BROOKSVILLE – A small group of Army ROTC students walked slowly through the wilderness, their M-16 rifles cocked and ready to fire. The rattling of gunshots in the distance accompanied the crunch of twigs and leaves as the cadets, their eyes wide and their faces painted brown and green, lied down in the brush and scanned the forest for the enemy.
This squad of future soldiers was just a small portion of the 94 ROTC cadets that invaded Withlacoochee State Forest this weekend to conduct a Field Training Exercise, a series of various combat training routines.
The cadets, 11 of whom were Air Force cadets who tagged along to play the role of the enemy, spent the entire weekend training, arriving on Friday morning and leaving Sunday afternoon. They slept under the stars, didn’t shower and ate nothing but MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat).
“It kicks their ass,” said Army ROTC commander Col. Jackson Self, 43, who participated in the training. “I’m telling you what: Come 4 o’clock on Sunday, I’ll be taking a nap.”
Through the simulated battles – the M-16s and M-249 machine guns fired blanks – the cadets gained valuable experience for the Leadership Development Assessment Course (LDAC), a 32-day test held in Fort Lewis, Washington that tests a cadet’s leadership skills.
“It all builds up to LDAC,” Self said.
Only cadets between their junior and senior year participate, and their assessment determines where they will be placed after graduation.
This training is more than adequate preparation, according to Brian Byerly, a senior engineering major who took the LDAC last year.
“What we do here is a lot harder than what we do at LDAC,” he said. “It’s a big difference. You go from here to there, and you sort of wonder about other schools’ programs.”
Because the seniors already went through LDAC, they observed the training and critiqued the actions and decisions of the lower cadets, focusing on the juniors who will take the LDAC next summer.
“This is amazing training,” junior Joseph Fritz said. “They hold us to a higher standard here, so I’m not really that worried about (LDAC).”
Even though skies were blue and clear and temperatures hovered in the 70s during the day, nightfall brought near-freezing temperatures.
“I know they froze,” Self said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 43, it’s a chore when you’re laying there and you can see your breath and you’re like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be here.’ But you work your way through it. You’re like, ‘I got to do this.'”
Cadets slept in sleeping bags and used poncho liners to stay warm at night. They also wore gloves, thick field jackets and wool hats. Blisters were a common problem due to the long and constant marches through the woods carrying 15-pound guns and 25-pound rucksacks.
“It’s a good way to bond,” Self said. “It’s that shared hardship. You get these bug-eyed freshmen out here, and they’re willing to give it a shot. Once they go through it, it’s like a rite of passage.”
One first-timer said he’s looked forward to this since the beginning of the semester.
“You get a rush; it’s really cool,” Josh Conard said. “The most exciting part is firing the guns.”Held about 60 miles north of Tampa near Homosassa Springs, the training is the Army ROTC’s biggest event.
“It’s fun; it’s what we do; it’s different,” Self said. “It’s not a typical weekend for a college student.”