Practicing war

GLEN IRON – It’s morning and there is a faint sound on the mountainside – the crunch of boots pushing down into a thin crust of snow.

A few minutes later, the relative quiet is over.

A loud whistling sound pierces the sky over Camp Karoondinha, a normally serene setting in western Union County marked by several walking trails.

On any other weekend, the camp beckons Boy Scouts to hold jamborees or camp near Lake Faylor.

But not on this weekend in late March.

“INCOMING,” yelled a cadet in Bucknell University’s Bison Battalion Army Reserve Officers Training Corps.

“I’ve got enemy on the right flank,” said another in his squad.

“BOOM,” an instructor shouted to the dismay of the cadets nearest his position.

“You’re dead, and you’re probably wounded,” he added.

The casualties mount as 90 cadets – seniors, juniors and sophomores – engage in training exercises in the woods.

The senior cadets, known as cadres, helped to plan and devise various scenarios that are meant to measure reactions to stress and build leadership capabilities for junior and sophomore cadets, said Senior Cadet James Casey White, of Herndon, Va.

White, a Bucknell University student, plays a “bad guy” on the opposing squad later in the day.

Although it is a training exercise, the grenade explosion and paintballs are held with the same reverence as live artillery.

It’s a simulation that tries to make participants feel as if they are in the heart of a firefight.

One of the cadets pretends to be dying from an open chest wound.

“I need an IV (intravenous line) and medevac,” a cadet yelled out, but the instructor gives him sour news.

“The cadet is dead,” he said.

Still not realizing it, a cadet uses brute strength to pick up the 200-plus-pound cadet and sling him over his shoulder.

As part of the exercise, cadets go through a line of departure. Once that line is crossed, the actual mission begins. A “compass soldier” walks up front, a “pace soldier” near him.

“It’s hilly and forested terrain and it’s cold enough to want to wear gloves,” White said. “The exercise lanes are designed to put cadets into different battle scenarios.”

Although it does not simulate a desert area, it provides enough elements to do the task of training future officers.

“We try our best to make the lanes challenging for the area that we have,” White said.

When the fight is over, Alpha and Bravo squads gather around the instructors in an “after-action report.”

For Cadet Nick Chiappone, a sophomore at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove and originally from Colts Neck, N.J., avoiding getting splattered wasn’t easy.

The review covers the plan from start to finish.

“You had no air assets,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class John Warnock, of Bloomsburg University. “With wounded, you needed to establish a casualty collection point.”

As the enemy was encountered and fired on, most of the cadets dropped right where they were, choosing to not form a dispersion wedge.

According to Warnock, dispersion would have been more strategically beneficial to the group as a whole.

The discussion of what the team did right and wrong included how the cadets wrote their operations orders, what mistakes were made and where they can improve.

“A lot of these guys are not going to be infantry,” Warnock said during a break. “Some are, but it’s more about seeing how they can handle the pressure situation and different scenarios thrown at them.”

“It’s about building confidence for later missions,” White added.

The training is in preparation of additional lessons for the battalion, some of whom leave for additional officers’ training at Fort Lewis, Wash., a joint military base of operations with the Army and Air Force.

That’s where the cadets will receive more assessment and leadership development. Those leaving are the junior cadets. Between the junior and senior year, they will leave for a month-long training and leadership development and assessment courses also known as the Warrior Forge. Throughout the summer, cadets are selected randomly, White said.

Throughout the day, the cadets encounter different scenarios and opposition forces, some shooting paintballs and others leaving claymore mines. Helmets, masks and bulletproof vests protect the students from mishaps.

Several types of passwords are memorized for specific purposes. The activity is called a challenge and password.

If the group went on a reconnaissance or spying mission, it left a security element behind. When it returned, the soldier coming toward the group had to yell out a challenge word and the reconnaissance team yelled out the password.

“Technically,” White said, “if the wrong password is used, they are authorized to shoot before returning to the secure area.”

Within every operations’ order, there’s a number combination. Soldiers yell out various codes with numbers to see if it last number adds up to the number in the order. For example, “Flintstones 3 must be returned with a ‘Mickey Mouse 4’ – if the coded number is seven.”

Codes are written down in small notebooks carried by each cadet. The notebooks are weather resistant and pens can write in the rain.

Inside the tactical operations center – a tent on the access road, which is close enough to hear the sound of mock battles in the woods nearby – a small heater drives off the late-day chill.

Preparing for the training exercises requires an arduous process, according to Senior Cadet Kristen Bailey.

Charts on display provide the seniors and instructors with precise locations of each of the cadets and determine when supplies are needed and when equipment is available.

Juniors and sophomores are given grades of not to standard, standard and excellent.

Cadets are graded for each stage of the lane exercise, including those teaching ambush, movement to contact, reconnaissance, and attacking a fortified position.

Other than Bucknell, Susquehanna and Bloomsburg, the battalion consists of students from Lycoming College and Pennsylvania College of Technology – and every movement of the men and women is carefully controlled and monitored at the tactical operations center.

More discussion of the summer ahead at Fort Lewis is shared.

The cadets will go on more foot patrols additional training variations to prepare them physically and mentally, and to measure their leadership abilities and skills. The training ends with a 10-kilometer victory march to the barracks, final assessments and retesting, if needed, White said.

“You know how high school students prepare themselves for standardized assessment tests?” he said. “It’s the same concept and the basis for how the officers are evaluated.”

Depending on how the cadets do at Fort Lewis, can affect the job they get and whether they are put on active or reserve duty, he said.

Cadets are pushed to get high points, good grades and do well on physical and mental training exercises. They are encouraged and get merit points for joining service clubs and organizations that help the community and promote leadership skills.

“We exercise here in preparation for the summer training,” White said. “We involve the sophomore and juniors to get used to that stress before heading into their upper years. We try to teach responsibilities, such as team leaders, who are responsible for three to four people.”

The teamwork between the battalion and the Boy Scouts leadership also is symbiotic.

“The Boy Scouts of America permits the battalion to conduct training and, in turn, the battalion helps the by providing camp masters to tend to the facility. On weekends, the cadets mentor and work with the Boy Scouts, teaching them their leadership skills,” White said.