Tuesday, October 1, 2013

OCS Phase III: Washington

Phase II ended in Texas at Camp Swift with 33 candidates. Two were given the opportunity to recycle, one was medically rolled to the next class, and one failed the final APFT test, leaving us with 29 that would progress to the next phase.

I didn’t know much about what was coming in Phase III, but unlike the other phases, that didn’t bother me too much. I knew there was nothing that this phase could throw at me that I wasn’t fully capable of handling. Physically, I knew that I could handle any challenge in Seattle, WA thanks to all the conditioning in the Texas summer I had been doing. Mentally, I knew I was well equipped to execute all that I had learned at or above the level of proficiency that was expected of an officer candidate. Emotionally, I was ready to be done and two weeks in the Pacific Northwest was all that was in the way.

One of the main differences that really seemed to impact the flow of the training was the lack of training schedule. Phase I and II both had published training schedules that each candidate carried, but Washington didn’t post one. This makes writing about my experience a little more challenging since I’m relying totally on memory. It was also frustrating at the time not being able to know what was coming- and it seemed like the cadre were getting their information a few minutes ahead of us.

The first few days were spent on team building exercises. We rehearsed tactics and developed SOP’s. So what we had several months to work on in our home states suddenly we were in a totally new platoon and had to figure the stuff out in a couple of days. We did a team challenge course that had obstacles and physical puzzles to solve- it was the same exact course as the one we did at Fort Jackson during basic training, only this time the leader of each event was graded based on the troop leading procedures we are taught and had to lead the course like it was an actual mission. It felt more like summer camp than the army.

From there we packed up our rucks and headed out to the FOB on busses. The packing list we got was ridiculous (as usual) so you end up taking two weeks’ worth of gear that you’ll only use 20% of and then cram yourself onto a school bus designed for 6 year-olds. We moved into a tent city where we were for about a week and conducted our squad training exercises from there. We shared it with the ROTC kids whom we generally made fun of as often as possible for how “rough” they had it. Although I will say they had great chow that we didn’t mind sharing. (Speaking of chow- be ready to eat a steady diet of MRE’s. Most days it’s your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You haven’t lived until you’re scarfing down chili mac at 0600.) The FOB had tents to fit a squad (12 men) with cots to sleep on. It got down to the 50’s at night which was a shock for my body that hadn’t experienced night time temps below 85 in several months. No showers but they had port-o-johns (Skookum type) and areas for shaving/brushing your teeth.

The squad lanes we did were exactly like the ones we did in Texas. There were three types of missions: ambush, move to contact, and recon. Before we left for the field they had an elaborate briefing on the situation we were entering that set the expectation that each mission would be part of an overarching storyline and the successes and failures would impact other missions. Well… that wasn’t really the case. I was more than underwhelmed at the lack of execution promised by the organizers. We quickly found out that Texas candidates were more than prepared for this phase and easily crushed the requirements to demonstrate proficiency in the eight troop leadership procedures. Other states lacked the field experience to do well and struggled through the first few days to find their footing. All I can say to that is I’m glad for the training we had and I’m glad we put in time outside of OCS to rehearse- it paid off.

From squad lanes we moved to patrol lanes (two squads together). Everything operates the same way- just on a larger scale. By this point everyone had either passed or failed their field leadership evaluations so this was a chance for the people cadre believed were capable to lead a larger scale mission. After a couple days of patrol lanes we got move to our urban ops training in Blackhawk helicopters. (Side note: It is acceptable to reduce the four syllable word to helo or bird, but never chopper. Which is why at every opportune moment it was your duty to say in your best Arnold voice: get to ze choppah.) It was a quick 10 minute hop but the views were amazing. Clear Washington skies, evergreen forests, and Mt. Rainer made for a trip you could almost mistake for a tourist ride.

Fort Lewis has a giant Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) site. It’s at least three full blocks of furnished buildings- schools with playgrounds, 5 story high rises, homes, banks, gas stations- a snapshot of a suburban city. For the next three days we got the best training most of us had ever seen on how to negotiate the civilian and tactical environment of the modern battlefield. I drew one of the short straws and had to carry a M249 machine gun for the two weeks in Washington, but using it in an urban setting was a lot of fun. It was three days of hard chargin, door kickin action. I loved every minute of it. Our mission ended in a “Blackhawk Down” scenario with everyone involved in securing and extracting the pilots while chaos happened all around you. And just like the real event 20 years ago- nothing went like it was supposed to. You can’t put a price tag on what we learned.

From there we went back to our WWII barracks near the main post and got to shower for the first time in about a week. And then 60 guys got to share one washing machine. Brilliant. Garrison life was the most lax I’ve ever seen in OCS- we got to use of cell phones in the barracks, and we didn’t have to have our wall lockers to a standard- they just had to look clean.

The last few days were a cake walk. We took the combat swimmer survival test (or something along those lines) in the pool one day- it freaks out all the people that can’t swim but having spent 5 years as a lifeguard and nearly all my childhood around water it wasn’t that challenging.

Another day we went to a lake to do the water confidence course which consisted of squad boat races in zodiac boats, river crossing with your gear, and a 90 foot tall zip line. Despite an air temperature in the mid 50’s the water seemed decently warm, so that was a fun day.

Our last hurdle was the obstacle course. I hate these things and always will, so I didn’t really enjoy that day. Same obstacles as the ones in basic training, you just did all of them in one day. It was quite the workout.

After that it was the typical hurry up and wait. Clean weapons, clean barracks, clean anything else you can find, wander around the PX, pack your stuff and wait for the end. There was a short graduation ceremony that counts as your date of rank even though the official pinning ceremony wasn’t until a few weeks later. Immediately following the ceremony we got on busses back to the airport and people started celebrating like military men and women are so good at- I opted to take the first flight out over hanging out in the airport bar. It felt great getting on that plane- leaving Fort Lewis and OCS behind me.

Out of over 100 candidates that started the OCS program in Texas 29 finished. I am one of them.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Gates of Fire

The last few months of OCS have been "enjoyable." No classroom or barracks- plenty of sunshine in the day and the Texas stars at night. Field training is without a doubt the best part of OCS and everyone from the candidates to the cadre agree.

Here's what a typical training weekend looks like during this portion of Phase II:

Friday
1600- Candidates arrive, we check each other's gear, finalize leadership plans, collect supplies from the supply sergeant.
1800- First formation
1820- collect weapons and ammo (each squad is assigned one M240B, two M249's, two M203's and the rest of the squad has M4's (carbine variant of the M16)).

1900- Movement to training area and STX (pronounced "sticks") Lanes or Situational Training Exercise Lanes. These are set up to be a two hour combat mission. In this phase of OCS they are conducted in squads where the squad leader is rotated throughout the weekend to give each candidate a chance to pass or fail the field leadership evaluation. Passing the evaluation is based on your ability to conduct the eight troop leadership procedures in the time allowed. [Texas requires candidates receive a "go" or a passing evaluation prior to continuing to Phase III, but some states have more lax requirements.]

2100-2359- Movement to patrol base, patrol base operations (hygiene, sleep, and guard duty)

Saturday
0000-0800- Patrol base operations, hygiene, morning meal
0800-1800- STX Lanes
1800-1900- Evening meal
1900-2100- STX Lanes
2100-2359- Patrol Base operations

Sunday
0000-0800- Patrol base operations, hygiene, morning meal
0800-1700- Recovery ops (cleaning weapons, supply turn in, expended brass pick up, etc...)

The black hats take off their cadre covers and replace them with a regular ACU cover and take on more of a mentoring role out in the field. One cadre member travels around with each squad and is responsible for evaluating the squad leader's performance.

Each two hour STX lane involves movement from one lane to another (with your ruck sack) receiving the operations order (OPORD). Creating and briefing a squad OPORD within 15 minutes of receiving it, 30 minutes of prep time for the mission to run rehearsals, and about 80 minutes to run the mission. Typically we do one or two on Friday night, and seven on Saturday.

Moving around with a full ruck- especially for the non-prior service types is a real struggle at first, which is compounded by the Texas summer heat. There is a lot of movement from prone to standing, movement through thick brush, taking the pack off and putting it back on- it takes a while to get used to. Hydration can't be stressed enough. Hydrate with water and whenever you get a chance drink Gatorade and eat all your food. The first month out in the field we had temps that spiked over the weekend. We weren't conditioned to that kind of heat yet even though all of us were in good shape and about 5 of us ended up as heat casualties that weekend- including me. There's no worse feeling than sitting in the medical tent while your buddies are on the mission still. Learn from my mistakes: acclimate to your region's climate and get electrolytes through food and sports drinks as often as possible.

Practicing this stuff  between drills has made a huge difference. We got together with members of Class 55 at first to have them teach us what we need to know about STX lanes and after that we've been meeting in small groups to rehearse pitching an OPORD, brushing up on land nav, reviewing the Ranger Handbook- it has all made a difference out on the lanes. On that note, if you have any specific questions about STX Lanes, post your comments here and I'll do my best to answer them.

One last drill in Texas and then we go to Fort Lewis in Washington for two weeks to complete the course. I've already passed my garrison and field leadership evaluations and APFT so this month I'll be focused on helping my classmates that don't have a go in the field yet. Feels good to not be under the pressure of still needing a passing evaluation though.

We had one fail the APFT last month so we're down to 32. Seems like a big waste to do all this work only to lose it all on a PT test.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

National Guard Officer Branching Process (From the Limited Perspective of an Officer Candidate)

This month we got our branches- one of the most exciting parts of OCS thus far. The process seems more magic than method, and our class had a lot of questions about how it was going to work, so here's a basic timeline of how it happend.

Early this spring we had a branch briefing- essentially an overview of each of the 16 officer branches in the Army. The title of the presentation should have been "99 Ways the Army Will Take the Branch You Thought Was Going to be Cool and Suck All the Fun Out of it", subtitle: "And How Fast You'll End Up Behind a Desk." It was disillusioning at best. (See editorial comments at the bottom.)

As an Officer Candidate you're at the mercy of the National Guard. It's not like the enlisted side where if you don't like the MOS slot that's open to you at the MEPS station, you don't sign the papers. As an officer you take what you get and do your duty. The state fills 2LT slots with OCS and ROTC graduates, so each commissioning source is given a proportional amount of paragraph and line numbers (equivalent to job codes in the civilan world) to fill.

The exception to that rule is that you can be a go-getter and find a 2LT slot in a unit and branch you want and get that commander to put it in writing and send it to your state HQ. This can be done at any time up to the time you leave for BOLC. Just don't expect it to be an easy route and there are still no guarantees it will work.

Two months after the branch brief, we were given our branch preference sheet. There are 16 branches available to junior officers. The branch preference sheet asks basic questions like where you live (with the option of asking if you're willing to travel over 250 miles to your unit), what your degree is in, which unit(s) you've been a part of (they won't let you go back to any of the units you were serving in as an enlisted soldier, even if you were just there for one drill between BCT and OCS), and as the title suggests, what your preference is for branching.

Of the 16 branches, Aviation and Medical Service Corps require that you've already been working with a recruiter from that branch, so start that as soon as you get into OCS if those are routes you wish to pursue. From there you number your top 13 choices from 1-13. Males must have three combat arms branches in their top five slots.

We turned those in April, and in May we were given our branch and unit assignment. What happened in between, no one really knows. We think our cadre did most of the branch sorting and then the state HQ assigned us to our units. The top performers in the class got their top picks. The inverse was true for the bottom of the class. Most got what they put into their top three.

After OCS I'll be moving on to an Engineering unit- I'm excited about that. Initially, I didn't want to do what I did on the civilian side, but over time I realized its what I was good at and professionally it won't hurt to have parallel career paths. It took about two minutes for us to embrace our branches and the banter carried on like we've been doing those jobs forever.

We've spent a vast majority of our time in the field the last two drills. That will make for much more interesting reading and I intend on summarizing all that into one post. As a class, we know we're close to being done with this, but as a whole we haven't started acting like "short timers." We're still working hard to the end, it doesn't get any easier and there are sill a few key hurdles in between us and Phase III.  And though no one will admit it, we're getting nostalgic. We just have two drills left with this close knit group before we're all sent on our separate ways. We've developed close friendships and they're ones I'm exceedingly grateful to have.


Feel free to shoot me any questions that weren't clearly answered in the comment section and I'll to my best to answer them.



*IMPORTANT NOTES TO READ BEFORE YOU SIGN AN 09S CONTRACT*
Editor's Note: These opinions are strictly my own, calling them like I see 'em. The Army spends a lot of money on propaganda to keep the slots filled; take it with a lot of salt. 

The number one lie that's fed to the civilian populous is: "Join the National Guard and you'll get to do all the high-speed things you see in the commercials!"

Here's my response to that:
  A) Go active duty, the weekend warriors don't get the budget to do cool stuff. Best I can tell we're the B-team. 
  
  B) Don't be an officer- go enlisted and lead as an NCO. The higher you get in rank the farther you get from the action. Don't let people tell you that because you have a college degree that you need to be an officer. I've met plenty of NCO's that have graduate degrees. There is no correlation between a degree and leadership. If you're doing this for the money, you'll be disappointed regardless of which side of the house you're on. 
  
  C) Join the Army eight years ago. Read the news- combat ops are winding down in Afghanistan. The American people have no more appetite for sending our troops to another country. So if you're joining to satisfy your Call of Duty fantasies you're pretty much out of luck unless something crazy happens (in which case see subparagraph A). 
  
  D) Seriously, read subparagraph B.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

One Year In- A Turning Point

I guess I didn't realize how long it has been since I posted last- well fear not, I'm still in the program. Drill this month marked an important anniversary- Class 56 has now been at this for a whole year. Phase 0 candidates started this month, so we're now the senior class on the ground. We caught glimpses of the train wreck that is Phase 0- very glad to be distanced from that. If anyone from 57 is reading this, y'all got two votes out of 33 when the cadre asked if we felt sorry for you. We've all been there and 12 months down the road from now you'll be glad that the ones with tiny heart syndrome aren't in your class anymore.

I haven't given a typical breakdown of a Phase II weekend yet, so here's what we've been doing:
Friday
-1500-1800 Arrival, baracks setup, gather supplies and weapons
-1800 First formation
-1830-2200 Classroom: Friday night classes are generally suplemental information on topics ranging from basic grammer to UCMJ and radio operation.
-2200-2300 Hygiene, baracks maintenance
-2300 Lights out

Saturday
-0500 Wake up
-0530-0630 PT
-0630-0700 Morning meal
-0700-0745 Hygiene, baracks maintenance
-0800-1200 Classroom: This is the primary class of the weekend. The material is testable and part of the graduation requirements. Classes are taught by various cadre- generally not the black hats. We have a senior instructor that is a Captain that teaches most frequently, other NCO's and officers split up the remaining classes. Classes break every hour for either an admin break for water and latrines or TAC break where we get smoked- just depends on how well the cadre think we're doing that day. If anybody falls asleep (which happens all the time) we're almost guaranteed to get a TAC break.
-1200-1230 Noon meal
-1300-1500 Classroom: continuation of morning death by powerpoint class
-1500-1600 Test: These tests are challenging but not impossible. Honestly, the thing that makes them the hardest is being able to focus on six hours of powerpoint content while you're running on much less sleep than you normally get and physically worn out from getting smoked. The hardest test we took was the Land Nav test in Phase I, by a unanimous vote. Cadre told us it would be the Call for Fire test, but we had a Field Artillery officer teach the class and I found the material to be quite easy to grasp. You need a 70% to pass each test and they're all about 25-30 question multiple choice tests. Doing well requires being able to think like an Army test writer and regurgitating facts that you learned for the first time a few hours earlier.
-1600-1800 Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills: This is where OCS gets a little more fun. These drills are the basic building blocks of how the Army fights. Candidates teach these blocks of instruction that are supervised by our TACs that fill in the holes with their vast experience from the battlefield. We're really benefiting for a decade of war in the sense that our cadre have seen and done all these drills in real life. We are definitely in a unique position to learn from their firsthand accounts on how and why these battle drills are critical to master.
-1800-1840 Evening meal
-1900-2200 Depends on monthly mission
-2300 Lights out

Sunday

-0500 Wake up
-0530-0630 PT
-0630-0700 Morning meal
-0700-0745 Hygiene, baracks maintenance
-0800-1200 Classroom
-1200-1255 Noon meal, religious services

-1300-1500 Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills, inspections
-1500-1700 Wrap up, clean up
-1700 Final formation

Drill this month was different than it ever has been. Starting off, the Company Commander pulled me aside to tell me I had done a good job on some training I put together between drills- it might not seem like much but when it feels like 95% of what the cadre are telling you has something to do with how you suck at life it makes you feel 10 feet tall when they think you did a good job on something (but keep your military bearing and don't let on that you're too excited...).

Secondly, the cadre were amped up like crazy with all the fresh blood that was bumbling around [think Somalians hopped up on cot prior to the battle of Mogadishu], so we wanted as little of their attention as possible. I was a squad leader this drill so I was doing my best to make sure we were squared away to keep as much of a low profile as possible. In the end, I think everybody was happy- the cadre got to release 12 months of pent-up hate on Class 57 and were more hands off with us than they've ever been allowing us to lead more of the weekend. We didn't get smoked once from first formation to final formation- that's a first.

I also got a "go" on my leadership evaluation- a critical part of passing Phase II. I can't tell you how much of a relief that is. It's the first one I've gotten in OCS and my evaluator didn't have a single negative comment to give me in my out-brief. It was a real confidence boost for me to see that the cadre think I'm finally tracking with this course at the level I need to be.

In addition to the leadership evaluation, I was promoted to "intermediate stage."  As I mentioned before, they are promoting individuals as they feel is necessary, not the class as a whole. Honestly, I'm not sure that plan is working out quite like they want it to. As a class, we feel like several of the candidates that have been promoted didn't deserve it so it's created a bit of a stigma for those that have it. Frankly, I don't really feel like I deserve it any more than a good majority of the class that doesn't have it yet. All part of the game, I guess.

Despite (or maybe in spite) of all this, we really have come together as a class- and to a larger extent it feels like a family. This is the biggest hurdle that we've made it over in the last year. It is a surprisingly difficult task that Class 55 didn't accomplish and took us a long time to accomplish. We all say we don't like OCS but what's more accurate is that OCS is a challenging, hostile environment but none of us would want to do it with anyone but the 32 other soldiers that keep coming back for more. Without a doubt, Class 56 will graduate a fine group of officers.

Ending on another high note, ever since Phase 0 a group of us driving back to the same part of Texas stop at Texas Roadhouse for dinner and to laugh about all that happened over the weekend. This time a table offered to buy a round for us- a genuinely kind offer that we would have gladly accepted had we not been in uniform. Then, as we were about to pay, the waitress handed us a folded up napkin that said "Thank you from all of us. USA" and let us know that our dinner was paid for by another table. Unfortunately, they had already left but it was humbling and a blessing to have that support from our fellow Americans.

So for the first time in my two years in the military, I'm starting to be treated more like a human being and in a few short months I'm more confident than ever that I'll have a gold bar on my chest.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Intermediate Stage

Two things happened at the end of September drill- We got moved up to "Intermediate Stage" and I got promoted to Platoon Leader for my first leadership evaluation.

October drill: We were in our first formation waiting on the cadre when they came up and immediately started yelling at us for being in the wrong uniform (despite what was published in the schedule). The weekend went downhill from there... It was frustrating to have spent as many hours as I did between drills to prepare myself and the rest of the platoon just to watch it all fall apart right in front of me. Needless to say we didn't really get to experience the carrot on the stick known as Intermediate Stage for very long. It was supposesd to include such benefits as not having to sit on the front 6" of our chairs in the dining facility, not having to eat "square meals" (the OCS tradition of making each motion with your fork at 90 degree angles- yeah, its about as dumb as it sounds) and we could have worn just our Camelbacks and soft caps rather than our kevlar helmets and load carrying vests. Supposedly they treat you with a little more dignity. Like I said- carrot on a stick stuff. The repeal of Intermediate Stage meant we'd get it back in a different way- it would now be awarded to individuals rather than the group as a whole. The individuals who demonstrate leadership (with a passing leadership evaluation) and visibly pull their own weight will be moved to a different platoon and get to enjoy the benefits of while the rest are made to look like incompotent fools. This is apparently the same way Oklahoma OCS uses the stage system. (Note: Intermedate Stage and Phase II are different. They are independent of one another. Stages dictate how miserable you are (beginner, intermediate and senior) and phases indicate what part of the training you're in (0, I, II, and III).)

The good news is we're halfway done with OCS.

The classroom material has gotten more interesting, this month we were focusing on military tactics- the art and science of how battles are won. Love that stuff.

As far as what I learned from my leadership evaluation- I got an over all "no-go" on my assesment, which means I'll have another chance later on to try again. I'm on track for the course and display good leadership traits- I just have the additional hurdle of being an 09S without the military experience. My peers thought I did well- it's just a matter of convincing the cadre of the same.

The Side Plank!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Staring Into the Heart of Darkness

We lost four more so our numbers are down to 34. They all quit on their own accord and they were all  good people- this just isn't for everyone. The rest of us seem to have embraced the mentailty that we've invested too much already to just give up. One of our cadre calls it the momemnt that you stare into the heart of darkness and keep pushing.

The first drill after Phase I left us with some hope that things would get easier in Phase II since we have such a tight knit group of strong leaders- but the cadre are just requiring more and more from us to make sure we still struggle through this course. All part of the game- and for good reason. This shouldn't be an easy course to get through.

A note for the leadership- learn from the people who had the position before you. You're going to make mistakes, but don't make the mistakes that have already been made.

We have a guidon now, so that's cool- our motto is Vires Et Honestas (Strength and Honor) and some of the artists in our class created our logo.



We keep pushing on, embracing the suck so we can get those gold bars. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Start of Phase II

I'll probably start to taper off here in the level of detail as we go through Phase II and I'll hit the highlights over the course of the next year. By now we're starting to know what to expect on a monthly basis and the class is really coming together. Class 55 is a year ahead of us and just finished Phase II. Going into the weekend they had a class of 15. Six were pulled and said they had two choices- recycle with 56 or drop the course as the instructors deemed them unready to progress to Phase III. That's a tough pill to swallow as they've now spent over 16 months in the program, only to have to start over in Phase II. We don't know the exact circumstances of why those six didn't make it but it was a sobering weekend that made us all a little nervous. Two look like they may rejoin our class but no final decisions have been made. As of now Class 56 has 38 candidates.

We expected Phase II to start with a bang- the instructors telling us how sorry we are, how we'll never make it, how we forgot everything from Phase I, and on and on. But that didn't happen. Our student leadership was on the ball all weekend and we actually impressed the cadre. That's not to say we were perfect- we spent plenty of time in the dirt but overall we did a solid job. If we can keep it up for a few more months we'll have a good shot at making it to intermediate phase where supposedly the cadre take some pressure off. I'm not holding my breath.

We spent a lot of time in the classroom this drill. Most of it was purely death by powerpoint- Army Ethics, Army Writing, Army Leadership, Effective Listening, etc. All part of learning to be an officer but everyone (including the instructors) would rather be in the field.

We had a short religous service on Sunday morning that was led by an OC- it was the first time we'd done that  in Texas and I was glad the Cadre gave us time for it.

We talked briefly about graduation- we need to sart collecting dues for the graduation ball, our company guidon, and class shirts in the magnitude of tens of thousands of dollars. Apparently the ball is quite the expensive ordeal. It seems like a long way off at this point but hopefully the next year goes by quickly.