Beyond Camouflage with ROTC
“Embedded” in a training weekend
BU’s Army ROTC held its annual Fall Field Training Exercise at Fort Devens this past weekend, with cadets returning to campus last night. A similar training exercise took place April 17 to 19, and several student journalists and photojournalists were invited to attend, much as “embedded” journalists in real combat situations are allowed to accompany troops.
This is a first-person account from one of those journalists. The photographs in the slide show above were taken that weekend.
“You spend an entire weekend out here and when you walk home, you wonder why everyone is looking at you,” says Army ROTC cadet Young Lee (SMG’10) on the way back from three days of field training exercises. Her face is still covered in camouflage paint, which explains the attention, but after a weekend spent training with the BU Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), it’s not superficial differences that make “normal” life feel surreal.
I chose to observe the Field Training Exercise, held about 35 northwest of Boston at Devens Reserve Forces Training Area on the site of the former Fort Devens, to better understand how the U.S. Army trains students my age and to share what I learned with the BU community. Many students have friends in ROTC, but have trouble understanding why classmates choose this path and how it shapes them and their goals.
On the ride to the military base, cadet Rachel Tarrats (CAS’10) talks about her expectations for the weekend. “I don’t really have any,” she says. “I just know there’s going to be a lot of training, so I’ll try to enjoy myself.”
Major Brandon Russell, an assistant professor in the military science department, says that the goal behind a training weekend is to place the cadets under the same kind of pressure, including exhaustion and hostile terrain, they can face under real conditions and help them learn how to react. If the mission is going too smoothly, he says, organizers increase the difficulty.
What was the fictional mission? “Restore peace to Devenshire and halt all violation of Devenshire sovereignty and establish the stability necessary to allow NATO-led peacekeeping forces to operate in Devenshire.”
Before arriving, cadets are given a training manual describing characteristics of enemy forces, media dos and don’ts, and the rules of engagement (ROE). I am encouraged to ask questions, my presence meant to accomplish two objectives: help me gain defense journalism experience, and teach cadets how to interact with journalists in the field — the military is judged both by the success of the mission and by how the American people, and the entire world, view their actions.
So I became part of the cadets’ educational experience. Still, I wonder how much cadet behavior is affected, not only because they are being graded, but also because someone from “the media” is watching. How would these young trainees react in real-life situations, where fatigue, stress, and fear interact in hostile and foreign territory? How much can training really prepare soldiers?
Friday afternoon is preparatory exercises around the main military base. Saturday and Sunday cadets work through different scenarios, such as border checks, ambushes, peaceful negotiations with representatives of a community, or operations involving prisoners of war. Major obstacles are language barriers, being in unknown territory, and trying to figure out the accuracy of available intelligence. Each exercise ends with discussions about areas needing improvement. On Sunday there is a final, more elaborate operation. The weekend ends with weapons cleaning, some done at the military base and some back on campus. Cadets then go back to their dorms and prepare for a full week of school.
The only time during the weekend that I am not allowed to take photographs is during a border check, when a confrontation between BU cadets and “enemy forces” becomes physical. Again, this raises large questions. How much leeway is allowed to “embedded” journalists? Should news organizations trade some independence for access? Who makes decisions about what should be reported and what should be restricted?
On the way back on Sunday, I ask Russell to rate the cadets’ overall performance. He is focusing on the junior class, he says. They are not as assertive as previous classes and take longer to think things through, which can be a negative, but also means that all possible scenarios are considered, often leading to improved results. And by being more inclusive, the juniors create better relationships with their subordinates.
On the ride back to campus, Cadet Jasper Lo (CAS’10) tells me I am now one of the few civilian students to know him both in a classroom and as a cadet. I’ve learned not to harbor simplistic preconceptions about who joins ROTC. For some cadets it’s a way to help pay for college and not much more. For others, it fulfills a lifelong dream. But either way, the sense of separation this experience creates, of seeing life and priorities differently, goes a lot deeper than camo.