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OCS will test your mettle like never before

Mar. 25, 2013 - 08:35AM   |  
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Officer Candidate School will turn you into leadership material, but you’ll have to work for it.

In courses lasting from 10 to 17 weeks, depending on the service, enlisted members and civilians are put through the grinder academically and physically.

The services make no bones about it: “OCS is extremely demanding; morally, mentally, and physically,” says the Navy Officer Training Command. “Your personal Honor, Courage, and Commitment will be tested at OCS and you will be challenged to live up to the highest standards of these core values.”

But what’s OCS really like?

For those thinking of taking that ride, three recent candidates offer the inside scoop.

Drinking from the fire hose

After 10 years in the service, Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy Day decided it was time to make his move. He came out of OCS on Jan. 10 as a second lieutenant after 12 jam-packed weeks.

“I was surprised at what they were able to teach in a 12-week time span. They have good, seasoned platoon leaders in there, some seasoned [NCOs], so the amount of material they can get through in that amount of time is pretty impressive,” the 28-year-old said.

Some in Day’s class were overwhelmed by the volume of information, all the academics on military history and practice, along with leadership training and the how-to’s of soldiering. “For a soldier coming in from basic training, it was drinking from a fire hose,” Day said. For someone with 10 years’ experience, though, “it was not super-intense. They train you and they test you and they retrain you again, but I didn’t find any one task particularly difficult.”

Day’s long experience in uniform also enabled him to go into OCS with a different attitude: He was looking ahead not just toward his service as an officer, but to the days beyond his military duty.

“I was looking at my financial future, my retirement. After 10 years in the infantry, I saw this as a way to branch out, maybe expand my résumé for when I retire,” he said.

“My long-term plan is to work in the Washington, D.C., area, maybe for the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Security Administration, one of those agencies,” he said. “Being a commissioned officer in any branch of the military is one of the most prestigious things you can do, and when those types of employers see that, it has got to be beneficial down the road.”

Running down that road, Day found himself … running. A lot. “Physical fitness was a big deal at OCS. It was a recurring theme. You are timed for three-, four- and five-mile runs. So coming in in great shape is the only way you are going to make it through.”

The running and the studying were about as hard as Day expected — “They pushed us,” he said — but OCS had a positive aspect that helped offset the pain. As student council president, “I would have my door open until 11 o’clock at night answering questions for the younger soldiers wanting to know how to do things, what the next day’s classes might be.

“It was another way for me to grow, with a different environment, a different type of soldier.”

Wake-up calls

Ten weeks into the 12-week course that would make him an ensign, then-Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class John Sarcone was on a road he always knew he would take.

“The seed was planted when I was very young. My father was a naval officer, so being an officer was something that I always wanted to do,” said Sarcone, 25. “The biggest reason I chose OCS and not ROTC or the Naval Academy was because in my designator as a Civil Engineer Corps officer, they get produced solely through OCS.”

With only one route to go, Sarcone dove in, knowing the water would be deep and turbulent — and it was. “People had told me OCS was an intense experience, dealing with United States Marine Corps drill instructors. I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve been through boot camp, I can handle it.’ But the sheer intensity of the first few weeks was a surprise.

“It was a shock-and-awe experience. You’re asleep, they kick in the door of the hallway and start banging on all the doors. They give you specific instructions for how to put your shoes on. They are up and down the hallway yelling. Then they take you out into the main passageway, called the kill zone. There were drill instructors all up and down the hallway making you do pushups, run in place, jumping jacks. They’re screaming. You’re never moving fast enough. It was incredible.”

In between academics, fitness and snatches of sleep, Sarcone spent his time preparing for inspections. “There is a room, locker and personal inspection in the fourth week, for instance. You spend two weeks of your free time preparing for that inspection — folding, cutting off loose strings, ironing, making sure your socks are folded in the proper dimensions,” he said.

And yet, at the end of the day, Sarcone liked it.

“Once you get over the initial shock of the first few weeks, it is a really cool experience. Our instructors really are the epitome of their services. They are squared away in every way, shape and form. As our leadership, they make us want to follow them. I have a real satisfaction in all the work I am accomplishing. And I’ve made a lot of good friends in my class, people who have really helped me to talk through the difficult times.”

Going in blind

On the one hand, 23-year-old Christina Hobbs had some sense of what Marine Corps officer school would be like. “I knew it would be challenging. I knew it would be hard. It’s not just the academics, not just the physical fitness or the lack of sleep. It’s the constantly being pushed to your limits,” she said.

When the time came, even that level of awareness didn’t do justice to reality. “When you are coming from the civilian world and you have no prior knowledge, you are kind of going in blind. People don’t even know how to put on their uniforms properly. You are really starting from the very beginning,” she said.

Lt. Hobbs finished up OCS in December, having overcome what was to her the biggest hurdle.

“The hardest thing for me was the school aspect. You are expected to be perfect, to get 100 percent on everything you do,” she said. “You are out the door by 5 o’clock, you’re doing obstacle courses, and then you have to stay awake in classes, running off of four hours’ sleep a night. At first you think you can hang, you can do it, but by week six or seven or eight, it starts to catch up with you.”

While the load sometimes got easier to carry, it never got easy.

“Around week eight you think for probably an hour that you have things under control. People are hitting their stride in terms of getting into formation and managing their platoons. People are showing up on time,” she said. “But you still don’t get down time, you don’t get to just chill out. There is never that feeling that everything is golden.”

Hobbs said she got through the worst of it by turning to her fellow candidates for help. “I really relied on the priors in my platoon to show me what I was supposed to do and to help me to practice,” she said. “Everyone I came in contact with was willing to help me and to show me until I understood.

“When I see other people going through these same struggles and they can power through it … that gave me strength to keep on going. If they could do it, so could I.”

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