Cadet Isabella Van Atten led her platoon over a hill in a clearing at Camp Edwards, on Cape Cod, to take an enemy position held by fellow cadets.
They're shooting blanks, but otherwise, this is as real on-the-ground training as the cadets have had since the pandemic began.
The cadets, all college seniors, come from Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs in Massachusetts and Maine. They are from public universities, as well as private ones such as Harvard.
Van Atten attends Wellesley College, where seniors are learning remotely this semester. For her, the field exercises on Cape Cod are a rare opportunity for in-person training.
"It is such a relief to be in person, to be out here," Van Atten says. "Even though we're carrying heavy rucks and everything, just being in person with everyone just makes a huge difference. The learning really skyrockets when we have these difficult experiences, the new challenges that can be thrown at us in the in-person setting."
The Army said that ROTC, which trains most newly commissioned officers, is still in-person at 43 colleges. But another 43 ROTC programs have moved exclusively online and 149 are hybrid.
Three ROTC platoons performed exercises on Cape Cod in late August. Each platoon had fewer than 30 cadets, and they were not allowed to work or socialize outside that group. That's a far cry from normal training, when hundreds of cadets eat, train, and shower together.
In a typical summer, 10,000 ROTC cadets would have been at Fort Knox, Kentucky. This year, the Army planned 68 smaller trainings across the country until the end of October.
The cadets at Camp Edwards do not wear masks. They train twelve hours a day, after which they are screened for symptoms of COVID-19.
Major General John Evans, commander of Cadet Command, said the Army is not able to test cadets on a daily basis everywhere.
"So we are relying on the CDC guidance for how the screening should occur," Evans said. "Someone who doesn't feel well, someone who's been in positive contact with someone who has COVID. Those types of things will exclude those individuals."
"And then in other places, we have the ability to test some, and we will use those tests sparingly so that if we have someone who screens positive, we can give them a test and then find out if they were truly positive or whether they can continue with training."
At the Cape Cod command center, Lieutenant Colonel David Stalker, professor of military science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the lack of hands-on training since March has had an impact.
"What I do see out there is they're just slower because they have not moved as a team or squad and definitely not like a platoon," Stalker says. "Just because we lost some of those spring exercises that we would have done in March, April, and May."
But Stalker is encouraged by the fact that the lack of in-person training has not hurt cadets' ability to develop other skills.
"We did not see that with marksmanship, we did not see that with land navigation, and I was pleasantly surprised," Stalker said. "We conducted some preliminary marksmanship instruction to prep them to go out to the rifle range, and we did that virtually."
Despite the slow ramp-up in moving together as a platoon, Stalker is confident that the cadets will be ready for the Army by the time they graduate this spring.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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