HOUGHTON, NY – As the Army says: “If it ain’t rainin’, we ain’t trainin’.”
During the third full weekend of October, Seneca Battalion ROTC conducted its annual fall FTX or Field Training Exercise at Houghton College, where cadets spent the weekend in nearly freezing temperatures and a heavy Friday night rainfall training to be combat leaders on the battlefield. Unlike previous years, when the FTX was held at St. Bonaventure University, this one was held in a remote area with treacherous terrain, adding to the complexity of the missions cadets undertook as part of training.
“This weekend was all about challenging the cadets,” said Lt. Col. Sean Coulter, professor of military science at St. Bonaventure University and commander of Seneca Battalion ROTC. “The terrain was challenging. The weather was challenging. The missions they went on were challenging. Some of these cadets had to work with others they had never met before. Training in that kind of environment makes them step up as leaders and work together as team.”
Coulter, who took the position of Seneca Battalion commander in late July, is an infantry officer with the highly coveted Ranger Tab, and knows exactly what he asked his cadets to do last weekend.
Starting around noon on Friday, cadets arrived at a staging area in the forests behind Houghton College and were quickly briefed and handed paintball guns. They had under an hour to organize themselves and step off into a tactical scenario lasting until Sunday morning, in which they hunted an elusive opposition force – OPFOR – made up of other cadets that had arrived before them.
All day Friday, cadets maneuvered through the training area, clearing specific checkpoints of enemy personnel given to them by a fictional commander. Moving in squad-sized elements and communicating with each other using radios, they coped with crossing heavy flowing streams and climbing steep, slippery slopes while maintaining tactical awareness, security, and movement formations. As darkness fell, the cadets returned to a simulated village where they took shelter for the night, taking turns sleeping while others stayed awake on security.
“They were carrying 70 pound rucks up and down hills all day, in a tactical scenario where they only put them down to fight,” Coulter said.
On Saturday, cadets moved out before the sun came up, searching for OPFOR squads attempting to move into the battlespace and cut off the village. They spent the morning in skirmishes at various weapons caches, encountering and ambushing OPFOR at key locations around the training area, before moving back to the village in the afternoon hours to conduct a KLE, or Key Leader Engagement, with the village elder.
When each squad arrived, it encountered a local police force, staffed by local college students carrying Nerf guns, who forced them to contend with a volatile armed force while trying to make contact with the key leader – a common occurrence overseas, especially in the urban centers of Iraq. High schoolers acting as unarmed villagers and an insurgent force added to the scenario and gave the squads more problems to contend with.
“Introducing a village and multiple civilian role players into the training adds an element that cadets will have to cope with in the near future at camp and as second lieutenant’s in the Army,” Coulter said.
Squads had to meet with the key leader in order to win the villagers’ support. If they did not, the villagers supported the OPFOR and allowed them to occupy the village once the Americans left.
As the sun began to set on Saturday, the squads combined to form a platoon and moved on the village in order to remove the OPFOR from it.
On Sunday, cadets conducted a complex land navigation course, requiring them to go out alone or in pairs instead of in squads as they had during the previous two days. They concluded the exercise and quickly cleaned up the area before heading home.
“Overall, I feel that the cadets did extremely well,” Coulter said. “They coped with adverse conditions in an austere training environment that many of them had not seen before. They came out highly motivated with new knowledge that they can apply to the rest of their training for future success.”
While the challenges of FTX were overcome by Seneca Battalion, far greater tests loom on the horizon.
Every summer, ROTC cadets travel to Fort Knox to participate in what is now known as Basic and Advanced Camp. Basic Camp is an Initial Entry Training of sorts, where cadets are taught basic soldier skills to a high degree of proficiency by subject matter experts – usually drill sergeants – and expected to execute them in a 10-day field training. Freshmen, sophomores, and people unsure if they want to make a commitment to the Army attend this Camp. Advanced Camp is a Capstone Event – a requirement for earning a commission in the US Army – and is about applying those skills as a leader and leading peers through a 14-day simulated war, in which cadets have to root out an insurgency while battling a conventional opposition force and coping with civilian role-players on the battlefield, who are more often than not working with the enemy.
“ROTC Advanced Camp is getting harder,” Coulter said. “It’s intended to not only test the cadets’ knowledge and skills learned during three years of ROTC, but to test their character under mentally and physically tough conditions We wanted to make [FTX] as tough as possible. The soldiers – America’s sons and daughters –they will lead in the future demand nothing less.”