A weekend in the woods: ROTC seniors look to the future

In the early morning of Friday, April 19, a group of 29 young men and women fill a rumbling bus rolling west toward Missoula. Some are sound asleep, others hunched over textbooks or talking quietly.

These students will not apply for jobs or graduate school when they finish their time at MSU. They will not crash in their parents’ basements or dedicate endless hours to crafting the perfect resumes. Their fates are not uncertain after graduation, like so many others’. They are U.S. Army cadets in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and on this day, they are on their way to spring field training exercises in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest in northwest Montana.

In exchange for a college education, cadets are obligated to serve in the military after graduation as commissioned officers for a contractual duration — usually four years. The ROTC program offers military science classes, and cadets are required to attended regular physical training, labs and training exercises.

Next month, eight graduating cadets will receive their officer commissions as second lieutenants as part of Commencement. Within a year, the new officers will report for duty or training in an additional skill, at one of the numerous U.S. Army bases across the country.

The field training exercise, known as an “FTX” in military jargon, tests both the juniors (MS III cadets) and the seniors (MS IV cadets). The juniors are evaluated on 17 leadership dimensions. Their scores will follow them to the Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC), and contribute to their overall standing among cadets nationwide.

The senior-year cadets, having made it through the evaluations last year, train and evaluate the juniors and are responsible for organizing the FTX in preparation for the leadership roles they will undertake after graduation.

On the bus, the seniors share their own experiences: “They filled my pack with rocks!”

“Once you stop worrying about evals, it’s fun, man. It’s so much fun.”

This summer, the juniors will go to the LDAC course, which is a significant test of their abilities and potential. The course always thins the field of cadets as participants fail or wash out, and performance at LDAC affects their future branch placements, Cadet Corey Godfrey explains. There is pressure to do well, and the senior class has spent the year making sure the juniors are ready.

On Friday night, Battalion Commander Sean Stoneham walks the night land navigation course, checking in on his cadets and brushing up on his land navigation skills. He is small and intense, all-American handsome with a fat lip of chew. Stoneham is the top cadet, and as battalion commander, he is in charge.

He talks with ease about each cadet, the ROTC program, and how one can find his way using a pace count, a compass or elevation. Stoneham is assigned to train in one of the “combat arms” of the Army, meaning one of the branches closest to front-line operations, such as infantry or armor. He also wants to earn additional qualification as an Army Ranger — an elite group. He is practicing his night-time land navigation to ensure success during his required Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC).

Under Stoneham is Cadet Ashley Hibbison, the battalion’s second-in-charge or executive officer. Known as the “XO” for short, Hibbison is in charge of most things that happen within the battalion.

“She’s like our boss,” explained Cadet David Hamer. “She’s quiet at first, but when she needs something done…,” his voice trails off with an impressed smile.

Both Hamer and Stoneham agree that Hibbison has an eye for details, an impressive work ethic and is humble — to the point that by Saturday night, Stoneham orders her out of the “TOC,” or 24-hour tactical operation center, and into bed. This summer, she will be on the Opposition Force Committee at leadership summer camp, meaning that she will “enemy” the opposing junior-level cadets attending the training. After that, she will head to BOLC, her officer’s basic qualification training, before assuming her military intelligence position at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Seniors Hamer, Jess Patrick, Riley Rice, Jonny Seidl and Casey Urbanski scatter throughout Lubrecht Forest, evaluating junior cadets and dying dramatic deaths in mock skirmishes as the simulated “war games” progress.

Hamer is the well-loved smart-aleck of the battalion. He is articulate, knowledgeable and always ready with a charmingly disparaging comment and grin. Although he says he struggled with grades throughout his undergraduate career, he managed to get the placement he wanted. He has been chosen for infantry training and leaves for officer basic at Fort Benning, Ga. the day after graduation.

“Hamer’s the luckiest guy in ROTC,” his buddy said.

Rice is also a bit of an oddball, according to his peers. They call him “Curley” because he showed up for the first day of ROTC with a frizzy mop of red hair. Rice will train in supply and logistics as a quartermaster officer at Fort Lee, Va., and then be assigned to the 75th Field Artillery Brigade at Fort Sill, Okla.

“ROTC gives you discipline and service in your life and helps you as a student and as a person, and it develops you. And I think we’re all trying to get that,” Rice said. “It makes you feel good.”

Patrick is graduating with a degree in animal science and is heading for training at Fort Sill, Okla.

Seidl, an evaluator for the three days in Lubrecht, is a political science major from Tennessee. After he graduates, he is returning home to join the Army National Guard.

The cadet public-affairs officer, Godfrey, will join the Montana Army National Guard as an officer in the 163rd Cavalry Regiment near Belgrade. Godfrey is tall, soft-spoken and professional. With the Guard, he plans to continue his education, working toward a masters of divinity and an Army chaplain position.

“It’s an important job,” he said. “There’s guys out there that could really use help.”

Urbanski is the old man of the group, and gets teased to no end. At 28, he spent time as an enlisted active-duty airman before joining the Army Guard. Urbanski is the lone cadet from MSU who will serve in Army aviation — his destination is Fort Rucker, Ala.

Mo Harbac, the program’s supply technician, retired from the Army, has to put up with the group. “They’re a handful,” she said fondly, “and full of themselves. But there’s not one of those kids I wouldn’t take to war with me if I had to go back tomorrow.”

It is also the end of Lt. Col. James West’s time at MSU before his retirement as the Army ROTC commanding officer. He extended his stay from the typical three-year stint to four, and has been with the graduating class for its members’ entire ROTC careers. As the MS IV instructor, he is intimately aware of their merits.

“They’re the best class we’ve put out in my four years,” he said.

On the bus ride home from Lubrecht, junior Eli Guzik leads the customary military after-action review or AAR, and discusses changes and improvements for next year. As fat, wet flakes whip against the windshield, Stoneham hushed his fellow seniors to let the juniors have the floor.

“This is their AAR,” he said. And so most of the MS IVs — the graduating seniors — sleep until pulling up to Romney Gym to unload their rucksacks, probably for the last time.