For this story, Tribune reporter Leah Todd accompanied Army ROTC to its weekend of Field Training Exercises at Fort McCoy Military base in Fort McCoy, Wis. Todd was embedded with Squad One from Alpha Company’s 1st Platoon from April 27 to 29.
The cadets were early, and I was late. Typical. Typical Army, typical me.
My squad is huddled around the charter bus, waiting for my arrival. Their faces are blurs to me, floating in a sea of camouflage army greens. We decide to leave the name-learning thing for later, so we file onto the bus.
Cadet Catherine Gregory — a freshman political science major from New York who wants to practice law in the army — briefs me on some lingo during the three-hour bus ride to Fort McCoy.
“We’re squad one,” she says. “There are two or three squads to a platoon, two platoons to a company and two companies — Alpha and Bravo — to our Battalion.“
I notice the flags on their uniforms are backwards, and ask why. Gregory tells me it’s like the flag is flying behind them, as they move forward. I learn that cadets are titled by their year in the Military Science (MS) program: freshmen are MS1s, seniors are MS4s. Squad One is entirely composed of freshmen and sophomores. Seniors plan the weekend and juniors are off doing their own, more intense training.
Some people on the bus study or snooze or quietly peruse maps of Fort McCoy, but there’s chatter, laughter and a general feeling of excitement. The three hours pass quickly.
“Hey, dude,” a cadet hollers. “Why are you cleaning your ACUs?” (ACU: Army combat uniform. They’re pretty much meant to get dirty.)
“Because,” the other cadet responds, carefully scrubbing a spot of dirt the size of a quarter near his knee. “We haven’t even been here a half hour, and they’re dirty!”
We have arrived.
Fort McCoy is a 60,000-acre military base that trained more than 130,000 military personnel in 2011. There’s a bowling alley in the Community Center, more chapels per capita than in most cities and a handful of identical-looking dining facilities. Hundreds of uniformly constructed rectangular Army barracks line the roads. Fort McCoy’s military history is immense; the Wisconsin base was the largest internment facility for detained Japanese prisoners of war during World War II.
Right away, the cadets had assembled themselves in formation in an open field near the buses. Cadet Carrie Rice, a sophomore nursing major who is Squad One’s platoon commander, stood at the front of the squad. Rucksacks were lined up in parallel lines as cadets stood at attention.
Now, the cadets just received orders to break down into groups of two or three for their first exercise: land navigation. Their mission? Track down eight bright yellow poles in Fort McCoy’s hilly forest with only a compass, protractor and map.
My small team is made up of Cadets Tyler Hines, Frank Wychgram and Grant Kaske. Kaske, an MS1 who joins our group from another squad, wears bold black DKNY glasses. He holds his map in his left hand.
“So,” Kaske asks. “Where are we?” (That seems to me like a good enough place to start.)
Hines — who is blond and had done this land navigation thing once before — explains. “We’ll have a master map – this plotting is just practice for you guys,” he said. “You guys ready for our first (coordinate) point? 89, 67 and your points are 63, 34…”
The rest of the cadets plot coordinates, spin protractors. An MS4 patrolling the group opens his canteen and pours water down the trousers of an MS1, whose uniform had flapped open to expose some lower back. The cadet jumps up.
“At any moment, tuck your shirt in,” the MS4 says. “That’s all I ask.”
“Hooah,” the freshman cadet responds. “Thank you.”
A few minutes pass.
“Right,” Hines says, standing up. “You guys good? Like what’s-his-name said, we’ll stay on the trails.”
Kaske and Wychgram pack up, too. Wychgram is tall; he special-ordered his size 14 combat boots. In a few weeks, Kaske and Wychgram will leave for more training at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. It’s hot at Fort Benning in the summer, I hear. As Wychgram said, “Every other base is a cupcake compared to Fort Benning in the summer.”
The group sets off on their land navigation mission, heading west.
In real Army situations, land navigation is used all the time, Kaske tells me. “It’s important for everything,” he says. “You can’t do anything until you know exactly where you are so you know how to get where you’re supposed to be.” Usually the Army uses GPS systems, but each soldier is responsible for knowing how to determine location manually if necessary.
Two female cadets pass us shortly after we find our first point in some thick vegetation.
“We’ve got two, no big deal,” the girl on the left says. “Good luck, boys!” She offers a wave over her left shoulder as she and her partner jog away.
Rest. Check the map. Wychgram: “I don’t know how you guys get the direction right away. Like, ‘northeast’ and ‘southwest’ and stuff.”
Kaske jumps in, pointing to his compass and moving his finger clockwise around the dial: “Never, Eat—”
“—Soggy, Waffles,” Wychgram finishes. “I know. But—”
Hines interjects: “Let’s do a little classroom session right here.”
The boys kneel and together review the process of determining direction from a map and compass.
There’s a spirit of camaraderie and support in this group, and in Army ROTC in general. Like Hines said to me, “This isn’t a competition.” Kaske agreed, saying, “This is just to learn.” Cadets immediately offer to help each other. There was intensity in the way the boys focused while they read their compasses — which happened a lot — or consulted their maps any time we were lost or turned around — which also happened a lot.
After three hours of trekking through brambles and thorn patches and over ditches and hills, we manage to locate all eight points.
I check the time and tell the boys that if I were back at Marquette, I’d just be getting out of Bio.
“Most people here are just normal people like you’d see in your Biology class,” Hines says.
The constant transition between everyday college life and this life in Army ROTC seems like a difficult one, I say.
“I think that transition has gotten easier,” Kaske says. “At first, I felt like two different people at ROTC and in everyday life. But the more you get to know people here and the more friendships you make, the more you realize they’re real people.”
Mealtime, Friday afternoon. Cadets tear open brown plastic bags — airtight and sealed on both ends — to get at the food inside. These are MREs: Meals Ready-to-Eat.
Cadet Ben Mundinger, a member of Squad One and a freshman at Concordia who drives from Mequon to Marquette for physical training three times a week, helps me open my MRE as he snacks on his own packet of liquefied blueberry cobbler. The MRE package reads, “Warfighter Recommended, Warfighter Tested, Warfighter Approved.” It makes the whole thing sound more intense than it actually is.
Inside, I find a dizzying array of brown freeze-dried pouches: a vegetable lasagna main course, a tube of peanut butter, a lemon poppy seed muffin top, utensils, the tiniest bottle of Tabasco sauce I’ve ever seen and finally a pouch marked ‘wheat snack bread.’
Mundinger sees my lemon poppy seed muffin and says, “Pound cake’s amazing. Whatever kind you get, it’s good.”
I slide my vegetable lasagna pouch into the MRE heater, a thin plastic bag full of a powdered chemical cocktail — including iron, magnesium and sodium — ready to react with the quarter-cup of water I’ll pour in next to create lots of heat and sizzling smoke. Twelve minutes later, my main course is hot and ready.
I actually hesitate, wary of all the magnesium smoke and chemicals that just pervaded the vegetable lasagna I am about to eat.
Someone nearby compares the process to how factories make Velveeta cheese. I love Velveeta.
I dig in.
Exhausted, I sit on a school bus with Squad One after the first day of Field Training Exercises. Cadets Alyse Gooderham and Katie Bronell and I just finished the second exercise of the day: three hours of nighttime land navigation. We did everything we’d done during the daytime navigation — fighting through waist-high thorn bushes and dodging massive, larvae-filled caterpillar cocoons to locate those yellow posts — but in the pitch black darkness of night.
I’m talking with Brandon Rickard, an MS4 sitting in the seat behind me. He’s Marquette’s Battalion Commander, the highest student rank possible in Army ROTC.
“(As an MS4,) you take this much more seriously and try to get as much out of it as you can,” says Rickard, a criminology major.
“The biggest challenge for me in ROTC is the balance between college life and ROTC life,” Rickard says. “Everybody else gets to go out on Thursdays and wake up late, but not us.”
But the friendships he’s made in Army ROTC have made all the difference for him.
“It’s hard to explain,” Rickard says. “It’s a bond more than anything, when you live with each other and go through the same tough things.”
This summer, Rickard will travel to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, for more training. The two of us chuckle a minute about the irony of this situation; training in the Texas heat will be anything but blissful.
Rickard says he tries not to think about the fact that one day he might be holding a loaded M16, staring at another human being, and be ordered to shoot. “If you think about it too much, you’ll freak yourself out,” he says. “I try not to think about the reality of it. That’s the only way to get through it.”
In the female barracks, cadets pass around lotions and chapstick, applying both heavily. “Anything to make this a more comfortable experience,” says Cadet Alicia Towne, a sophomore nursing major and squad leader of Squad One.
It’s nearing 2400 — that’s midnight, pretty late for someone who’s been up since 5 a.m. — and Cadet Rice is briefing the cadets on the schedule for tonight’s Fire Guard, where one cadet stands watch over her sleeping comrades for a 50-minute shift.
“Do whatever you can to stay awake,” Rice says, nodding emphatically. “Do sit-ups, push-ups, clean, whatever. Nicely wake up the next person on the list.”
I’m thankful I was spared from the duty list, because I am asleep within minutes after the lights are flicked off.
Earlier in the week, I sat down with Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kaderavek, professor of military science & leadership in Army ROTC. He has been the head of Marquette Army ROTC’s chain of command since May 2009, and said the post has been the most rewarding experience—both personally and professionally—he has ever had in the Army.
“I’ve sincerely enjoyed everything I’ve done here,” Kaderavek said. “I’ve enjoyed the Marquette community, the cadets, my job.”
Under Kaderavek’s command, 111 Army ROTC cadets participate in the Military Science program. 79 are Marquette students, 19 attend UW-Milwaukee and the rest hail from MSOE, Concordia, UW-Parkside and Carroll College. According to Kaderavek, ROTC scholarships produce about $4 million in tuition revenue for Marquette.
Kaderavek grew up in Cross Plains, Wis., and said his decision to join the military was simply the most “interesting” option he had after high school.
“My mother saw a commercial on TV for West Point,” Kaderavek said. “She asked if I was interested and I said ‘Hm, I don’t know.’ My mother told me that back in fourth grade one of my teachers had said I reminded her of a little general. She said, ‘Maybe you’ve got an aptitude for leading.’” Kaderavek said he entered his training at West Point with little idea of what he was getting himself into.
In Kaderavek’s experience, the attitude toward ROTC on Marquette’s Catholic campus has been generally “accommodating and welcoming.” Kaderavek said he has never had to deal with any opposition to Army ROTC’s presence at a Catholic institution—which, according to the Roman Catholic doctrines of Catholic social teaching, should be committed to preventing and solving conflicts by nonviolent means.
Debates protesting the presence of a military science program have been perennial on Marquette’s campus, but University administrators have rarely directly addressed dissent.
Kaderavek acknowledged that Army ROTC may not be exactly in line with Catholic social teaching, but said he thinks ROTC is a positive force on campus, nonetheless. He said that no program on campus aligns more closely with Marquette’s four pillars: Excellence, Faith, Leadership and Service.
“Our nation requires leaders,” Kaderavek said. “The Army is going to produce officers from somewhere. Why not have them be ingrained with the four pillars of Marquette?”
“Good morning, ladies.”
“Good morning, Master Sergeant.” (Except it sounds more like “Mass’r Sarnt” because it’s said so quickly.)
Lights are on. It’s 5:30 a.m.
I remember with a grimace that I was too tired last night to brush my teeth.
Rice calls out orders for the morning: “We’re heading out at zero-six-hundred, so let’s hustle, ladies. Top off your water here, and obviously bring your M16 with you everywhere you go. Hooah?”
A note here about this word, Hooah. It’s a general grunt with many meanings and everyone in the Army says it. There’s the ‘I’m so excited about this drill’ Hooah. There’s the ‘Get it?’ Hooah, the ‘Yes, Sir’ Hooah, and even the ‘I don’t want to be here but I’ll say it anyway’ Hooah. Cadets say they sometimes have the urge to respond with ‘Hooah’ in class, and some cadets admit to loving this word a little too much.
Nonetheless, the chorus of female voices in the barracks unanimously responds to Rice’s orders — “Hooah” — and soon we are loading the busses to drive to the field for battle tactic training.
By the way, it is raining.
Standing in formation on an open field, Squad One is layered in Army-issue fleeces, Gore-Tex jackets and camouflage rain jackets. The rain is incessant, at times it hails. (Combat boots, as it turns out, are only sometimes waterproof.)
The squads are released and led to various places across the base to launch their day of battle tactic assessment. Four different missions, four different squad leaders. Squad One must achieve each objective for the day to be considered a success.
“Tango 1-6, this is Charlie 3-1. Over.”
“This is Charlie 3-1, go ahead. Over.”
“Requesting permission to cross the Limited Defense Area. Over.”
“Permission granted. Over.”
It’s battle tactic one — a recon mission — and Cadet Towne has taken the helm as squad leader.
The general idea of a recon mission is this: First, establish security by posting teams of two on all sides of your squad. Appoint four cadets as the “Recon Team” to venture ahead of the group in search of the objective — a person, object, perhaps a landmark. Then, it’s stealth, stealth, stealth as the recon team sneaks forward until they locate the objective and return to the rest of the squad, or until they come under attack.
Performing a squad attack is next, followed by the assignment to perform an ambush on an unassuming target. Phrases like “We have destroyed the enemy” and “We knocked out the bunker with one casualty,” are tossed around lightly, regularly. I wonder if in a real combat situation, the fact that real human lives are at stake will weigh heavier on their actions.
Sophomore cadets Rice and Wittkamper each take a turn as squad leaders; freshman Cadet Hines receives a surprise appointment to the position and handles it well — usually only sophomores function as squad leaders.
And all this in the rain. Pens stop writing on soggy paper, water puddles in hoods and on shoulders. Apparently it wouldn’t be spring FTX without abysmal weather. Multiple MS4s tell me horror stories of past spring FTXs; the past three years have seen snow, rain and colder rain, respectively.
Still, we are cold. A makeshift fort provides only some relief from the weather for a short lunch break. Hands curl around MRE heaters, cadets do jumping jacks to keep blood flowing.
Minutes before we begin our 6.2 mile trek back to the barracks, the rain stops.
I’ve saved half the M&Ms from my MRE at lunch, so I’m ready for this hike home.
“Alright, who else thinks they have clean stuff?”
An MS4 makes her rounds in the female barracks during Saturday night’s weapons cleaning exercise, inspecting M16s before cadets submit them to the scrutiny of the ROTC staff.
Country music blares as the cadets sit around empty pizza boxes and Pepsi bottles — the remnants of a particularly delicious dinner — scrubbing their M16s with Q-tips and paper towels. Cadets are in Physical Training uniforms, or “PTs”: flip-flops instead of combat boots, and Army-issue shorts and t-shirts rather than full combat get-up.
Fingers are black and grubby from carbon build-up in the M16s, but no one seems to care. The atmosphere is lighthearted — relief, I think, that we are no longer belly crawling through cold mud while being rained on.
Throughout the weekend, I asked cadets why they chose to be in Army ROTC. There were lots of answers: “I wanted to try something new”; “I’ve always known I wanted to be in the Army”; “The Army Nursing Corps is top-notch.” One cadet laughed and said, frankly, “I have no idea.” Others said they had to find a way to pay for college.
As long as there’s an ROTC program on campus, there will be powerful support and feverish opposition. From what I saw this weekend, these Army ROTC cadets hustle. They take orders without question. They make quick decisions when in leadership situations, and they don’t complain.
When we returned from Fort McCoy, Marquette’s Army ROTC Family Action Network (FAN) Club had prepped a huge meal for us in the Old Gym. The battalion stands in formation, and I recognize each face in my squad: Rice. Towne. Hines. Gregory. Gooderham. Kuzlik. Mundinger. Holt. Wychgram. Wittkamper. Their faces are no longer new, their names no longer foreign.
It feels just like a family banquet after a Little League baseball game — proud parents are dressed in blue and gold, a photo slideshow plays on a flat-screen TV and participants feel good about what they’ve done.
But instead of picking up baseball bats, these students — as Army dentists, nurses, lawyers and soldiers — will one day pick up dentistry tools, stethoscopes, legal pads and very large guns.
A note from the author: To the members of Marquette Army ROTC: I would like to thank each and every person who helped me survive this weekend. Specifically, thanks to Cadet Towne for the chocolate covered pretzels and all the Ibuprofen, Cadet Richmond for the flashlight, Cadet Dicker for lending eye goggles and Cadet Wobschall for her fleece jacket, without which I would not have survived the Saturday outside.