UCLA's ROTC cadets withstand fire-packed weekend of combat training
WRITTEN BY Kevin Truong
A slide depicting a map of an arid desert region illuminates sleepy faces on a Thursday morning. At the front of the classroom, a lecturer gives a lesson about politics, history and geography while the students scribble notes with one hand and sip coffee with the other.
Every weekday, morning warriors struggle to keep their eyes open in classrooms across campus, but these students are decked head to toe in digitized desert camouflage uniforms.
The students, who serve as army cadets in the UCLA Reserve Officer Training Corps, trade in their mornings and weekends for scholarships and the opportunity to commission as officers in the U.S. Armed Forces after graduation.
The U.S. Armed Forces recruit heavily from the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Graduates from the program currently make up one-third of the U.S. Army's officer population.
A week later, the students piled onto a chartered bus in the faint morning light and headed 100 miles south to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, located along the craggy Pacific coast in San Diego County.
They pulled up in a cloud of dust a few hours later, greeted by the Leadership Reaction Course – a mix of wooden pallets, spent ammunition canisters and bulky metal barrels.
The course, structured to simulate combat situations, consists of 10 stations, each designed to test soldiers’ leadership, teamwork and creativity with a series of puzzle-like challenges.
At one training station, a bridge was broken down to its foundations and the cadets were tasked with navigating to the other side using three wooden planks. In another, they had to bring a stretcher and dummy through a plastic tunnel about four feet in diameter.
After surveying the course, Maya Pathuri, a first-year chemistry student at UCLA, said she was excited to apply the skills the cadets had learned.
Her beaming smile turned to teeth-grit determination as she struggled to climb up a wall only to slide back down, again and again. She followed every failed attempt with a set of push-ups, until she finally made it over with a helping hand.
"My teammates kept supporting me," Pathuri said. “I threw my weight, trusted my teammates and I made it over. Adrenaline was rushing through me, I was shaking, but was it awesome to know my team was there for me.”
"Her beaming smile turned to teeth-grit determination as she struggled to climb up a wall only to slide back down, again and again. She followed every failed attempt with a set of push-ups, until she finally made it over with a helping hand."
Cadets prepare for the intellectual and physical rigors of serving in the army with three days of training a week and one weekly military science lab.
Every spring, cadets supplement their weekly training with four days at Camp Pendleton, as part of the Leadership Development Exercise that allows cadets to practice the practical applications of small unit tactics, leadership and fieldcraft.
The Bruin Battalion, a group of ROTC students administered out of UCLA, includes one company headquartered on campus in Westwood and another based out of California State University, Northridge.
Cadets first practiced the basics of operating out in the field, including the fireman carry used to heave wounded comrades out of combat, before checking out rifles, light machine guns and blank ammunition for combat simulations.
Over the next few days, the trainees would get to know their guns intimately, slinging them across their shoulders on marches, taking them along on bathroom trips and tucking them into their sleeping bags at night. Cadets are instructed to keep their weapons within an arm’s length at all times.
Patrick Manrique, a cadet captain and fourth-year deaf studies student at CSUN , made it his job to collect misplaced rifles like Halloween candy.
“Here you’re not going to get shot, but over there, it’s life and death," Manrique said.
Once the cadets were geared up, they split into two platoons and embarked on a tactical march to their patrol bases, where they would sleep for the night before undertaking a mission the next day.
At all times, at least a third of the soldiers are required to keep watch, or pull security, at the base perimeter with their weapons, while commanders plan the next day’s mission. Cadets secure the patrol base in a triangle formation with light machine guns placed at the corners. The cadets sleep in shifts, shoving their buddies awake before they’re screamed at by their commanding officers.
The platoon rose dark and early at 0430 hours with groans, coughs and the occasional flash of a red-beam headlamp.
Linnea Earl-Gore, assigned platoon leader and a third-year kinesiology student at CSUN, packed up her rucksack and makes the final preparation for this morning’s mission – investigating sightings of enemy forces and disrupting their supply lines.
The period right before dawn breaks is historically when bases are most frequently attacked and overrun. In order to guard against this, the cadets were at "stand to," pulling 100 percent security at the edge of their camp.
A car sped by on a nearby road blaring Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” out of its speakers, taking cadets' attention away from the simulation for a brief moment.
Kyle Johnson, a fourth-year international studies student at Pepperdine University charged with evaluating the students, stands watching the cadets and taking notes every so often on prepared scorecards.
“We do not expect the cadets to be tactical experts by any means," Johnson said. "We want to see how they can control and manage their people in evolving and adapting situations.”
"Evolving situations" was code for an ambush. About 15 minutes into the march, the harsh clatter of gunfire emerged from the tree line.
The cadets dropped to the ground and hesitated, taken by surprise, before their training and adrenaline kicked in. They fired back, ditching their weighty rucksacks and shouting out the position and status of the enemy. A squad of cadets flanked to take them out from the side.
"About 15 minutes into the march, the harsh clatter of gunfire emerged from the tree line. The cadets dropped to the ground and hesitated, taken by surprise, before their training and adrenaline kicked in."
After eliminating the threat, cadets searched the enemy for intelligence and weapons before making a radio call to report the casualties.
Nicole Tom, an air force cadet who volunteered to act as the opposition force, lay still on the ground at the end of the battle.
“It was a slow start, but they figured it out pretty quickly,” said Tom, a fourth-year Russian studies student at UCLA. “It was pretty tough terrain to work in.”
After the mission is completed, a new platoon leader was assigned the next mission. In the lull, cadets lunched on Meals Ready to Eat, an army ration that contains a selection of food of varying edibility.
An hour and a steep hike later, cadets spotted the objective of the mission – a weapons cache. They marched toward it, their boots crunching the tall grass until a sharp whistle is heard from behind.
The cadets dropped to the dirt, before getting up to sprint and shout orders, as one of the UCLA ROTC staff sergeants let loose with simulated artillery rounds.
A squad set out to investigate the weapons cache, battling enemy they encountered along the way.
After the platoons completed their missions, they met up and made camp, with one group choosing a location under the shade of a massive tree.
As darkness fell, the assigned platoon leader, Jose “Pepe” Avellaneda, a third-year physiological science student at UCLA, was wary of the possibility of a surprise attack and called for everyone available to guard the patrol base.
The cadets then settled in for a long night of pulling security. Moonlight streamed through the branches of the tree overhead, as cadets squinted at mysterious lights that flicker on and off in the distance.
A few hours later, the sound of gunfire erupted from the patrol base as smoke and explosions boomed in the dark.
Avellaneda mustered his troops to the challenge, shouting commands over the din of battle. After about 15 minutes, the attack subsided as a cry of "cease-fire" echoed across the patrol bases.
The cadets relaxed and their battle stations transformed back into backpacks and sleeping bags as they tried to catch some sleep before the end of the night.
In the morning, their mission seemed simple – go into a nearby village, build rapport with the locals and gather information on a high-value target called “the doughnut man.”
But the path into the village was paved with explosives instructors hid on the road. Cadets tripped the devices, leading to the nominal death of a good portion of the group along with a noisy lecture by the trainers.
“Look around," yelled Sgt. First Class August Maggio. "Stop thinking about tomorrow, next week – you’re right here now. You train like you fight."
With their heads on a swivel, the cadets made their way up to the castle where they were to meet a village police chief.
Older cadets developed the "key leader engagement" exercise from their own training in Fort Knox, Kentucky, over the summer, to introduce newer cadets to the concept, said cadet captain Matthew Li, a fourth-year engineering geology student at UCLA who was in charge of formulating the scenario.
"Stop thinking about tomorrow, next week – you’re right here now. You train like you fight."
Sgt. First Class August Maggio
The increased emphasis on building relationships reflects a larger strategic shift in the Army against agressive action, Li said. The so-called “hearts and minds” effort aims to win over the trust of the local population.
“It’s not just the important people that matter, it's also about the smaller people – the average Joes in the squad,” Li said. “You’ve really got to be conscientious about how they're doing and what they're doing once they get into the village.”
In the village, a number of volunteers from UCLA ROTC played a litany of different roles, ranging from an irate village shopkeeper to a town vagrant with a penchant for trading secrets for snacks.
Under a tented area, the platoon leader met with the police chief, trying to downplay issues with their first meeting the day before, until an outside attack eventually lead to the soldiers evacuating the town and ending the mission.
To further emphasize teamwork, cadets were assigned a companywide mission that includes both platoons. In order to capture the target, the company was tasked with raiding a town to capture or kill the enemy leader.
Behind the cover of multicolored smoke grenades, soldiers flooded into the town like lines of helmeted ants, with legs and adrenaline pumping. They split up into squads, evacuating civilians, breaching buildings and eliminating opposing forces with gunfire.
"Behind the cover of multicolored smoke grenades, soldiers flooded into the town like lines of helmeted ants, with legs and adrenaline pumping. They split up into squads, evacuating civilians, breaching buildings and eliminating opposing forces with gunfire."
At the far end of the village, the cadets pulled out the struggling target, wrestling him to the ground and zip-tying his hands behind his back. After confirming his identity, the cadets hoofed it out of the village as fast as they could, dragging the wounded and dodging ear-splitting blasts from simulated artillery rounds.
“The more you engage yourself in these training exercises, the more ready you are when faced with the real thing,” said cadet captain Timu Saari, a fourth-year biology student at UCLA. “We talk a lot about violence of action – you need to do these tasks with vigor and with violent intent. It’s a state of mind.”
Instructors then reviewed the operational details and lessons learned from the training exercises in an after-action report, and cadets made their way back to camp where they were welcomed with a non-MRE dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes.
A hot meal and a few equipment checks later, the cadets finished the day by cleaning their guns with Q-tips, solutions and brushes. They laid their weapons out on their ponchos, the monotonous hum of a generator providing a fitting score to the hours of meticulous polishing ahead.
The next morning held the promise of a return to civilization, after a long weekend of training in the field. The drive back was uneventful, with an occasional snore interrupting the rhythm of the bumpy road.
Upon their return to campus, the uniformed cadets provided a striking contrast against the civilians taking in the sun on Sunday morning.
But come Monday, the cadets would return to their roles as students, equipped with with midterms, papers and packed class schedules instead of rucksacks and rifles.
One dirt-caked cadet joked about making a patrol base in his dorm room and the rest laughed, more out of exhaustion than anything else.
“The sooner we get this stuff packed up and moved, the sooner we can get you out of here and back home,” Saari said.
“Hooah,” the cadets answered in unison.