If you were anywhere between Clarion and Slippery Rock the morning of Nov. 1 you probably saw them. Three Blackhawk helicopters, holding Clarion ROTC cadets, flew close to the ground making their presence known.
The helicopters were flying Clarion and Slippery Rock ROTC cadets to a training at Fort Garfield in Ohio on that brisk fall morning. Superiors briefed the cadets on how to approach, board and secure themselves into the helicopter.
One female superior joked that she didn't want any of them to become the next headless horsemen. The timely joke broke the tension for some cadets or perhaps made others queasy as some confessed they had never even flown in an airplane.
"I've never flown before so I'm excited," ROTC Cadet Olivia Murphy said.
The helicopters are both stealthy and loud – you don't hear them until they are practically on top you and when they are above you, you are nearly blown away. Some caution tape and sawhorses, which were marking the landing spots for the helicopters, were quickly tossed to the side of the lot.
As the cadets boarded the helicopters in groups, the wind from the propellers was so cold all the cadets could do was stand there and shiver as the wind from the propellers chapped exposed skin.
Blackhawk helicopters only have two-and-a-half hours of running time so, the helicopters first fueled up before picking up Clarion cadets and then flew them to Ohio. The helicopters stopped again for fuel at the Venango Regional Airport and then flew onto Slippery Rock to pick up the last of the cadets to take them to join the Clarion students at Fort Garfield.
After the cadets boarded the helicopters, they buckled in with their rucksacks on their laps and heavy helmets on their heads. The only bits of a person's face you could see were the person's eyes. One cadet motioned to the other using sign language and charades to convey his feelings.
Other cadets just simply kept their heads down. Cadets were briefed that if they got sick, they had no choice but to throw up into their shirts, facemasks or other clothing.
Packed in tightly, some may have used the time to soak in the last bit of warmth and take a quick nap. The helicopters are loud, but because it's so loud, it creates a kind of white noise.
After spending the night in cold temperatures, cadets would get up early to practice shooting rifles, rappelling, rehearsing battle tactics, learning to patrol and executing land navigation.
ROTC Cadet Eric LaFrance said these trainings are a mental toughness game, but "they've been prepared."
ROTC Cadet Ty Bittner, who was performing his last exercise of this type, said his best advice for cadets performing this exercise is to wear the appropriate clothing.
"It gets cold, especially at night, so make sure you have the right gear to keep you
warm," Bittner said.
Prior to the pickup, one cadet casually asked what they would be having for lunch and another responded that it would be a frozen MRE – Meals Ready to Eat. "Do you know how much frozen tortellini I've eaten?" the cadet quipped.
Another says the cold weather makes everyone less smelly in comparison to days spent conducting drills in summer heat. Another cadet recalls a time in which the salt from sweating built up under her skin causing bumps that needed to be scraped away.
Experiences like riding close together in Blackhawk helicopters, sweating through drills and spending nights in cold tents, make the ROTC cadets close friends, who consider themselves family.
"We're all like one big happy family," said ROTC Cadet Courtney Kosanovic.
ROTC Cadet Vinny Dongilli explained the bonds are immediate.
"I was put with 30 other individuals who right away were like family to me," said Dongilli. "We're held to a higher expectation and being held to that higher expectation we're able to get through college just fine."
Bittner said from the time he first joined the ROTC until now, his leadership and confidence has changed. "Everything's enhanced."
Another ROTC Cadet Shantaea Jones said her time in the ROTC placed her in an internship at a hospital in Hawaii last summer. Jones knew the ROTC would give her opportunities she would not have had otherwise.
"It steered me in the right direction for my career in the future," Kosanovic agreed.
To inquire about the ROTC, contact Clarion University's ROTC office at 393-2527.