ROTC Army cadets have been training for weeks for a 26.2-mile Death March in the middle of a New Mexico desert…

By Gus Bode

Factoid:ROTC needs help funding their trip to New Mexico:checks can be made to “AUSA”. They can be dropped off in the ROTC office of Kesnar Hall.

On the first cold, snowy morning in March, when most students were still sleeping in their warm beds, freshman William Davis was outside Kesnar Hall preparing his body for an eight-mile walk with a 35-pound rucksack on his back.

Davis and 10 other cadets pulled their hats over their ears as Sgt. 1st Class Billy Johnson blasted an AC/DC song out of two speakers slipped inside the pockets of his rucksack. Davis wore nothing but his uniform, a hat and gloves to keep him warm.


The group marched off, side by side, into the dark, 20-degree morning. Snow and bitter wind blew in their faces as they marched, preparing for the hike they knew would be much harder and longer than any training hike they have done thus far.

Over spring break, Davis and seven other Army ROTC cadets will travel to New Mexico to participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March – a grueling 26.2 mile march across the barren desert. The cadets have been training for the mission every day since January.

“I wanted to participate,” said Davis. “I realized what it was about:To pay tribute to the people that served a long time ago.”

The march has been held since 1989 to honor the soldiers who died after Japanese torture in the Philippines during World War II.

In 1942, Japanese forces seized American and Filipino troops and made them march for days in sweltering heat, where thousands died or were killed. The commemorative march takes place in New Mexico because many of the soldiers who died were members of the 200th Coast Artillery of the state’s National Guard.

During Tuesday’s training, some cadets fell behind yet they were not left behind. Johnson and the others retraced steps with the exhausted cadets.

Davis said the cadets’ unity is an example of how the program builds strong relationships. He said many cadets may not get along but they must learn how to work together and help one another during difficult training sessions.


“If you don’t like anybody, you’ll eventually grow a bond,” Davis said. “There’s so many other cadets out there. You’re with them every day, and you push each other, and eventually realize how people work together.”

The cadets have been doing physical training at about 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. every weekday. They alternate every other day between a six- and 12-mile march or with full body workouts, including push-ups, pull-ups and several other exercises. Despite the seemingly intense workouts, Davis said they help each other work through the pain.

“We just have fun,” Davis said. “When we walk, we talk, tell jokes and quote our favorite movies.”

By the end of Tuesday morning’s walk, the eight-mile hike that took the group a mere hour and a half, the cadets with their cold, red cheeks dropped their rucksacks with sighs of exhaustion and relief.

“If you don’t think about it, you can push yourself farther than you’ve pushed yourself before,” Davis said. “I think we’re – if not ready [for the march]- we’re close.”

Johnson said a cadet who went on the march three years ago described it as the most important thing he did throughout his whole ROTC career. He hopes to make the march a tradition for ROTC. One of the traditions Johnson carried over from three years ago was playing music for the cadets during training.

“They can push for it and get other cadets interested by telling them what it’s like and how they feel about it,” Johnson said.

The upcoming mission will be the first time in three years the University’s ROTC program has registered to participate. The Death March begins at 4 a.m. and cadets must walk all day long.

The last group completed the march in 10 hours, a time Johnson hopes his team can beat this year.

Participants in the march can choose to enter either in the heavy or light category. ROTC has decided to enter in the heavy category, which means each cadet will have to carry a 35-pound rucksack.

The rucksack is filled with a few essential things, like running shoes, hats and gloves, but Johnson said anything else, like books, can be added to meet the 35-pound requirement.

The main focus of the program is on academics. Students who do not maintain a 2.0 grade point average will be dismissed from ROTC. Students join the Army ROTC by registering for a class called Army Military Science.

ROTC students can hang out and do homework in their cadet house, complete with computers and a refrigerator, Johnson said. He also sees many students in the ROTC office doing their homework.

There are four different levels of the course. Freshmen like Davis and sophomores get the chance to “try it out,” as Johnson calls it, but they are not required to stay with the program or contract with the Army.

After students decide they would like to stay with the program through their four years of college, it is more of a commitment. Between the cadets’ junior and senior years, they must complete a leadership development and assessment course at Fort Lewis in Washington, D.C.

Senior cadet Ryan Anderson said he had always wanted to serve the country, but his parents wanted him to go to college. He said he received a three and a half year scholarship and has a guaranteed job as soon as he graduates.

“When they offered it to me, I was eager to accept,” Anderson said of his scholarship. “It’s what I always wanted to do. I haven’t had any regrets.”

ROTC trains students like Anderson to become second lieutenants in the Army after they complete the program and graduate from SIUC. Johnson said enlisting in college is better than going into the Army right after high school.

“That’s the main focus of our program,” Johnson said, one of the active duty soldiers called to work in the program at the University. “We build and make officers for the Army. That’s not to say that only people who take one of our courses are going to become an officer.”

While many students join with the intention of joining the Army, Johnson said students simply like the challenge and adventure of the program.

“It’s all about testing yourself and your confidence and knowing how far you can push yourself,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things that other people in college may not know. Someone who hasn’t pushed themselves physically just may not know how far they can walk or run.”

He also said a bonus for joining the program is it helps students pay their tuition. Enrolled students do not have to sign up for the Army to get financial aid through the program.

Forty students enrolled in the program can get a tuition waiver for four semesters, and do not have to be contracted to be eligible.

One of the aspects the ROTC program focuses on the most is building confidence in its cadets. Johnson said a leader must be confident in making decisions and setting an example for his or her platoon.

“They can’t come out of ROTC and go into the Army without having ever tested their own confidence level,” Johnson said.

ROTC also strongly focuses on physical fitness, courage and safety. The program pushes cadets to do things they may have thought they previously could have never done.

During the freezing run, Johnson made sure his cadets knew about the icy patches, hoping to prevent them from injury.

“I love training,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t matter I get up at 4 a.m. I’m in the best shape of my life. I like to prove to myself that I can do it.”

Johnson has been called to active duty in Germany and leaves the University in May.

He said the greatest thing about what he does with ROTC is seeing the cadets accomplish the tasks laid out for them.

“You do the best you can do,” Johnson said. “To see somebody accomplish something, it makes you feel good.”

Reporter Julie Engler can be reached at [email protected]