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Public Affairs : Conquering CLDT

Conquering CLDT

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor

Page 1 photo2.jpgCadet Leader Development Training for cadets in the Class of 2014 and Class of 2015 is designed to develop and test their abilities to make decisions under stress and solve tactical problems as complications are compounded throughout the scenarios they encounter. It’s mostly platoon-level training and is considered the capstone leader development event of the 47-month cadet experience.
Cadets from the Class of 2014 and Class of 2015 returned from Camp Buckner June 15 after 19 days of being field tested to the extreme during Cadet Leader Development Training. A fresh set of ACUs allowed them to escape the reek that covered them so often, like the swarms of noisy cicadas that constantly attached themselves to their uniforms and skin.

CLDT is platoon-level training where leadership positions are regularly and, at times, unpredictably rotated among the cadets. According to the Department of Military Instruction, this is the capstone leader development event of the 47-month cadet experience. It primarily seeks to test cadets’ leadership abilities under stress and how they can employ tactical problem-solving skills in an ever-changing battlefield environment.

“They’re put into all kinds of situations where there’s a good amount of stress and they’re physically and mentally exhausted,” Class of 2014 Cadet David Caskey, the CLDT cadet commander, said. “And really that’s when we see what kind of character they have when they reach those limits. How do they lead then?”

Cadets comprised six companies with four platoons each. Adding the opposition force, or OPFOR, that served as the enemy forces, there were roughly 1,200 cadets participating in this summer’s training.

“It was actually the biggest CLDT there has been because in years past it was only three platoons per company,” Caskey said. “What we’re seeing now, in my opinion, is really the best training exercise you’ll have as a cadet.”

Throughout the training, platoons engaged in offensive, defensive and move-to-contact missions that required them to plan, rehearse and execute platoon attacks and blocking positions, search and capture of high-value targets and patrols. It’s a continual training exercise too with eight consecutive days and nights of operations, followed by one day of resupply—rest and refit—and then another four days in the field.

“It’s a lot of time out in the field and the OPFOR does a good job making sure they’re not just sitting down on security,” Caskey said. “There will be probing attacks occurring throughout the night to keep things interesting.”

Prior to that, CLDT trainers assigned to the platoons and companies provided a couple days of refresher training on patrolling and battle drills.

With the emphasis on the platoon, the platoon leader and platoon sergeant are the top-tier leadership positions for CLDT. Company commanders and first sergeants still play critical roles, but those cadets already completed the training last summer.

“For many this is going to be their first shot at this kind of leadership,” Caskey said. “It’s basically like, ‘Hey, PL, you’re in charge, this is your mission, prep it and we’re looking to you for leadership.’ You really need the cooperation of your classmates and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s pure leadership but you also need to follow when someone else is in that platoon leader position. Sometimes it’s difficult to follow when you get conflicting instructions with what you may think should be done. You have to follow through on those instructions and allow that person to lead.”

Page 8 photo1.jpgMembers of 1st Platoon, Company A, conduct a raid on a village where they were to either capture or kill a high-value target during Cadet Leader Development Training June 11. In the ensuing chaos, a civilian was killed and the unit suffered two wounded and seven killed during the “exercise” results. This was an offensive scenario with Class of 2014 Cadet Kwame Addo as platoon leader and Class of 2014 Cadet Garrett Kennedy as platoon sergeant.
In the fictional country of Stilwell, chaos and confusion abounds. There is the host nation police force, village elders and the Diablo insurgency to deal with and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish friend from foe.

“We Came To Fight”

Caskey had completed Cadet Troop Leader Training with an Infantry company in Fort Drum, N.Y., where he learned a motto from the company commander. It stuck with him and Caskey decided to use it to sort of define 2013 CLDT.

“A motto has a way of making a connection,” Caskey said of the motto ‘We Came To Fight.’ “I love it because I think it’s the right mindset and it speaks to way we take this training seriously.”

The CLDT task force took on the name Task Force Rylander, in honor of the Class of 2011 graduate and Engineer second lieutenant who died in May 2012 while serving in Afghanistan.

“Second Lt. David Rylander was the first from his class to deploy and be killed in action. It’s a reminder that we’re going to be throwing our hats in the air and graduating soon,” Caskey said. “That is not the right time to decide it’s time to be that second lieutenant. It has to be every action, every day, that we are developing ourselves to be the kind of officer we hope to be.”

Failure is guaranteed

The trainers and observers at each lane aren’t just standing around watching the action unfold. They provide the countless plot twists to the scenarios to see just how quick the cadets can react.

If the patrol is moving flawlessly—bam—the platoon leader is taken out by a sniper. A platoon seems to have the village secured and its populace compliant—boom—grenade attack puts the quick reaction force out of commission.

Everyone experiences failure here. It’s just the nature of this training. Class of 2014 Cadet Jonathan Lee was the Company C first sergeant and just prior to the final mission—only one of two company-wide scenarios at CLDT—when the commander was shot.

Originally tasked with operating the command and control point, Lee was now in charge of the 168 cadets in a volatile village scenario where a police chief beat a pickpocket to death, 80 insurgents were creeping into the country and a shadow governor of ill-repute somehow made his way into the village undetected. “That was honestly tough, and I’m not sure how successful I was,” Lee said.

Among his personal lessons learned, Lee said the training reinforced the importance of always having a contingency plan. With all that could go wrong in a CLDT mission, Lee said the platoons were still able to perform well.

“I think the violence of action (tactical principle) was really good by my guys. We had bad comms and a lot of downed radios so communications were poor,” Lee said. “But they still got the job done to some degree.”

Every cadet, he said, possesses some internal motivation to get himself or herself through a difficult situation. When it got tough at CLDT, Lee remembered his goal.

“For me it’s graduating and getting that commission and then, obviously, to serve and become the best officer I can be for my Soldiers,” Lee said.

Col. Glenn Goldman, DMI director, addressed the platoons of Charlie Company when it was all over and told them what they experienced had nothing to do with executing a perfect ambush. It was about demonstrating leadership. Everything they had learned in the classroom and through previous military training led to CLDT.

“This is the first time you’ve really had time to put all the academic, physical and military and moral-ethical skills to work,” Goldman said. “How was it when you had to move people around at four in the morning when they’re wet? That’s called leadership. How you do that is going to make you a successful or unsuccessful platoon leader.”

When he asked some squad leaders what they learned, the responses included lessons about caring for troops and doing the right things for them, keeping Soldiers informed through proper communication and, ultimately, basic solidering skills.

“There are a lot of great leaders out here with a lot of great potential,” Goldman said. “But you have to understand and embrace this profession. This is complex what we do, and you owe it to your Soldiers to be the best possible leader.”

In a departure from years past, CLDT is currently being tested as mandatory training starting with the Class of 2015 and making this a graduation requirement.

Previously recorded on a “GO/NO GO” basis, CLDT will be graded with different criteria than Cadet Basic Training or Cadet Field Training. Also, peer evaluations will allow cadets to see how classmates perceived their strengths and weaknesses during training.

Best of the best

Also new to CLDT this year is the Commandant’s Platoon Award. Caskey said the concept was based on the Sandhurst Military Academy’s model of “The Sovereign Platoon.” CLDT often recognizes the best cadet performances and best company commanders but given this is a platoon-driven environment, a new CLDT award was developed to recognize that unit.

“All the cadets were aware of this new award and we’ve been updating them throughout CLDT on which platoon is in the lead,” Caskey said. “They’ve been very competitive and it’s a good motivator.”

The grading was primarily in the hands of the primary observers, with guidance from platoon and company trainers. Once the top three platoons were determined, the command team would observe their performance in the field to make the final decision. The winner of the first Commandant’s Platoon Award was 2nd Platoon, Company C.

OPFOR never dies

They don’t lose either. It helps to have a group of Special Forces noncommissioned officers, present to train the cadets and support them with the insurgency. Despite their small numbers—about 150—the Diablo OPFOR gets to constantly attack the CLDT platoons, regenerating themselves to create insurmountable situations. It’s a fun detail, but it would be wrong to think that’s all it is.

“The OPFOR leadership is from the upperclass, but the primary assignments are given to the rising yearlings. Really it is an awesome opportunity for them before going to Cadet Field Training to work with 5th Group out of Fort Campbell (Ky.),” Caskey said. “They’re learning all this insight into patrolling, troop leading procedures—all the things they’ll need during CFT—so they’re getting a preview as OPFOR.”

Class of 2014 Cadet T. S. Allen clearly enjoyed being an OPFOR platoon leader, working out of a guerilla base in the woods for nearly the entire iteration. Along with the SF contingent, the cadet insurgents were supported by infantrymen from the 10th Mountain Division. “We do a lot of ‘unfair’ things to the platoons so it’s been fun,” Allen said. He recalled one night raid that nearly took out an entire platoon.

“I was with two of the 10th Mountain guys who are basically ninjas in the woods,” Allen said. “They know how to move real quietly and they’ve been teaching us that. So we went inside the wire without anyone noticing and went from hooch to hooch. I think we got about 30 of them. It was a morale boost for us.”

Allen said the trainers insisted the cadets not only take the missions seriously but perform with the precision they were taught.

“The infantry out here has so much field and combat experience so it’s been really valuable having them remind us of some of the field craft we might not have gotten or forgotten from CFT. They’ve been a huge asset to our operations,” Allen said.

In fact, Allen said the train-up for OPFOR was more extensive for them than the CLDT platoons. On each mission, an SF trainer is attached with the cadets to give them additional instruction.

“Personally, I think we’ve gotten the better training,” he said. “We really lucked out. The amount that I learned was incredible, and the rising yearlings who haven’t been to Buckner yet will be ahead of their peers because they’ll know how to live out in the field and move and communicate in the dark.”

Among the cadet role-players occupying the villages were 14 members of the Special Forces Association Chapter 19 in New Jersey, returning for a second summer as volunteers. Ed Muller, Al Smith and Larry Taylor enjoyed donning the Middle Eastern garbs and causing commotion among the cadets.

“I’m sure they’re learning a lot,” Smith said. “They definitely catch on fast and they have a good attitude. A lot of them have been getting soaked these past few days but that doesn’t seem to phase them.”

Although they don’t participate in the after action reviews following each mission, the former Special Forces Soldiers said they watch how the platoons are able to talk through the scenario, recreating a play-by-play to account for mistakes. Then, guided by the platoon trainers, the cadets learn what actions they could have taken instead.

Smith said that a lot is thrown at the cadets making it difficult to know precisely what right looks like in the moment. He was impressed with the discussions afterward and was reminded of an old saying, “Show me a man who never made a mistake and I’ll show you a man with no experience.”