A portion of the University of South Dakota campus was transformed into a military training ground of sorts on Friday, Sept. 25.
Cadets involved in the ROTC program at the university and several other area schools used the campus as a gathering point, a place to learn a few lessons on the ground as they awaited their ride to the Austin Training Area, located near the Missouri River between Elk Point and Jefferson. It's a place where more extensive military exercises were being held last week. A bumpy ride in the back of a military truck wasn't in their future. Part of last week's training included, for several of the cadets, an introduction to one of the sweetest rides the U.S. Army could offer – a Blackhawk helicopter.
"These cadets are from USD, because we're the host program for Army ROTC, and we also have satellite programs at Mount Marty College, Dakota Wesleyan, and also from Morningside down in Sioux City," said Lt. Col. Tom Martin. Martin is a professor of military science in the Military Science Department at USD. Last Friday, he looked more the part of a soldier than a teacher, dressed in the same camouflage U.S. Army garb as the cadets."This is our fall field training exercise," Martin said.
"Everything ROTC does is about leadership training. We take a student who has some leadership abilities. We foster those abilities and bring out even more. If they have weaknesses, we identify those weaknesses, and that way the individual can realize what they need to work on, and so we continue to develop those leadership skills."
Primarily the South Dakota Army National Guard uses the Austin Training Area. "We will spend from today (Sept. 25) until Sunday afternoon down there," Martin said. As he spoke, the distinct sound of the Blackhawk helicopter could be heard as it approached its landing area in a grassy open area of the campus, located north of where construction will soon begin on USD's new wellness center.
On board was an elite cargo – university administrators and other faculty – who were given a firsthand opportunity to experience a ride in the military aircraft, and learn more about the ROTC training program. "It was fun to see the training ground," USD President James Abbott said shortly after he and other university faculty returned to campus and exited the helicopter, "which is somewhere between here and Jefferson. Following the river is always fun." He also enjoyed the unique perspective of campus activity that easily could be seen from the air.
"I really enjoyed looking at the apartments on the way back," Abbott said, referring to the Coyote Village student housing currently being constructed near the DakotaDome. "Seeing them from the air was great." The ride in the Blackhawk was a unique learning experience for the university faculty."I think they (the military science personnel) wanted to show us what they do, and give us a better understanding of how our military science students work and learn," Abbott said.
Air travel is a routine part of the president's job, but he's never taken to the sky in such a unique manner. "You have two guys hanging out the window on either side of you," he said, "I suppose where the machine guns would be. I was really impressed by the amount of redundant equipment. It seems to have so many safety features, and I was also intrigued by the electronic logbook.
One of the pilots was logging in everything that they do, I suppose. You really don't realize how complicated one of these things are." Military protocol may have been followed to the letter, but that didn't stop a bit of fun from being introduced to the USD administrators during their ride.
"I did notice one of the pilots had written on the back of his helmet, 'Don't scream at me; I'm scared, too,'" Abbott said. "We didn't scream; it was a very smooth flight. These pilots are very experienced." The helicopter is based at Camp Rapid of the South Dakota Army National Guard, located in Rapid City. It took off from its base earlier that day, and in a span of approximately two hours, crossed the state to land on the USD campus. "This is the first time we've actually had a helicopter come in for one of the training exercises," Martin said. "There may have been one here 15 years ago; it was so long ago that no one around here can remember for sure."It (the helicopter) just brings an extra element to the training," he said. "It's something the cadets don't get to do every day – in some cases, maybe never. It exposes them to not only a unique piece of Army equipment, but also another realm of the Army. Many people don't realize that the Army has just as many aircraft, and in some cases more aircraft than the Air Force does. This brings a little bit more of an adventure factor to the training."
Thirty cadets and six instructors were involved in last week's training exercises, including Shiloh McGruder of Highmore. McGruder, a junior at USD, has been active in the ROTC since 2007. "I'm in the National Guard, too. This year is my fifth in the Guard," he said.
Last Friday marked just a portion of the training received recently by the ROTC cadets. In recent weeks, they've been introduced to combat water survival testing in the DakotaDome swimming pool, and basic rifle marksmanship classes at the rifle range near the Vermillion airport. "What we're doing now really focuses on land navigation," McGruder said. "The terrain at the training area is very similar to what we will be exposed to when some us will take a leadership assessment training course at Ft. Lewis, WA. There is dense vegetation, some areas are hard to walk through, and we will be doing night navigation twice and day navigation once."
Cadets were also conducted missions and were introduced to other situational exercises while on the training grounds.McGruder was grateful to have the Blackhawk helicopter as part of last week's training."It's kind of intimidating," he said. "It's so big and really, so illustrious. When you finally get in there and buckle up and it takes off, the only thing that goes through your mind is 'This is awesome. This is absolutely wonderful.'"
Nearly everything about Friday's training was a new experience for ROTC cadet Private Shelby Harkness, a freshman at USD from Hawarden, IA. "This is my first time doing anything like this," she said, admitting she was feeling a bit apprehensive, while at same growing in confidence as she learns new things. "I really like doing labs like this. We get to ride in the helicopter, two weekends ago we shot guns, and I've never shot a gun before. I did pretty well. I like doing things that are new and gives me a learning experience.
"I would recommend this program to anyone," Harkness said.