Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Story From My Past

Happy Independence Day. In honor of Independence Day, I thought I'd post a little story from my past. Not really specifically uplifting, not about technology, but a story from my past while I was in the Air Force, teaching ROTC at the University of Maryland.

First, a little background.

In 2004, I was sent to train ROTC cadets, most college sophomores (soon to be juniors), at ROTC Field Training, a 28 day training experience where the cadets learn leadership, followership, and team building skills in a controlled, stressful environment. That's the nice way of saying it.

Field Training Officers or FTOs were assigned to each flight (the smallest unit in the Air Force, like a squad in the Army). Three flights to a squadron. Being the ranking officer in my squadron, I was the squadron FTO, with 2 captains under me. Each of us started with 24 to 28 cadets to train. Each flight also had a Cadet Training Assistant or CTA who was a junior (soon to be senior) who showed aptitude and leadership at field training last year, to help the FTOs with the flight. I also had a squadron CTA that rotated through the squadron and up to the wing (the next higher level, similar to a battalion if squadron = company). So that's 2 captains and 4 soon to be lieutenants (which the Field Training commander, an AF colonel told us to treat as we would lieutenants).

We were all given information on the cadets we would have in our flights, but you can only learn so much from paperwork. GPA, basic aptitude, etc. But that doesn't tell you 2 major things we were looking for; leadership and stress management. They (those in charge of the entire camp) also ensured we would not have cadets from where we taught college. Each cadet would be assigned a room in the dorm, 2 to a room, 2 rooms to a bathroom.

Enough background. Here we go.

It was my week to pick who the cadet squadron commander would be. I had a cadet who was falling into the background as much as possible, but had great paperwork. He just wasn't stepping up. Time for a little push. After discussion with my captains and the CTAs, we agreed, Cadet Johnson (not his name. In fact, I can't remember his name) was the choice for cadet squadron commander.

When it was announced, he looked shocked. This was to be a big week. We were supposed to go through preparation for "deployment" to "the field" for 3 days. That included a 5 mile road march (wow, 5 whole miles!) in formation through a supposed hostile environment. Squadron commanders were to control all three flights in their squadrons, through their respective flight commanders.

It was going well until they came "under fire". Cadet Johnson lost total control of his flights, as well as his composure. I pointed at him and yelled (he was about 100' away) "You're dead. Fall in with your flight." Not angry, just loud. What I call "the dad voice". Cadet Johnson complied, angry and flustered. Now a new squadron commander had to be selected, but I let the flight commanders decide what to do, since there was an order of succession laid out. They did it correctly. A few other squadron commanders "died" that day.

That evening, we let Cadet Johnson know he was back in as squadron commander for the remainder of his scheduled time. He didn't look happy.

The next day went as well as can be expected in the first 2 weeks of field training. Lots of frustration and mistakes under pressure, which is what we wanted. Cadet Johnson was very frustrated, and didn't respond well to the stresses of 3 "real officers" yelling at him, as well as 4 CTAs.

That evening was when it got interesting. During inspection prep time, when cadets were supposed to be getting everything ready for the next day, Cadet Johnson and his roommate had their door closed (which was not allowed). My CTA noticed the issue, and stood in the hall, listening at the door. He could hear Cadet Johnson ranting about his time as cadet squadron commander.

"If Major Stratton and Cadet Moier (my CTA) think they can tear me down like this, just wait until we go to the firing range with the 9mm! I'll show them. They won't come back" is something close to what Cadet Johnson said. It didn't take long for my CTA to open the door and try to find out what was going on. Neither of us was used to death threats.

That was a long night. Between that point (about 9pm or so) and 11pm, Cadet Johnson saw every real officer in his chain of command starting with me, all the way up to the Colonel in charge of the camp. It was decided that he would not remain at field training (I decided that about 2 hours before!) and that he would immediately be removed from the area around his flight. He was moved to the staff building (didn't make me feel much better) and was constantly watched, not allowed to leave his new room. Also during that time he was interviewed by the real base security forces, since there was an actual crime here. The determined he was not a threat to anyone (again, didn't make me feel much better).

Cadet Johnson was removed from field training with prejudice, in other words, he was removed from ROTC completely and would never be allowed to serve in the military. He was sent home about 4 days after the incident, due to flight scheduling. After that point, my flight began to gel together as a team. Although they never won an award during field training, they were constantly just below the waterline, but the winning flight was different every time. My flight was the number 1 flight of field training in all areas.

I've lost contact with my cadets from field training. I hope most of them are still serving. The ones that completed field training were outstanding Americans, and I knew they would be excellent officers. I really miss them. Even though I was "the bad guy" always yelling and correcting them, they knew that I genuinely cared about each of them as individuals, and wanted them to succeed. We also had lots of fun during that time. My job was to make it as hard as possible for them, but not to be hard on them. After Cadet Johnson left, they understood why I was there. There was no stopping them after that.

If you are currently in, or have served in any branch of the military, thanks you for your service.


Chris Alter said...

Looking back on my short millitary career, one of he people that had the biggest impact on it was my MTI. Even though he yelled, cussed and called me worthless he was in no way the "bad guy." they and you had a job to prepare airmen and cadets for service in a time of war. Without their leadership this would not get done. So thank you for our service and guidance.