GREENOUGH — The morning drizzle let up shortly after sunrise and the high hills of the Garnet Range held a dusting of snow. The cadets training in the woods below grabbed their rifle and compass and set off into the forest.
Cadets from across the state enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps gathered in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest on Friday, launching a three-day training exercise aimed at developing their leadership skills and honing their proficiency in the field.
Members of the Grizzly Battalion – a combined program of the University of Montana and Carroll College – joined others from Montana State University Billings, and members of the Montana National Guard’s Officer Candidate School, for the weekend drill.
“This outing is unprecedentedly large,” said Ben Palmer, a cadet and public affairs officer from UM. “They’re being evaluated on the dimensions of leadership. It’s their proficiency performing certain tasks and their confidence when carrying them out.”
Lt. Col. Micheal Swinson, professor of military science at UM, stood with his senior staff at a bivouac site near a crackling fire. Cadets wandered the woods, navigating from point to point with map and compass on the first leg of their land navigation course.
For Swinson, who moved to Montana with his family from North Carolina, training the Army’s future officers is serious business. The program’s junior cadets will attend the Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Wash., this summer. Those who complete the program and graduate college will receive their commission as second lieutenants in the Army.
“This is their capstone exercise in being commissioned after graduating their senior year,” Swinson said. “This is the final big test – their practical exercise. It’s the most important piece of their ROTC career up to this point, and it’s a big deal for them.”
The cadets – nearly 120 strong this weekend – could someday find themselves leading troops into battle or taking other leadership roles, and it’s Swinson’s job to ensure they’re prepared.
The path through the ROTC program includes physical and tactical training, military history, leadership and ethics. In the field, they’ll tackle land navigation both day and night, and squad-level tactical exercises.
“We want to ensure we have the same quality officer in the National Guard as we have on the active-duty side,” said Swinson. “We continue to see folks interested in serving, even as we draw down our troops, and with the war fatigue.”
Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and the nation – if not the military itself – becomes fatigued from years of combat, interest among younger generations in military service remains strong.
Maj. Trent Gibson, the OCS commander for Montana Guard’s 208th Regimental Training Institute, believes his new officer candidates are better prepared than those in the past. They know what they’re signing up for, and they know what they could be asked to do in the future.
“I think that brings in a higher-quality soldier,” Gibson said. “The candidates we get now are better. The wars have brought stronger candidates to the OCS program.”
Gibson’s cadets in OCS are training alongside those in the ROTC program. Both programs offer candidates a path in becoming a commissioned officer in the Army, though they differ slightly in their approach.
ROTC candidates train in college classroom and field settings over a period of four years. Those in OCS – many of them prior enlisted with a college degree – complete a course condensed into roughly 54 days.
“The environment is a lot more strict because of the shortness of the program,” Gibson said. “The intensity is higher and the demands on them are higher since we have a shorter time to do it. A lot of these guys are combat veterans.”
But most cadets here in the woods have never seen the battlefield, though their commitment to serve remains strong.
Melissa Burkett, a Carroll College senior and member of the Grizzly Battalion, described herself as fourth-generation military – proud service dating back to her great-grandfather’s days in the Army, her grandfather’s time in the Marines, and her parents’ service in the Air Force.
Toss in a sister in the Air Force, a brother in the Marines and her aunts, uncles and cousins who served, and her decision to train as an Army officer came easy.
“My mother told me I could choose to do whatever I wanted,” Burkett said. “I knew I wanted to serve and give back to my country, and to be a nurse for soldiers.”