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ROTC: Science imitating art

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By Ken Begley

I hope this article will fascinate you, even if you don’t have a military background. It’s about a new piece of technology I saw demonstrated at the National Guard’s Wendell Ford Regional Training Center. It takes a page from the Harry Potter novel and movie series and turns it into reality. Specifically, I’m talking about author J.K. Rowling’s imaginative creation called the “Marauder’s Map.”

I’ve spent a total of 35 years on active and reserve duty in both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army. I’ve done and seen just about everything during that time period. Yet, technology in the military has just exploded in the past few years. I keep witnessing things I never would have thought possible become reality.

Right now, I’m an Army Reservist teaching ROTC at Centre College, which falls under the jurisdiction of the University of Kentucky’s  ROTC Professor of Military Science. ROTC trains future active and reserve duty officers to our army.

ROTC students take military science classes during the school year. But they must get out into the field and practice their classroom skills with hands-on training. This past weekend, we took about 100 cadets to Wendell Ford for a three-day field training exercise.

One decidedly low tech experience is called the compass course. This is a very intense real world experience in understanding how to read a topographical map using a compass in the wilderness.

You might ask, “Why not just use the new Global Positioning System (GPS) and skip all this yesteryear compass stuff.” Because map reading is not only extremely important in the Army, it can also be deadly if you don’t know how to do it in a combat situation. GPS devices may not be available, or for some other reason not work for the area you’re in. A compass rarely fails.

A compass course involves having about 30 posts marked with numbers spread out over maybe two square miles. The posts locations are very carefully plotted on a map. The cadet gets the grid coordinates of maybe five posts, along with a map, a compass, and a protractor.

The cadets take these simple tools to determine where the points are on their map. They’ll then determine a route that will take them to each point. The cadet will also determine what direction and distance they must travel to get to the first point on their chosen route. Once they find the first point, the cadet plots the course to the next point, and so on until all the points are reached.

Sound easy? It’s not. Especially at night.

Estimating distances and keeping on course while going through thick, hilly woods is tough day or night. Miss any point or go to the wrong point and you may never find the rest of your points. You have to find the right point in order for your calculations to take you to the next point.

The hard part for instructors is sending students out into the woods and waiting for hours, not knowing exactly where they are. Many students end up getting turned around and not only aren’t able to find their way back to the start point but go “off the course” and end up miles from our location, hopelessly lost. Can you imagine being an instructor and trying to find them, especially in the dark?

Well the National Guard has solved this problem with a new individual tracking and mapping system. It’s the equal of the “Marauder’s Map” from Harry Potter.

The Marauder’s Map was a magical map of the school that Harry Potter attended. Pull it out and you could see by name and location every individual walking around the school.

The Guard’s system involves strapping a small backpack tracking device on each cadet. Then we send them out into the woods.

The instructors then went to a monitoring station about a mile away. A movie screen was pulled down, and what you see is each cadet’s name and location as they walk around the map.

It was incredible.

There were cadets that knew exactly what they were doing, hitting each point. There were cadets missing their points by going too far north, south, east or west of the right location. Some walked in circles. Some walked off the course. If the cadet was lost in the course area, then we let them continue, hoping they would get their bearings. We sent out an ATV to stop lost students that were leaving the area in error. We could even see if one student met up with another student and how long they talked to each other.

One cadet became totally lost. An instructor was sent out to bring him in when time had run out. The safety factor of having this device is incredible, especially if a cadet becomes injured and can’t move.

I have to admit this new technology blew this old soldier away by taking a great deal of danger and frustration out of the training of a vital military skill.

Now here’s what really amazed me.

One of my friends said you can do the same thing with your cell phones. There’s an application that will allow you to do it on a family plan to track family members.

Technology marches on.