Trip to West Point for the Key Leader Engagement Exercise by Senior Joshua Golding

by tuftsigl
Sep 27

The old adage that posits that “the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle” holds sway across the United States military. This is especially the case with the Corps of Cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. I jumped at the opportunity to join the ALLIES delegation participating in the Key Leader Engagement (KLE) simulation. Comprised of three Tufts students and two students from Wellesley College, the delegation arrived at West Point on the weekend of September 24. I have been exposed to service academy through ALLIES to numerous conferences and events in the name of civil-military relations, but this was the first time I have been involved in an exercise that actively seeks to prepare cadets for the battlefield. While the staff was comprised of older cadets, mostly third (cows) and fourth year cadets (firsties), the bulk of the cadets working alongside us were first year (plebes) and second year cadets (yearlings).

Key Leader Engagement, personal interactions between unit leadership and key power figures and influencers within a local civilian community, grew to be a vital skill for Army officers due to two large counterinsurgency operations in the past fifteen years. Cadet Sergeant Tim Johnson repeatedly hammered home the importance of incorporating civilian entities like the Department of State and NGO’s like Doctors Without Borders into KLE operations and building trust between the military and civilians.

Prior to the simulation itself began, Cadet Sergeant James Dobson, a certified FBI Crisis Negotiator, led a seminar giving a very abridged version of what he was taught. We tackled how to approach different kinds of situations and individuals, focusing on how to restore the balance of rationality and emotionality in the brains of individuals involved in crisis situations. These skills proved useful for not only minimizing hostilities, but also controlling the flow of how conversations proceeded.

Without getting into too much detail of the scenario and its background, the cadets and civilian students divided into two teams. Cadets assumed their roles as soldiers and civilian students were either assigned to be a USAID or Doctors Without Borders Worker. Though each role wanted to accomplish the goal of renovating the hospital, there were conflicting parameters of success between each role that would judge the effectiveness of individuals. Each one would have run its own iteration and would be divided up into two squads. At first, we proceeded into the “village” where we encountered “villagers” (aka role-playing cadet staffers) and attempted to garner the needs of the village and to gather intelligence on the location of a high value target. Though we gained no intelligence on the HVT and received conflicting reports of the very existence of a hospital, we proceeded on with some supplies to bring to the distant hospital. I made my displeasure known because of the limited notional resources USAID possessed and the fact that we didn’t even know if the hospital existed or in whose hands it was. Lugging a water jug alongside my DWB/Wellesley student Ianka Bhatia, we moved through easy terrain until the lead element of our squad hit a notional improvised explosive device. Getting another go at the scenario, we moved through more rugged terrain with the whole squad and were ambushed and wiped out by an enemy militia. In the after action report, we were informed no combat would have occurred if the DWB worker went ahead of the group and interacted with the militia since they wanted to keep armed individuals out of their territory.

The KLE simulation taught me a lot and helped me form an array of skills that I hopefully will be able to take with me into a future career. We learned how difficult, yet vital it is for the military and civilians to cooperate and work through competing interests and ways of operating. Learning how to move in a squad of infantry was a new experience for me. No matter how many books you read on tactics, getting out into the field and doing it is a very different experience. The cadets shared this sentiment and certainly seemed to take away lessons on how to better operate with civilians. At the end of the day, I knew that many of these cadets may very well see combat and doing anything other than my absolute best in the exercise would be doing a disservice to them as well as myself. I was very surprised to hear this was West Point C3MO’s first time running something like this and look forward to participating future projects with them.