Training and educating the next generation of U.S. Army officers has always been the mission of EWU’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, “Fighting Eagle” Battalion. That mission has become much more challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic, relegating all classes and activities to a virtual environment.
“Many things for students at EWU are not normal now,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Stafford, chair of the military science department. “We wanted to make our new normal as close to the same award-winning ROTC experience we are known for as possible.”
ROTC allows students, referred to as cadets, a chance to explore a career in the military through the military science department and, if the cadet chooses, the opportunity to earn a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Lt. Col. Stafford said that cadets are still executing morning physical training (PT), military science classes and meetings.
“The classroom portions of our military science curriculum have been the easiest to execute,” said Lt. Col. Stafford. “I am confident we are giving them near-equivalent instruction to what they would have received in a traditional classroom setting.”
“The classroom portions of our military science curriculum have been the easiest to execute,” -Lt. Col. Stafford, Chair of the Military Science Department
Other aspects of the program are more difficult to conduct in a virtual environment and have required creative solutions. Leadership Labs, where cadets spend time in the field applying small unit tactics learned in the classroom, for instance, are interactive in nature, forcing the ROTC Cadre to get creative.
“Each platoon enters their own world on Fortnite where they have to work together to execute raids, ambushes, movements to contact and other small unit tactics,” said Lt. Col. Stafford.
Cadets communicate in real-time through the Discord app and ROTC Cadre plays the role of enemy forces. Lt. Col. Stafford said that the Fortnite platform was chosen because it is free to download and the creative mode allows Cadre to construct virtual worlds for cadets to train in.
“We wanted to maintain the interactive nature of our labs and not turn it into just another Powerpoint class,” said Lt. Col. Stafford.
Physical training, conducted by cadets three mornings a week, also required creative solutions. Cadets meet over Zoom to conduct warm-up drills and body-weight exercises, while running is tracked with Strava, a fitness-based social network app that tracks mileage.
“The impact of the social media aspect of the Strava app has been interesting,” said Lt. Col. Stafford. “We’ve not only gotten to see pictures of our cadets working out at different locations, but we’ve been able to challenge and hold each other accountable.”
Still, many aspects of the ROTC program cannot be replicated in a virtual environment. The ROTC program has already canceled the spring field training exercise (FTX), an event that gives cadets a chance to apply what they have learned in a simulated combat situation.
“We were disappointed that we had to cancel our Spring FTX,” said Lt. Col. Stafford. “The realistic training environment using helicopters, smoke grenades, artillery simulators, thousands and thousands of rounds of blank ammunition, and a dedicated opposing enemy force is impossible to recreate virtually.”
Additional training opportunities have also been canceled. Cadet Summer Training (CST) which includes military schools like the Airborne and Air Assault course, as well as internships in the healthcare, legal and engineering fields will not be available for cadets this year.
Some events, like the ROTC Advanced training, used to demonstrate leadership proficiency and held annually in Fort Knox, KY are still up in the air.
“The cadets I am most disappointed for is our graduating seniors,” said Lt. Col. Stafford. “Their commissioning ceremony where they are pinned as 2nd Lieutenants into the Army will be virtual.”
Lt. Col. Stafford thinks the cadets are holding up well, despite the challenging circumstances.
“The cadets have been able to maintain their bond with each other during this pandemic,” said Lt. Col. Stafford.