Story by Tanner Cole
Photos by Harrison Hill
Feet clad in muddy boots marched through the Kentucky woods, each bearing its mark of the day’s training.
Some reeked of tear gas.
Others carried scorch marks from freshly fired machine gun shells.
Their exteriors looked similar in wear, but each belonged to a soldier with a unique motivation for wearing them.
With scars by the hundreds and stories to match, the boots and the soldiers wearing them trotted together toward a temporary home.
A pair of those boots belonged to Natali Juarez.
Juarez grew up surrounded by crime in South Central Los Angeles. She was just over 5-feet tall, and her pearly white smile contrasted the rough reality of her past.
She wasn’t the typical soldier, but Juarez tightened up her laces and stepped forward to lead.
The U.S. Army enlists people from every walk of life. Drug dealers, preachers, immigrants and parents.
Anyone can find a role.
If America represents a melting pot, then maybe no better example of that exists than those who defend it.
They all seek to serve, but many want more. The Army needs leaders and draws a world of “types” from which to choose. The challenge comes from the Army’s need to create a system that can turn anyone wearing the boots into a military leader.
Every year, Army ROTC students from throughout the country gather for a final test before becoming Army officers — the Leader Development and Assessment Course, or LDAC.
LDAC, a month-long evaluation process marks the end of the ROTC years. College students —surrendering cell phones and donning camouflage — submit to the scrutiny of ever-vigilant evaluators.
Once commissioned, the students look to become tomorrow’s Army leaders.
Traditionally, the cadets head to LDAC the summer before their senior year of college. Upon graduation from their university, they commission into the Army as second lieutenants. Their performance at LDAC determines whether they find a place serving in the active duty military. Every year, hundreds of cadets hoping for one of these spots end up in the reserves, forced to draw themselves a new plan.
Historically, LDAC took place in Washington state, but in 2013 a command decision led to transferring training to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Within a year, the Army moved its single largest training program clear across the country.
For the first time, LDAC cadets flocking to Fort Knox were greeted with a bit of news from Fort Knox’s commander, Brig. Gen. Peggy Combs. She told the cadets that LDAC was ending. In 2015 the program was being consolidated with another to form a new training regimen.
In an instant, the cadets became Fort Knox’s first LDAC students and LDAC’s last graduates.
The soldiers — as they do — accepted the news, embraced the Kentucky heat and humidity, and they and their boots headed to their living quarters: Army-issue tents.
Juarez and 6122 other cadets arrived at the Louisville National Airport throughout June. They stepped off the planes and immediately fell under the watchful eye of a cadre of Army officers assigned to observe, train and test them.
Swarms of cadets with stuffed duffel bags and stashed away boots launched an assault on the airport’s walkways in a disorderly parade, much to the chagrin of the watchers.
Natali Juarez sprung into action and organized her colleagues into formation. Her fellow cadet’s immediately obeyed, and she instantly gained respect from the cadre.
Some years back, Juarez was a self-proclaimed thug living in south-central Los Angeles. She didn’t speak English until the 11th grade. When her brother and his friends gave her a paper bag, a location and a little cash, Juarez didn’t look inside the bag. She simply drove and made a drop, she said.
“We were just doing what we were told,” she said. “That’s what I did. But when I realized that I didn’t like taking things away from people that worked so hard for their things, I just didn’t want to associate myself with any of those individuals.”
At age 17, Juarez dropped out of high school and moved out of her neighborhood to live on her own. She completed her GED while working 4 to 11 a.m. shifts at a donut shop. She soon made use of the dental hygienist training she received during her three years of high school to land a full-time job at a dentistry in Westwood, California.
Her employer Teri Gibson, the owner of a private dentistry practice just off University of California at Los Angeles’s campus, took Jaurez under her wing and treated her like a daughter. Gibson helped her refine her English skills, and paid for Juarez’s first year of college at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. As her life took a dramatic turn for the better, Juarez was amazed to see herself surrounded by successful people.
“If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have gone to college,” she said. “I wouldn’t have understood that black people and Hispanics can be successful and are doctors and lawyers. But I came to a point where I couldn’t support myself and get good enough grades in school to go to dental school, so I joined the Army.”
Juarez served as an Army dentist for two years — the beginning of a long career spent wearing boots.
During a tour in Iraq, she began developing her leadership skills, even through something as simple as making her whole squad floss.
She spent her first three days at LDAC as squad leader, and then became company commander — the highest position a cadet at LDAC can achieve. By then, the cadre had seen enough and asked Juarez to start helping turn others into leaders, a member of the cadre if you will.
The tent complexes — a sprawling sea of Army green nylon with each housing 18 — replicate an improvised field base deep in the heart of unfriendly territory.
Cadets run the entire operation. Their tiered leadership system imitates a battalion deployed in a war zone.
Socialization was mandatory and unavoidable. The cadre placed them in groups and rotated each cadet out of leadership roles. The cadre assigned the cadets a designated “battle buddy” who became a cadet’s constant shadow. Cadets clung to their buddies even to use the bathroom at night, and they faced a reprimand if they didn’t wake up a buddy to walk to the latrines.
The move into the field meant the cadets left the land known as Kentucky and entered Atropia, a faux Middle East country facing invasion from a neighboring terrorist group. The Atropian scenario involved Spanish-speaking Muslims — a country rich with oil but lacking the government needed to defend it, the cadets learned in a briefing.
The entire scenario paralleled real deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Cory Mitchell, Virginia Tech University, enjoyed the role-playing that came with the scenario. The terrorists — called SAPA — grabbed Mitchell’s attention, and he took pride in dramatizing the conflict with them.
“From what they tell us, the enemy forces are out everywhere in the trees watching us,” Mitchell said. “We’re told we can’t salute the officers ’cause if we do, the SAPA might shoot them. We’re always living in constant situational awareness. Watching our backs. Watching our buddies’ backs. But overall it’s pretty nice. They give us a hot breakfast with jalapeño ketchup that’s outstanding.”
Creating jalapeño ketchup might have been the easiest part of shifting the program to Fort Knox.
The climate became the largest obstacle the Army faced. While the heat represented an accurate representation of environments overseas, many of the cadets found themselves unprepared. Daytime temperatures in Kentucky usually reached the high 90s for most of the day, and clear skies became storm-filled many nights.
The tent floors — lined with plastic tiles and nothing but soil underneath — elevated as rainwater poured down. Joel Anderson, of the University of Minnesota, witnessed one of the harshest storms of the summer while sleeping in the compound’s lowest terrain.
“Our tent was virtually a riot,” he said. “We all grabbed our gear and shoved it on top of our cots, and pulled all our cots into the middle. We looked like a bunch of girls afraid of mice on the kitchen floor with all of us crowding around trying to get everything to keep it dry.”
Heat exhaustion struck often and proved incredibly dangerous. Hundreds of “heat casualties” quickly struck the core curriculum of LDAC.
The physical fitness exam and the land navigation course served as prime examples of this.
They were the two largest tests facing the cadets. By the time the first few hundred cadets neared completion of LDAC, the Army cancelled the fitness test and drastically reduced the difficulty of the navigation exam. Additionally, much of the daily training became shorter as hot days became longer, or the cadre moved it to earlier in the morning.
The schedule cuts left many cadets angry and worried.
Some believed inadequate preparation would affect their careers. Many felt wronged by the disappearance of tests after years of preparation — and lost opportunity to shine among thousands of like-minded cadets.
“It kind of became a waste of time,” Juarez said. “When those things went away the challenge was gone.”
Regardless, the revised schedule gave cadets enormous amounts of down time, which they usually spent in their tents. Their boots lay faithfully on the ground below.
Their cots became the equivalent of a groundhog’s burrow. Strangers became their neighbors. With “snail mail” serving as the only link to the outside world, tents quickly became tight-knit communities filled with melting pot stew.
Vagif Seidov, a student at Middle Tennessee State University, shared his tent with the winner of the Army 10-mile run, an Olympic swimmer from American Somoa, and with a student from Guam who had never traveled to the U.S. Seidov hailed from Baku, Azerbaijan, and moved to Fairfax, Virginia, at age 8.
Connecting with his tent-mates came with ease, but Seidov still missed his phone because without it he couldn’t quickly contact his wife or their 5-year-old daughter. In its place, he carried one of his daughter’s small, plastic toys.
“When I leave, my wife always sends me with [our daughter’s] toy everywhere I go,” Seidov said. “Iraq she was just born, but Afghanistan I brought a toy of hers.”
Seidov photographed the toy everywhere he went. Even as he bonded with his fellow soldiers, he strove to nurture his relationship with his daughter back home.
The sentimental father’s tent sat on the edge of his tent city’s much larger male section. Just twenty feet away —across the literal gender divide — stood the female tents.
Tents were strictly organized according to gender. They couldn’t say words such as ‘women’ or ‘guys’ — they were required to always say males or females.
Pentagon data from 2013 shows that females make up 16.6 percent of the officer corps — a number accurately reflected at LDAC.
Still, the size of the female population and gender divide caused conflicts.
Some cadets, such as Arriana Lopez-Bailey of the University of Louisiana, believed men enjoyed favoritism.
“I don’t have to blow shit up to make a difference in the military,” she said. “I think that no matter what, you can be the best girl in the squad, but you’re not going to get ranked No. 1 because there’s some Caucasian male from a military school that knows more tactical field training but has no interpersonal tact with anyone that’s going to get ranked higher than you.”
Lopez-Bailey’s squad mates echoed her beliefs.
Her tent housing 18 cadets expressed a general sentiment that their cadre seemed less inclined to award the women higher scores. Several gay soldiers said the Army never discriminated against them based on sexual preference — only for their gender.
Next to Lopez-Bailey’s laid cots belonging to Kelsey Reppert of Indiana University and Mary Ponzer, of Indiana University-Pennsylvania. The three all are openly gay, and they wondered if the Army purposely grouped them. Reppert perfected the male athletics tests and found herself directly competing with the men of her squad.
But once the first round of grades came in, Ponzer found herself in difficult position.
“I think because there are so many men, they forget about the women,” Ponzer said. “It’s easy to. The women they do have are like us. We don’t want to necessarily be treated differently. But it’s impossible. You are. Even just your housing situation. Even just by the small things that make a large difference. The males are given more consideration because there are more of them.”
The U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed in 2011. Now gay members of the military can disclose their sexuality. In 2014, cadets entered one of the first leader corps featuring openly gay officers — a first for the Army.
“There’s a saying that the Army is always the first and they’re always the last,” Ponzer said. “They’re always the first to accept people because the Army needs people. We were one of the first institutions to allow black people similar rights as well as gay people. But we will probably be the last to let go of prejudices as well.”
While many cadets faced tremendous challenges in LDAC’s testing, for some earning the opportunity to even compete proved a greater task.
Jesos Sanchez called home Juarez, Mexico, a town known for crime and cartels that sits just below the Mexican-American border across from El Paso, Texas.
“My dad passed away when I was 15,” Sanchez said. “He passed away from an overdose of drugs. He was an American citizen, but I didn’t have any visa or anything like that.”
An individual with one U.S. citizen as a parent can become a citizen despite being born outside of the country, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services policy states.
Because Sanchez’s father died a U.S. citizen, Sanchez could travel to the U.S. and obtain his own rights. He traveled across the bridge into El Paso with his father’s birth certificate in hand, but at first was told he could not enter America.
“I told the immigration officer that I want to go in,” he said. “I want to make a better living and see if I could get my citizenship because my dad was an American citizen. He saw the birth certificate from the United States and told me good luck. He let me in.”
Sanchez lived with his aunt and uncle in El Paso through the rest of high school, and he began learning to speak English. His only physical identification was from his high school. During that time, he was living in America illegally and struggling to succeed.
One day, he received a phone call from the local immigration office. His appointment to meet with officials to discuss citizenship had arrived.
At that point he had been illegally in the U.S. for seven years.
“When I went to immigration, they told me that if we don’t approve your papers, we’re going to deport you right now,” he said.
The officials accepted his papers. Sanchez said that in that moment, he was the happiest man on the planet. Everything was about to change.
He became Pell Grant-eligible and attended the University of Texas-El Paso to study nursing. He joined ROTC to give back to his new country, and aimed at becoming Army officer and a medical professional.
“I feel very proud to wear this uniform every day,” he said. “I wanted to serve this country. I thank God I’m an American citizen every morning. I’m basically living the American dream.”
Sanchez’s dream took him from Mexico to Texas and to a tent in rural Kentucky where “lights-out” started at 11 p.m., and every cadet rose no later than 5 a.m.
This life for a full month of “summer vacation” meant eating every meal with their platoon in a designated dining facility at a designated time. Cadets staffed chow hall and sometimes they snuck food back to their tents to trade — a black-market operation like one you would find in prison, albeit harmless enough.
In fact, cadets constantly engaged in an underground economy.
Field rations stealthily swapped and stashed under dirty uniforms became the tent city equivalent of bitcoin. The complicated menu of rations provided options for people of different faiths and diets.
Michaela Pama from the University of California-Berkeley greatly appreciated the latter.
Pama — a medical anthropology student interested in nutrition — used the black market to succesfuly make it through all of LDAC sticking to the vegan lifestyle.
“I was worried about getting enough nutrients to sustain, but I pretty much prepped myself with good foods before I got to LDAC,” she said.
But as the “market” ebbed and flowed, so did her food intake.
“But there are days where I’m just stuffed, and there’s days where I have to be really nitpicky about what I can and cannot eat,” she said.
Meanwhile, cadets conducted all personal hygiene in outdoor stations with increasingly severe time limits placed on the length of showers as the days passed. This culminated in cadets getting three minutes to disrobe, bathe and return to formation in full uniform. The restrictions and close-quarters living resulted in an environment permeated by the stench of hundreds of sweaty college kids.
The laundry drill did little to relieve the stench.
The initial laundry contractor arranged by the Army arrived woefully underprepared for the onslaught of sweaty uniforms heading its way. The first cadets signed up for the laundry service and dutifully turned in their dirty clothes. When told to turn in a second, no one had received the first load back.
But they were ordered to turn in more.
After bouncing between laundry providers all summer, the last few groups of cadets received their laundry reliably. However, up until then, they frequently found themselves without clean clothes to wear day after day.
So they improvised.
Every platoon developed laundry techniques. Cadets most commonly rolled up their sleeping mats, filled them with water and hand-washed everything using shampoo as soap. Laundry hung between every tent for several weeks. Eventually, the cadre began cracking down and required that clothes only hang inside tents. This generated the odd scent combination of sweaty soldiers and Suave.
Of course, many cadets worried about the health implications of living a few feet away from dozens of strangers wearing week-old clothing.
Olivia Hames of the University of North Dakota took the blunt end of the stinky clothes stick.
“We were patrolling for three days and sleeping out in the woods,” Hames said. “We were around some plants like poison ivy, and many of the cadets suffer from it now.”
One of Hames’ legs became covered in an irritated rash. She wasn’t frustrated with the cadet leadership that caused as much as the laundry that she believed perpetuated it. She thought wearing the same clothes for many days repeated exposure and impaired her ability to heal.
Hames’ squad-mate, Ashley Piehl of Pacific Lutheran University avoided infection but saw its affect on training.
“We were placed in (position) completely surrounded by poison ivy,” Piehl said. “But of course we had to go accomplish our mission and attack SAPA forces.”
Despite the probability, serious illness never really became a problem.
Army medical staff on-site reported nothing more than colds and heat sickness as the norm throughout the summer. The few severe cases immediately landed cadets in the Fort Knox’s hospital.
Meanwhile, ticks started landing on cadets.
Pvt. First Class Alvin Reeves from Fort Bliss, Texas, worked the tick removal tent at the land navigation course.
“We’ve had 27 ticks on one cadet after land navigation,” Reeves said.
Medics armed with tweezers pulled ticks from endless numbers of cadets and promptly shoved the bugs into small plastic receptacles for disease testing. The future leaders of the Army needed to remain bug and disease free because they represented a valuable investment for the military.
Records show the Army spent $18.4 million on LDAC 2014 alone. Each individual cadet is another expense.
The average cost of an ROTC student to the Army is $225,246, according to Fort Knox Cadet Command. To put a pair of boots through school, it costs about a quarter of a million dollars.
Even universities on the lower end of the price spectrum receive plenty of Army money for ROTC programs. For example, the Army is investing about $52,000 in ROTC students at Western Kentucky University, according to Maj. Stephan Walters. WKU is relatively affordable with in-state semester tuition priced at $4,570.
The students sign an eight-year contract with the Army, which is usually all served after graduation. They must payback all the scholarship money if they opt out.
The vast assortment of soldiers-in-training held hundreds of different motivations for joining the Army. But for many, such as Mourad Dour of Washington State University, money drove the bus to recruiters. She received more than $100,000 from the Army for education.
“I’m doing the Army to pay for school,” he said. “No other reason.”
Mariyah Holiday of the University of Arkansas also chased financial incentives. She never considered the Army an option, but then she had a child while in school. After separating with the father, she found herself struggling to pay the bills and terrified for her daughter’s future. The struggle led her to ROTC.
Unfortunately, the US military prohibits single parents from enlisting. Holiday saw the Army as the best option for her child’s future. She decided to sign the rights to her daughter over to her mother to become a soldier.
Holiday missed a month of her daughter’s second year alive for LDAC, and she missed one of her first months alive for Army training the previous year.
However, the Army recruits students using more than just offers of money a pair of combat boots.
While most cadets get college degrees out of the deal, students in a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest can strike a deal for citizenship. They join the Army in exchange for an enhanced opportunity to gain U.S.citizenship.
The MAVNI program approved by the Department of Defense allows health care professionals and proficient speakers of ‘vital’ languages with the appropriate cultural background to bypass the lengthy Green Card process and attain citizenship. In exchange, they must devote themselves to active duty in the Army.
In 2014, recruiters seek speakers of 44 languages. MAVNI intends to fill the Army with people accustomed to the cultures that deployments tend to gravitate toward and alleviate problems associated with war-driven culture blending.
Seunghwan Kim and Ikrom Omonov found each other at LDAC. They never met previously, but both offered similar stories — and both became US citizens as a result of the MAVNI program.
Kim moved to the U.S. after serving in the South Korean Army. But Kim found himself struggling to meet the cost of living and ended up working multiple low-paying jobs, he said.
Then Kim heard about MAVNI. He saved up enough to leave Las Vegas and take his language proficiency test.
“I flew over to New York, and I had to score more than 50 to pass,” Kim said. “Most of the applicants had high scores. The problem was my score was only 55, and I wasn’t selected.”
Defeated, Kim returned to South Korea. But he awoke to the sound of his cell phone ringing just a few nights later.
“It was my recruiter,” Kim said. “He called me back and asked if I wanted to join the military. I was like, ‘yes.’ Then I had to come back.”
He spent only three days in South Korea before returning. After deploying to Afghanistan, he applied for a scholarship and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin using his newfound citizenship. He’s now finished with LDAC and ready to graduate into an officer position.
“It feels great when I’m wearing the uniform,” Kim said. “People treat me so nice.”
Omonov recounted a similar experiences.
He lived in poverty after moving to the U.S., but enlisting and gaining his citizenship allowed him an education and career success. And perhaps most importantly, it gave him respect.
“I remember I came (to the U.S.) with like $200, and I had to somehow pay for school and figure out a way around,” he said. “I slept in the subway for like a week or so to save money. Every day, I slept in the subway, it would be like $10 saved.”
Omonov grew up in Uzebekistan and speaks fluent Russian, one of the most-sought MAVNI languages.
“The U.S. government didn’t know who I was,” Omonov said. “They knew that I spoke a language. They didn’t know anything about me.”
They gave Omonov citizenship and sent him to Afghanistan. Prior to that, he faced his own set of hardships.
Now the U.S. government pays $60,000 for his education, Omonov said. They paid for his studies at Northern Michigan University and at the University of Wisconsin.
LDAC increased its focus on cultural awareness training in 2014, and the MAVNI students provided a key part of the shift.
“You can train soldiers for so long with millions of dollars, but one cultural misunderstanding can mess up the whole thing,” Omonov said.
Cultural training landed a spot in LDAC’s finale.
Before finishing their training, cadets lived and slept in the woods for three days to simulate an offensive deployment through terrorist territory. They planned and executed raids on mock Atropian villages while sleeping with the ticks.
The villages came filled with Atropian locals and terrorist hostiles. Cadets needed to assess the situation and treat it like a real-world war scenario. The cadre observed and noted every wrongful death, civilian casualty and escaped enemy. Many in the cadre went through similar situations in real war zones. Actors fired blank shots from machine guns at the cadets and threw fireworks to simulate artillery strikes.
Cadets found themselves in a faux war zone very close to reality and underwent scoring based primarily on handling these situations. Outside of what the cadre noted and their grades from school, self-evaluations served as the only means cadets could really use to influence their scores.
After prying his off his boots at day’s end, Daniel Tierney from the University of California-Los Angeles poured effort into the evaluations in hope of getting noticed by cadre.
“I was writing two things,” he said. “The first was a letter to my girlfriend, and then these (self-evaluations) called ‘sustains.’ You write them every day after training, and then you turn them into your officer who assesses you as a leader. I’m banking on getting active duty infantry, which is really stressful. You don’t find out for another three or four months after this.”
The writing came with plenty of stress and importance, but it also provided an escape. Letters from home were the only lifelines to the real world, and packages received from home warranted a celebration.
Outside of the mail, cadets sought their own entertainment.
They created an LDAC version of “Monopoly” and played in the secrecy of tents. Apples wrapped in utility tape became makeshift balls for forbidden sporting matches.
But most missed one thing above all else.
“Music,” said Olivia Rowe, a cadet from the University of Virginia. “The only time we get to listen to music is if they put on us on a bus, and some (buses) don’t even have a radio. I can do without my phone, but music makes you feel better.”
Many found joy in the marching cadences sung everywhere the cadets went, but it wasn’t enough for most. Music filled the tent cities — classic soul, rap, country and original music straight from the throats of the Army’s future officers.
The quest for entertainment frequently gave way to chaos.
LDAC came with all the madness of a massive military operation. The cadre laughed off the disarray that came with training movements and frequently cited the legendary words attributed to a nameless German general while debriefing troops after World War II: “The reason the American Army does so well in wartime is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.”
LDAC also came with personal chaos. Holiday left a daughter behind.
“She was only about six months when I left last time,” Holiday said. “I left and came back, and she looked at me like ‘Who are you?’ Hopefully, this time she doesn’t look at me the same way. She knows who I am now. I did this so she wouldn’t have to do this when she gets older. I plan on staying in the Army until I retire, so that I can build a foundation for her.”
On the other hand, William Welsh from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette always wanted to join the military.
He came from a long line who wore the boots. The military presence in his family dated back to colonial America, said Welsh.
He intends on continuing it.
“If I hadn’t joined I would’ve been extremely ashamed of myself,” he said. “I would’ve looked back at this moment forever and thought ‘Wow I can not believe I did not do this.’”
David Preston from the Georgia Military College, just wanted to be a hero.
“I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, and Captain America stood out to me,” he said. “So I joined the Army. When I was a little kid, my dad left, and I didn’t really have a father figure. I got into superheroes pretty fast. Captain America’s the most realistic, and to me, the most awesome. I love his character and his morale. And I love the stars and stripes.”
In the summer of 2014 the Army gained a new batch of leaders, lost its LDAC program, and maybe added a few superheroes.
Results began pouring in during early November. Records show 54.6 percent made the cut.
Juarez earned an active duty leadership position in Army medical services. She’s going to keep working in Army dentistry.
But for now, she’ll keep getting up every morning and lacing on her boots.