I’ve had more than my fair share of humbling moments in ROTC, both through ego-crushing humiliation and the mere realization of the gravity of what we do. I’ve come up short of the standard on a few tests – and that’s putting it gently; I’ve disappointed subordinates and superiors alike, but the moments that have really humbled me are the ones that make what we do in ROTC more real. Cadets usually refer to ROTC as “cadet land” so to differentiate between how things are done in ROTC as opposed to the “real Army.” These epiphanies occurred when I realized how “cadet land” translates into the “real Army” are the ones that have truly humbled me.
It took me about three tries to finally pass the Army Physical Fitness Test. For the APFT, males are required to complete at least 42 push-ups in two minutes, at least 53 sit-ups in two minutes, and run two-miles in under 15:54 – the standard is different for females. I’ve always excelled in the push-ups and the run has never been a problem, but the sit-ups would give me nightmares! I would dread taking the APFT because I would be hit or miss on those damn sit-ups. I remember finally passing the APFT on my third try in a glorious mess of sweat, drool, and an array of face-cringing expressions. Even when I did pass, for a while I was only able to do the bare minimum of 53 sit-ups.
Land navigation was another weakness of mine. The first time I ever did land nav on my own was at the California State University-San Bernardino land nav course in the mountainous terrain of the campus’s backdrop. MSI’s and MSII’s went out on the course in groups of three whereas us MSIII’s were out on our own. We had three hours to find three points. I came back with zero. I tried for about two hours to locate points but with no luck. Eventually I gave up, sat atop a hill, took my patrol cap off, and ate Skittles until time expired. Groups of MSI’s and II’s would pass me laughing at my failure. I didn’t care, the Skittles comforted me. I wasn’t able to pass land navigation until my fifth try.
Then there is my most notorious failure… The Combat Water Survival Test. The “CWST” is probably my most dreaded Army acronym. This test is a four-part water challenge. Cadets must tread water for five minutes, swim 15 meters while holding a rifle above surface, jump off a diving board three meters above water while blindfolded and carrying a rifle, then jump backwards into the pool wearing an LBV, pretty much a utility vest, while carrying a rifle, and ditch the LBV before rising back to the surface.
I’m not a very good swimmer – no black jokes, please.
Fellow cadets would tell me that the look of fear on my face before taking the CWST was priceless. My struggles with the CWST were the butt of many jokes in our platoon. The colonel ordered me to take swim lessons with a local YMCA so that I can pass the CWST. That failed. Then the colonel ordered me into more swim lessons at The Claremont Club, a local country club. My first CWST after those swim lessons, I failed. A week later – about a month ago – I tried again and I passed. In all, it took me six tries, three years, and two month-long swim lessons for me to finally pass the CWST.
If you still don’t get the point, allow me to say it bluntly: I’ve been embarrassed time and again in ROTC. But still, these failures did not humble me the same way that two other events have.
The first time came during Fall FTX at Fort Irwin last November. We were waiting in line at the chow hall when a unit of privates came in and got in line next to us. I looked at their faces and realized that they were just kids. I was 20 at the time and each of those privates looked my age or younger. Their faces were so young, naïve, and fragile. At that moment I realized that in less than 18 months that I’m going to be in charge of these young men and women – these kids. Whether I commission in a combat arms or support role in the Army, the lives of these young people will be dependent upon my leadership. I always tell my friends that I’m less mature now than I was ten years ago. Look at my Facebook profile, that’ll tell you. I still laugh at fart jokes. I still throw tantrums when girls mention their monthly… Umm… Flows… Yet, the Army is paying me to lead these young men and women into battle? That was a real wake-up call.
The other moment came at the year-end awards ceremony a month ago. A colonel from March Air Force Base in Riverside, CA was the keynote speaker. During his speech he told his daughter who was in attendance to stand up. His daughter is a sergeant in the Army who will be going to Iraq with a military intelligence unit in a few months. He told us that it will be our job in less than a year to take care of his daughter while she is overseas. He told us about how much he loves his daughter and how he trusts us to bring her back home safely. Right there in front of me was a living, breathing example of America’s most precious resource. It made me realize that there are over a million other parents out there whose children are out in harm’s way and trust us officers and future officers to bring their sons and daughters home in their boots rather than a flag-draped coffin.
What I do now in “cadet land” has real-life consequences. For those of you concerned about my competency to lead America’s young soldiers, relax, through the exceptional training by our cadre I’ve improved greatly in all those previously-mentioned struggles. On the final APFT of the semester, I did 68 push-ups, 76 sit-ups, and ran the two-mile in 13:35. For the record land navigation test, I scored 85% on the written test, found five out of eight points during the day and five out of five at night on a day that brought fierce rain and hail upon us during the test.
From 09 July to 06 August, I will be at Fort Lewis, Washington for LDAC, the Leadership Development and Assessment Course. LDAC is the culmination of all of our training in ROTC. At LDAC, officers and non-commissioned officers evaluate cadets’ skills in leadership and the basic core competencies to assure that they are ready to commission into the Army as a 2nd lieutenant.
After LDAC, I’ll be on the path towards leading America’s men and women in the “real Army”. Thanks to my failures during ROTC training, I am a better leader now. Because I have overcome these obstacles in cadet-land, I know that I can step in front of a platoon and lead with competence and humility in the “real Army”.