ROTC Training at Camp Pendleton

My first impression of the ROTC cadet battalion was that in spite of everything, they are still college students – if you pack them into a bus at 6am, they’re going to fall asleep as quickly as you or I. On the other hand, they distinguish themselves from other student organizations by not just by being on time, but leaving early. These students were on their way to their Leadership Training Exercises (LTX) at Camp Pendleton, along with fellow cadets from Azusa Pacific, Cal Poly Pomona and other schools from the Inland Empire. Once each semester, the cadets from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program spend a weekend preparing for their eventual commission into the U.S. Army, participating in training exercises designed to hone their leadership, teamwork and military preparedness.

The Golden Lions, as CMC ROTC are known, are commanded by Evan Wollen, a Lieutenant Colonel from the Field Artillery with a quick wit supplemented by a near-endless supply of military proverbs. During our ride down to San Diego, Col. Wollen briefed me on the plan for the weekend. Friday, the cadets would split between team-building activities and the rifle range, and Saturday, they would divide into squads of about a dozen and run through a series of scenarios (called “lanes”) that would test their leadership, ethical decision-making and tactical abilities. Seniors (MS4s in army-speak) would supervise and evaluate the cadets in their lane, in which other seniors acted as civilians, enemies or hostages.

The minute we stepped off the bus, the training exercise started. As other schools arrived, the cadets formed into two companies, each divided into two platoons of three squads each. I was assigned to Bravo Company, 2nd Platoon, 1st Squad, which I’d be following for the entire weekend. 1st Squad was comprised of cadets from every school, with three upperclassmen who rotated through the role as squad leader.

The first mission for my squad was to build a litter out of a poncho and some metal pipes, and carry an ‘injured’ comrade 500 meters. Meanwhile, cadre members (current officers who staff the program) alternated between color commentary and yelling for their cadets to take cover. Naturally, they selected the largest member of our squad, Cdt. Kim, to serve as our injured soldier, but 1st Squad completed the challenge with time to spare.

Our second task of the day was to assemble a contraption that would allow the squad to carry a 500lb drum of water another 500 meters. They were given more metal pipes, rope, a lashing and four wheels, and made to race another squad, eventually building vehicles the seniors and cadre nicknamed the ‘Batmobile’ and the ‘Wheelbarrow.’ Our Batmobile didn’t fare particularly well, and after our moorings came undone, we attempted to copy the other team’s wheelbarrow design, but it was too little too late for us to win the race.

Lunch, like most of the meals in my near future, was a Meal Ready to Eat (MRE). While we enjoyed our rations, the squad and its supervisors discussed what had gone well and what needed work. Some cadets found themselves too many leaders without enough assigned roles – a pattern clearly derived from the unspoken fact that some cadets were out to impress.

We spent the afternoon at the rifle range, where a no-nonsense Captain gave a safety briefing that, like much of what I’d heard so far, used a mostly acronym-based vocabulary. He, along with the seniors, instructed us about firing positions, breath control, and a variety of other things I found quite difficult to remember when I actually pointed my rifle downfield.

Although the cadets were having a shooting competition, where they would adjust the sights of their weapon after firing a few test rounds and then aim for a small target from 25 meters away, it didn’t seem that the range supervisors wanted me to embarrass myself. They provided me with a full-size silhouette and a clip of 30 rounds, left over from after the junior cadets had finished their range time and the seniors fired the extra rounds (I was told that Army regulations prohibit them from leaving any live ammunition at the round or carrying it with them, so they were forced to shoot all of it). I thought I shot pretty well, but afterwards we were whisked away to dinner in the Marines’ mess hall and to a debrief for the night.

Check back in the spring for ROTC Training Part II