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NAU university Army ROTC program wins national recognition

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FLAGSTAFF – Supplied with maps, compasses and protractors, nine college juniors prepare to head into the forest on an orienteering mission. But first, Steven Wilson has some advice for those assembled at Camp Navajo:

Drink plenty of water and enjoy your Meals Ready to Eat, he says. And beware of mountain lions.

“If you feel like your life is in danger, you can call the emergency number and you can tell us approximately where you are,” said Wilson, a senior cadet in Northern Arizona University’s Army ROTC program. “That’s where your land navigation and training association come into play.”

The Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, a society of men with ancestral ties to the American Revolution, recently named the officer training program third best out of 273 programs around the nation. The group’s criteria included retention rates, officers commissioned and members’ academic performance.

“It’s prestigious, and it’s a great honor given the fierce competition,” said Tom Gannon, governor of the order’s Arizona society.

The Lumberjack Battalion, comprised of cadets at NAU and Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University, placed only behind Georgetown University, which was first, and the University of San Francisco.

Maj. Alan Simpkins, NAU associate professor of military science, said a commitment to putting students in leadership positions, as evidenced during the orienteering training, sets this program apart.

“We expect our seniors to be able to run everything,” he said.

Outside of required class work, senior cadets put together training strategies for lower classmen and execute the plan.

“Then, by the time freshmen and sophomores get to that level, they’ve seen good, they’ve seen bad, and they get an opportunity and they know what right looks like,” Simpkins said.

At Camp Navajo, surrounded by patches of snow, the juniors cadets circled around Wilson as he pointed to a three-dimensional representation of the area crafted out of dirt, rocks and sticks.

Their mission: Locate at least five checkpoints scattered around the woods.

“What do you suggest if we run into said mountain lion?” a cadet asks Wilson.

“You are to back away slowly – don’t shine your teeth and do crazy stuff,” he says.

Move to the nearest checkpoint and report it to a senior cadet, he adds.

They each set out alone approximately an hour before sunset and returned late in the evening, with Wilson there to greet them.

Col. Jeff Tipton, an NAU alumnus who serves as chief of staff for the Arizona Army National Guard, said the program’s emphasis on leading by example helped during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Bullets were flying around their armored vehicle, and Tipton’s platoon needed to dig a trench for cover. But he could see in their faces that the soldiers were scared.

That’s when his NAU ROTC training kicked in. Rather than ordering his troops Tipton began by himself with a pick and shovel and his platoon followed suit.

“(In)a confused, stressful situation, a lot of people don’t want to take charge, and they don’t know what to do,” he said.

The school’s setting close to wilderness and its access to a training facility used by the regular military also give its cadets a competitive edge, said Lt. Col. Todd Hourihan, NAU professor of military science.

So does its elevation: Among U.S. universities, NAU ranks as one of the highest, something that increases cadets’ endurance and their performance in competitions, he noted.

“Being at 7,000 feet in Flagstaff, does that give us a benefit? I’d say yes,” Hourihan said.

Freshman cadet Nolan Kirk said he had a tough time adjusting even though he was used to running in the harsh heat of Tucson, his hometown.

“I definitely slowed down because of the elevation,” he said. “But I think that was to be expected.”

But at a 5 a.m. physical training session overseen by senior cadets, Kirk completed a two–mile run in less than 14 minutes.

Shortly after, two of the cadets threw up.

Garrett Dunlap, a freshman from Fort Rucker, Ala., said the physical challenges of the program will be worth it in the end.

“It’s basically one huge obligation, because at the end of the four years, we’ll get commissioned and we’ll go lead our men and women,” he said.