Alyson McWherter walked back to her barracks room and sank into her bed. She was physically, mentally and emotionally spent. Her feet throbbed. Her shoulders ached. She hadn’t slept well in days.
Three days earlier, a fellow ROTC cadet died during night training; she was part of the search team sent into the forests of Fort Lewis early in the morning to search for him.
Two days of land-navigation exercises followed, one at day at one at night. She and other cadets were sent into the forest with a map and compass and told to find a series of checkpoints. The pressure was omnipresent: How a cadet performs can determine if he or she will receive the job they want, or even if a spot on active duty awaits them.
The three grueling days earlier this month had pushed the 21-year-old to her limits.
“That’s when I was like, ‘It’s either buck up now or go home,'” said McWherter, who graduated from the Operation Warrior Forge annual ROTC assessment course Friday at Fort Lewis.
One month earlier, life was good. McWherter and her University of Washington softball teammates were partying in Oklahoma City, soaking up every ounce of glory that comes with a national title. McWherter was a junior, and her teammates were already talking about a repeat next season.
But all that mattered little when Warrior Forge began. Her instructors didn’t care about her softball success and her history with Fort Lewis – she was born on post and her father later commanded an infantry battalion there. She was another cadet, running on too little sleep and learning how to administer first aid, protect herself from nerve gas or planning and executing an assault on a mock city – all part of the 29-day course that produces 70 percent of the Army’s second lieutenants. (The remainder graduate from West Point or are commissioned through Officer Candidate School.)
Warrior Forge is the only camp of its kind in the Army’s ROTC program, and this year’s 5,554 cadets is the most in the past 25 years, and possibly the largest on record.
The spike in numbers can be attributed to several causes, including an increase in the number of ROTC scholarships available and the economic recession, the Warrior Forge chief of staff said.
“There’s also the post-Army-career factor,” said Dan Patterson, a Lacey resident. “You commit to four years in the Army when you get a ROTC scholarship, and a lot of companies like to hire junior officers.”
Warrior Forge acts primarily as the Army’s common denominator among ROTC programs. Grade-point average and on-campus evaluations are subjective, and how a cadet performs at Fort Lewis will determine where he or she ranks in the annual class.
A cadet’s ranking determines what branch of the Army one will enter – aviation, military intelligence and infantry tend to fill up the fastest – or whether he or she will be commissioned into active-duty service or assigned to a reserve or National Guard unit.
McWherter should have her pick of branch – she’s leaning toward medical services – when she is commissioned next spring. She finished second out of her 450-person regiment, maxed out on the physical fitness test and earned the Recondo badge, given to each year’s top performers.
“Honestly, I had zero expectations coming in here,” she said. “My initial goal was just to get through camp and do the best I could. And then I started to do some of the little things pretty well. Soon, it became like, ‘Man, I need to keep this up.'”
McWherter grew up an Army kid and signing up was always an option, but it wasn’t a sure thing. She became a standout softball player at Lakes High School – and lived within shouting distance of the parade field where she graduated Friday – and when West Point tried to recruit her, she passed. McWherter knew that a competitive softball career ends at college.
But she enrolled in ROTC during her sophomore year at UW. Her military instructor and softball coach met occasionally to agree on a schedule to allow her to accommodate both activities, and that often meant long days of formation and training in the morning, followed by classes and then practice or games.
Her military experience and background played a role during this year’s run to the Women’s College World Series. In February, she helped arrange a day of training on obstacle and confidence courses alongside soldiers of 3rd Stryker Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. And during the season, Alyson tucked into her right sock a flag patch her father wore during a deployment to Iraq.
After graduation, McWherter plans to take a few days off before training for the upcoming softball season. She should be commissioned a second lieutenant about the time the postseason begins.
“An active lifestyle is something I’ve always wanted, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college,” she said. “But at least for four years, I think I’ve put myself in a good position.”