Biting the bullet
Well, I offered the photographer a drink if he joined them. But he refused. I offered him two if he joined them while wearing the standard issue boots. But he refused. And I don't blame him after hearing that one's bound to get blisters wearing them.
From the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM)'s headquarters in Luqa, the officer cadets marched to Żurrieq and then to Girgenti, Għammieri and St Paul's. The march ended at Baħar Iċ-Ċagħaq.
Yes, it is long. And a race against the clock. In fact, the shortest route possible is a staggering 50 kilometres long. Add an extra turning here and there and it gets longer, a headache considering that the route had to be completed in a maximum of 12 hours.
And for daring readers, the coordinates of each checkpoint are GR 50666475, GR 46206785, GR 42497248, GR 43317330, GR 45457832, GR 50907762, located on either the west or east map of the island.
The exercise tests the officer cadets' navigation skills and command tools through command tasks along the route. Meanwhile, the officer cadets put into practice the lessons learnt in land navigation, the stripping and assembling of weapons, endurance and leadership.
The six officer cadets participating in the exercise were Roderick Vassallo, Pasquale Papa, Bernadette Cachia, Matthew Sant, Peter Debono and Matthew Portelli.
Meanwhile, the directing staff was composed of Warrant Officer Marco Chircop and Lance Bombardier Marvic Abela, under the leadership of Lieutenant Jonathan Borg.
As the clock struck seven in the evening, all were standing to attention on the parade ground, attired in their combat uniforms and bearing their basic necessities.
A basic pack contains ammunition, personal first aid utensils, a spare shirt, a pair of spare socks, food (chocolate for this exercise), two mess tins and a KFS (knife, fork and spoon), a length of parachord, a housewife kit (needles, thread and spare buttons), camouflage cream and a torchlight.
Soldiers also strap a poncho roll to their packs. This is used as either a blanket or to pitch tents.
Slung on their shoulder was an AK-47, a modern automatic assault-rifle. In total, the whole kit weighs around 15 kilogrammes, with the assault-rifle alone weighing around five kilos.
After Lieutenant Borg briefed Officer Cadet Portelli on the coordinates of the first checkpoint the officer cadets turned to their maps to pinpoint the location and plot the appropriate route there. All six then marched off to Żurrieq for their first task: Stripping and assembling their weapons... blindfolded.
Meanwhile, together with the directing staff, we drove off in pursuit in a land rover.
Once blindfolded, the officer cadets were asked to strip their weapons. Warrant Officer Chircop removed one part out of the nine at their knees, asking them which part he had taken. Furthermore, Warrant Officer Chircop grouped all six weapon parts together and asked the officer cadets to each assemble an assault-rifle again.
After removing their blindfolds, another officer cadet was briefed with the coordinates of the next checkpoint while the rest of the group replenished their water supplies.
Our pursuit involved the directing staff teasing the officer cadets, with officers shouting, "Tired? Hop in!" and receiving answers such as: "Sir, I don't get tired".
Warrant Officer Chircop turned round with a smirk on his face. "He's addressing me as 'sir' for the time being, but I'll soon be calling him that. Once the officer cadets are commissioned to Second Lieutenant, I will be under their command."
And their morale remained high. So much so, that the officer cadets exceeded expectations, arriving at checkpoints before the predicted time. In fact, the route was completed in just under 10 hours.
On one occasion, the directing staff even attempted to divert the officer cadets from their planned route. Warrant Officer Chircop, who was at the wheel, took another turning instead of the one the officer cadets selected. He switched off the engine, turned the headlamps off, pulled up the handbrake and again turned round with a smirk on his face. Sure enough, the officer cadets followed. Warrant Officer Chircop started the engine and doubled back, laughing as he passed the confused officer cadets.
Throughout the course, the cadets were presented with six scenarios, one at each checkpoint. During each scenario, different officer cadets were appointed to lead their peers. Each was assessed on his abilities to navigate in the field and to lead his peers through each command task while using problem solving techniques and command tools.
The officer cadet course consists of three phases. The first involves basic training, the second involves academic subjects and the third administration. The current group is in the midst of their second phase.
Lieutenant Borg explained that the aim of the AFM's courses is to train each soldier to achieve exceptional results, placing them among the best even abroad.
All six officer cadets will then travel overseas for further specialised instruction and will be commissioned as Second Lieutenants upon completion of the course. Each will then be in charge of a platoon.