CLDT: Learning to lead from the front
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (June 11, 2014) — More than 900 cadets from the Class of 2015 and Class of 2016 are nearing the end of their 19 days of Cadet Leader Development Training at Camp Buckner.
CLDT gives cadets a chance to command teams, squads and platoons in operationally-relevant scenarios where they are expected to demonstrate the effective leadership of a junior officer.
It begins with a few days of trainer-led patrols and lessons on communications and crew-served weapons by a task force of West Point instructors and 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers. Maneuvers conducted at CLDT include:
• Hasty Attack • Raid • Hasty defense • Deliberate defense • Seize Bridge • Ambush • Move to Contact • Route Clearance
Class of 2015 Cadet Lance Barrow, the CLDT commander, said each training lane is designed to reflect a contemporary operational environment—using role players to represent foreign nationals and rising yearlings from Cadet Field Training to provide the opposing force.
“CLDT is all about leadership under stress,” Barrow said. “It’s where cadets are rotated through different leadership positions and test how well they can be a leader by the decisions they make in a difficult environment.”
The environment includes village-based scenarios where platoons must engage with local leadership, provide security against enemy combatants during a crisis, and plan and execute a humanitarian aid mission. One lane requires platoons to conduct reconnaissance and recover a fallen unmanned aerial vehicle.
Almost two-thirds of those being tested at CLDT are from the Class of 2015, so this makes it their last “gut check” in the field before receiving their commission.
“West Point is known for educating leaders, and CLDT is kind of that final test,” Barrow said. “It’s tough, deliberately difficult, but I think cadets rise to the challenge out here.”
The first was the worst
For the most part, the officers and NCOs serving as observer/controllers watch the action unfold while evaluating the cadets’ performances, holding back critiques until the after action review. During the first mission for Company B’s 4th Platoon, the OCs wanted more from the cadets and didn’t hold back.
“Where are you going and why are you walking? The enemy is going to shoot you, man,” 1st Lt. Steve Thompson, from 6/8 Cavalry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, said.
And to another cadet:
“Are you pulling security? Then why are you in a Sports Illustrated pose. You should be in the prone unless you want to lose another soldier.”
That message reverberated through the patrol base until everyone began their limited movements or did so lower to the ground and more expediently.
“You are about to get attacked again by a much bigger force and their balance of action is going to be greater than it was 20 minutes ago,” Thompson said. “Should chow be a priority? No. You know 100 percent that an attack is imminent. They already know where you are. So is concealment a bigger priority now than cover? No.”
Staff Sgt. Julian Pacheco, with 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 4th BCT, 3rd ID, started seeing improvements.
“There you go, that’s how you move,” he said. “That’s how you don’t get killed. This is Day One, I know.”
The platoon leader for Company D’s 1st Platoon sits with an interpreter and village leaders during a somewhat hostile situation that puts his unit on high alert.
Cadets in Company D’s 1st Platoon arrived at the landing zone in time June 7 to receive air transport via UH-60 Black Hawk to their next mission during Cadet Leader Development Training.
Thompson said the idea was to be as vocal and provide as much “tough love” from the start, so that they wouldn’t have to later on.
“You are deployed, you are in a combat zone now,” he told the cadets. “Treat this that way, and you will all get better.”
But then it got worse. The opposition laid down heavy fire and chaos ensued.
“That’s not what we practiced,” Pacheco observed. “You’ve got a leg wound now, self-treat.”
Adding to the confusion was the demand for everything to be done at “hurry up” speed—redistributing ammo, moving dead and wounded, reinforcing fighting positions.
“Why is the platoon leader helping carry the KIAs? He should be centrally located for command and control,” Thompson said. “If he’s carrying dead soldiers, he can’t lead his platoon. Do you understand that?”
The defensive lane is one of the more high-intensity scenarios at CLDT and as customary throughout the training, leadership positions change regularly and without much notice.
Class of 2016 Cadet Bradley Wagner inherited the platoon prior to the morning’s defensive posture.
“We knew an attack was imminent, we had two hours to prepare and that’s when I became platoon leader,” Wagner said. “The legwork was in place, the platoon leader before me did a great job so all I had to do was make some minor adjustments.”
Cadets realize that failure is built into the training program as a means of teaching through worst-case scenarios. The OPFOR doesn’t die, and a constantly replenished enemy can get a little frustrating. Wagner isn’t one for taking failure lightly, even when acknowledging it was inevitable.
“I felt I had failed because I had nine dead and three wounded,” Wagner said. “There was definitely that feeling of failure and I don’t like that.”
Wagner drew from his prior enlisted experience as a Military Police and said the biggest lesson learned from that first mission was making more time to plan.
“The work is never done,” he said. “You can always plan for additional contingencies, request more assets, improve your position ... everything can always be improved. If you’re in a leadership position and not doing something, it will go bad.”
The hour-long AAR that followed covered the original platoon leader’s plan for movement to the patrol base, the initial setup and then the defensive posture.
“How many of you thought that was crazy? It will be like that downrange,” Thompson said. “This was the first day for you, and I guarantee you it will be like this every time you take contact. We will make this as realistic as we possibly can, and stressful. You need to build up from this experience to the next.”
Thompson understood how giving orders to fellow classmates of equal rank can be awkward.
“Get past that,” he told the cadets. “Take ownership of your role because you have a job to do. You have to lead and others have to follow, that’s it.”
Five days later, members of 1st Platoon still considered that as one of the toughest experiences at CLDT.
“That was the worst ... so far,” Class of 2016 Cadet Wes Loudon said. “I think we’ve learned a lot since. With leadership changes happening at least twice a day that was hard to keep up with at first. Now we’re getting it down, working as a platoon and not letting anything get personal.”