Cadets shed light on the Land Navigation Course

Sixth Regiment Cadets

Sixth Regiment Cadets plot out their course at the starting point of the night Land Nav at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. U.S. Army photo by Jesse Beals

By: Hannah Van Ree
U.S. Army Cadet Command Public Affairs

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – It’s 8:30 p.m. and the Cadets of 6th Regiment get one last meal before they head out to face what some consider to be the most challenging event at the Leader Development and Assessment Course (LDAC), night land navigation. This night they get a break from MRE’s (meals ready to eat) and get a plate full of spaghetti, bread, beans, apple sauce, fruit and cake.

Once the assessment starts the crunch of boots marching on gravel and the sloshing of leather through puddles will be the only sounds heard on the Warrior Forge land navigation course; the only exceptions being the horn signaling start and finish or the roar of an occasional helicopter overhead. Cadets are focused and ready to navigate through the night.

“The Cadets arrive here from field craft having been taught how to navigate in the field environment,” said Sgt. Vanholsbeke, a deputy chief for the land navigation operations center, “Then they are given more training, and tested in the day and the night on their ability to navigate using a map and various reference skills.”

Before Cadets approach the long-awaited night land navigation course they must have already taken a written exam and the day land navigation assessment.

Cadets must complete the written exam in under an hour and 15 minutes, scoring at least 14 out of 20 to pass.

The day after Cadets take the written exam is when they head to the field. During day land navigation Cadets get five hours to find at least five of the eight points they are assigned. At night, they must find at least three of the five points they are assigned in under three-and-a-half hours.

This is no easy task, considering there are over 100 points on the course that Cadets can get confused by and they are only allowed one retest.

Mastering both the exam and day course is one thing, but the night brings darkness and a new challenge for Cadets to operate in.

Vanholsbeke said that what Cadets gain through this assessment is “Being able to get from point A to B in the most efficient manner and safely, because a straight line isn’t always the most efficient way.”

“The biggest piece of advice that we give Cadets out here is to recheck. Recheck using several different methods,” said Vanholsbeke.

The course consists of part rolling hills and part dense forest. The wild wheat grass scattered with dandelions and white daisies is initially foreign land to these Cadets, who will soon be disturbing the undergrowth as they get down to business.

Like ants busily going about their business, hundreds of Cadets head out in all directions as they seek their points amidst the approximately seven square kilometers of daunting terrain.

With night fast approaching, food flies through the air as Cadets of the 6th Regiment trade pears for bread and other items while they eat and reassess the new conditions they are about to navigate through.

“I wish it wasn’t so wet,” said Cadet Natalie Majkrzak from Saint Johns University, Minnesota.

Though it was a damp night Cadets stayed positive.

“I’m pretty confident after seeing today’s course that if I can do it in the day I can do it at night,” said Cadet Danielle Owens from the University of Central Missouri, “After this I’m just one step closer to getting home.”

Some Cadets chose to take the paths, while other’s off-roaded through knee-deep grass.

“Tonight I’m going to be sticking closer to the roads. The less brush I have to go through the better,” said Cadet Stacia Kluever from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Cadet Joseph Brown from the United States Military Academy, West Point, said a little adjustment from the way he conducted his day test would help him immensely.

“I’m going to change my load and only carry the bare essentials. I was carrying ten extra pounds on me that I didn’t need, and had drank three-fourths of my camelback because of it,” said Brown.

University of Arkansas Cadet Daniel White said that the secret to success on the land navigation course was making correct use of pace count.

As the rain starts to trickle and the sun slowly dips below the forest line a serious attitude settles over the Cadets.

Eighth Regiment Cadets could be seen reflecting in the puddles of water as they made there way through the day Land Navigation (LN) course at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. U.S. Army photo by Jesse Beals

“Get confident now and maintain your confidence,” said 6th Regiment platoon tactical officer Cpt. James Polk to his Cadets, “When you get nervous take a knee, drink some water and reassess your points.”

The Cadets line up in alphabetical order as they enter tents to get their lane strip, a little piece of paper with their designated eight coordinates.

After the Cadets make it through the check-in tent they must lay down in the grass, Alpha Company Cadets facing North, and Bravo Company facing South. Row upon row of Cadets silently gaze at their maps, using the little red light on top of their head, their only authorized source of light, to see in the ever-growing darkness. As each Cadet’s light flickers on it’s as if the field is swarmed with fireflies.

The Cadets are then given 15 minutes of free plotting time. As soon as the starting horn blasts, all 450 tiny flashlights illuminate the grassy field in unison, brightening the now pitch black backdrop. Each Cadet has their own fiery glow about them, and their crimson faces reflect determination and focus.

One Cadet’s pencil breaks and his neighbor in the lineup wastes no time in handing him one of his own. Cadets may work and be scored individually during this assessment but their teamwork shines through every step of LDAC.

As the Cadets lay anxiously, some cadre chant under their breath, “Just stay calm… stay calm.”

Some cadre even try to make the Cadets smile to ease their nerves by joking about Bigfoot sightings around Washington.

In the last minute before free plotting time runs out, the Cadets get noticeably restless. Cadets ready their gear for rapid departure and their three-and-a-half hour race against time.

“We’re just ready to get this out of the way,” said Cadet John Harbin from Florida State University.

The horn sounds and the Cadets scatter, some running, some walking. As Cadets leave their imprints in the grass, the red lights float away, swaying in the dark like lighters at a rock concert.

Once the Cadets find the point they were searching for they waste no time in punching their card at the station with the “clacker”, a device similar to a single hole-punch but with different patterns. The Cadets then address their next point and promptly move on until they are finished with their mission.

After they finish, the cadre tell them whether or not they passed the course. Those who passed show signs of relief and weariness sets in.

Cadet Justin Durham from Brigham Young University, who finished successfully, said he was a little more cautious during the night portion and double-checked every point this time.

“The main thing with doing it in the dark is the puddles are big and creep up on ya. I was glad I didn’t have many points in the field this time though, some of that tall grass got me wet up to my waist,” said Durham.

Slowly, Cadets wander back to their packs, roll out their sleeping bags and end their long night at land navigation by sleeping under the stars, waiting for their next challenge.

Check out our video about this course here

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