CAMP PENDLETON — It was the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere for a handful of student-soldiers. They had come to battle the elements, and the enemies were upon them: cold, hunger and sleeplessness.
They were college students getting a lesson in life. Nature was the classroom. And the only passing grade was survival.
In the end, all 46 members of the Cal Poly Pomona contingent made it. A third of them got poison oak. One suffered an asthma attack. Another suffered a sprained ankle. But they all survived.
"They really wore us down," said Leslie Sugiki, 24. "They wanted us to try our limit, so they pushed us. The going was hard."
That's just what Army Capt. Larry Vidinha, who headed the camp, expected to hear.
"I wanted them to get a better appreciation for what it is to survive," Vidinha said.
The two-day drill gave the students a chance to use the skills they had learned in a three-unit outdoor survival class taught by Vidinha, assistant professor of military science and training officer in Cal Poly's ROTC program. During the first eight weeks of the 10-week class, the students were taught how to make shelters, prepare food, identify vegetation, start fires and read the topography of the land. The survival trip represented 20% of their grade.
"You get lectured about it, but doing it is something else," said John Boal, 20, of Upland, an electrical engineering major.
Boal, like most of the others, had previous camping experience. But he had never had survival experience. "I always camped out with a sleeping bag," Boal said. "I just wanted to find out if I could do it without."
He found out quickly.
"I didn't get any sleep. It was too cold," Boal said after shivering through the first night, when temperatures dipped into the low 40s. In a wild effort to stay warm, Boal ripped down his shelter--one-half of an Army pup tent--in the middle of the night and rolled up in it and a poncho.
Students were divided into three groups--basic, advanced and super-advanced--according to their previous outdoor experience and class standing. The basic and advanced levels remained in a structured survival setting and were given a little help. The super-advanced group, all ROTC cadets, became prisoners of war in a simulated battle situation and were forced to live off the land and one the run.
There were few comforts. The only sign of civilization in the area was a portable outhouse. The basic group was allowed to use sleeping bags. The advanced group had ponchos and pup tents halves, but they were not allowed to put the halves together and make a full tent. For the super-advanced, except for a few with the presence of mind to grab ponchos when they were being captured, they had only the clothes on their backs, which were light-weight fatigues.
Recreation major Jane Wintermute, 20, of Baldwin Park, said she had no idea what she was getting into when she registered for the survival class. One of the eight students in the basic group, she said she had first thought that the survival trip would be a night in a public park. When she finally heard the truth, she was apprehensive. But she said her doubts subsided once the training began.
"It wasn't half as bad as I expected," Wintermute said.
The basic group survived as a team. Under the supervision of the camp advisers, they learned the necessary skills to survive in the wilderness together. They built a shelter. They started a fire without matches, using a flint and cotton. They also hiked together.
"We really didn't think about what we were doing. It came naturally," said Wintermute.
Some things didn't come naturally to Wintermute, though. As part of the training, the students were supposed to kill and cook rabbits and chickens, which had been brought along. Wintermute slept instead.
"It's hard to look at the poor little things," said Wintermute, who also slept through the eating of the animals. "I know how to do it and could tell people how to do it, but I couldn't."
Ate Ants and Mealworms
Other accounts of survival vary. Some students slept in the warm comfort of an Army sleeping bag. Others spent sleepless nights trying to conserve body heat by huddling together. Some ate the chickens they caught. Others survived on a few spoonfuls of rice and an assortment of edible plants, ants and mealworms. The mealworms also had been brought along as survival rations.
"It's something everybody needs to experience," said Dan Santana, 18, who said he followed a biology major around, and whatever he saw the biology student eat, he ate. Santana was one of the 29 cadets in the super-advanced unit. He said, "If you go through this once in your life relaxed and calm, you'll be ready if it happens to you in a real-life situation. It's good practice."