“Bang bang!” yelled junior cadet Michelle Runge, as a mixed group of soldiers move around her while their M4 Carbines rise into the brisk, dark night air in the fields behind Mackal.
The University of Rhode Island’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) performed an intensive weekend long field training exercise at URI’s Alton Jones campus. The goal is to orient the cadets into real world experiences in military training, as well as to provide the junior students preparation for a 12-day field training test that they have to go through the following week.
The training program comes from a national military training simulation called the Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE). DATE provides a fake, but realistic simulated continent with a rich background and multiple field exercises built in. DATE divides this fictitious continent up into simulated countries, each with their own military rules, culture, economic facts and much more detail. Each country is based off of real life countries, which provides the opportunity to train against specific real world military tactics.
The one that the URI ROTC used for the weekend was centered in the fictitious country of Atropia. In the simulation the US Special Forces (USSF) are entering Atropia, but a neighboring country called Ariana, which is a simulated version of Iran, is also trying to invade at the same time with their Special Purpose Forces (SPF).
The weekend for me started in the fields behind Mackal as I followed the platoon through various military drills and practices. Everything from crossing dangerous crossways and flanking mid fire to sieging a village.
Saturday morning officially began the simulation. The cadets were driven from URI into the woods of Alton Jones to begin the experience. The objective was to locate and secure a mock village with villagers played by National Guardsmen who have not gone through basic training and then defend it against the other country.
In the early morning mist, we began our mission. We first began traversing through the woods, wearing eye protectors and face masks that make breathing feel like a chore. We walked through fallen trees, through bushes and climbed up steep hills. Eventually the mix between the unusually warm February air and the hard to breathe masks resulted in a few fainting spells. Nevertheless we walked for hours before eventually stumbling upon the village.
The village was a makeshift center on top of a hill. There were various tent like setups, with a campfire in the middle. The villagers were your everyday, average, townsfolk going about their business – except with the unnerving sight of AK-47s in hand.
“The United States are coming to kill you, and we are here to defend you,” said Platoon Leader Anna Dawson expertly to the villagers. In just one line Dawson managed to avoid conflict with the villagers and give herself a chance to win them over. After extensive deliberations with the villagers between Dawson and Platoon Sergeant Michelle Runge, the villagers agreed to side with SPF.
Despite the quick securement of the village, there was still the problem of USSF forces trying to siege the village by military intervention. Dawson immediately set up a perimeter of security around the village, as well as using the villagers to be in on the frontlines and to hide claymores in their shirts before setting them up around the village.
Now began the waiting game. A game of cat and mouse to see where the USSF would come from and what kind of tactics they would use, or if they would even attempt to siege the village at all.
Eventually, after what felt like hours of laying prone on the ground waiting for engagement, the USSF decided to try to storm the village. One group of USSF forces charged downhill. The air exploded with the echoes and faint bangs of guns firing, with a lingering burning smell similar to that of cap guns and fireworks. I aimlessly ran following Runge as we took cover from tree to tree and as she fired rounds at the people across from us.
“To the left!” someone shouted out as we turned to the left to see the USSF forces flanking us with their guns raised firing. At this point I lost track of Runge as I tried to avoid being on the wrong end of a barrel, but not without rolling into a thorn bush and spending the rest of the engagement untangling myself from the thorny grasp of nature.
The engagement lasted around five minutes before the USSF forces tripped off the mock claymore mines laid out by the SPF forces “killing” the majority of their team. With that, the SPF won their first objective.
After taking a break from battle to discuss what went right and wrong and to share a meal of military rations, the simulation started back up again. The leadership switched from Dawson and Runge, to a new Platoon Leader in Antonio Manzotti and Platoon Sergeant Megan Geier. The new objective was to find a weapon cache somewhere in the woods.
The first steps were to find a spot in the woods that would provide good security to send out recon missions to try to find the item. The platoon began marching through the woods, mostly moving rigorously uphill as the sun set downward and daylight started to die. The recon mission was sent out for a couple of hours before coming back empty handed. At this point everything was engulfed in pitch black and there were reports of a rainstorm coming. The leadership decided it would be best to stake it out for the night and clear an area to sleep.
As I laid out my, what I would hope to be waterproof, sleeping bag on the ground, Geier graciously offered me her military poncho, something I would be thankful for later. This began what would be the longest night I have ever experienced. Almost immediately afterward of laying down, the skies opened up and began what would soon be the first of two rainstorms.
After laying down, while the cold rain pattered against the poncho I had wrapped around myself, I somehow fell asleep for a little bit. I awoke just before the second rainstorm hit, this time coming down harder. This reached a point where the ground was so wet it soaked through my sleeping bag and the poncho. Nowhere was safe as I watched the rain drip through the poncho on to me. Eventually, to everyone’s blessings, the rain subsided. I took a sigh of relief thinking, “well at least the rain is done.” Needless to say, that was before the cold front kicked in and the temperature dropped significantly.
Nothing can prepare you for sitting through hours of rain, to end up soaking wet in the middle of a cold front. Your mind shifts desperately trying to come up with fantasy worlds to keep you from focusing on your increasingly numb, ice cold feet or from your constant shivering. You try to piece together the time and how many hours you have left, trying to be optimistic. “It is definitely 4 a.m.” I said to myself at least four times throughout the night, none of the times being close to 4 a.m..
After what seemed like an excruciating amount of time, and when I eventually gave up thinking the morning would come, I heard the greatest words of my life, “Alright everyone up!” yelled Sergeant Cornelius Wade as everyone groggily woke up.
At this point, the platoon packed up and headed out. The cold front was still in effect, as everyone struggled to get feeling back in their hands and feet. After a couple hours of moving through the woods, the mission was eventually called off. It was canceled early due to a variety of reasons, some administrative errors, others due to the weather conditions and the lack of motivation by the soldiers which stopped providing a learning experience.
As I made my way back I realized that there are not many opportunities in life to push yourself to limits you did not think possible. You never know what you are capable of until you push yourself beyond what you originally thought you could do. Weeks ago if you told me I could venture to the woods and go through a field training with the ROTC, I would not have believed it. I am especially thankful for the ability to break those barriers. The barriers of my knowledge of the ROTC and their experiences and the barriers of my own self.
I cannot think about this experience without giving appreciation and thanks to the brave men and women of the ROTC. Not only was I met with extreme kindness and caring by everyone, I also got to develop a deeper appreciation for all of the hard work that they do. They will continue to train, fight and risk their lives while I get to go back to the comfort my everyday life made possible by them.
Photos courtesy of Autumn Walter