SRU’s ROTC program takes education, training into the field – literally
Jairus Moore, a senior safety management major from Rochester and Stephen Cooper, a junior finance major from Johnstown, work to establish a base camp during a recent ROTC field training exercise.
May 26, 2017
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - On a cold, wet April Fool's morning at the Slippery Rock University Ski Lodge, 42 ROTC cadets from Slippery Rock and Clarion universities stood at parade rest as Army Captain Joseph Barrow, assistant professor of military science at SRU, paced the front lines.
"Why are we here?" Barrow asked the formation.
"Teamwork," one cadet called out.
"Soldier preparation," another responded.
"The zip line," a third said with a laugh.
While Barrow and the tidy ranks eased into smiles, the following two days of training would be no joke.
The training, formally known as a field training exercise, is hosted one weekend each semester by SRU's Frontier Battalion. Each of the FTX activities is specifically designed by senior cadets to promote leadership, team building and critical thinking, particularly for the unit's first- and second-year members.
From rucking through miles of forest terrain to camping in sub-freezing temperatures, the event serves as motivation for the cadets to move beyond their comfort zones and work to become a tighter unit.
"For me, the weekend is about dedication and making a commitment," said Lexi Keyes, a freshman criminal justice major from Clarion University.
In addition to scaling a 30-foot climbing wall and flying down a zip line, Keyes used the weekend as an opportunity to celebrate her 19th birthday. "What can I say? I have made ROTC a priority," she said bluntly.
Like the other 41 cadets, Keyes also participated in the FTX Leadership Reaction Course, which mimics a series of obstacle courses and team exercises that are utilized at Army officer training schools such as Fort Benning, Georgia. Cadets are put through structured "leadership challenges" that encourage participants to think, react, work as a team and solve problems in a determined period of time.
Jamie Williams, an SRU junior political science major from Pittsburgh, recounted her recent LRC experience at Fort Knox.
"I was forced to go through the LRC for my National Guard training, which is why practicing at a FTX such as this can be very helpful. Except at Knox, I had to climb the wall in 60 seconds," she said with a laugh.
If the LRC weren't taxing enough, the FTX continued with cadets embarking on a 2.5-mile hike through the forest. The hike, known in the Army as a "ruck", is a long-distance training march with backpacks, or "rucksacks," loaded with at least 35 pounds of gear.
"The ruck is definitely an important part of a cadet's FTX experience," said LeAnn Penn, an SRU senior biology major from Conneaut Lake. "They are really unavoidable in a military setting."
"Going on these rucks involves a lot of pre-planning on how to get from point A to point B safely," said Jairus Moore, an SRU senior safety management major from Rochester. "Our ruck had some unexpected creeks along the way, but it allowed us to stay on our toes and remain flexible."
Also armed with M4 paintball rifles, the cadets made their way through the foliage and forest to the farm of Robert Watson, former vice president of student life at SRU, where they would set up camp for the night.
Upon arrival, cadets were immediately briefed before being released into small groups to create makeshift shelters with little more than a few tarps and the surrounding trees to shield them from the open terrain. Some relied solely upon their sleeping bags and clothes for warmth.
"It's going to be a long, cold night," said Sierra Ezjak, an SRU public health major from Champion, Ohio. She added that even dinner might provide a challenge for the newer recruits. "We're sending them out hunting," she joked before revealing that she and other senior cadets had previously hid four coolers full of ready-to-eat meals prior to the groups arrival. A staple of military field dining, the durable pouches of food can contain an average of 1,250 calories and are easily cooked through water-reactive self-heaters.
"We were told that we were searching for a weapons cache," said Rosanna Chirumbolo, an SRU sophomore criminal justice major from Pittsburgh. "So I set up a full security perimeter and we proceeded like we were out on a real mission. Then we found the food.
"It was definitely something we weren't expecting," Chirumbolo added with a laugh. "It just made April Fools Day a little more fun for us."
Following dinner, cadre and cadets made full use of the day's festivities, setting up a good-humored roast around the campfire, full of impersonations and skits.
"What made it so funny is that we know everyone so well," said Chirumbolo. "The staff threatened to play pranks on us all night if our performances were lame, but they went really well."
The night proceeded with little interruption, save for the subfreezing temperatures. The next morning, cadets woke with the sunrise, cleaned the campsite and scouted the leftover MREs for an energizing breakfast.
"It was cold and we slept with a seven-pound gun tucked into our sleeping bags, but somehow we awoke all pumped up and excited to begin the new day," said Chirumbolo as she and her fellow cadets were divided into three teams for the day's primary focus: war games.
Each team, decked in bulletproof vests and head gear, assigned squadron positions among their members and reconvened to discuss strategy tactics. The groups were then released into lanes, a sort of battle plot where cadets would advance to a target destination. Faced mostly with fields and uphill terrain, cadets learned to create full coverage and to "bounce" through the fields with their paintball M4s. Bouncing, composed of brief sprints and quick ducks, is a tactic cadets utilize when under "enemy fire."
However, those same warfare tactics were also accompanied by techniques of diplomacy.
"Creating relationships and discerning whether a situation is hostile, neutral or friendly is an important skill to build," said Penn. "Diplomacy is relevant to every situation." Penn, who acted the role of a foreign village leader, forced cadets to step outside of their comfort zones, learn vital conversational techniques and evaluate new habitats.
While not every cadet will experience deployment to a foreign theater, the diplomatic skills learned during these types of exercises are meant to strengthen the cadets regardless of where the military or civilian life may take them.
"The communication techniques we learn through ROTC are just as important to the corporate world as to the military," Williams noted. "Some of the training we do, like the LRC or the rappel tower, is also done by businesses and at corporate retreats to build trust among coworkers.
"It really all boils down to teamwork," she added. "No matter what the situation, that is always our goal."
It was a sense of teamwork that permeated every moment of the weekend's activities, from the two-member battle buddy system to the group-centered campsites at the end of the night.
"We are such a tight group because of events such as this," said Chirumbolo. "During this weekend, we were all the same. All of us were just as tired and cold, but we kept each other energized and excited to meet our missions. This has definitely brought us closer."
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