You are here
High-Speed Leadership: Accelerated OCS
Scroll down to see video of candidates in action at accelerated OCS.
Out here there are no boardrooms, cubicles or profit margins. There are no CEOs or midlevel managers to tell you if you’re capable of leading. There is only a river of crap and a small paddle, and the only thing that will determine whether you pass or fail is your ability to get your platoon to row with you.
You sweated through weeks of some of the most strenuous leadership training in the world to get here. Classroom instruction—check. Hours of pulling guard duty—check. You slept three hours last night and are 12 hours into your workday before you’re even handed your paddle—no problem. Forty-hour workweek? Please. You’ve been hard-charging for 100 hours in the last seven days. But there’s good news: There are only five days left. And then you’ll be home.
This is the accelerated Officer Candidate School (OCS) program at Fort McClellan, AL. The course is the fastest of three routes for would-be officers who already have college credit (state programs and a longer federal program are the other paths). It’s also one of the hardest military training environments in the world, a 57-day pressure cooker in three phases. Held at Regional Training Institutes around the country, accelerated OCS has a 20 percent dropout rate. Those who tough it out become second lieutenants. But more important, they become leaders.
Candidate Mikheal Sloane (while at OCS, Soldiers have no traditional rank), Texas Army National Guard, knows firsthand about the pace of the program. This morning he woke up well before dawn to do some rigorous PT. He slept only three hours last night. On the ground. In the rain. In temperatures barely above freezing. After a hot but definitively Army breakfast, Sloane and his 20-man platoon head back into the rain, which would continue throughout the day. Ten minutes later, they are soaked from boots to bonnet and are not even a quarter of the way through a kilometer-long approach through thick Alabama woods to their objective.
Sloane and his fellow candidates are in the middle of the last exercise of OCS. Phase three has candidates focused on putting all of the knowledge gained in the other phases into practice, and the field training exercise (FTX) is the last big hurdle before graduation. Much is required of them. Each day brings challenges. Each hour brings a new creek. Leadership roles are rotated through the platoon, with each candidate getting their chance to shine (or not).
Today is Sloane’s chance.
Each mission during the FTX is assigned just like in the real world. Sloane’s platoon is assigned a vehicle ambush. He receives minimal intelligence and is given broad latitude to make his own plan. His first step is to bring all of his squad leaders in for a sand table dry run where each squad is given an assignment. The vehicle will be disabled by a claymore mine. First Squad will serve as the main assault force, with Second Squad flanking the objective. Teams are assigned security detail, search/detaining duty and casualty extraction.
When it is time to attack, his platoon waits hidden in the woods for the vehicle to approach, lying in mud behind thick underbrush. The drizzling rain is almost unnoticeable over the anticipation of impending battle. When the target rumbles down the forest road, chaos breaks with the boom of a simulated claymore mine. Bright green and purple smoke grenades are thrown to mask the assault force’s advance.
M16 fire rages from the trees, almost drowning out Sloane’s shouted instructions. “Second Squad, GO! First Squad, advance! ADVANCE!” Bodies fall to simulated machine-gun fire as the ever-present instructors inform the Opposition Force (Op-For) that they are KIA. The assault progresses in a combination of bedlam and coordinated movement until a hectic two minutes later, when nothing is left but the remnants of the purple and green fog of war.
Exercises like this are one of the things that make OCS more difficult than Basic Training. While Basic is physically demanding, “you never have to make a decision on your own,” says Candidate Elizabeth Day, Massachusetts National Guard. You know exactly where to be and what you’re supposed to be doing. “You never have to question anything. When you come here, while the cadre knows exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s up to us to make the decisions. So the unknown makes it a lot more difficult.”
These exercises are also where hands-on instruction occurs. After the assault, Sloane and his team circle up for an After Action Review (AAR). This is not just practice for the real world, where AARs are the Army’s way of identifying what worked and what didn’t after each mission; it’s also the chance for the combat-proven instructors to give pointers.
Sloane’s team talks about what it could have done better. It failed to assault the target with the kind of force of action (a favorite phrase at OCS) the instructors wanted. The team also failed to notice an Op-For machine-gunner who had dismounted and run into the tree line, mowing down most of Second Squad. In the real world, these are the kinds of mistakes that cost lives, and these are essential lessons that future Guard second lieutenants like Sloane need to learn.
The nonstop pace through each of its three phases is what makes the accelerated OCS program at Fort McClellan special. “It’s a fast, hard fifty-seven days,” says Captain Robert Mangum, the training officer for McClellan’s OCS. “You don’t get a nine-to-five training day with weekends off. The training days are longer, and you train straight through.”
The first phase is two weeks long. “In phase one, the primary task is land navigation. There’s also a five-mile road march,” Mangum says. “Most candidates’ academic classes, like military history, are in phase two. There are also eight academic tests, [along with a] timed three-mile run, seven- and ten-mile road marches, and a leadership evaluation you have to pass. In phase three, you have the leadership reaction course, confidence course, combat water survival swim test and a field exercise where you have to pass another leadership evaluation.”
This accelerated program, Mangum says, is primarily for a Soldier with enlisted experience, although Soldiers without that can come through the program, too. Just like any high-level Army course, there is a mix of assessment and instruction. If candidates are going to emerge from OCS as hardened, proven leaders, then all of the things that combine to make them the most miserable (lack of sleep, difficult physical training and occasionally antagonistic cadre) are the most valuable tools in the instructor’s kit. So stress is kept as high as possible. Those who can’t hack it are removed from training or, more often, remove themselves. Considering that Soldiers’ lives will be in the hands of these lieutenants one day, this is a good thing.
“The OCS program sets the standard high and upholds it, valuing excellence and cutting the fat,” says First Lieutenant Holly Di Giovine, a platoon trainer with the South Carolina National Guard and an accelerated OCS alum. “The result is a network of commissioned officers who want to make the Guard better and can lean on each other to find answers.”
Those who do make it through to the later phases of training learn something new about themselves. They know that if it ever does come time to charge the proverbial hill, they’re capable. They know how to make a decision. They know how to lead. And the hotter the crucible, the more hardened leaders they will be.
In his 17 years in the Alabama National Guard, Major Randall Albritton, the senior platoon trainer for McClellan’s OCS program, has learned what makes a good leader. He’s also learned what it takes to build leaders. The way his trainers approach the training changes throughout the phases.
“In phase one, we teach [the candidates] up front that this course is about performance and execution and how they achieve that under stress,” Albritton says. “In the first couple weeks, we’re not doing much teaching; we’re doing a lot of assessing of their critical thinking skills and how they’re performing. Then it changes about midway into the program when we take our instructor hats off and become mentors. We tweak some things that they’re doing well so they can do that much better.”
When it’s clear a candidate can’t perform under stress, the cadre take it seriously. “I treat [them] just like [they’re] my children,” Albritton says, because the problem could occur downrange. “I tell them that up front, so they know what they’re getting into.”
MOLDING THE MENTALITY
Candidates come to OCS for many reasons. Candidate Kimberly Rodriguez deployed as an E-5 with the Texas National Guard to Iraq in 2010. Before going overseas, her career goal was to become a command sergeant major, but after she returned, the positive experiences she had with great officers there convinced her to follow in their footsteps. “I started school and have not stopped since,” she says. Entering college just to make herself eligible for OCS shows the kind of determination that makes candidates successful here.
Candidate Jeremiah Morris, Hawaii National Guard, came to OCS to get a bigger role in his unit and to be an example to younger Soldiers. “I’m always pushing them to go to school,” he says. “So I wanted to take on a bigger challenge for them.”
Morris also went to college specifically to be eligible for OCS. What got him through the hard days during OCS training were his battle buddies. “Just having the guys next to me go through the same thing and seeing them push through without complaining [and] without giving up gave me strength,” Morris says. That team mentality makes any officer more successful.
A Soldier who attended accelerated OCS last year, Second Lieutenant Raymond Wardlow, 31st Brigade Support Company, Alabama National Guard, says the most important thing he learned is the importance of the Soldiers in his charge. “The decisions you make are going to affect them,” he says, “so it’s important you make the best decision that you can make.”
And ultimately, candidates learn that despite any circumstances, they need to ensure mission success. “The best way OCS helped my career was teaching me that no matter what happens, I still have to find a way to accomplish the task at hand,” says First Lieutenant Brian Kelly, 1/230th Air Cavalry Squadron, Tennessee National Guard, another alum of the McClellan accelerated program. “Even if that means adjusting plans on the fly, or finding new ways to approach a problem, the mission doesn’t care about excuses—only execution.”
Putting all those lessons to use starts with convincing Soldiers they can do more than they think. “Today’s generation tends to be highly intelligent and very tech savvy, but they don’t push their bodies to the physical limit,” Mangum says. “One thing that a second lieutenant from this program knows how to do is deal with a lot of stress and a lot of pressure and still make their bodies do what [they need] to do.” The second thing they learn is not to be afraid to make decisions. Candidates learn to be humble enough to listen to a senior NCO or to peers and then apply that advice. “A good leader,” Mangum says, “is someone that’s confident enough to make a decision and humble enough to admit when they make a mistake and [then] make it right.”
The Army is constantly changing, and with good reason. There will always be bad people in the world finding new ways to hurt and kill American Soldiers. New training regimens will be adapted with this in mind. New ideas will filter down from leadership with the intent of building smarter, more capable leaders.
But one thing will never change. Army National Guard lieutenants will never know what they’re capable of until they’re pushed, prodded and poked. Even born leaders have to go through fire to become hardened into steel. And as long as Soldiers like Albritton and Mangum are in charge at Fort McClellan’s OCS program, they will continue to graduate leaders who are fully aware that they’re capable of more than they’d ever imagined.
BREAKDOWN OF THE ACCELERATED OCS COURSE
Length: Two weeks
Focus: Handling stress
Primary training event: Land navigation
Skill level trained: Individual level
Candidates in phase one are pushed to their absolute limit. Sleep is minimal (or nonexistent). Candidates are assessed on their ability to maintain the right attitude and the right effort level in the face of impossible tasks. Standards are set that will be maintained throughout the entire course.
Length: Five weeks
Focus: Knowledge base
Primary training event: Eight academic tests
Skill level trained: Team level (squad and platoon)
Candidates who make it to phase two are rewarded with slightly less stress (but just as little sleep). Most of the training takes place in garrison, with occasional trips to the field for ruck marches and physical training. Phase two is where the first leadership evaluation takes place. The evaluation has a peer-review component and must be passed to continue in training. By the end of phase two, most of the students who will quit or be removed have done so.
Length: One week
Primary training event: Field Training Exercise (FTX)
Skill level trained: Platoon level
Phase three is the culmination of weeks of training. Candidates live in the field for the five-day FTX, sleeping on the ground under whatever shelter they can construct with minimal materials. Candidates are rotated through leadership positions, with each getting the opportunity to show what they’re made of in real-world leadership roles. Missions are assigned and carried out just like they would be if the Soldiers were deployed.
Missions have mostly infantry skills–based objectives like assaulting enemy positions, clearing buildings in urban settings and conducting ambushes. Training is conducted in all weather in the deep woods. The relationship between candidates and cadre shifts to a more mentor-based relationship. When they have completed phase three, candidates graduate as U.S. Army second lieutenants and head home to start their careers as commissioned officers.
GOING TO OCS? A TRAINER’S TIPS
Officer Candidate School (OCS) is a highly challenging course designed to test your mental and physical abilities while training you to be a combat leader. Success is completely dependent on each student, but spending time preparing yourself before you arrive will positively affect your ability to complete the rigors of the course and become a second lieutenant.
After you’ve decided to attend OCS, get a copy of the OC guide* and read it. Then read it again. The information is invaluable, and it’s the basis for everything you do. Memorize the troop-leading procedures, the classroom procedures and the basics of the operations order; also brush up on drill and ceremony, and all the other requirements in the guide. The more you know, the more you can focus on cultivating your leadership skills.
Packing for OCS
Use the OC guide and follow the directions specifically. Make sure you have everything on the packing list and that it’s labeled correctly and professionally. Ensure every item is clean, complete and functional. Try everything on. During training is not the time to find out your helmet doesn’t fit. When packing personal hygiene items, bring enough to last the duration of OCS, as you may never get to a store to replace items. Check and recheck everything, and do not bring contraband.
Looking professional is key at OCS. Ensure all uniforms are clean and neat—with no holes, fading or stains, and make sure all buttons are fastened. Do not have custom alterations or special aftermarket uniforms, and do not bring anything that is against regulations.
Being able to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test is not fitness. You not only need to exceed those minimums, but you must be prepared for long, arduous and physical days, road marches, day and night land navigation, and more. While running and walking everywhere, most of your training is done outside and in the elements, whether it’s hot, cold or raining. Sleep is also scarce, so acclimatize for the weather, hydrate and be ready.
Do not wear new boots to OCS under any circumstances. They must be thoroughly broken in. The biggest medical issue candidates face is severe foot problems. You will be walking, running and marching everywhere, conducting road marches, and walking for miles during land navigation. Candidates have poured blood out of their boots and peeled layers of skin off their feet. If you can’t walk, you can’t train.
Being late is not an option; don’t do it, ever. Whenever you go to an event, be there on time and ready to train. Every minute in OCS is valuable, and you’ll need every one. Use your time wisely, hustle and have a good plan to meet all of your timelines.
Don’t just meet the standard; exceed it. For male Soldiers, if you can get your hair cut where it can last nearly two weeks before needing to get it cut again, do it. Time for haircuts is limited, and drawing attention to yourself as the first Soldier to fall out of grooming standards is a bad idea.
While at OCS, you will have very little access to telephones or email. Take care of all your personal issues before arriving. OCS is a fast-paced and stressful environment, so your attention needs to be on the course and not distracted by family issues or bills.
Tips for Prior NCOs
Check your pride at the door; you are no longer an NCO. OCS can be very humbling to Soldiers who have deployed or have extensive military service. You may have different techniques for a skill you’re learning, but you must listen to the instructors. NCOs are usually the largest group of land navigation failures, because they don’t listen to the instructors and their “better techniques” result in failure.
OCS will challenge anyone who attends, and the more prepared you are, the greater your chance of success. Some final advice: Don’t quit! Take initiative, don’t take things personally and remember why you’re there—to learn to lead Soldiers in combat. It’s a course for leaders, so start leading.
*Depending on which track of OCS you enter and which state’s program you will be applying to attend, there may be slight differences in the OC guide. Upon being accepted into an OCS program, you should receive a copy of the OC guide from your OCS contact via email, either in PDF format or as a link to the document on an online server that you can download.
BENEFITS OF BECOMING AN OFFICER
Commissioning as an Army officer brings extra responsibility, and that responsibility has its privileges. Commissioned officers are leaders first—generalists in their Army duties but specialists in leading troops and accomplishing the mission—and they’re compensated for that specialty.
Here’s a rundown of how it pays to become a second lieutenant:
An E-4 with four years of service will make $316 for one weekend’s drill. An O-1 right out of OCS with the same time in service will make $490. That difference in pay adds up quickly. For a two-week Annual Training, that E-4 will make $1,160. The O-1 will make $1,800.
Commissioned officers acquire leadership and management skills that are in high demand in military and civilian careers. An officer is, by virtue of assignment and training, a leader. The skills you learn and practice as an Army leader will serve you for the rest of your life, no matter what you do.
There’s a reason not all OCS candidates become officers: Not everyone is cut out for it. Once you make it through the training, the challenge isn’t over. You can look forward to more challenging responsibilities at your unit right out of the gate as you assist in the planning and preparation of your unit's training.
Learn About Yourself
One of the biggest ways you’ll benefit from OCS is through the intangible. Anyone who goes through such an intense training event is changed forever. You’ll learn that you’re capable of more than you thought—of performing on less sleep with greater challenges. That thing that you learn about yourself here will not only make you a better Army leader, it will translate into your civilian life and into your personal life.
BECOME AN OFFICER
Accelerated OCS is just one of the paths to becoming an officer. To learn more about your options, go to www.NATIONALGUARD.com/OCS or call 1-800-GO-GUARD to talk to an officer specialist.