ROTC teaches military skills the fun way

By Damon Lowney

Daily Titan Asst. News Editor

A cadet fires his M4 in the kneeling position. The BRM exercise is used to familiarize cadets with rifles. Photo by Damon Lowney/Daily Titan Asst. News Editor

A cadet fires his M4 in the kneeling position. The BRM exercise is used to familiarize cadets with rifles. Photo by Damon Lowney/Daily Titan Asst. News Editor

The guide throughout my stay at Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, MS IV Cadet Kelvin Kwok, summed up my new and improved view of the military: “The military isn’t all about killing. We actually have a lot of fun too.”

The Field Training Exercise (FTX) is a once-a-semester, Friday through Sunday, weekend activity that Cal State Fullerton’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps’ hosts to introduce and refine skills that cadets will use when they are active duty Army officers. I was invited, and I attended the event from Friday night to Saturday night and experienced activities normally completed by ROTC’s cadets.

At the end of my stay, after five hours of sleep followed by miles of walking, scorching heat and painful blisters, one might question how I had fun during the FTX.

I have four words to answer that question: No pain, no gain.

I set out for Camp Pendleton in Oceanside Friday night after work so I could join in an activity called “night land navigation.” The activity relies and improves upon cadets’ combination of good planning, miles of walking and confidence.

The object of the exercise was to use a map, protractor and pre-measured pace count to find points that are scattered across miles of land.

Cadets learned how many steps they took at a normal walking pace in 100 meters. This pace count would be their tool for measuring distance between points according to their maps.

Cadets were to find at least three points or a maximum of five points and then report back to base camp within the time limit to pass the course. In order to pass, they could not lose any of their tools, such as red flashlights or protractors.

The cadets used red flashlights, Kwok said, because white light ruins night vision after eyes have adjusted to darkness.

Friday night wasn’t too dark, however. A full moon was out in mostly clear skies. Clouds would block the moon momentarily like a ripped blanket pulled over a flashlight.

Isolation is the name of the game during land navigation, so in addition to the darkness, cadets from the more experienced MS III class aren’t allowed to talk to anyone during land navigation, even if they are offering words of encouragement to other cadets. This is seen as a breach of integrity during an exercise that relies heavily on self-confidence.

“(Land navigation) challenges you mentally and physically,” Kwok said. He added that completing the land navigation without help is an example of Army integrity.

The cadet I was following for night land navigation was in the MS II class. He found two points that night with time to spare but did not continue on to the third because it is more important to make it back to base camp within the time limit than to find all the points.

After night land navigation, everyone walked or marched back to the barracks. We arrived by 11 p.m. Lights out was midnight so we had a bit of time to settle in to our bunks before sleeping.

But we didn’t get to sleep for long.

Wake up call was at 5:15 Saturday morning, and there was no yelling or banging on trash bins for motivation. They all woke up on their own and quietly pulled on their fatigues.

I walked with the group of cadets marching to the firing range to take their Basic Rifle Marksmanship exam. The other half were to complete the “day land navigation course.” In the afternoon, each group would switch activities.

I was in the group scheduled for the shooting range first, but the Marines didn’t show up, so we weren’t allowed to shoot.

Instead, I was to join a cadet in the day land navigation exercise.

Cadets rappelled from this tower. Some had to over come their fear of leaning back during the descent. Photo courtesy of Kelvin Kwok

Cadets rappelled from this tower. Some had to over come their fear of leaning back during the descent. Photo courtesy of Kelvin Kwok

Day land navigation follows the same rules as night land navigation except that cadets must find a minimum of five points in four-and-a-half hours or a maximum of eight. Kwok and I followed MS III cadet Regina Loxsom, a student at CSUF.

Clear skies prevailed through the exercise, with the sun beating down on Loxsom and Kwok’s army fatigues. I certainly had the cooler set of clothing with a pair of light pants and short-sleeve collared shirt.

At the beginning of the exercise, Loxsom was a bit hesitant to trust her planning and decisions. Kwok was there to give her advice if she needed it, but he couldn’t help her find her points. As she found more points and learned to trust her pace count, she was asking less questions of Kwok and started to do things her way.

On the way to her second point, her pace count was almost spot-on; we were only a few meters away from the trail that would have taken us to the next point.

Loxsom decided not to take the trail because it looked closed off from where we were standing. She decided to go around the bush and find high ground. We found the point this way, but it was the long way.

Kwok said that land navigation teaches people to think on their feet and not to second-guess themselves. Cadets learn to trust their pace count, as in Loxsom’s case, regardless of what the situation looks like.

Loxsom ended up finding three points in about two hours, which left her with two-and–half hours to find the last two. This wouldn’t be easy because we had a lot of ground to cover.

Camp Pendleton is massive. The drive from Oceanside to San Clemente gives a clue to the vastness of this plot of government land, but only by exploring it and seeing it from the inside can give it justice.

As Loxsom, Kwok and I traveled from point-to-point, the terrain was ever-changing. We traversed dirt roads surrounded by hills with charred vegetation and ash to rolling hills with unobstructed views and plants that only reached knee-level.

As Loxsom lead us to her last point, we came upon a crossroad. Should we take the long way around and stick to trails, or should we rely on Loxsom’s compass and map skills and blaze a trail straight to the point?

Thankfully, we picked the latter.

We descended a small hill into a batch of trees and plants 10 – 15 feet high, and we plowed straight through within 15 minutes, saving us much walking and time. It’s worth mentioning that all three of us enjoyed a great sense of accomplishment by not taking the beaten path.

Loxsom ended up finding five points and returning to base camp with plenty of time to spare. It’s a good thing she did because all MS III class cadets who didn’t find at least five points were ordered to complete another land navigation later that day.

MS I Cadet Devin Roth (front and center) leads a group in a march that took place on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Kelvin Kwok

MS I Cadet Devin Roth (front and center) leads a group in a march that took place on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Kelvin Kwok

The next activity planned for our group was to complete the Basic Rifle Marksmanship exercise.

“What the cadets are learning how to do (in BRM) is familiarize (themselves) with a weapon. They have supposedly never shot a rifle before,” said MS IV Cadet Ian Greven, the officer in charge of the BRM that day.

“Today they are shooting M4 carbines,” Greven said. “The ones they have today have no (scope); they just have regular iron sights.”

I was told we wouldn’t be shooting in the three-round burst mode, but we would be sticking to single shots. That didn’t bother me much.

“You want to shoot from a natural position. You don’t want to jerk the weapon at all,” MS II Cadet Devin L. Roth, a CSUF nursing major, said. “You try to keep as tight as you can,” he said. I would need to keep my elbows in and stay relaxed.

Roth told me that the targets we were shooting at were 25 meters away, but they had different silhouettes that would simulate the same target from 50 – 300 meters away.

In an ideal situation, there would be separate targets that pop up for a predetermined amount of time at actual distances ranging from 50 – 300 meters, said Cadet Nick Griepsona, battalion commander for CSUF ROTC. However, the program does not have the resources for that.

I was ready for target practice, but we had to wait for the group ahead of us to finish their BRM.

My experience with guns was limited to a bolt action .22-caliber rifle I used to shoot at summer camp. I knew it would be nothing like the semi-automatic M4 I was about to fire.

I figured there would be more recoil force, and I knew from listening to the other firing groups that the M4’s were definitely louder.

Some of the cadets in my group had never fired a gun, so as I walked up to the rifle I’d be using, I figured I would not be embarrassed by my abilities.

I was quickly taught the proper way to shoot the weapon prone and kneeling and then I proceeded to load the weapon.

I shoved the magazine into the gun and all that was left was to flip the safety from ‘on’ to ‘single-shot.’

I flipped the safety switch and got ready to fire the weapon, my index finger hovering over the trigger like a lion ready to pounce.

And then, “BAM!” A shock wave went through my body. I freaked out for a second because I had not pulled the trigger before realizing that the sound I heard and the force I felt was from another gun fired next to me.

I collected myself and got ready to pull the trigger. I fired most of my forty rounds into my target but about 10 of them were mistakenly fired at the wrong one. It wasn’t too bad because somebody else fired a few rounds into my target to even it out.

The last activity I attended was the barbecue that night, and I saw the cadets at ease after a hard days work. They spent their downtime before eating and practicing their skits, which were performed at the end of the night.

After I scarfed down my hot dog and hamburger, each class (MS I, MS II, MS III, MS IV) performed a skit where they made fun of each other, regardless of rank. After spending over a day with these cadets, I could already pick up on some of the inside jokes.

In my day experiencing the FTX, I felt like I had known the cadets involved for a lot longer than 24 hours and the drill sergeant harassing soldiers, like what I’ve seen in movies, was nonexistent.

MS I Cadet Rebekah Maxwell of Biola University must have been reading my mind when she said: “It hasn’t been that long, but it feels like family.”

About Damon Lowney