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An education for soldiers

FORT KNOX — It's 5:45 a.m., a good few hours before the beating sun will replace the early-morning mist. The cadets have already been marching single-file for half an hour with 30-pound ”rucks“ and rifles. They chant ”Left. Left. Left, right, left“ mechanically, and all is calm until ...

The fiercest drill sergeant, a tanned, sandy-haired woman, spots something that does not make her happy.

Keep your weapons pointed down! Jesus Christ, how many times do I have to tell y'all that!“ she bellows in her deep smoker's voice.

The cadets' ”Hooah“ affirmation is weak in comparison.

So the day begins at Leader's Training, a monthlong Reserve Officer Training Corps program held each year at the Fort Knox U.S. Army post.

The ROTC program is a set of classes college students take to become commissioned military officers. After graduation, most will serve on active duty for several years. In exchange, they receive full scholarships that cover tuition, books and a monthly stipend. The Leader's Training Program is designed for those students who decide to join ROTC halfway through college and need to catch up on the training.

Leader's Training — essentially boot camp with a little summer-camp kitsch mixed in — will train and graduate 1,450 students from all over the United States this summer.

In peaceful times, ROTC cadets could expect to serve a tranquil four years and emerge debt-free. Those who enroll now know they must face going to Iraq.

Yet around the country almost 30,000 students are enrolled in ROTC, a number that has remained relatively steady for the past decade.

The students who join do it for different reasons and come from different backgrounds. Some are in it for the money, others for the glory, and a good chunk just consider it their calling.

”I've known since I was 7,“ said 19-year-old Jacob Blair of La Grange, who said it is a family tradition to join the Army. ”It was either enlistment, or this.“

Waiting to hurry

What they share is their willingness to risk their lives at war — and patience.

As it turns out, most of a cadet's day is spent waiting in a disciplined manner: an old Army adage is ”hurry up and wait.“

The cadets finish their march at Handiboe Range, where, in several hours, many will be shooting a rifle for the first time — exciting stuff for the group of 20-year-olds.

But first it's breakfast time, and at Leader's Training, ”chow“ is like any other drill: to be done precisely and uniformly. They march to the food line in formation, then down the chow as quickly as possible, with the drill sergeants shouting ”Hurry up! Hurry up!“ at them.

”I only tasted the food as it went down,“ said 20-year-old Corey Thompson wistfully, after his breakfast of waffles in maple syrup, cereal, and juice.

He had eaten in five minutes, only to stand in formation for what seemed like hours awaiting the next set of instructions.

Thompson, a serious and chiseled Eastern Kentucky University student, stares ahead good-naturedly and doesn't complain.

He finally gets to shoot the rifle in the early afternoon, and comes back smiling, calling it ”pretty cool.“

To him, ROTC seemed like one of the few noble things left to do.

And having grown up in a Louisville project and paying his way through high school and now college, Thompson considers ROTC ”a vacation“ from normal life. During the school year, he works two jobs (one at Sonic Drive-In and one at school), runs track for EKU and is the president of two service organizations.

”I serve so many aspects of my community, and I want to serve my country as well,“ he said.

He and the other cadets might speak in clichés, but they say it so earnestly, the lines seem fresh.

Fear and cheers

Leader's Training is also a recruitment program, and combines a bit of daredevil with a kumbaya flavor, designed to foster camaraderie among cadets.

Another company of cadets is at a ropes course for the day. Here, the atmosphere is more raucous, as the goal is to get all the cadets to finish a series of high-altitude rope activities, ending with a zip line. In one exercise they must hang upside-down on a rope and pull themselves across using upper-body strength; in another, they run across swinging wooden platforms with their arms outstretched.

”No cryin' on the ropes,“ an instructor orders, but this doesn't stop the cadets. Many shake visibly; one is so scared he makes a hooting, owl-like noise the entire way, and a young woman freezes mid-obstacle, sobbing.

”You can do it, Taylor! You can do it!“ says 23-year-old Amber Sparks, a University of Louisville student from Radcliff, before admitting that her ”heart is just racing right now.“

Eventually all the cadets finish, amid cheers.

The fears they conquer at the obstacle course give them a hint of the fears of war, although the cadets seem unable to confront the reality of what they will be doing in several years. Blair insists it's very likely for a commissioned officer to play a civilian role on a military base, and Thompson says that ”people risk their lives every day by smoking cigarettes or driving.“

The most painful sacrifice he's had to make is his girlfriend, who, because he joined ROTC, does not know whether she is willing continue their relationship.

”She doesn't know if she wants to be with a military man,“ he said. ”So she's not my girlfriend, she's my "significant other.'“