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Zara Castany / Senior Staff Photographer

Sean MacKenzie, CC '13, freezes as a shot is fired from somewhere in the distance. His grip tightens on his gun. The enemy­—a group of Spanish-speaking, Islamic fundamentalists from the Caucasus—has surprised Task Force Blue from a nearby tower. The cadets fall to the ground and wait for orders from their squad leader. This mission isn't going as planned. Several times a semester, MacKenzie and the handful of Columbia students who participate in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps through Fordham University, practice tactical drills in a forest in central New Jersey or upstate New York in preparation for the work they will one day do as military officers. On Sunday after two days of simulated wartime scenarios, mostly in the rain, they return to Morningside Heights with just a few hours of sleep and papers to work on in Butler. "It's the equivalent of being an athlete at Columbia. Except when an athlete asks a professor for an extension, the professor says, 'Yes,'" said Jose Robledo, GS and a veteran who hopes to return to service as an officer. Robledo spent the weekend assessing platoons and filling out paperwork under his camouflage poncho, a space he referred to as "his office." He ordered snipers—actually other cadets with old paintball guns—to fire on MacKenzie's platoon after they missed a "weapons cache," or stockpile, in the "village" they were supposed to secure. Over the last few months, Columbia students have heard a lot about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and fears about the militarization of campus, as Columbia's University Senate considered inviting the program back after a 43-year absence. However, belly-down in the mud in a forest charred black by a fire some time ago, cadets from across New York City said they don't think much about the politics behind the program that plays a key role in their lives. In the heat of battle It's easy to get lost in the terminology of the battlefield. At this training weekend in Fort Dix, NJ, college juniors, or third-years in the ROTC program, are evaluated as platoon leaders. They shout out rapidfire orders, directing Bravo company to patrol lanes 300 meters ahead in wedge formation at 3 o'clock, a jumble of code names that squad leaders have trouble keeping straight before sunrise. On Saturday morning, Task Force Blue attempts to obtain intelligence from Michael Cole, GS, who the cadets all call "Colenan," like Conan the Barbarian. Cole is playing a difficult village leader from an opposing village that has fired on American troops. As a cadet attempts to negotiate with him, Cole accuses the soldiers of killing his wife. "I want a new wife and 10 camels," he demands, as some of the cadets look at each other and start cracking up. Others are dead serious—they could easily be in Iraq or Afghanistan. The ROTC designs these scenarios to test leadership skills among cadets and encourage them to think quickly on their feet. "You're put into uncomfortable situations," MacKenzie said. "It makes you learn quickly learn about yourself." Although the platoon leaders are given op-orders, or "operational orders," beforehand, they know to be ready for the unexpected. "There are sets of guidelines for different scenarios, and you kind of have to mix and match," Robledo said. When Robledo catches one female cadet not looking at her compass, he leads her around the field in circles until she notices her mistake. Later that day, as they approach the dining facility, the cadets caution against the vegetarian omelet MRE—Meal, Ready-to-Eat. Apparently it tastes like shit. The U.S. Military distributes MREs as field rations that come in dehydrated, vacuum-sealed pouches. Coles encourages everyone to add the cheese from one MRE to the chicken noodle soup MRE that's being served. "You learn to make recipes out of these," he says. Balancing act LeTicia Brown, SEAS '14, grew up hearing about how her parents met in the Army. Her father recently retired from military service, and her sister graduated from West Point. "I actually almost ended up going to West Point, but didn't really want the whole full-time military deal," Brown said. "So I figured ROTC would be a good way to split still having the whole army value thing and have a regular college life." But choosing ROTC means balancing civilian life with the duties of an officer-in-training. It's not always easy. "It's definitely tough," Brown, a bio-medical engineering major, said. "I just kind of make it happen. You've got to use time more efficiently." MacKenzie, who will be the third generation in his family to join the military, said this semester has been his toughest yet. He turned down a chance to study at the Naval Academy for the opportunity to be in New York City. A person must be a college graduate to become a commissioned military officer, either by participating in ROTC at a regular university, attending a Service Academy, or going to Officer Commissioning School. Cole said that by this time of the year, a number of people have already dropped out of the program. Robledo likens the field drill weekends to playing football in the mud and said it takes a particular kind. "I enjoy the 'suck.' You have to embrace the 'suck,'" he said.

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