A piece of paper folded lengthwise into thirds rested on the grass where all could see it.
“This paper is essentially where we are,” Dunn said. “Those two crossed pencils are the objective.”
The objective was breakfast.
Meals, ready-to-eat, had been dropped 110 meters away, and the squad needed to go on a resupply mission to retrieve them. Dunn told his squad that if they encountered four or fewer South Atropian People’s Army fighters, they should engage them. If the group of SAPA insurgents numbered more than four, he instructed his squad to suppress them and then break contact.
Once Dunn was sure the instructions were understood, the squad moved single-file into the woods, their boots rustling softly in the dry leaves. They broke through brush, snapping twigs as they went, until the green glow sticks tied to the MRE cartons were visible.
After bringing the cartons back to main camp, Dunn issued each squad member two MREs for the next day and marked a success for one of the first missions of the University of Maine Reserve Officers’ Training Corps’ spring Field Training Exercises weekend.
The ROTC cadets spent three days in the woods of Plymouth testing their skills at FTX, which is run once each semester, in order to prepare MSIIIs, cadets in their third year, for a month-long training program called the Leadership Development and Assessment Course in Fort Lewis, Wash.
The cadets marched in on Friday and found themselves in the terrain of a fictitious country developed for the 2010 LDAC: Atropia.
Atropia is understood to be located in the Caucasus Mountains and its culture is a blend of Spanish language and Middle Eastern customs.
Younger cadets, such as MSII Dunn, were also given opportunities to step into leadership roles during the weekend and be evaluated by cadre members, active-duty personnel assigned to teach ROTC courses.
One resupply mission did not go as smoothly as Dunn’s.
That squad sat in the dark outside the TOC in nearly the same spot that Dunn had instructed his squad. In the 20 or so minutes Dunn’s mission had taken, the last of the light had drained from the sky, and the faces of this squad’s members were indistinguishable. They sat clustered around the red glow of a cadre member’s flashlight.
That mission had been a failure, most likely the result of gaps in communication and poor planning.
The squad leader had gotten it half right, the cadre member conceded, and he was told to own his mistakes and learn from them throughout the remaining missions in the weekend.
“This is really like our capstone exercise. … Our goal is to validate our juniors,” said Lt. Col. Steve Szewc. “Our whole training plan for the year builds up to this.”
Szewc said the weekend benefits younger cadets by introducing them to field craft and enabling them to use tactics they’ve studied throughout the year. The cadets have weekly two-hour labs, but that short period of time doesn’t always allow for concepts to take root in cadets’ minds, he added.
Standing on a knoll near main camp, he described the transformation he saw in one cadet’s face since the fall.
“I could see the look on her face in October. ‘What am I doing here?’” Szewc said. “She understands [now] how it assesses your leadership and why we’re doing it. … In that months’ time between there and here, it just clicked.
“You can see it,” he continued. “It’s fun to watch.”
Cadets in command
Cadet Tom Ryan, a third-year history student, said he was confident he would perform well in the Squad Training Exercises on Saturday, but he was still a little anxious.
“It’s like that good kind of nervousness. It’s just enough to keep you pushing forward,” he said. “You’re no longer taking care of just yourself. You’re also taking care of everyone beneath you.”
Ashley Hatch, a fourth-year nursing student set to graduate in December, was an MSIV going through FTX as an MSIII after missing LDAC last summer for personal reasons. She was excited about her upcoming training, but transitioning back to an MSIII after a year with her own class was throwing her off a bit.
“I’m kind of like a three-and-a-half,” she said. “I can tell that I’m improving just over this past year.”
Hatch was slated to lead a squad in the first lane on Saturday morning, and Ryan was chosen to assist her. At 6 a.m., while their squad lay low to provide 360-degree security, Hatch and Ryan crouched in the brush with Szewc as he read them their mission — a litany of information Hatch had to winnow down to just what her squad members absolutely needed to know.
As Hatch mulled over the information, Ryan sprawled out in the grass with his nose to a map, studying it before he laid out a terrain model using icons, labeled and laminated to last against the elements, that Hatch would use to describe the mission.
After getting her orders from Szewc, Hatch had only 45 minutes to get her squad moving.
“That’s part of the drill, to put them under that time constraint,” Szewc said. “That’s where they separate themselves from their peers.”
The objective was 240 meters away, Hatch told her squad. They were to conduct an attack on opposing forces “in order to prevent enemy resupply and destroy rocket sites.”
Szewc moved alongside the squad, dropping back or pushing ahead to watch cadets interact with each other. Their movements were more detectable than intended.
“Would I let her lead a patrol in Afghanistan?” Szewc asked as the squad pulled ahead. “No, not right now, but that’s not what I’m looking at.”
Szewc elaborated that FTX is designed to see how confident cadets are as leaders, while tactics and noise control take a backseat in importance.
Hatch lost one team member on the assault, but Staff Sgt. Daniel Trojecki and cadets Brian Landry and Robert Cook, the entire opposing forces team, were killed in a firefight.
“The order, I thought, was pretty effective for the mission,” Szewc said as he critiqued Hatch’s performance in the after-action report that followed the mission. The squad and opposing forces sat in a circle around Szewc as he spoke. “Your terrain model was oriented. … It’s like a big PowerPoint slide out in the field, so use it effectively.”
Szewc balanced areas where Hatch could improve, such as her not-so-stealthy manner of getting her squad across the road, with areas in which she showed initiative, such as when she led her team around a small quarry rather than trying to save time by going straight through it.
“I guarantee half the squads will go through that quarry,” he said. “That was a good thought process.”
‘Ready for LDAC’
A couple of hours later, Hatch sat as the squad member rather than its leader after control had rotated to another MSIII.
“I thought [my mission] went fairly well. It was a little confusing at times, but communication went well … even though we did not have a successful recon,” she said. “A lot of it is based on planning, and I think I definitely improved on [that]. … I basically didn’t give myself enough time.”
Hatch was in charge of a platoon on Sunday, which is composed of two squads. She led the platoon on a raid to capture or kill Abu Sanchez, a high-value SAPA target. This objective was about 900 meters away, and her platoon was given twice as much time as the squads had been given the day before.
She led her platoon through the woods, skirting a field in the beginning and delving deeper into the forest as time went on. The cadets slogged through a bog and then up a steep hill before Hatch split her platoon into two groups.
One would stay put and keep security on the area and the other would forge ahead on a leader’s recon to assess the terrain and see if they could get eyes on the objective.
The recon hit a snag when the cadets found themselves at the top of a cliff, but they doubled back and found a small stream that wound its way toward the objective, where Abu Sanchez sat with three guards.
It had rained all morning, which kept the noise of dry foliage rustling as cadets passed to a minimum, but the guards heard movement in the wet forest and noticed the pattern of the platoon’s Army Combat Uniforms through the foliage, though they could not get a clear view of the cadets.
Before the platoon moved in, green and white smoke grenades were tossed to provide cover so the cadets could cross the open stream in relative safety. They took out the four targets, including Abu Sanchez, played by Aaron Saucier, an MSIV and senior psychology student.
During the after-action report, Szewc addressed Hatch’s unease at handling a larger group of cadets than the day before.
“Just take a deep breath and use what you know,” he said. “You’ve got the skills. You’ve just got to project that confidence.”
“I think it went pretty well,” Szewc said later, as the platoon marched up the road back to the main camp. “They were a little tired, and it showed. … They’ve done well at applying what they’ve learned in class.”
“Everyone came out of their shells a little bit, like Hatch,” he continued.
Hatch’s emergence as a leader was evident in how she addressed her troops. Soft-spoken in everyday conversation, she seemed a bit hesitant to issue orders at first. However, after her platoon had taken out Abu Sanchez, she barked at her cadets to stop standing around and move him out of the objective site.
“I think my actions on this lane was better than on the first one,” she said. “I feel a lot better than I have.
“I feel ready for LDAC.”