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OPFOR: Yearlings get good at being bad

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (June 18, 2014) —

Xavier Moss is the soft-spoken one.
Araceli Sandoval is the shady one.
Michael Sims is the smart one.

All three Class of 2017 cadets worked together at one of the village site June 12 as members of the opposing force, or OPFOR, during Cadet Leader Development Training.

Sims seemed like the mastermind because, as the OPFOR commander it the village, he blended into the environment, causing no trouble for the platoon but quietly receiving the information gathered by his fellow insurgents.

Sandoval was certainly shady in her role as an insurgent and during her first village scenario, she raised much havoc for the platoon. Sandoval managed to circulate in and around the village all while sketching out a map in her little notebook of where everyone was positioned, and the location of weapons. She befuddled the security team as she slipped out of both exit points unchallenged. It’s not that they didn’t know how to stop her, they weren’t sure if they had to; that is, until she drew enough suspicion to place a female engagement team on her.

And then there was Moss, who quietly went about his terrorist activities—snapping cell phone photos of platoon members until he was apprehended and then subsequently allowed to leave. His mild-mannerism was deemed harmless, but the intel he gathered could have proven costly for the troops.

More than 130 rising yearlings were promoted to cadet corporal June 16 after successfully completing the first iteration of Cadet Field Training. CFT requirements include weapons qualification, field artillery familiarization, medical training the Marne obstacle course, the Water Confidence Course and Recondo events like the three-mile assault pack run. The preparation and execution of their company detail as the OPFOR fulfilled the small unit leader development (SULD) portion of CFT, and for that the cadets were under the guidance and mentorship of a Special Forces team from 5th Group at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

“It’s not an additional tasking for (yearlings) because they’re meeting the SULD requirement for CFT. But with this first group, they’re getting a lot more time and a lot more expert instruction,” Class of 2015 Cadet Lance Barrow, the CLDT commander, said. “Really, these cadets are getting an awesome opportunity. They’ve embraced it full force.”

Barrow completed CLDT requirements last year and said this group of OPFOR was far superior to the one he went up against a summer ago.

“They’re living, breathing and thinking the roles of OPFOR,” he said. “They’re learning tactics and strategy out there; it’s something that’s not purely scripted, so the scenarios can be different each time.”

Class of 2015 Cadets Daniel Schlich and Sean Mogan, were the OPFOR executive officer and first sergeant in charge of Ghost Company and oversaw the operations in the field daily.

“They are definitely up to the task and I feel they’re getting the best training out of Buckner this summer,” Schlich said. “Not only do they get all the CFT tasks but two weeks in the field learning from Special Forces and doing missions.”

Being apart from the rest of their classmates, who will start CFT later this summer, means they’ll miss out on certain highlights like Camp Illumination and the Run Back. Still, most would agree that it was worth it.

“This is better training,” Sims said. “Though we might not get the traditional Buckner with the entire class, we’re definitely getting a great training opportunity.”

At a nearby village, Class of 2017 Cadets Christina Pico, Charles Christianson and Kurt Niehus were creating their own mayhem in a scenario where a domestic dispute rivals a hidden bombmaker for the attention of the platoon.

Christianson said he was lucky to have been selected for this first CFT, but it had more to do with additional summer training. Pico and Christianson will be departing West Point in a few days for Airborne School, others will attend the Air Assault Course at Camp Smith or take summer classes at the academy.

Pico said one of the real advantages of learning to think like OPFOR is that they’ll be able to react and make better decisions a year or two from now during their CLDT.

“Seeing how they make mistakes, I can see myself making the same one but now I know better,” she said. “We’ve practiced raids and ambushes and learned different techniques for doing that. Different options, different procedures, we’ve learned a lot.”

“The way we’re being trained shows how our enemy could be thinking,” Christianson said. “So not only do we learn how to be OPFOR but we’re learning how a platoon might respond in their positions. This is going to make it easier for us when we are squad leaders or team leaders in a platoon-size element.”

Having the expertise and experience of Special Forces showing them skills made this CFT experience memorable.

“Our heads were just going back and forth listening to them talk, and we were picking their brains constantly,” Niehus said. “They were very open with us—of course there’s some stuff they can’t talk about—but they explained a lot to us about what they do.”

Sandoval said it was especially unique for the female cadets because, at first, the SF Soldiers weren’t sure about arrangements in a training environment.

“I don’t think they were used to having so many females around and it kind of put them on edge and a little awkward,” Sandoval said. “So they took on a very fatherly role to begin with, which seemed a bit strange at first, until things got normal.”

Sandoval said she received a lot of information about how female Soldiers operate in Afghanistan and some of the cultural insight on genders in foreign populations.

“It was some very good advice but it was also nice to see how they’re accepting females in combat a little more, and they’re open to teaching females the same as they would males,” she said.

The advice they got was invaluable but the experiences they’ve acquired were equally priceless. Hostage-taking, pilfering of equipment and surprise attacks were just some of the ways OPFOR was able to confuse, distract and otherwise keep the CLDT cadets on high alert day and night. Whenever cadets awoke to find lines of ink across their throats, they knew OPFOR paid a visit.

“It gets boring at night, so we carry our Sharpies,” Christianson, who got six knife kills in one night, said. “I flanked all the way around this little hill and there was a group of cadets walking around with their M4s. I just went behind them and got my Sharpie kills.” 

Inside the tactical operations center at Camp Buckner, the Cadet Leader Development Training cadet commander, Class of 2015 Cadet Lance Barrow, reviews the upcoming training scenarios with the OPFOR executive officer and first sergeant, Class of 2015 Cadets Daniel Schlich and Sean Mogan.
The cadets on the opposition force, or OPFOR, get used to having weapons pointed at them and being forced to the ground if they become hostile in the scenario. Others try to blend into the environment and collect information on the platoons.  
Sims found one unsuccessful mission to be both memorable and educational. The plan was to infiltrate a patrol base with silent kills on the perimeter guards before turning the machine guns around on the rest of the camp.

“Then we were going to drop artillery simulation rounds on the camp,” Sims said. “Unfortunately, their security was really good and they caught us coming in. We had to retreat through a swamp to get back to our vehicle and then we left the objective.”

And the lesson learned from that?

“Moving in the woods at night is very difficult to do quietly,” Sims said. “If I was in a situation where I had to plan a mission like that, I wouldn’t be relying on being sneaky. In that situation you have to commit to going in with overwhelming force, especially at night and in terrain like this.”

In one defensive lane, Moss experienced a surprising OPFOR victory. A platoon was supposed to be securing a bridge and the insurgent element found them laying in an open field.

“They positioned themselves really badly and went about it completely wrong,” Moss said. “Eventually they got frustrated and had to pull out. It was cool to see the mistakes you obviously don’t want to make from the other end.”

Class of 2017 Cadet Araceli Sandoval performs counterintelligence operations as a member of the opposition force during Cadet Leader Development Training.

Sandoval discovered from her counterintelligence operations in the village that it is better to act than react. As an insurgent, she exuded suspicious behavior—darting around the village, going in and out of buildings—but no one attempted to stop her. Having situational awareness and taking action was critical in these scenarios.

“I think what happens a lot is after you receive the training and go into the field, you forget to use common sense,” she said. “Too many times I saw people panic, not knowing what their TAC officers wanted them to do, so they ended up not doing the things they probably knew they should do. I think that’s one thing we all learned from this.”

It would have been easy from their vantage point to become critical of how platoons performed. Sims said their cadre reminded them the difficulty of functioning in a platoon that constantly rotated leadership roles within a short span of time. It’s something they will get to experience soon enough.

“I think what we’ve learned as OPFOR and what we’ve seen will allow us to succeed when we do CLDT,” Sims said.

Class of 2017 Cadet Xavier Moss was the soft-spoken insurgent who was taking camera photos on the sly .... until he was caught and questioned by the platoon.

Class of 2017 Cadet Michael Sims spent most of his time observing the platoon and receiving information from his fellow insurgents. At one point he decides to make contact with members of the platoon by offering food.