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University of Hawaii ROTC cadets train amid growing tensions in Pacific

A U.S. Marine jumps during airborne operations Feb. 9, 2021, at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii. (Ssgt.Walter F. "Trae"Cohee III Detachment/Marine Corps)

They will be the future leaders of a military currently grappling with an uncertain future as the services struggle to meet recruitment goals and geopolitical tensions increasingly heat up.

After a long day of training at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, a platoon of cadets from the University of Hawaii’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program began to prepare a patrol base for the night, when they would trade off sleeping or keeping watch for an enemy attack.

They spent Friday conducting simulated combat missions, while carrying heavy loads of gear through thick jungle foliage under the baking sun. Now as the sun went down, the bugs came out. The ground came alive with roaches and other bugs that would keep the cadets company as they slept. Their exchanges began to grow heated as the tired cadets were shuffled around as they set up defensive positions in the thick brush.

“The hands-on experience really pushes you to the limits, especially being in a leadership position, ” said Cadet Devin Albano, a college junior, as he lay prone guarding the group with his rifle as others continued setting up camp. “Dealing with this many people in a hot disgusting environment, everyone’s pissed off. Dealing with that really tests your leadership abilities and working under pressure.”

But Albano said that it’s ultimately something he looks forward to, saying that it’s taught him about himself and the cadets around him. Between missions and in slow moments they talk and bond through the experience. “You get close in the field, ” he said.

The cadets spent the weekend in the area as part of their annual three-day spring field training exercise, which is meant to test them on the skills they’ve learned over the academic year and prepare the college juniors in the program for leadership camp at Fort Knox, Ky., this summer as they move toward their final year in college and eventual commissioning as Army officers.

ROTC cadets pursue a regular academic major as full-time students, but also attend classes on military professional development, do physical training in the mornings and participate in occasional field training exercises like the one at Bellows. Those who receive scholarships get their tuition paid for and are under contract to serve as officers in return.

They will be the future leaders of a military currently grappling with an uncertain future as the services struggle to meet recruitment goals and geopolitical tensions increasingly heat up—particularly in the Pacific amid fraying relations with China. Oahu, the home of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, is the nerve center of U.S. operations in the region.

During training cadets practiced boarding and getting dropped off by helicopters flown by pilots out of Wheeler Army Airfield and had experienced veterans serving in various units around the island onsite as trainers and evaluators, as well as some playing the role of enemy forces.

“Us being in Hawaii gives us crazy opportunities that other cadets don’t ever have for training, ” Albano said.

But pulling this exercise together wasn’t easy and the training still lacks many of the resources a normal military exercise would normally have. They have to borrow weapons for the training and were short on blank rounds. Several cadets who lacked the ammo to shoot shouted “bang, bang, bang ” during simulated fighting engagements.

Master Sgt. John Kitzmiller, a seasoned infantryman who has served as one of UH ROTC’s enlisted instructors, said that the program relies on relationships with other military organizations around the island to get ahold of spare equipment and personnel and put on training events.

“We’ve had to leverage a lot of support, like on the island, ” said Kitzmiller. He motioned to several active duty soldiers from Schofield Barracks and said “these people came out through their own. They were not tasked, they volunteered.”

Among the cadets is a mixture of fresh recruits with no military experience and prior enlisted military veterans-turned college students hoping to become officers. Cadet Carlin Wegley is a UH freshman, but he served five years in the infantry. He said it’s been interesting to see where the officers he once answered to came from.

“I like seeing how officers are trained, ” he said. “You know, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done with them.”

Just moments before the interview he had been grilling cadets on how they were setting up their patrol base.

“I yell at them because I want to help hold them to a higher standard, ” he said. “But I definitely love seeing the other side of things coming from being prior enlisted … I’m actually glad I get to be here for four years, so I can help train up the (freshmen and sophomores ).”

Kitzmiller said that while many of the cadets haven’t been through basic training and don’t have the sorts of resources as students at military academies, students coming up through ROTC programs like the one at UH bring their own talents and experiences to how they approach military leadership. UH’s program has produced several generals.

“You look at a lot of these people, they already have families, and they live in a very expensive state to live, ” Kitzmiller said. “Some of these people are working multiple jobs, supporting a family while getting a degree and pursuing a future as an Army officer. I think the Army needs leaders like that, who can do that.”

Kitzmiller said that while the military trains people for certain jobs, it constantly pulls and reassigns people to positions and places far outside of what they know.

“I am learning so much, it’s overwhelming, ” said Abigail Pratt, a UH sophomore who joined the program this year. “So much planning goes into it and there’s such, like, minute details that you have to personally memorize.”

“It’s my first time like ever having this weapon, ” she said, referencing the heavy M-249 SAW machine gun she had lugged around all of Friday. “It’s heavy. It’s weird. It’s awkward. But I have so many people (who have experience ), so it’s a really cool learning environment.”

Pratt, 23, got her associate degree but decided she wouldn’t pursue a four-year degree until she knew what she wanted out of it. She said she’d always had an interest in the military but was discouraged from pursuing it. But now four years later she has decided to finally follow her calling. “It’s kinda cliche, but I wanted something bigger than myself, ” she said.

As darkness fell over the cadets, Pratt pointed her machine gun out into the night, providing security for her fellow cadets. She said a friend of hers asked what she would be doing if she wasn’t training.

“I’m doing right now what I’ve dreamt of doing since I was a little girl, ” she said. “You know, most girls want to be princesses and dress up in fairy tales—I got in trouble for throwing rocks at other kids because I pretended they were grenades.”

Most of the instructors’ military experience has been defined by the post-9 /11 conflicts hunting terrorists and insurgents in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Kitzmiller said that “as somebody who’s at the end of his career, it makes me very happy to see that I get to impart some of the things that I’ve learned over the last 20 years … also it makes me very confident in what’s coming up after us.”

But the future Army officers could see themselves fighting battles that look very different from anything their instructors have ever experienced.

The bloody fighting in Ukraine has offered a sobering look into what large-scale conflict in the 21st century looks like as both sides face off with tanks, artillery and aircraft in battles that have killed thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. In just over a year the Russian military is believed by some estimates to have lost as many as 110, 000 troops—much more than the roughly 7, 000 troops that the U.S. military lost over two decades of the war on terror.

American military leaders watching the war in Ukraine unfold are now wrapping their heads around scenarios where American troops could suffer much higher casualties than any other time in recent history. Back on campus at the UH Army ROTC building, a wall is adorned with the names and photos of graduates who have died over the years.

As military planners look at the changing face of warfare, there are fears that the list of names could grow much larger if hostilities with China continue to escalate.

China is currently embroiled in territorial disputes with its neighbors and rapidly building up its military arsenal. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is particularly focused on Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing considers a rogue province and vowed to bring under its control by military force if necessary. Regional leaders across the Pacific have called on the United States and China to lower the temperature on tensions.

But exchanges between diplomats have become increasingly chilly as relations deteriorate. U.S. military officials in the Pacific say the Chinese military has not responded to attempts to reestablish lines of communication they once maintained to avoid conflict. Meanwhile, China has accused the United States of provocation as it continues to seek closer ties with countries around the region.

Diplomats and military leaders alike say they hope to avert such a conflict. But at Bellows, Kitzmiller said that when it comes to the cadets, his job is “trying to teach them … ‘I am the commander on the ground, I am making the decision right now where the rubber meets the road.’ I can’t prepare you for every single situation, but if I can teach you how to think it will serve you down the road.”


(c) 2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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