CSULB’s ROTC cadets train hard at Camp Pendleton
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Jennifer Do and her group had been hiking for almost five hours since noon. Heavy rain from days before left the ground muddy, making each step hard to take.
Blisters began to form on Do’s feet because of the many hours walking in uncomfortable boots.
“Towards the end, I couldn’t walk,” she said.
Do and her colleagues are ROTC cadets from Cal State Long Beach and surrounding universities, who engaged in a weekend of field training exercises Oct. 21-23. More than 100 cadets and cadres (military instructors) participated in the exercises at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base near San Diego.
These cadets and cadres — from CSULB, CSU Dominguez Hills, UC Irvine and University of Southern California — make up the USC battalion.
Fourth-year cadets (MS4s) arranged these exercises to learn how to organize events and work together. They evaluated third-year cadets (MS3s) and prepared them for a summer training program.
First- and second-year cadets — MS1s and MS2s, respectively — also came along for the experience.
“For us as cadre, we’re in the background in a lot of ways,” said Lt. Col. Robert Kirkland, USC professor of military science and commander of the battalion.
“We advise behind the scenes … let the MS4s do all of the activities.”
Day 1: Hiking at Camp Pendleton, in the dark
Around 35 ROTC cadets from CSULB and UCI met up on campus Friday at around 3:30 a.m. Most seemed awake while they waited for the bus to pick them up.
They joked around with each other, made last minute stops to the bathroom and double-checked their belongings.
Elliott Dill, a tall and slender CSULB student and MS3, started his rotation as company commander. He paced back and forth between cadets, trying to get the situation organized while making sure he went through all the necessary commanding steps. Meanwhile, MS4s were in the background eyeing his every move to make sure he was on track.
Once the bus arrived, Dill verified the number of cadets present and advised them on what to watch out for, such as poison oak. He also explained the plan for the day.
Once everyone was accounted for, the bus took off for Camp Pendleton and, despite a bit of rain, arrived in less than two hours.
At the barracks, cadets met up with those from USC and CSU Dominguez Hills, who arrived a bit earlier. They rushed into formation so the MS4s and military instructors could make sure everyone was present.
After cadets ate their breakfast, they were taken to a designated field where MS1, 2 and 3 cadets would perform their first task of the weekend, day field navigation.
It’s an exercise meant to test a cadet’s knowledge of navigating through areas with an old-school GPS system — a compass and map. Cadets were given a total of five hours to search for eight points within a two-mile radius.
These points were flags that were either pinned to the ground in flat areas or on a pole in fields with high grass and vegetation. Before cadets started the exercise, they were given brief lessons on understanding the terrain, plotting check points, verifying that their compass worked and finding out what their pace count was to determine how many paces equal 100 meters.
Anthony Nguyen, a CSULB student and MS3, completed the exercise quickest, in two hours and 53 minutes.
Many cadets seemed tired as they steadily checked in to MS4s throughout the day. This is also when Do’s feet began hurt from the blisters.
But the land navigation exercise wasn’t over yet.
As soon as the cadres felt it was dark enough, the cadets went back into their groups and prepared for the night land navigation. Though they had only five points to find, the night’s darkness made it almost impossible to find any.
“Fifteen minutes into the night land navigation, my feet were hurting,” Do said. “It took us an hour to find our first point!”
Hannah Stryker, a USC graduate student and MS3, felt her land navigation skills were a bit rusty, which made it harder for her to find the points.
The darkness didn’t help.
“I thought to myself, ‘Thank God I have my compass because I have no direction of where I’m going!’ ” she recounted.
“It’s definitely an exercise on trusting yourself,” said George Fields, an MS4 CSULB student.
Cadets were given only three hours to complete the night land navigation, but only a few found all five. However, Nguyen proved once more that he could do it, with a perfect score and the fastest time.
Afterward, cadets got back to their barracks and cleaned off the mud and sweat from the day’s events. At midnight, “lights out” was declared and the rooms went black.
Day 2: Rifle training, obstacle course and military grub
Cadets began Saturday morning with a 5 a.m. wake-up call to get dressed, eat and take care of any other business. By 7 a.m., cadets split into two groups for “basic rifle marksmanship” training and the Field Leadership Reaction Course.
The rifle exercise taught cadets how to assemble and disassemble an M16 A2 rifle. Cadets also learned how to shoot at a non-moving target 25 meters away.
In order for cadets to qualify for marksmanship, they would have to shoot 26 out of 40 bullets within the target in three different positions: laying on their stomachs with two sandbags supporting the weight of the rifle; on their stomachs without the sandbags’ support; and having the weight of the gun rest on their legs and arms as they kneeled.
During the rifle exercise, cadres emphasized the importance of shooting at the target and not pointing the weapon at others. Cadets wore helmets, glasses and earplugs to ensure that the bang of the blast and the shells would not deafen nor injure others.
The reaction course was made up of six different timed courses meant to determine the effectiveness of each cadet’s leadership and teamwork skills.
Do said that she enjoyed the reaction course the best.
“I like teamwork,” she said. “So, I was looking forward to group tasks.”
Though Do is petite in size and couldn’t carry heavy items in the obstacle course, her group members took advantage of her weight and carried her in one of the obstacle courses.
All cadets were back at the barracks by sundown, when they were treated to MREs packages — short for Meal, Ready-to-Eat — that consisted of dehydrated food, powdered drinks and snacks.
“Back then when I first tried it, I was like, ‘Man, this tastes all the same! … everything is soupy!’ ” said Elliette Ortiz, a CSULB student and MS2.
Now, with an acquired taste, Ortiz has come to like the beef roast with vegetables.
However, she echoed a common warning that other cadets gave, “Never eat the breakfast ones.”
Day 3: Cadet’s blisters burst and bleed through boot, during Ranger Challenge
With only a day left at Camp Pendleton, many cadets shared their plans for the evening. However, there were still a few exercises left to do.
Cadets participating in the Ranger Challenge were awakened at 4:30 a.m. and hurried to prepare for a six-mile hike they voluntarily signed up for. Once cadets got in uniform and stuffed their rucksack with mandatory equipment, they met with their groups outside the barracks.
Two groups competed in the challenge — USC and CSULB. Each group of about a dozen cadets hiked up a hillside for three miles, and three miles back.
Cadets were on alert for the first half of the trip because of a lack of light, and had to rely on each other to avoid any loose rocks or branches sticking out from the edges.
Throughout the hike, group leaders cheered the others on and made sure no one fell behind. By the second half of the trail, it was evident that the extra weight from the rucksacks, the uneven trail and the blisters from the days prior were taking a heavy toll on the cadets.
Some cadets began to lag behind the rest of the team. Others’ legs were so weak that any loose rock put them off balance.
Jessica Roddy, an MS3 of USC, hiked with CSULB because she didn’t make the cut according to USC standards. Her blisters from the days before had burst during the hike, and later it stained the outside of her boot.
Though her teammates thought she would not make it to the finish line, they still encouraged her and hiked by her side.
“The team really helped me out. … I didn’t want to let them down,” she said.
USC kept a constant lead, but CSULB was not far behind. At the end of the hike, both teams successfully finished, but there was still another part of the Ranger Challenge that needed to be completed.
Each member had to present certain items they had in their rucksack, including wet gear, hygienic items and extra undergarments, while team leaders from the other group checked them off the list.
The purpose of having these items came from the idea that when soldiers are out in the field for a long period of time, they would need to have the proper equipment to take care of themselves.
If cadets didn’t have the proper items, the team was penalized with 30 seconds added to their total time. In the end, two CSULB students missed an item each, while USC only had one cadet forget an item, giving USC about a 10-minute lead and making them the winners of the Ranger Challenge.
Sophearun Kou, a CSULB student and MS4, joined the group at the last minute and felt that his performance wasn’t what he would have liked it to be.
“I could have done better,” Kou said. “It’s more of trying to maintain a pace … a faster pace.”
After cadets finished their hike, they joined the rest of the battalion in the weekend’s final exercise: giving medical help to wounded soldiers.
The medevac (medical evacuation) station, led by a cadre, instructed cadets on how to get a patient to the hospital via helicopter.
Cadets were later placed into groups and competed against the clock and each other to see who had the fastest time of evaluating a casualty and rushing a wounded soldier to a location pick-up site. At the same time, they practiced protecting the casualty against enemy fire.
Cadets ended their weekend training with a ceremony awarding those who showed superiority and qualifications in a variety of different skills. Three cadets, including one from CSULB, were sworn in and signed their contracts with the U.S. Army.
By 1 p.m., all cadets were settled in their seats, rucksacks packed and underneath the bus, and ready to go home to a hot meal and shower.
Many talked about plans of partying or studying. Still, many more continued their conversations of stress and excitement that the weekend brought.
Stryker said the Army offers a lot to its soldiers, despite the arduous work that comes along with it.
She said, “It’s definitely a love-hate relationship.”