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.

6 comments:

  1. please keep us informed on the 'next' phases of being a National Guard Officer, training and moving through the process up until your duty assignment. Thank You for sharing and providing guidance. Congratulations! I sincerely hope in the end; it was all worth it!

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    1. Thanks, I'm glad you've gotten something out of it. The plan is to continue to share my experiences so long as it does not violate OPSEC. Most likely, the updates from my next bit of training will come after that school is complete. When I found out my cadre were reading this as I was going through OCS it was harder to write objectively, so I'll post all my next updates after BOLC is over sometime in 2014.

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  2. What did you end up branching and how much did you interact with the ROTC cats at Ft Lewis?

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    1. Engineer (12A)

      Our interaction was somewhat limited. When we moved to the FOB, 1/2 of it was for OCS and 1/2 was for ROTC. We shared the DFAC so we always laughed that we got to eat ROTC cake- we couldn't believe those guys were eating so well. Generally we just made fun of them when we were all at the water buffalo for how soft their course was. We also had a bunch of ROTC 2LT's that graduated a mere days ahead of us that led our lanes. They were very eager to show us just how superior they were to us. I was not impressed.

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  3. Just finished reading your entire blog - thank you for writing! I'm currently trying to decide whether the OK National Guard will be a good fit for me and value the first hand account you provided. I do have a few questions for you but I didn't see a contact link on your page. Would it be possible to shoot you an email?

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    1. Glad you found it helpful! Shoot an email to txcitizensoldier (at) gmail (dot) com and I'll do my best to help you out with any questions you may have.

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