Danny Ponzo was terrified the night before he left.
The GW freshman lay awake in bed, contemplating the challenges of the upcoming weekend – the obstacle courses that would leave his body bruised for days, the nighttime land navigation exercises that would require him to navigate through a pitch black forest with only the faint light of his compass to guide him back to camp.
And then there was the “hump,” a traditional military march in which soldiers shoulder 50-pound packs and cover large amounts of ground at a breakneck pace. Ideally, they stay together as they cross the terrain, marching closely in a supportive group. When they finish, or take a short break after several miles, they tend to their wounds, bandaging bloody blisters that have erupted en route.
It was all on the mind of Midshipman 4/c Ponzo that Friday night just two weeks ago. The eight-mile trek would be the crowning achievement in a weekend of field exercises designed to teach his platoon of fellow Marine-options the skills that might someday save their lives.
That night, Ponzo decided the weekend would be a test. After two months of Marine Corps training, he decided if he couldn’t meet the grueling physical demands of the outing, he would give it up for good.
Two days later, Ponzo returned bruised, exhausted and triumphant.
Not only did he fare well in the weekend’s activities, he and his squad completed the hump in a brisk two hour and 45 minutes.
“Basically, the hump hurt like hell, but we were all hurting together,” Ponzo said. “That made it bearable, knowing we were all going through the same thing.”
Every year, students like Ponzo attempt to fulfill the rigorous requirements of the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps, hoping to graduate college as fully commissioned officers. In doing so, many receive a full tuition scholarship, including books and fees from the Department of the Navy.
Some however, do not receive any compensation from the Navy and enlist through the College Program, serving in NROTC and re-applying three times a year for scholarships.
“The program is definitely tough,” said Captain Dennis Albrecht, who has coordinated the NROTC program in the D.C. area since the fall of 1995. “We are preparing these students to be future leaders of the United States Navy and Marines Corps. They must meet our greatest expectations.”
This year, the Washington NROTC consortium, which includes students from GW, Georgetown, Howard and Catholic universities, has about 180 members. Of those students, 150 are pursuing standard Naval training and another 30 are opting for Marine Corps training.
The GW unit is regarded highly across America, ranked in the top 10 by Chief of Naval Education and Training.
Midshipmen practice field work at the Quantico, Va., Naval base – home of Officer Candidate School (OCS) – three times a semester.
The Marine Corps, the land fighting force of the Navy, is the smallest branch of the U.S. military. It also is considered the most elite and most physically strenuous.
Standard NROTC training means reporting for duty nearly every weekday before dawn, while most other students are still asleep.
“The biggest challenge is just waking up in the mornings,” said Midshipman Marilyn Santiago, a GW junior in the Marine option program. “Waking up at 4:30 a.m. for drill team practice at 5 o’clock really makes it hard to sympathize with friends who complain about classes being too early.”
All this week, Santiago and her squad will practice for drill
team competitions at Cornell, Villanova and Tulane universities. Besides precision drill team practice, mornings are devoted to several other activities including classes on military history and lessons in field tactics, as well as extensive physical training.
“The incredible thing about our exercises is that each one teaches us
individual skills, but that those skills are part of a bigger picture,” said 2/c Marine-option Dan Morrone.
“For example, drill team isn’t just about learning to march in a line
and move together,” he said. “It’s about learning to follow commands instantly and react without hesitation.”
Morrone said that faith in military leaders is crucial to a successful
operation, and the Marines work hard to instill trust in each other.
“There’s a lot of talk today about smart bombs and high-tech weaponry, but when it comes down to it, the hardest weapon to control, and the most important in the fight, are the individual Marines themselves,” he said.
For Morrone and Santiago, who both said they have dreamed of a career in the Marines since junior high school, the pressure of NROTC has sky-rocketed this year.
They, along with 13 of their squadmates, are preparing for OCS this summer – six stress-filled weeks of high-intensity training and evaluation.
“OCS is always on your mind,” Santiago said. “You can’t forget that it is your goal.”
The “pre-Bulldogers,” as they are called, rely on leaders such as GW senior and Platoon Commander Michele Cibrian to prepare them for the challenges of OCS.
“At OCS, it feels like you have 30 hours of things to do and five hours in which to do them,” she said. “You are expected to do well on tests, but there’s no time to study. There’s always someone in your face telling you how bad you’re doing, so you really have no time to feel good about yourself, even if you think you’re doing all right. You live in fear of being sent home.”
Cibrian explained that many Midshipmen do get sent home from OCS for a variety of reasons including incompetent physical ability and poor attitudes.
“You have to go in accepting that you aren’t the best, because they’ll do anything they can to break you,” she said.
“The closest the commanding officers can get to a simulation of war is a situation that is highly stressful and evokes the emotions you might have under war-like circumstances.
“How you handle yourself then is what they need to see and evaluate,” she said.
Albrecht said candidates are evaluated on leadership skills such as their ability to cultivate teamwork and positively motivate the platoon.
Candidates also must exhibit an extremely high level of physical fitness during the field exercises and do well in the academic portions of the program.
Not one of Albrect’s students has ever failed OCS. GW students
comprise one of the largest contingents from OCS in recent history.
Interestingly, OCS will be the first time in their training that the “pre-Bulldogers” will be divided by gender. Though much of the training is integrated, some activities will be in single-sex squads only, mirroring the general divisions of combat forces in the Marines.
All NROTC activities are fully integrated and have been that way “for as long as I can remember,” Albrecht said.
He notes that female Marines are not allowed to serve in some jobs, mostly on the front lines of combat.
Albrecht said that is more out of necessity than anything else, arguing that because the number of men is so much higher, it would be logistically impossible to provide female squads with the proper amenities, and that troop integration would just lead to more problems overall.
“We are a fighting force, and unfortunately a combat unit is not the most conducive environment for dealing with gender differences,” he said. “Doing our job well means we must maintain a cohesive group and not endanger our fighting effectiveness,” he said.
Ponzo said his involvement in NROTC has radically changed his notion of the capability of female military leaders.
“Before I started NROTC, I did not support women on the front lines,” he said. “I thought they were too weak and emotional.”
Cibrian quickly changed his mind. He said her outstanding professionalism, physical ability and leadership “totally changed my opinion. I know now that being a great leader has absolutely nothing to do with gender, it has to do with the person you are.”
For Cibrian, it is a simple love of country and the need to set the best example she can for her troops that drives her.
Morrone said his motivation often comes from a feeling he gets as the
platoon takes a detour through the Vietnam veterans’ memorial during physical training.
“I think about the people who went before me, who have lead the way through worse situations and more dangerous circumstances, some who have even given up their lives,” he said.
“And I think about my fellow Marines and how I never want to let them down. The thought of them always keeps me going.”