is better than the last, said Cadet Captain Evan Edison, a senior in charge of evaluating juniors.
“It’s a big change, going from a position where you are always under a microscope to one where you have to be able to see the big picture and the little picture at the same time and let your guys know just exactly what you’re looking for and what they can do better on the next go-around,” Edison said.
The battalion splits up into two platoons to run patrol. It is an exercise in leadership, coordination and enemy engagements. Cadets are given coordinates to find, and all they have to navigate is a map, notepad and compass.
Before darkness completely overtakes the sky, planning begins. Freshmen and sophomores can be seen huddled around red lights plotting out points on a map and figuring out which direction to depart together, while juniors have to go solo.
Red lights are used to preserve what little night vision the cadets have left to make it easier when travelling only by the moonlight. When the sky is completely dark, they finally depart through the brush and crater-covered hills of Camp Pendleton.
After the allotted time is up, the cadets turn back to their main base, known as TOC, where they turn their papers in under harsh spotlights, then receive grades based on how many of the four locations they were able to find under the time limit. Two are required to pass.
Three days of no showering, sleeping under the stars and carrying everything on their back–the cadets were relieved to head home.
With this experience under their belts, they felt ready to take on further challenges.
The next big event for CSUF’s ROTC is the opportunity to ride in helicopters Friday. The Blackhawks will be landing in the soccer field and will give the cadets a chance to familiarize themselves with the structure and safety of a helicopter.