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Learning to lead: On the ground with ROTC

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Brown students can currently only participate in the Army ROTC program at Providence College, but Simmons' recommendations would allow the University to look at other partnerships with nearby campuses.

The cadets of Patriot Battalion dropped their rucksacks and A-bags and milled around and talked. The A-bags — green, medium-sized duffel-looking things with sleeping bags inside — sat in rows on the grass. The session wouldn’t start for another 15 minutes, but most of the cadets had arrived. I walked up to a group of four big guys and asked how much their equipment weighed, all in all. About 35 pounds, they told me. Not bad to haul across campus, but they regularly heft it several miles at training. Physical readiness training, or PRT — in the military, everything gets an abbreviation — occurs Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6:30 a.m. On Wednesdays, cadets take classes from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Patriot Battalion is currently the only option for Brown students who wish to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The Providence College ROTC program consists of two companies, Alpha and Bravo. Alpha, with about 25 cadets,  is composed of freshmen and sophomores — in ROTC parlance, MSIs and MSIIs, respectively. The roughly 10 Bravo cadets are juniors, or MSIIIs. The 10 MSIVs are assigned commanding positions in both companies.

ROTC commanding officers are non-commissioned military officers, meaning lower-ranking — mainly corporals and sergeants. These officers mentor and instruct the cadets, but it is up to the MSIVs to lead the bulk of classes and exercises. That afternoon, the commanding officers — the COs — arrived, and the cadets fell in line by company. The four COs and the higher-ranking cadets, all MSIII’s and MSIV’s, oversaw an extensively thorough equipment inspection, making certain each cadet had packed everything he or she would need into their rucksack and A-bag for the weekend. The equipment included a hygiene kit, gloves, polypropylene underwear, notebooks, pens, ammunition pouches, flashlight, protective eyewear, protractor, wristwatch, elbow and knee pads, two canteens, a cloth-covered helmet and whatever else a cadet cared to pack that would fit. I tried a helmet on, and it could not have weighed less than five or six pounds.

Ryan Grady, a PC senior and the MSIV responsible for the battalion’s civil affairs, introduced me to Master Sergeant and Senior Military Instructor David Bowman, who explained the goals for the day as the cadets continued with their checklist.

The Wednesday classes focus on military skills, such as strategic thought and maneuvering, military history and leadership training. That afternoon session was a special sort of class called a Leadership Lab — an L-Lab. This L-Lab was designed to prepare the cadets for their three-day weekend field-training exercise in the forest near Camp Edwards in Massachusetts. Bowman explained the cadets would spend the weekend camping outdoors, running mock raids, repelling mock attacks, firing M16s loaded with blanks and eating meals ready to eat — MREs. My MRE included caffeine-loaded mints, vacuum-sealed ravioli and a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce. The field training exercise is one of many opportunities for the cadets, especially the more senior ones, to develop their leadership skills and for the commanding officers to evaluate those skills, he said.

After the equipment inspection, the MSIVs in charge sent the cadets jogging off to load their bags onto a truck, then sent them to the ROTC offices in the basement of PC’s Alumni Hall to receive MREs and begin classes for the day. Master Sergeant Bowman and I passed the line of cadets outside the supply room on our way to his office, where he told me about the mission and methodology of ROTC.


Learning to lead

Instead of focusing on teaching technical skills like weapon proficiency, or even strategy and maneuvers, the ROTC program aims to show cadets how to lead. “Basic training is for privates. … What we build here is the people that develop their orders,” Bowman explained.

“There are times when it’s rolling in the mud and shooting rifles, but it’s not really our focus,” he said. “Leaders are in charge of everything. … It’s much more important to lead.”

Cadets learn to embrace the United States military’s 17 official leadership criteria, which include military bearing, interpersonal tact, leading by example and being confident, resilient and physically fit.

Bowman explained the development of strong leadership skills is particularly important during the first two years of the program. Participation in ROTC for the first two years does not entail any military commitment. MSIIIs and MSIVs, however, are all contractually obligated to join the military after graduation.

COs assess leadership the most closely and frequently in cadets. Informally, a CO might pull a cadet aside for a quick bit of advice or a reprimand. After one MSIV’s presentation on perimeter defense, Bowman called him over and gently scolded him for not showing his usual level of confidence.

The cadet smiled. “I’ll go yell at the first person I see,” he replied.

On a more formal level, cadets of every age group rotate each week through four positions of authority over squads and platoons within their company. Cadets assess themselves on leadership and receive feedback from their COs. “We do an after-action review on everything we touch,” Bowman said.

COs counsel the cadets and fill out Leadership Assessment Reports. The report is a little blue card that asks for the CO’s observations of the cadet’s performance. It includes a space for strengths the cadet should “sustain” and one for areas in which he or she should improve. The other side of the card lists the 17 leadership criteria and a table of character traits prized by the military, including the practice of empathy and the seven army values — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. The card also states the Warrior Ethos: “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.” True to military form, this side of the card is completely standardized. COs fill it out by checking the appropriate boxes.

This assessment does not apply to cadets’ grasp of military theory or strategic skills. Bowman told me that, especially for the first two years, their acquaintance with tactics and military knowledge serves mainly as “background” for cadets’ leadership training.

Kristofer Seibt, a PC senior, testified as much at a class for MSIIIs on establishing an operating base. The tactic presented on the SmartBoard at the front of the room was used prior to the Cold War, he said — completely outdated, and of no use in, for instance, the deserts of Afghanistan.

“We’re not looking at them to check the box on these tactics. We’re looking at them to adapt to these situations,” Seibt said, indicating an arrow on the board that represented an attack on the camp. He told me many of the situations the cadets would have to negotiate over the course of the weekend would be unexpected. It is important for cadets to learn to keep contingencies in mind at all times, he said, in case something goes wrong — a possibility the cadets are taught to expect.

“If we have adaptable leaders who can adapt to situations, it doesn’t matter,” Seibt said.

At a pause in the slide show, one of the MSIVs conducting the course held up a hand.

“If you have gum in your mouth, stand up and go spit it out right now,” she said, sternly. Two uniformed cadets got up and ran to the next room to find a wastebasket. Seibt and I, whispering in a back corner of the room, fell silent.


Motivations for joining

Despite all the focus on leadership in general, the cadets do have a good understanding of the specifics of the military and military life.

Grady taught me “the two things you need to know in the army.” One, “if you don’t have a basic knowledge of personnel and equipment management, you’ll fail.” And two, “when you’re in a commandment position, most of your problems will come from (personnel and equipment management).” That advice, and some of the cadets’ gripes about the infamously bureaucratic nature of the military, sometimes called to mind Joseph Heller’s portrait of the armed forces in “Catch-22”.

When I talked to the cadets after their tactical exercises and class dismissal, they expressed a variety of motivations for joining the program. Like a number of the cadets I spoke with, Dillon Ingham ’14, currently the only Brown student in the Patriot Battalion, cited a long family history of military involvement as one of his reasons for joining ROTC. His grandfather and great-uncle fought in the army, and his father served for 20 years as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.

Cadet Staff Sergeant and PC junior Zachary Roitz, an education major, also said his family’s military history sparked an interest in ROTC. He fell in love with the program and appreciates that it fosters strengths that will serve him well within and without the Army, he said.

“I think it teaches discipline, it teaches time management and above all, it teaches leadership,” he said.

Cadet Staff Sergeant and PC junior Ewen Finzer listed self-confidence and self-knowledge among the qualities ROTC strives to further.

“I tried it out for a little while, because you can do that in the basic course,” he said. “It gave me something else to do, you know, my friends are out partying and I’m actually doing something that will get me somewhere.”

“I chose to do ROTC specifically because I did not want to do the academy experience,” said Cadet Staff Sergeant and PC junior Amberly Glitz, one of only a handful of female students in the battalion. “I wanted to do some more normal activities in college to kind of have both worlds.” Glitz is majoring in French with a minor in writing.”Without a doubt, ROTC is the best decision I’ve made in my adult life,” she said.

ROTC is prominent and well-respected at PC, Finzer said. “People are sometimes surprised to see you in uniform, like ‘What are you doing here?'” he said. But Finzer and Glitz agreed that ROTC is accepted comfortably by the rest of the community and that the program strives to be “open” about its methods and its goals.

But Bowman said it seems most of the public does not know much about how ROTC, or the rest of the military, actually functions. He used the film “Saving Private Ryan” as an example. “The public only knows what they saw in that movie,” he said.

“I think a lot of people latch onto one aspect of (the military) they don’t like,” he said.

ROTC is not immune to the damage to the military’s reputation from scandals such as the torture at Abu Ghraib, but “once people see what we do, there’s generally no more problem. The stigma of it disappears. We’re trying to build leaders, not killing machines,” he said. “We teach leadership. That’s it.”


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