Image: Cadet Gibson Sale of Pago Pago, American Samoa, walks past a simulated insurgent casualty during a military exercise at the U.S. Military Academy
Mike Groll  /  AP
Cadet Gibson Sale of Pago Pago, American Samoa, walks past a simulated insurgent casualty during a military exercise at the United States Military Academy in West Point. The new version of summer field training at the U.S. Military Academy goes beyond tactics and drills.
updated 8/2/2009 5:38:31 PM ET 2009-08-02T21:38:31

Cadets had already fought off an overnight attack by insurgents firing blanks when the morning brought even more simulated problems.

Local villagers — really, Arabic-speaking role players — massed outside their camp gate and made demands. Then cadets dispatched to stabilize a nearby village were hit by an explosive device. The ensuing battle went badly: Cadets suffered casualties and alienated the local sheik by ignoring him.

"You need to show respect to somebody when you enter their village and you have shot up their houses," Sheik Yusef (actually Joseph Khalipha, of Fort Pierce, Fla.) scolded cadets during a debriefing. "We are worried, and we are upset. We can't get to our homes."

The latest update to summer field training at the U.S. Military Academy goes beyond tactics and drills. Senior cadets who face eventual deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan must think through ethical and political quandaries typical of conflicts in which it's difficult to tell enemies from friends.

It's the "handshake or hand grenade" dilemma, said Lt. Col. Chris J. Kidd, who heads the three-week program at West Point.

Out of the comfort zone
The hills of the Hudson Valley are far from the Sunni Triangle, northwest of Baghdad. The bullets are blanks, and the insurgents are actors. But the exercises force future Army officers to think through thorny problems.

"It's getting out of the comfort zone a little bit," said Cadet Nick Lewis-Walls, of Plainfield Ind., as he sat watch behind a machine gun. "It gets us to think of respecting cultural traditions and values, as opposed to just rocking through villages."

Lewis-Walls is among the hundreds of cadets practically living in their digital camouflage uniforms this summer in the heavy woods around West Point. Senior cadets split into three groups: One concentrates on urban military operations, another searches and attacks in the woods and a third is required to set up and maintain a combat outpost, or, in Army-speak, a COP.

The COP is set on a forest hilltop that cadets ring with concertina wire and protect with machine guns loaded with blanks. It's near two tent villages where the cadets would like to cultivate relations as they deal with insurgents.

Brian Rodriguez, of Vallejo, Calif., was tested throughout his rotation as a platoon leader, first by the overnight attack, then by a sheik leading a crowd of local villagers to the gate seeking entry. Rodriguez could turn them away and insult potential allies, or he could let them in and expose his soldiers to a potential suicide bomber.

Rodriguez decided to tell the sheik, through a fellow cadet acting as interpreter, that he'd let them in, with conditions.

"We're searching you just as a precaution," Rodriguez told them.

A female cadet searches a woman, who is allowed to keep on her headdress. Once inside, Rodriguez gives his visitors peaches and takes the sheik aside to pump him for intelligence. Kidd, watching closely, seems pleased.

"We learn about half this stuff in the classroom," Rodriguez said later, "but I think experiencing this stuff is a whole other ball game from sitting behind a desk and having an instructor teach it to you."

Academy adapts to post-9/11 world
Trainers, many of them soldiers recently back from Iraq, assess the cadets and declare who is dead who and is wounded in the exercises. Trainers also throw in the occasional curve ball, like when a platoon dispatched to a local village is attacked with a mock explosive device, which would have killed a quarter of the cadets riding on a Humvee. Surviving cadets failed to secure the scene as they rushed to fight. They left behind the bodies of their comrades and a loaded machine gun mounted on the blasted vehicle. An insurgent was able to turn the machine gun on cadets before being killed.

Not good, said Staff Sgt. Terry Goble during the cadets' debriefing.

"You know the basics," Goble told them. "You're not applying them."

Goble, with the 101st Airborne Division, has done three tours of Iraq and knows a lot is being asked of college students. But he gives the future Army officers an unvarnished critique.

"Everything I've seen from the COP to here," he said, "has been dragging ass."

West Point continues to adapt to post-Sept. 11 military needs. The academy pumped up instruction in Arabic, opened a Combating Terrorism Center and added new minors in terrorism and foreign area studies. This new training for seniors, called Cadet Leadership Development Training, simply adds a new wrinkle.

Kidd said the academy tries to make the scenarios as difficult as possible with ethical and tactical dilemmas. Cadets are specifically assessed on clarity of thought and performance under stress.

The point isn't necessarily to win every scenario but to get cadets to think. It's better for them to make mistakes now than later, they're told.

"I'd make the mistake here a thousand times before I make it when it really matters," said Thomas Perkins, of Schuylkill Haven, Pa.

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