Weekend in the woods

Mason cadets create and train in real-world Army scenarios at Quantico



Mason ROTC cadets spent four days outdoors at Marine Corps Base Quantico in an annual spring Joint Field Training Exercise (JTFX) along with ROTC cadets from five other universities, utilizing new exercises curated by the senior classes.

About 130 Mason Cadets left the comfort of campus on March 30 onto buses driving them 29 miles away to training sites used by Marines and the FBI.

The weekend of tactical training included new situations such as night land navigation through the woods, urban training and learning how to interact with people from other countries, called key leader engagements.

JTFX is the ROTC’s “big capstone event” to practice platoon level training in a real-world environment, said senior Stephen Gemelli, operations officer for the event. The event is a joint effort between the ROTC programs of three host schools: Mason, Howard University and Georgetown University.

As an operations officer, Gemelli was in contact with the operations officers of the other universities, and together, they created the concept for the training, though the entire class of Military Science IV (MSIV)’s contributed.

“All [the MSIV’s] have is the location that is provided to us by our cadre, who are real officers in the Army and our Professors,” Gemelli said.

At JTFX, each class level, from freshman to senior, or MSI to MSIV, is meant to learn important aspects of Army life specific to their year.

MSI’s learn essential soldier skills, creeds and oaths. MSII’s learn to lead small teams of four to five people. MSIII’s then take on tasks of real platoon sergeants, encompassing leading larger groups of soldiers and being accountable.

Once the cadets work their way up to MSIV level, they begin to work behind the scenes planning and coordinating with other leaders, directing and being quick to adapt to unexpected encounters.

For this year’s JTFX, the MSIV’s adaptation test came in the form of weather. With a forecast of heavy downpour for the weekend, the cadets had to prepare accordingly.

The rainfall came during the most physically challenging event of the weekend – the 9-mile ruck, a hike the cadets went on while carrying 35-40 pounds of army gear, according to Gemelli.

“We wound up with some individuals who were injured and we had to take care of them accordingly, send some people home. The challenge at that point was, is what we’re going to do next going to work if everyone is so exhausted?” Gemelli said. “Thinking of the other cadet’s best interest is the hardest part.”

After hiking in the rain all day, the cadets needed to prepare to sleep outdoors during rainfall as well. Part of their training included setting up hooches, or makeshift tents made of their ponchos, to sleep in.

“A majority of the time we slept in patrol bases, which is a temporary location site that has established security,” said Ronika Ray, an MSIII and a key leader during the weekend.

But according to Ray, even the sleep portion of the weekend was a part of training for real world Army life.

“Since it’s still a tactical environment, you have to have a certain percent of security at all times. So we were assigned certain times of the night that we had to wake up and pull security,” Ray said.

As a Key Leader, Ray also had to stay up to go over Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs) and prepare with other MSIII leaders for the next day, a lesson in itself on comradery and teamwork she added.

“Your battles are what get you through the tough times because they’re embracing the suck along with you. The support and morale boost you get from your team is something you can’t replicate elsewhere,” Ray said.

The unique formation of comradery between cadets from different schools is not the only thing that cannot be replicated outside of JFTX, according to Chris Satalia, an MSI. Satalia said the onsite training at Quantico provided resources and more opportunity to thoroughly practice what students learned in ROTC Lab.

One of the practices was a Military Operation in Urban Terrain (MOUT), which is a breach and clearing of a building.

On campus, “we can’t walk around the building with our rubber guns, so we don’t get much of that experience,” said Satalia, who was a first-timer at JTFX this Spring. “But at JFTX we’re constantly moving and there’s something else to do, something else to learn about.”

Satalia worked with teams of 10-30 people through the weekend, enduring blistered hikes with his Battle Buddy, a cadet that trains with you, and a cold night staying up for hour-long Firewatch duty, which entails keeping watch to maintain security and be prepared for emergencies overnight.

“On the way there I was kind of excited but a little nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with everybody else. But when I came back it was an accomplishment for me because I did the ruck, I did all that training and learned a lot from other schools,” Satalia said.

Ultimately, ROTC’s goal is for the cadets to come back with experiences applicable to Army operations after graduation and to make sure that cadets are properly prepared for their Summer training, according to Gemelli.

Gemelli mentioned that he sees the MSIs come to JFTX realizing that the ROTC program is “the real deal” and that it’s “time to get down to work and really execute everything they’ve learned in ROTC labs.”

Gemelli said the five months of formulating JFTX and facilitating the weekend has been a large commitment but executing the teachings of on campus lessons with real-world scenario training helps to “constantly growing our pool of knowledge within the battalion so we can make our training better for future years and generations.”