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  Saturday in the Field

By Jocelyn Kelly '02 Photos by Mike Ciesielski

As the sun rises over a barren field at the Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Baltimore, the ROTC cadets from the Johns Hopkins Blue Jay Battalion line up in rows of nine. Their packs sit like strange green boulders in front of them.

They are here on this Saturday morning in March to do simulated battle. Over the course of the next 14 hours, they will engage in seven mini-missions -- such as planning an ambush or recon of an enemy site.

One of the commanding officers in the Cadre will observe and evaluate each cadet on his or her leadership and tactical know-how. At the end of the day, the cadets will meet with the Cadre to discuss their performance and receive a score that will ultimately be factored into their annual performance evaluation, based on their physical fitness, their leadership abilities, their GPA, their extracurricular activities, and their military knowledge.

For many of the underclassmen, this is the first practical experience they will have in the field.

Many of the cadets are wearing thick straps covered with round metal sensors across their chests and around their heads. The sensors pick up infrared signals from specially equipped M-16s and beep to let the wearer know if he or she has been "shot." One beep indicates a wound; more than one means you are dead. This morning, several cadets persist in beeping. Striding past, Capt. Joseph Lee Mudd says, "Hear that? It's dead people."

He goes to get the "god" gun, the one with a master key that can stop the beeping, the one that can bring cadets back to life. But the beeping begins again. Exasperated, Mudd says, "If you're going off, raise your hand!"

Cadet Jen Smith, a Hopkins senior, is in the first squad with 10 other cadets and Mudd as the evaluator. As the students tramp down a dirt road that stretches through the dry yellow grass and into the barren woods, the mood is jovial.

"Anybody got binoculars?" someone asks.

"I've got these high-speed, high-tech goggles," says one cadet, pointing to her glasses.

Another cadet with even thicker spectacles grins and replies, "We can put ours together and see Mars from here."

Field training gives ROTC cadets practical experience in weapons use, tactics, and land navigation. Walking on the soft cover of leaves and rotting branches, the cadets keep their heads on a swivel as they creep deeper into the woods with their guns at the ready. Above the crunch of leaves and the cawing of crows, there is the persistent clink of metal on metal. "Whoever sounds like a damn wind chime needs to secure their ammunition," says Mudd. The clinking stops.

Mudd explains to his squad, "These exercises are designed to give you a feel for small-unit tactics, so you know troop-leading procedure. I know I'm always calling you out if you don't have your buttons buttoned or your shoelaces tucked in, but that kind of attention to detail is what keeps you and your people alive in the field."

The morning progresses, and by 1205, the first squad stops to have a quick lunch and plan for the movement-to-contact exercise. Cadet Marc Hohman, a Hopkins senior, and Cadet Mark Marder, a senior at Towson, are in charge of the exercise. They will pretend to be the enemy force, laying down a steady stream of fire. The first squad cadets take off their helmets to expose sweat-soaked hair to the cool breeze and open their MREs: Meals Ready to Eat. Each cardboard lunch box contains a balanced meal of at least 3,200 calories. The box with "vegetable pasta" stenciled on the outside contains pasta in red sauce, pears, crackers, peanut butter, fruit candy, peanuts (shelled and roasted), iodized salt, a small bottle of Tabasco sauce, iced tea mix, spiced cider mix, a towelette, and a book of matches. As the cadets stare into space, chewing dazedly after the morning's exercises, Mudd begins to map out the mission.

"Your mission is to destroy or suppress the enemy. Once the command is given, move out in wedge formation. Once contact is made, get down and seek cover. You will capture, not destroy, the weapons."

When he is done, the squad huddles, brushing off the dry leaves from the forest floor and using scraps of MRE packaging to map out the mission. Fifteen minutes later, Mudd whistles and throws a firecracker into the air six feet behind the gathered squad.


Rapid shots ring out from the forest. The cadets run and form a circle with their backs to the center. They all fire three shots toward the enemy, then drop back farther into the woods amid a steady stream of fire. One of the cadets has opened a smoke screen can. The billowing green smoke carries an acrid smell through the trees as scattered voices shout.

"Got him!"

"Enemy at 1 o'clock! Fifteen meters!"

"I'm hit!"

"One man down, one man down!"

As the smoke settles, beeping noises come from the leaves. The cadets in the first squad who are still standing shout, "Safe!"

Two enemy soldiers have been secured: one dead, one captured. Smith and Morgan State University's Cadet Gerald Sims cover Hohman, the surviving enemy, with their M-16s.

"I surrender," he says, and puts down his M-16. They creep closer and closer, guns to their shoulders, sighting him through their barrels. He stays crouched in the leaves.

Smith and Sims repeatedly shout, "Put up your hands!" as they approach the crouching soldier. Their faces are covered with sweat that beads over their green and brown face paint. Hohman suddenly reaches into his boot and pulls out a .45 automatic. Smith and Sims bury him in fire as he shoots them both in the chest.

Of the 10 cadets in the first squad, four have died. Two more are wounded. In the aftermath, the four other members of the squad run over to the bodies lying in the leaves.

"We need a primary care litter, now!" one yells above a comrade who is beeping quietly.

"Aw, it's OK," he says good-naturedly. "I've probably bled to death by now."

As the first unit reviews its performance on the movement-to-contact exercise, Sims seems furious. Finally he blurts out, "That wasn't fair! He surrendered, but he shot us anyway!"

"No," Mudd agrees, "it's not fair. It's war."

Go to Ready to Serve
Go to Toward Controlling Fear

Return to September 2002 Table of Contents

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