By Kristin Molinaro, The BayonetNovember 20, 2009
FORT BENNING, Ga. - Rustling leaves and snapping twigs was what gave away the squad of Soldiers moving through the forest. It was just enough warning for the two Soldiers posing as members of a terrorist bomb-making cell to take cover behind trees and prepare for the attack.
The squad of "Thundercats," Soldiers with 1st Platoon, E Company, 3rd Battalion (Officer Candidate School), 11th Infantry Regiment, swept around the enemy encampment toward higher ground and quickly grouped into an ambush pattern for the assault.
Yellow smoke signaled the attack. Within minutes, the squad disabled both terrorists and confiscated their weapons and bomb-making equipment without suffering one casualty. The mission was a success, but success of the mission is not the only thing these Soldiers were being evaluated on.
"These aren't templated, cookie-cutter missions," said CPT David Niederauer, company commander. "Their tactics will be very rough in some areas. But what we are truly getting after is what decisions the squad leaders are making and do they make sense. Is the decision fundamentally and doctrinally sound based upon what these Soldiers have learned'"
The Soldiers are all senior officer candidates in their ninth week of training.
Friday through Wednesday the Soldiers were out at McBride's Bridge Training Area for Field Leadership Exercise 2, a culmination of the tactics and techniques they've learned for leading fire teams and squad-sized elements into combat. Each squad was given half an hour to plan each mission and an hour to execute it successfully.
The candidates, all of whom graduated to senior candidate status after week seven, conducted nearly 30 missions during the six-day exercise.
In most of the missions, squads carried out deliberate attacks, movements to contact and ambushes, Niederauer said.
One mission that differed from the rest involved the recovery of a downed pilot in the middle of the forest. The scenario involved a downed coalition aircraft that both the enemy and U.S. forces were trying to locate.
"It's a race against the clock to secure it and get the pilot out," Niederauer said.
But the most surprising part of the mission is that a real aircraft exists.
"Candidates are expecting a mock-up, but no, it's a real F-9F Navy jet with a mannequin inside," Niederauer said.
"I half expected to see something jerry-rigged to look like a plane," said SOC Andrew Cassidy, a former Infantryman from the 82nd Airborne Division.
Cassidy's squad took heavy casualties in the fourth day of the exercise but he said it brought out the best in the candidates.
"Everyone relies on everyone out here," he said. "It's a total team and there's no room for showboats."
SOC Shawn Pierce said he anticipated encountering some sort of aircraft on the mission but finding a jet made the mission a lot more real.
"It's very realistic," he said. "Even though we're firing blank (ammunition), the atmosphere, the terrain and the attitude are of someone going into combat."
Pierce said the training challenged him.
"My mission as a team member or squad leader is to make sure every Soldier on my team makes it home, so if we take a casualty during a scenario, I think about what I would do if that happened in real life," Pierce said. "It's given me more motivation to watch out for everyone and lead with confidence."
After completing military history and the officer professional development phase, the senior officer candidates graduate Dec. 10.