By Mike Strasser, West Point Public AffairsJune 17, 2010
WEST POINT, N.Y. (June 17, 2010) -- "We're going to be real busy today," the cadet platoon leader commented to his troops.
This was only minutes after an insurgent mortar and gunfire attack shook the combat outpost into action, deploying a quick reaction force to engage enemy combatants. Others scrambled to collect wounded comrades, apply field dressings and mount a medical evacuation convoy to a nearby outpost. Of course, it wasn't the first contact of the day. A 2 a.m. wake-up attack surprised the company in what one cadet described as "a series of unfortunate events." Inside the command tent, a bulletin board lists the wounded and killed from that scenario.
The four-day Combat Outpost exercise was probably the most intense and engaging portion of Cadet Leadership Development Training where upperclassmen apply lessons learned from the classroom into a realistic field training environment.
From May 23-June 11, cadets discovered their inner warrior through a series of events ranging from mounting offensive and defensive strategies in Platoon Attack, negotiation with host nation leaders in Combat Outpost and stress fire exercises on the range.
"It's a great training tool to develop cadets and allow them to be put in scenarios similar to what they may see in theater (of operations)," CLDT Executive Officer Firstie Rickey Royal said.
More than 800 cadets participated in CLDT, whether engaged in the actual training exercise, in administrative positions or as role players (solicited from the yearling class). Trainer team officers and noncommissioned officers observed cadets from mission planning to execution, evaluating their performances throughout.
Firstie Kevin Lauer just took charge as a platoon leader, during the most recent change-ups of leadership positions which tests cadets in various roles of responsibility throughout the day. For the next 12-24 hours, he was tasked with guiding his platoon of 34 cadets on missions such as security details, route-clearing operations or intelligence gathering. As a quick reaction force, they could be assigned to eliminate the hostile targets that have threatened relations between the outpost and local villages.
During the morning command briefing with the executive officer, platoon leaders jotted notes in their green hardcover notebooks. This was where 1st Platoon Leader Firstie Thomas Kendall learned of his mission to meet the village sheik who had provided solid intelligence on a weapons cache.
"Our intent is to build a rapport with the locals, but also gather any information about insurgents in this area," Kendall said.
Another villager demanded weapons to protect the village from insurgents. Kendall, in a precarious position, knew he couldn't make promises to aid the village but also didn't want to ruin the good relations established there.
"We came up with a pretty good solution," Kendall said. "In Iraq, we train Iraqi forces to protect themselves. There's no point in driving out insurgents, then leave and let them return, so we're going to offer to work up some sort of training force."
Cadet leaders also weighed the "winning hearts and minds" approach with the risks of projecting a weakened presence or placing too much trust on newly-established alliances. While manning the traffic control point, Firstie Mike Ecklund's primary focus was on surveying the area for oncoming threats. But at the same time, gaggles of local villagers provided distractions which required measures of discipline on the part of the cadets.
"You have to constantly keep your hand over your trigger well and keep your sensitive items locked down. Don't be afraid to gently push people away and order them to back down," Ecklund said. "It's a challenging balance for sure. There's no easy way about it. You just have to maintain command and control of your units."
Hip-pocket training filled the voids between lane exercises. Three Task Force NCOs out of Fort Carson, Colo., joined the task force commander Capt. Colin O'Toole, to review communications protocol with cadets and demonstrate a field expedient antenna. The group assembled the antenna, which O'Toole learned to make in Sapper School, using claymore wire, 550 cord, tree branches and plastic utensils.
For the cadets walking to the commo class site, it was unusual to see the tree branches suspended midair and attached to the SINCGARS RT-1523 combat net radio-sort of modern and Stone Age technology merging as one. One cadet, taking a seat on the ground, even commented, "This is a commo class' Why are there sticks'"
Capt. Dominic Wilkinson, a Signal Corps representative at the Department of Military Instruction, explained that it is unlikely any cadet will ever be required to erect such an antenna in their military careers, but it is ideal in training to present every option available.
"This antenna is built on a 'have to' basis, when there's no other option," Wilkinson explained.
Over at Range 5, 3rd Company Commander Firstie Zachary Taylor got acquainted for the first time with the M-4 Carbine rifle.
"A lot of us haven't fired a weapon in quite a while so this allows us to get familiar with our weapons," Taylor said. "And a lot of this gear is pretty new and I think many of us have never fired with this optic."
A day earlier, Taylor and his platoon were engaged in urban operations on a dismounted patrol, searching for a high value target. The urban operations exercise is a two-day event where a platoon conducts planning and rehearsals one day, then executes the next. The role players-a mix of yearlings, contract interpreters and Task Force Soldiers-provide an authentic scenario where an insurgent leader and his bodyguard detail is suspected of camping out in his Family's residence. The high value target, Abu, is the main objective, but for an alert and organized platoon, more can be uncovered throughout the site. If a platoon is unproductive with their time, the opposition force will use a sniper to accelerate the operation and force the cadets into decisive actions. The training team leaders may have the platoon redo the scenario, depending on mistakes made.
One platoon failed to find Abu hiding in the rafters inside the house and assumed their target had vacated the premises. Depending on the training team charged with that company, that sort of 'no go' often resulted in a second attempt to complete the mission.
Some platoons moved methodically and coordinated their squads to concentrate on the main objective. Although the thoroughness of completing the objective while minimizing risk is sufficient strategy, another platoon may blaze through with a "shock and awe" approach, finding their target as well as chemical weapons materials and explosive devices among the villagers.
Firstie Austin Babb was able to share some of his deployment experience as a prior service Soldier with the 10th Mountain Division. Only weeks out of basic training, Babb never experienced field training like CLDT prior to his deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"Peer leadership is the hardest, and I felt this was a really good opportunity for me to lead in a safe environment and, at the same time, to really challenge myself," Babb said.
The Lincoln, Neb., native, took on squad and platoon leader responsibilities for 3rd Company and said the Combat Outpost lane provided a lot of "real world experience."
"It might not have been the most physically demanding. It was much more mentally challenging," Babb said. "A lot of times there wasn't a clear-cut right or wrong answer, but several shades of gray. So if you had to wade through your options, taking which course of action you felt was best."
Firstie Duncan Michel, 5th Company, said his CLDT experience was probably a bit different than his comrades. He was a radio operator during the urban operations house raid and hyper-extended his knee, tearing his ACL in the initial rush to the objective. Only a week into the training, Michel was detailed to the tactical operations center for headquarters.
"I was basically assisting the cadet company commander and first sergeant, helping them out with radio traffic and command and control during Combat Outpost and Platoon Attack Lanes," Michel said. "It was a different experience, but I learned some things from a bird's eye view of CLDT."
Michel said the training team was invaluable in setting his company up for success in the field, keeping them constantly on the move.
"The first few days, before I got injured, was some really hard training, but it was good preparation for the lanes; I mean, we would be out training until 11:30 at night," Michel said. "So once we got out to those lanes, we were much better prepared to actually respond and get the most out of that training."
Capt. Charles Levine, a calculus instructor from the Mathematics Department, was ecstatic about his time as a training team member.
"I got to work face-to-face with these cadets and saw real world epiphanies going on all around ... seeing light bulbs turning on in them," Levine said. "The beauty of it is real lessons- things that you remember forever-only come through real world experience. And if that experience is particulary harrowing, stressful or painful, the way human beings are designed, it sinks in. So when they do something with a cause and an effect they did not expect or want, then they've learned a hard lesson."
And when given another chance, Levine said, cadets learned from past mistakes and have those "shining light bulb moments" when it connects for them. The former Afghanistan commander saw CLDT not as a school for tactical training but leadership training.
"I remember in Ranger School when things fell apart, and I still recall those lessons and they're with me today," Levine said. "This was an opportunity to put cadets in leadership positions under real world stressors and see how they handle themselves under pressure. OK, maybe they're not doing things tactically correct because they don't have that experience yet. They may have learned it in the classroom, but because it hasn't been experienced, it didn't stick. That's why we're doing this, to take the things learned in the classroom and make it stick."