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School of Hard Knox: Army ROTC Cadet Summer Training

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 42

Photos by Tom Marshall and U.S. Army Cadet Command

Students Trade Backpacks for Rucksacks During Army ROTC Cadet Summer Training

In the summer of 1915, Major General Leonard Wood (a familiar name to readers in central Missouri) instituted a military training program called the Citizens Military Training Corps — colloquially known as the “Plattsburg Idea” for the program’s pilot location in Plattsburg, New York. The CMTC provided a four-week course of military education to civilians who, upon completion, would be commissioned as reserve officers. Two years later, on the brink of our nation’s entry into World War I, the program had produced more than 17,000 trained military officers. In fact, one of the earliest graduates from the original Plattsburgh program was Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

This baptism by fire proved the need to maintain a well-trained, well-educated corps of military officers that could be drawn from the nation’s universities. That small summer training camp would go on to take shape as the Reserve Officer Training Corps — ROTC, in common vernacular. ROTC is a comprehensive two- to four-year program that includes academic courses in military science and extracurricular training led by professors of military science and other on-campus cadre. This training and education is in addition to the students’ regular academic schedule throughout the school year.

Drill and Ceremonies practice helps instill unit cohesion, weapons handling, and decisiveness of movement.

Drill and Ceremonies practice helps instill unit cohesion, weapons handling, and decisiveness of movement.

While their peers are enjoying beach parties and menial seasonal jobs, students in the Army’s ROTC program continue their training in true homage to the Plattsburgh Idea, during Cadet Summer Training (CST). CST is a comprehensive term, encompassing several different programs that allow ROTC cadets to shadow lieutenants in active-duty units, attend advanced qualification training like airborne or air assault schools, travel overseas for immersive cultural learning, or even complete internships with other local, state, and federal agencies. But the backbone of CST, and of the ROTC experience as a whole, are two 31-day training programs held annually at Fort Knox, Kentucky — Basic Camp and Advanced Camp.

While advanced camp is a requirement for successful completion of ROTC, basic camp is a sort of “booster program” for those cadets without any prior exposure to military life. As stated, both programs are built around a 31-day format. RECOIL was given the chance to observe and participate in some of the training that basic and advanced camp cadets go through. We also had an opportunity to speak with several of the training cadre and the head honcho of the entire U.S. Army Cadet Command.

Faculty and Staff

At time of writing, the 2018 Basic and Advanced camp programs pushed a total of 8,441 cadets through their respective monthlong curricula. These cadets, and their trainers, hailed from each and every one of the Army’s 274 separate ROTC programs spread out across colleges and universities in all 50 states. The trainers are pulled from their school-year jobs as military science professors to go out in the fields of Fort Knox as teachers and mentors. They single-handedly simulate multiple layers of military command structure, assess cadets’ performance of assigned leadership tasks, and guide the opposing force (OPFOR) soldiers on how to best provide simulated enemy resistance that’s realistic, while still affording the cadets a chance to struggle through mistakes and growing pains.

Cadre and student leadership receive a mission brief prior to their FTX.

Cadre and student leadership receive a mission brief prior to their FTX.

Those OPFOR soldiers are active-duty enlisted soldiers from around the Army, most of whom have experienced actual combat against real-world enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. They take the same insurgent tactics used against them and put them to work against the young leaders-in-training. What was particularly astonishing to us was that these teams of trainers and planners, known as committees, have a whopping 10 days to fly to Fort Knox from their home station, meet each other, write the framework for all the training missions, develop the learning objectives and grading criteria for each mission, and proof the missions to a panel of colonels and generals who decide if the committee has put together a training package that’s effective and repeatable across the multiple iterations of basic and advanced camp cadets whom they’ll train throughout the summer. By the numbers, CST is the single largest training event in the entire U.S. Army.

School’s Out(side) for Summer

We tagged along on a couple of different events: a field training exercise mission, a 6-mile ruck march, and a visit to branch orientation day. Of the 31 day program, 21 are spent in the field. If you’ve never had the pleasure of military field training, imagine living in the woods with no electricity, running water, or hard shelter. All your meals come from vacuum-sealed bags. Your only protection from the elements is a poncho strung over a length of rope. You have one, maybe two, sets of clean clothes to get you through a week. Showering consists of wiping yourself down with baby wipes in the dark. Then there’s the mosquitos and the guys hunting you…

The field training exercise, typically abbreviated as FTX, is probably what most people imagine when they think of military training — a bunch of trainees covered in camouflage greasepaint, burdened with loaded rucksacks and rifles or belt-felt machine guns, creeping through the woods waiting to shoot or get shot — by blanks, of course. There are six separate scenarios that cadets must be graded on. Missions such as area defense, ambush, movement-to-contact, and target reconnaissance reinforce the various tactical skillsets that are required of Army leaders.

Cadets lay in wait for the opposing force (OPFOR) during their area defense exercise.

Cadets lay in wait for the opposing force (OPFOR) during their area defense exercise.

The FTX we witnessed was a defense of a hilltop clearing against insurgent forces. The observer/controllers on the ground alongside the cadets have the flexibility to change the scenario along the way by, say, designating casualties among the cadets as the mission unfolds. They can scale up or down the opposing force response. They can also deny or delay requests for assets like indirect fire or air support. We witnessed the cadet platoon take a casualty and work their way through a standard call-for-medevac procedure. Each cadet must rotate through a leadership position within the platoon at some point during the multiple FTX missions. When in one of these positions, they’re graded on things like tactical proficiency, leadership ability, communications and reporting, and poise under pressure.

But even when not living in the field, that doesn’t mean they get to sit inside. In fact, we accompanied a Regiment of Basic Camp cadets on a 6-mile road march that stepped off bright and early (or, at least early …) at 0100 hours sharp. Advanced Camp cadets complete 4-, 6-, 8-, and 12-mile marches with time standards during their month-long training. The Basic Camp march we joined was a pass/fail endurance event. Cadets march with a 35-pound rucksack plus their weapon. In addition to the physical conditioning component, marches are a way for cadets to practice proper spacing intervals, which translates directly to dismounted combat patrols. It also gives them a chance to speak with cadre members who march with them about life in the Army, potential career paths, and leadership lessons.

After a quick shower and short nap back at the hotel, we were back on post for branch orientation. Much like choosing a major in their academic lives, these cadets must decide which branch, or career field, they wish to pursue in the Army. Orientation provides the opportunity for students to speak with officers who serve in every community in the Army, from quartermaster to chemical corps to special operations. Cadets can hear first-hand what a full-life career path would look like in that particular field, as well as what their actual day-to-day duties would be as a young lieutenant. Despite some popular misconceptions, the life of a junior officer in aviation isn’t the same as for one in the infantry.

Night ruck marches build a number of skills for new cadets, including movement, light and noise discipline, and physical endurance.

Night ruck marches build a number of skills for new cadets, including movement, light and noise discipline, and physical endurance.

It’s also a chance for cadets to learn how the Army is changing, and how those changes may impact their lives and careers. For example, we learned that air defense artillery, a branch we long knew to be a slowly dying dinosaur, is in the process of its largest ramp-up in decades, with a goal to recruit more ADA soldiers in the next 12 to 24 months than are currently serving in the entire Army. Branch orientation, by the way, isn’t in an air-conditioned auditorium with mind-numbing slide shows. This was a thoroughly hands-on event with cadets walking up and down rows of tents, climbing up and down armored vehicles and artillery pieces, and even peeking inside the cockpit of an MH-6 Little Bird helicopter.

A Trip to the Principal’s Office

As a capstone on our time at CST, we were given the opportunity to speak with Major General John Evans, the Commanding General of Cadet Command. We had a brief but poignant conversation with the general about summer training, and about the future generations that he’s now responsible for molding into effective military leaders.

RECOIL: What’s the most rewarding thing about leading Cadet Command? What’s the most challenging?
MG Evans: I believe the most rewarding thing is working with the future leadership of the Army. As you navigate your career in the Army, you get to work with different sub-groups of people. Here at Cadet Command, I get to see our future lieutenants in their training environment. As these young cadets are maturing, you get to see the excitement in what they do … I think the most challenging portion of it is trying to stay relevant with the new generation of youngsters that are out there. I’m 52, so most of these kids could easily be my own. My kids are younger than them, so I don’t really have a good reference point for what today’s college student is thinking about, other than what they teach me … and I’m impressed with them. The millenials get a bit of a bad rap, I think.

During branch orientation, cadets speak to representatives from every branch of the Army and go hands on with key pieces of equipment from their branch — in this case, and M1 Abrams tank courtesy of Armor Branch.

During branch orientation, cadets speak to representatives from every branch of the Army and go hands on with key pieces of equipment from their branch — in this case, and M1 Abrams tank courtesy of Armor Branch.

What do you see as the most daunting obstacle for prospective officers to overcome as they begin to finalize their transition from college student to Army lieutenant?
MG Evans: I don’t believe the nature of warfare has changed. I think it’s still very much basically a human endeavor. But the aspects, the technology, the speed of warfare has changed perceptibly … the speed of information, the way that technology has enabled and empowered everyone. We’ve taken our relative position of advantage from a technological perspective, and we’re now starting to see people reaching parity or near-parity with us … We’ve relied on technological overmatch and superior leadership. I think we still have superior leadership. That’s our business here at Cadet Command. But that technology overmatch is starting to be closed. So we have got to continue to find ways to make sure our officer corps is prepared to be more agile, more responsive, more flexible, and really better equipped than my generation was as we came up.

What place does CST have in the overall development of a prospective officer? For example, is the goal to teach individual tactical skills, small-unit command and control, unit administration/logistics, pre-branch preparation, etc.?
MG Evans: What we’re trying to achieve with CST is the tactical competency piece. What we’re trying to do in all instances across the Army, not just here at Cadet Command, but also at the academy and certainly at basic combat training for our new enlistees, is we’re trying to set a rigorous baseline of what combat will be like on the battlefield if you find yourself there. Whereas in the past as we dealt with very linear battlefields where you could stack things in depth, maybe you didn’t have to worry about people who were in the rear area being the best shooters or the best communicators or even in the best physical shape. On the future battlefield, those linear boundaries are going to be mixed and matched, and it’s very possible that someone who might otherwise be considered in the rear area in a support function could find themselves very quickly in a combat situation.

During our visit to Branch Orientation day, we were lucky enough to spot this Little Bird, courtesy of officer representatives from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

During our visit to Branch Orientation day, we were lucky enough to spot this Little Bird, courtesy of officer representatives from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

Has the intense presence of social media in college life presented any challenges to the command and how it deals with cadets? Is OPSEC/PERSEC/INFOSEC or “digital footprint management” addressed at all before these students go out into the force?
MG Evans: Today’s cadets are much more knowledgeable and agile in that space. So they tend to have a better awareness than those of us who experienced it in its nascent phase, as it was growing. But there’s still risk there for them. They still have to understand that some of the things they can do in the social space right now as a college student, they will not be able to do as an Army officer … If there’s anything I think we can say with certainty, it is we will only see a refinement of our enemies’ ability to target us based on our social presence. So the more social presence you build in the here and now, and the less responsible you are with that social presence, the easier you will be to target down the road. So they’ve got to think ahead as they’re out there. People are finding ways to aggregate that data and draw out trends, draw out things that will lead them to operational weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We’ve got to educate our force about that … our chief of staff is very fond of saying, particularly on the battlefield, if you’re pushing power or emitting, you can be seen. If you can be seen, you can be targeted. If you can be targeted, you can be hit and killed. So we’ve got to think in those terms. Even when we’re not in an open warfare contested domain …

Do you have a message for our readers?
MG Evans: We still need people who want to serve selflessly in our nation … we need young men and women of integrity to serve in the United States Army. We’re looking for them every day. There are people out there who don’t believe that service is important. Frankly, I think that’s misguided. There are people out there who choose to serve differently. First responders or people in the Peace Corps, whatever the case may be, and I think that’s admirable. But at the end of the day we certainly need people to serve in our nation’s defense. So I would say to your readers, pass the message along. Ask them to ask the question about ROTC at their colleges and universities.

In a world that shows no signs of becoming safer or more secure, we couldn’t agree more.

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