USMA SLS Challenge
June 11, 2009
Bloody jeans, a pistol, shell casings and a knife were waiting in the U.S. Military Academy's Jefferson Hall last week for a group of high school students.
Someone killed Jesse James, and they had to figure out who.
A team of prosecutors had to sort through autopsy and ballistics reports, statements from investigators Kojak and Sherlock Holmes and prepare a case against their suspect-Pat Garrett.
All the while, defense attorneys tried to discredit evidence and witnesses to prove their client's innocence in front of a real Army lawyer wearing a judge's black robe.
Prosecuting, defending and testifying in such a high-profile trial-Garrett was acquitted, by the way-was only the beginning. The students had to escape from a prisoner of war camp, recover ammunition from a jungle under enemy fire, make batteries out of fruit, write software and build robots. They wrote legislation about expanding the military draft and doing away with the Electoral College. They learned to speak some Chinese and Arabic, how to use satellites and what philosophical gems can be found in the dimwitted but profound pop-culture icon Homer Simpson.
The students also participated in physical training, war fighter simulations and intramural sports. They lived in West Point's barracks and enjoyed Cadet Mess Hall fare. Sometimes, they got to sample the notorious Meals Ready to Eat while resting among trees, bugs and dirt after completing an obstacle course. They had accountability formations and went to bed after Taps.
In other words, they got to live like a USMA cadet.
About 1,000 rising seniors from around the country tried out the academy to see if it fits their post-high school education goals.
The students, split into groups of 500, completed one of two weeklong Summer Leaders Seminars held May 30-June 5 and June 6-Friday.
About 4,000 students applied to attend SLS. Students were selected based on their college entrance exam scores, grade point average and class rank.
Each student who completed SLS got to open an admissions file and begin applying to become part of the Corps of Cadets.
The students came to SLS for a few reasons. Many knew they wanted to serve in the military as officers but weren't sure which branch of service they wanted or which source of commissioning was right for them.
Others were mainly interested in a solid education and were on a quest for the college they felt would provide the best one.
But one thing most students had in common was being intimidated by West Point. They had visions of war movies and harsh drill sergeants.
"At first, I thought it would be too much hard work and not enough free time," Jack Worthington of Memphis, Tenn., said. "There isn't
Worthington admits he came to SLS because his parents wanted him to. But after a week of sampling USMA, he understood the wisdom behind his parents' plan.
"West Point is my first (college) choice, and it wasn't before," Worthington said five days into his SLS. "I thought it would be too difficult and I wouldn't fit in, but when you start to practice everything, it starts to feel normal."
The students experienced a couple of transformations in their week at West Point. They arrived as timid strangers and left as confident teams.
"It was amazing to see how quickly our squad came together," Frances McCloskey of Sierra Madre, Calif., said. "At first, it was awkward, and nobody really talked to each other. But once we started doing PT and all that, we really bonded. Now we don't really want to go anywhere without each other."
The squads-each led by a USMA cadet-learned the value of teamwork and solving problems together through many aspects of the SLS including a trip through the Leaders Reaction Course, a set of obstacle courses that are just as mentally challenging as they are physically challenging. Each LRC station consists of a puzzle, such as crossing imaginary booby traps and bodies of water with limited supplies and time.
The squads also were challenged with the daunting Confidence Course Marne, a giant obstacle course at Camp Buckner; a bayonet course and simulators, including the America's Army simulator often used by regular Army and Reserve recruiters to help civilians determine whether they are Army Strong.
Students also had their smarts exercised with several academic workshops designed to provide samples of the variety of majors and courses of study available at USMA. The workshops were taught by USMA faculty, who skillfully sneaked in some learning while dazzling students with hands-on lab sessions.
Some students learned how to turn vegetables into artillery in a physics workshop. But before they could fire a rocket-launcher designed to shoot potatoes, they had to learn how the contraption worked. As Col. Russell Lachance, a Dept. of Chemistry and Life Sciences instructor, showed the students how to aim for the target-a stuffed goat mascot of rival U.S. Naval Academy. He explained how a can of hair spray or deodorant can be fuel for combustion. Because the students were inside for the demonstration, they shot pieces of foam wrapped in duct tape-projectiles safer than clunky potatoes-to take out the goat foe.
Others walked among the fallen in the West Point Cemetery in a history workshop. They toured Revolutionary War sites and learned about strategies, equipment and weapons.
An English workshop was Worthington's favorite. He was expecting something with language exercises. Instead, he participated in a seminar about how American society hashes out philosophical quandaries through popular culture and what can be learned about the essentials of democracy-such as critical thinking, using reason and how to disagree in a constructive manner-from "Seinfeld," "Monty Python," "The Matrix" and other movies and television shows.
"The whole class was really interesting," he said.
The most interesting aspect of SLS for some students was seeing how USMA balanced discipline with having fun.
"I was worried it would be all uptight and military," Sarah Collins of Bellville, Ill., said. "But there are a lot of good people here. They have a drive and want to do good things. I admire the cadets. They are really sincere and have something they believe in, and I can respect that. They can goof off and have fun with us but still be in charge of us."
The cadets who led squads volunteered for the duty to practice leadership skills. They don't often get to lead civilians.
"This is my first real chance to lead," Cow (junior) Jeff Klug, who participated in SLS before coming to West Point, said. "It's really motivating. I'm hoarse from calling the cadences with them. I'll yell a chant, and they'll all yell it back. And seeing the candidates all bond, it's really motivating."