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ROTC Students Travel to Normandy for Immersive Learning Experience

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Credit: Julia Wasson

AUSTIN, Texas — Longhorn ROTC cadets recently participated in an immersive learning experience in Normandy, France. Military science students and educators from The University of Texas at Austin took part in a four-day “staff ride,” visiting the historic World War II sites for a field study and examination of decision-making and lessons of the past.

Twenty-two cadets visited Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Pegasus Bridge and Sainte-Mere-Eglise to go through the events of the landings and battles as interactive case studies. The Battle of Normandy lasted from June to August 1944, beginning with the D-Day operation of land, air and sea forces of the allied armies in what became known as the largest invasion force in history.

A long-standing military tradition, the staff ride is a systematic analysis of a site to learn about the impact of geography, weather and human interactions of historic importance. Through guided discovery by experienced U.S. Army facilitators, participants learned timeless lessons on leadership, tactics and strategy, communications, use of terrain, and the psychology of those in battle. These exercises bring these events to life and aid them in their future service.

“Our goal for the Normandy Staff Ride was to enable a deep reflection of the intricacies, values and emotions displayed during the planning and execution of D-Day and supporting events,” said Lt. Col. Tim Jones, chair of the Department of Military Science. “Another objective was for students to reflect on the successes and failures of others for possible contemporary applications.”

The ROTC cadets are seniors who will serve in U.S. Army leadership roles as commissioned second lieutenants immediately after graduation. During the staff ride, the students were expected to actively contribute to discussions while at the battlefields as a way of refining their capacity for using history as a tool to improve professional judgment.

The experience brought weight to the realization that others’ lives will depend on the decisions they make and fostered deep reflection among the students. After visiting the British and German cemeteries, the cadets honored fallen American soldiers with a flag-raising ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial before sharing their sentiments about becoming the next generation of leaders.

“Being here and learning in person, I have a better understanding of these soldiers’ legacy,” said Jaden Wood, a cadet and an undergraduate student studying computational physics. “I can incorporate what they have done well into my personal style and strive to be as brave. I hope to excel at both the technical details and building trust. I have to be fully present.”

A key component of UT Austin’s Army ROTC program is leadership development training. In addition, the academic curriculum supplements each student’s major and is designed to prepare students for service in the U.S. Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard. As part of this, students learn military history and have tactical laboratory training experiences.

“There is no comparison to the learning opportunities of going on a staff ride of this magnitude and how they received it,” said Sgt. 1st Class James Wait, a military science instructor. “I watched them during the entire trip, and the intensity of the battles and the realities of war were visibly moving to them. We have a duty as educators of future officers to make sure they understand what it means to lead and what the outcomes of that leadership can be. This trip absolutely drove that point home.”