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Army ROTC Cadets Gain Leadership By Playing Paintball

By Joanne Shih

It is barely past 8:30 a.m. and everyone I see looks alert, alive, and ready to go. Not your typical MIT morning scene, but for the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program hosted by the Institute, such is the norm, if not actually a few hours later than usual.

On Sept. 16, 2006, I spent a gorgeous Saturday with a group of around 20 new Army ROTC cadets, a few of which are MIT students, for orientation at Camp Curtis Guild in western Massachusetts, a day-long event that covered everything from weapons training to tactical instruction to group formations to MRE’s (Meal, Ready-to-Eat).

A number of the new cadets were accepted to West Point or other prestigious academies but chose the Paul Revere Battalion, based at MIT, instead. Touted as the best ROTC program in the nation, the battalion is comprised of students from MIT, Harvard University, Tufts University, Wellesley College, Salem State College, Endicott College, and Gordon College.

Surprisingly, this year was the first time such an orientation has been held. In previous years, new cadets had to try their best to fit in with the older, more experienced cadets on the first day of training, which is stressful enough when no one knows anyone else’s name. Imagine trying to march and follow orders on top of that!

Allan B. Reyes ’07, one of a handful of senior cadets who planned and executed the day-long camp, remarked that the purpose is two-fold, both to “welcome them into the family” and to “help new cadets [know] what’s expected so they don’t feel lost.”

So what is expected? I would find out soon. But before we pile into cars to leave for the camp, I overhear some cadets talking about paintball, one of the activities scheduled for later that day. Sounds like harmless fun, until Captain Eric D. McKinney catches me and a Tech photographer listening. He playfully warns us that “you guys are fair game, too.”

At 9:45 a.m., we reach Camp Curtis Guild, a sprawl of land with a few buildings surrounded by trees and marshy fields perfect for combat practice, and training begins almost immediately. The cadets split up into two squads for the morning activities.

First up: the weapons simulator, or Engagement Skills Training. Although in some ways the simulation is similar to an extremely large video game, this is no game. All the weapons are real, and the cadets practice in virtual settings including an urban and a forest one. I try the M249, otherwise known as the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon), a gun that is practically bigger than my five-foot-three frame. The gunshots are deafening but I manage to come out unscathed, as do all of the targets I try to shoot.

After an hour of combat training, we move on to tactical instruction, where the cadets learn individual movement techniques. These include different ways to crawl on terrain in various situations. Thankfully, I am not properly garbed to join in with them but I admit it looks as if it would build some major character.

Other skills and techniques covered involve a “buddy rush” tactic, where two cadets at a time cover terrain by alternately covering each other while the other moves forward, and weapons and rifle safety, an extremely important lesson as shooting someone on your side unintentionally is something to avoid at all costs.

The cadets get to put this new-found knowledge to practical use in the most anticipated event of the day: paintballing.

As the afternoon unfolds, new cadets assume leadership positions in their paintball squads, gradually becoming more and more confident in their tactics, orders, and in themselves.

According to Major Diana L. Gibbs, advantages of choosing the Army ROTC program include full scholarship, more choices in majors in comparison to other ROTC programs, and opportunities after graduation into any branch of the army. For many of the new cadets, these practical reasons were superseded by other factors such as camaraderie, service, leadership, and experience. For others, as in the case of Kael Kmiecik, a freshman at Harvard, family tradition also played a determining role. Playing sports in high school was yet another factor - some cadets, including Harvard sophomore Jimmy Garmendia, wanted to be part of a team again.

The orientation was not only a learning experience for the new cadets but for the seniors as well, who were evaluated throughout the day by their superiors. McKinney, one of the evaluators, explained that the day was hands-on skill management, a good experience for the cadets who will be graduating at the end of the year.

But the main purpose of Saturday’s excursion, in addition to improving retention, was for adjustment to everything from weighty boots to early mornings. And even though the camp leaders insist “We can’t teach leadership,” the day certainly does a fine job of starting to develop it.