WEST POINT, N.Y. (Oct. 25, 2012) -- It's not a summer vacation most people would fight for but for future Army officers, this is an opportunity of a lifetime.
More than 300 U.S. Military Academy cadets endured a rigorous day-long selection process Oct. 20, all in the hopes of securing the best military training opportunity next summer.
Competitive MIADs -- 18 Military Individual Advanced Development programs -- have long been sought after aggressively by cadets wanting to attend top-rated Army and international training like the Sapper Leader Course, Pathfinder Training and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. The selection process is the academy's way of knowing the cadets who go are capable of successfully completing the courses.
It began before dawn with the Army Physical Fitness Test as the lights surrounding Daly Field cut through the thick fog to reveal rows of cadets grinding out pushups and situps before disappearing into the darkness again for the two-mile run. This was followed by a series of challenges to overcome at the Indoor Obstacle Course Test and the Combat Water Survival Test. Cadets took a blindfolded plunge off the diving board, swam the length of the pool with their weapons above water and stripped themselves of their combat vests while submerged.
Only after completing these tasks could cadets continue onto a mystery ruck march. Carrying a 35-pound ruck, cadets were given only a direction to the first checkpoint and nothing else. Not knowing where they were headed or for how long became a mental challenge with cadets choosing whether to run or conserve strength for the inclines ahead. Eight miles later, they found themselves at South Dock and were told to complete as many pullups as they could muster before finishing with another two-mile run.
For some, this was just the first round and additional assessments were conducted for specific military schools. Roughly 20 cadets wanting to attend Pathfinder training were given a written test, assessed on identifying the different pieces of a sling load set and had to successfully communicate a VIRS (verbally initiated release system). The highly-competitive Combat Diver Qualification Course required nearly 40 cadets to pass a few more tests in the pool to include a lot of water treading and sub-surface swimming.
Cadets vying for Special Forces Assessment and Selection endured a series of grueling mental and physical tests lasting well into the day. Cadets lugged water containers up and down the staircases of Arvin Cadet Physical Development Center and worked together to push mammoth tires back and forth on Daly Field. The intent was to keep cadets on their feet and constantly moving.
Just finishing the MIAD assessment is an achievement--at no other time in their 47 months at the academy will cadets consecutively conduct an APFT, IOCT, swim test, ruck march and other physical endurance events.
Some cadets were notified of results that day; other MIADs require even more assessment. Maj. Matthew Chase, the Maneuver Support Branch representative at DMI, was the officer-in-charge of the Sapper Leader Course selection. He said 24 cadets completed the core assessment required of all MIAD selections, and only half were then chosen to continue with the Sapper-specific assessment.
Cadets were tasked with maneuvering a Zodiac boat along one of three routes with various hazards along the way, such as casualty evaluations or carrying five-gallon water cans. At another station, they had to disassemble, assemble and conduct functions checks on three different weapons systems. The last station required them to lead a squad (comprised of cadets from the Small Units Tactics Club) through a virtual scenario on the Engagement Skills Trainer.
At the end of the day, candidates them completed a peer assessment and conducted a board interview with Chase and a cadre of Sapper-qualified cadets. The top 10 cadets still have follow-up training, according to Chase.
"Over the next few months, we'll continue to make our assessment of the cadets as they go through the Sapper train up and by late winter, early spring select the final five for the Sapper Leader Course in May," Chase said.
Chase credited all the cadets for displaying mental and physical toughness throughout the day.
"Not a single cadet quit from the Sapper group (and) only one failed to complete the assessment due to an injury," Chase said. "Many of the females participating were doing as well, if not better, than many of their male counterparts on some of the events. I was impressed when, after completing the APFT, IOCT, CWST and eight-mile ruck up Stony Lonesome 'mountain'--twice--that they were able to do in many cases as many as 18-20 pullups."
Col. Glenn Goldman, director of Military Instruction, observed the action and said this rigorous selection process has had a proven success record since its development in 2009. It was necessary, he said, to make sure West Point was sending the best of the best. He recalled one summer when a cadet returned early from an international school. The cadet wasn't injured or incapable of completing the training -- he simply lost heart and quit. The MIAD selection process is designed to prevent that unfortunate scenario from happening again.
At the start of the day, he spoke with the cadets and expressed his admiration for their determination to earn a MIAD slot.
"The fact that you're out here at [5:30 a.m] indicates to me that you're highly motivated to take on an additional challenge beyond the normal cadet experience," Goldman said. "You're here because you want to do some leader development, personal development, self-assessment or just want to do something 'Hooah.' We greatly appreciate and respect that. We need to see how mentally and physically tough you are and what kind of potential you have because we don't want to waste these limited training opportunities on those who are not deserving."
After finishing the assessment for the Combat Diver Qualification Course, Class of 2015 Cadet Nick Rodriguez said he felt exhausted, hungry and craving a hot shower.
"I was really looking to be pushed to a new limit, and I absolutely was," Rodriguez said. "It was a phenomenal experience and I am very glad that I did it."
A California native, Rodriguez grew up surfing, swimming and diving and so he felt CDQC would challenge and build his physical and mental capabilities in the water.
"I wanted to do something very unique and very difficult. I've heard nothing but great things from the officers and NCOs who have attended the school," Rodriguez said.
Last year, Class of 2014 Cadet Kyle Ward competed and was selected to attend the Army Reconnaissance Course. He found the competition this time around tougher for the four slots available in the Pathfinder course.
"I am proud of my performance. I was much stronger this year in the event than last year," Ward said.
Having successfully completed his MIAD last summer, the decision to compete again was easy.
"I knew from last summer's experience that these military schools are the best thing that USMA offers," Ward said. "I had no doubt this was what I wanted at any point. Just because you don't make the cut at USMA, it doesn't mean you would not pass the school. It simply means that you are not the best cadet to go."
Tired and physically sore afterward, Ward said the tryouts were worth the effort regardless of the results.
"If I had not gone out, I would have had to live with the 'what if,'" he said.
Class of 2013 Cadet Christopher Boldt, 1st Regiment commander, remembers going through the MIAD process in 2010 to get a slot for Sapper School. As a plebe, he was inspired by his company commander who wore the Sapper tab.
"From then on, I had a fascination with what that school entailed and the leadership development opportunities available there," Boldt said.
As a member of the Army Football team, Boldt said he missed some of football camp during the four weeks of intense tactical and technical training--which put a high level of pressure on him.
"The last thing I wanted was to return exhausted and late to football camp without a tab," he said.
Boldt got the tab and a summer later he wore the additional rank of a regimental staff officer during Cadet Field Training, where he served as executive officer. For those determined to survive the cut at Sapper School, Boldt offers these words of advice:
"Arrive in the best shape of your life. Cooperate and graduate. Be a team player," Boldt said.
Chase said the biggest challenge for them is to take charge and be willing to help.
"They'll be the youngest students in the course with the least amount of knowledge and experience. So studying up on platoon tactics, learning how to lead a patrol and maintaining a good attitude are essential," Chase said.
The SFAS cadet-in-charge, Class of 2013 Cadet Justin Kan's words of advice were simply: "Don't quit."