July 21, 2014
As fans of the Army men's basketball program look forward to a highly-anticipated 2014-15 season at West Point, the cadets are in the midst of critical summer training that will prepare them for their military careers. Plebes (freshmen) have arrived at West Point and are experiencing the rigors of Cadet Basic Training, the yearlings (sophomores) are undergoing Cadet Field Training, while the cows (juniors) and firsties (seniors) are serving in active military units around the world.
As part of the Cadet Leader Development System, the upperclass cadets are assigned to a number of different locations overseas or travel to an installation in the United States. One of those sites is Fort Benning, Ga., a military post that has served as the home of the Infantry branch since 1918 and more recently housed The Maneuver Center of Excellence.
"The Maneuver Center of Excellence wanted more cadet athletes to train at Fort Benning and interact with the infantry and armor branches," Director of Military Instruction Director Col. Jonathan T. Neumann said. "Fort Benning offers a huge training center with a large population and first-class facilities. Because weekends are similar to weekdays, cadets training at Fort Benning are able to make efficient use of their time during their stay."
This summer, several members of the men's basketball team spent three weeks at Fort Benning for their Cadet Troop Leader Training (CTLT). The group in attendance had the opportunity to learn firsthand from their military superiors in various branches and companies, which prepares them to serve in leadership positions upon graduation. A majority of their three weeks were spent together in CTLT, but also outside of the structured learning environment where they attended social events and made time for pickup games or the weight room at night. In addition, the team hosted a basketball clinic for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Being around military life outside of West Point was unfamiliar territory for a number of the cadets, like rising firstie Sean Billerman, who witnessed the arrival of enlisted soldiers for basic training.
"It was my first time at a military post other than West Point," Billerman said, who has future plans to work in military police, military intelligence or logistics. "I was able to learn a lot about being an officer and a platoon leader by interacting with current drill sergeants and officers and hearing their experiences in the Army."
Under the leadership of Brigade Commander Col. Scott D. King of the 194th Armored Brigade, the team was split into three smaller groups with one shadowing the 2d Battalion 47th Infantry Regiment, one with the 5th Squadron, 15th Cavalry Regiment and another working with 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment. King's mentorship held an added weight with the team, because of his accomplishments as a four-year letterwinner on Army's basketball team from 1984-88.
Neumann and King were involved in the preliminary discussions to house the team at Fort Benning.
"From my perspective there are a couple advantages to a team experiencing summer training together," Neumann stated. "In any organization or sports team you are looking for unit cohesion and a way to establish that cohesion is through shared experiences. Being at Fort Benning enabled the team to share their Army training experience, but also they were able to live, play basketball and workout together. Down the line, they will be able to draw from their experience at Fort Benning and have a better understanding of one another."
Travis Rollo is entering his junior season in the fall and was split into the 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment and sat in on risk mitigation, property management, tank platform training and tank simulation training.
"The tank simulation training was comparable to a video game in some ways," Rollo said. "We were forced to communicate with each other in different situations, just like how we need to communicate on the court."
Rollo and teammates Kyle Weldon and Kevin Ferguson also sat in on a briefing focused on responsibilities in an Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The session centered on strategy, key leadership qualities and how to handle different circumstances or problems they may encounter.
Learning was not limited to briefing sessions and simulations. Historical perspective and opportunities to absorb knowledge littered the three-week trip.
Located just outside of Fort Benning is the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga., where Rollo, Weldon, Ferguson and head coach Zach Spiker visited.
"It was just an awesome and very cool experience to tour the museum," Rollo stated. "There were exhibits for each of the wars that the United States has been in, and the Hall of Valor, where all of the past Medal of Honor recipients are recognized."
The overall experience proved to be invaluable for their future military careers, but also in terms of building chemistry with their teammates.
"We spent almost all of our time together," Billerman stated. "It was really beneficial for us as a team to be able to experience CTLT together and live at the Warrior Training Center where we ate meals, played pickup and lifted."
"Being around my teammates helped me learn more about them on a personal level off the court and will definitely help us moving forward," senior Maxwell Lennox added.
Tasked with running a three-hour basketball clinic for more than 85 kids, the team enjoyed its time teaching the game they love to play.
"We quickly had to develop a plan for the kids, who were split up into four different age groups," Lennox said. "It was a fun few hours and a great feeling to see the kids, some who hadn't played too much before, realize that basketball can be fun. Seeing them enjoy themselves was exciting and gave me energy."
That same evening Col. King hosted a barbeque for the team where the Army basketball family was able to enjoy the company of others before them. In attendance was Retired Lt. Gen. Robert "Sam" Wetzel, who played basketball at West Point and graduated in 1952.
"Colonel King was a gracious host," Spiker said "Being able to go somewhere where there are other former basketball players, to meet General Wetzel and to hear about Army basketball in the '50s was tremendous for our team. He sat there and not only told basketball stories, but Army stories as well. Our guys were really entertained."
"It was extremely helpful to speak with the Battalion Commanders and take in their experiences from the Army and also on the court," said Rollo.
"It was great to see everyone outside of a working environment," Lennox added. "We were able to get to know them and see the type of people they were. I hope the other players in our program have the chance to experience this in the future."