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NROTC raises the bar

By Ben Cottrell
On February 10, 2011

This past year, the Norwich NROTC program took measures to improve training for Norwich midshipmen; with new equipment and staff, and a much more manageable number of members

    "The training this year is great, especially since we have new resources," said Midshipman Michael Benjamin, a 20-year-old junior accounting and business management major from Charlotte, N.C. "We have a new obstacle course, a new endurance course, and we have much more individual training this year."

    Benjamin, a platoon sergeant within Norwich's NROTC unit, supervises and leads a platoon of midshipmen Marines for training exercises. Any one platoon has over 30 midshipmen.

     "The platoon sergeant's responsibility is to directly supervise the platoon," he said. "This includes overseeing the squad leaders and fire team leaders. This past semester has been a real eye-opener. I've learn a lot about leadership; you never know what it's like to be a platoon sergeant, until they put you in command of 30 or more people."

    The mission of Norwich NROTC, which stands for "Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps," is to train, prepare, and evaluate college midshipmen for service in either the United States Navy or United States Marine Corps.

    "We are here for all the midshipmen's development, Navy or Marine side," said Navy Lieutenant Lisa Blachford, Norwich NROTC naval science instructor and surface warfare officer. "The staff needs to make sure the midshipmen are ready to commission, and meet every goal and wicket along the way."

    "They need to go out into the fleet as a 100 percent commissionee, as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps or an ensign in the Navy, ready for service," Blachford said.

    Norwich NROTC is a battalion split into two companies: Alpha company is made up of Navy midshipmen, and Bravo company is made up of Marine Corps midshipmen. Training is different for each service branch.

    The companies are separated to ensure midshipmen get the training necessary for their service branch selection, according to Midshipman Jonathan Bermudez-Mendez, a 19-year-old sophomore history major from Bristol, Conn.

    "We have two companies, and each company does its own form of training. Some new training the Navy has this year is naval warfare simulation software, as well as the possible Newport, R.I., field exercise being planned for this next spring," Bermudez said.

    Once every semester, Alpha and Bravo companies perform their own field exercises, or FEX, for a weekend. This spring, the Navy midshipmen may go to Newport, R.I., for their FEX.

    "While Massachusetts Maritime offered great trainers and equipment, they really aren't the Navy-qualified trainers that could best teach the midshipmen. The midshipmen who go to Newport can expect to see those same trainers in the Navy," Blachford said.

    Navy Lieutenant Matthew Mariano, Norwich NROTC naval science instructor and aviation officer, agreed on the effectiveness and improvement to training with the upcoming FEX.

    "This year we're planning on going to Newport and not just getting our hands on a few simulators like we did three years ago, rather, now we're going to be giving a lot of different, Navy-specific training, which is even better than Mass. Maritime," Mariano said.

    "A major factor in choosing a place to go is the availability of training. Newport is a very busy naval training base," Blachford said. "We would not have the full range of that base to use all the training equipment like we would at Mass. Maritime, where the training would be devoted entirely to us for that weekend."

    While Newport Naval Station would be busier than Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Newport is still a desirable training base for the Navy midshipmen, as Mass. Maritime is primarily a merchant marine academy.

    "The training simulators at Mass. Maritime are built to simulate merchant marine ships. It's really not the same as genuine naval simulators," Blachford said. "Our midshipmen should get a chance to see what damage control, navigation and bridge operation is like on an actual naval vessel simulator."

    Another change to training for the Navy midshipmen is the addition of the "Dangerous Waters" naval warfare simulator.

    "We recently got this new simulation software, it's amazing how it works; you can man any station on a ship or submarine, and even guide aviation units in the air. Midshipmen can work as a team on one ship to complete missions," Bermudez said.

    The software can simulate all positions on a surface ship, submarine or even naval aircraft. The Navy midshipmen use the software to practice naval warfare skills, while learning the role of each sailor on a ship.

    "I think the new software is definitely applicable to our training," said Midshipman Jason Heiser, a 21-year-old senior history major from Ridgefield, Conn. "I can take the role of the conning officer, navigator or ship's captain, all in one software package. It's very futuristic."

    More information about Dangerous Waters is at

    The software also has artificial intelligence in it, allowing midshipmen to use a crew of computer-controlled sailors. This allows midshipmen to use the software by themselves, to practice certain roles onboard a ship with computers that handle the more difficult tasks.

    "I think Dangerous Waters is great! I've commanded a ship's bridge, and can even use my air units to support me. It's a lot of fun, keeps us involved, and teaches us valuable surface naval skills. It's almost like we're in some kind of movie, the training is that modern," Bermudez said.

    "My fellow midshipmen and I can easily fire up the simulator, take our positions in the crew, and command a naval vessel. We can even fight other midshipmen in naval combat! It's very, very insightful into what surface warfare is like in the Navy, and we can even do it here in Vermont."

    The Marine Corps element of NROTC also has several significant additions.

    One addition to Marine midshipmen's training this year is the obstacle course, or "O-course" for short.  The new O-course is located on Disney Field, next to the Norwich climbing and rappelling tower.

    "The idea for a new obstacle course has been in the works for several years," said Marine Corps Captain David Castro, Norwich NROTC marine officer instructor.

    The O-course was funded by Norwich, while the designs and construction of the course came from the Marine Corps.  The course is designed similarly to the standard Marine Corps obstacle course used at Marine Officer Candidates School, or OCS.

    "We took the standards for OCS, and the engineers in charge of the project used those schematics to create the existing course," Castro said. "The course was finished around the mid-August timeframe."

    "The Marines from Marine Wing Support Squadron 472 stationed down in Massachusetts came up and constructed the course for us. Every year, a reserve Marine must complete two weeks of training. For their training, they built the O-course."

    Being reserve Marines, the Marines who built the course lead mostly civilian lives back home. "Many of the Marines who came were already construction managers and contractors. They were very skilled and knew what they were doing," Castro said.

    The course here is also built to be more difficult than the O-course at OCS, according to Castro.

    "The distance between the last obstacle and the rope climb (the last O-course event) is a greater running distance, and the uneven bars are over a foot higher, and much harder to climb. Our O-course is a little more challenging than a regular Marine Corps O-course," he said.

    Another addition is the three-mile "E-course," or the endurance course, with a combination of running, obstacles and military exercises. The E-course is a new feature of Bravo company's training regimen this year, designed by members of the Semper Fidelis Society.

    "I've seen E-courses from three miles up to five-miles long, all encompassing different types of terrain, and different types of gear the individual wears throughout the E-course," Castro said. "It is meant to be an individual event, to build and evaluate your physical and mental endurance."

    Midshipmen who run through the E-course are expected to complete the course wearing, usually, a flak jacket, camouflage utilities and boots, and carrying a training M16 rifle.

    "As far as for training purposes, the endurance course is good for the Marines and Marine midshipmen that are going to OCS, because there's an E-course there that's set up," said Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Levi Brostowski, Norwich NROTC assistant marine officer instructor.

    "That way, when the Marine candidates get to OCS, they'll already be used to what an E-course is, and how to run it."

    Brostowski said the same for the O-course, that when Marine midshipmen get to OCS, they'll be "more than ready" to handle the O-course and the E-course at Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Va.

    Other changes in Norwich NROTC have affected both Navy and Marine Corps training. One major difference is that Norwich NROTC no longer trains cadets that do not intend on commissioning in directly from NROTC.

    And cadets may still take naval science courses, offered and taught by the same naval officers who taught the classes before. Cadets not on a path to commission do not join in physical training and military labs on Tuesdays.

    With this downsizing in numbers, the NROTC unit now has the ability to provide midshipmen with more individual training, according to Bermudez. "With fewer members in the battalion at any one time, we now aren't a gigantic unit of 600 midshipmen; rather, we are a much more manageable and teachable unit, with more one-on-one work done for each midshipman," he said.

    "What this means is, the people who are a part of this unit, want to commission. Now the NROTC staff can concentrate their efforts much further for us, to help us get closer to our goal of commissioning as Navy and Marine Corps officers," Bermudez said.

    Another change is the creation of an Academic Duty Roster, a list of midshipmen whose assigned task is to watch over the new academic study hall, in NROTC office space. Midshipmen who are having academic trouble are expected to come to this study hall to improve their grades.

    Blachford has seen significant results from the new academic study hall: "I was absolutely for the new study hall. There were a couple of us, myself, and a few staff members that mentioned it would be a good idea."

    "I've seen it run before, and it was brought up in staff meetings.We convene Performance Review Boards for midshipmen with substandard academic performance, and we had to ask ourselves; ‘Are we fixing the problem?'  Utilizing the study hall and assigning hours will hopefully ensure midshipmen meet their academic requirements," Blachford said.

    "For freshmen midshipmen who are struggling academically, I give them study hall hours, sometimes around five hours per week," Brostowski said. "Until I see improvement in those grades, they're going to keep doing those five hours per week."

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