You’re carrying an M-4 rifle and a 45-pound rucksack. You’re leading 11 soldiers over mountainous, wet, heavily wooded ground strewn with rocks and cut by streams.
You have to use your compass and map to maneuver your squad through the forest — ground you’ve never seen before. You need to do it smartly, with silence and efficiency, and you know that your enemy is out there, somewhere, waiting for you.
What do you do?
Felix Thibodeau, a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, will get to answer that question.
The 22-year-old Etna native will lead West Point cadets participating in the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition on April 12 and 13. That’s an international soldiering competition for college-age military students that has been held at West Point for 51 years.
Forty-nine teams representing 14 international military academies, 16 U.S. military academies and 16 ROTC programs will face off. They will be competing on what U.S. Army Maj. Bryan Blackburn called “27 miles of the most rigorous mountain terrain you can find in the Northeast.”
Thibodeau will experience live-fire combat simulations that will test his leadership skills in competition against the future military leaders of the nations his generation will perhaps cooperate with in military coalitions — the United Kingdom, Mexico, France, Germany, Greece and Japan, among others.
He said it will be an honor to lead his team into the woods.
“It is a pretty good mix of technical and physical assessments,” Thibodeau said. “There is definitely a critical-thinking aspect, through the events, that they try to foster. A lot of it is how a squad leader reacts to the situation.”
“You learn very quickly that if only one person can correctly interpret the exercise, you are not going to get a lot done,” he said. “The best part is knowing that the person to your right is going to give 110 percent.”
Thibodeau has wanted to go into military for as far back as he can remember. His grandfather served 28 years in the U.S. Navy. But his dream really took shape at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport as a member of the Junior ROTC program.
His favorite soldier: retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan until he resigned in 2009.
“The work he has done to innovate the way we communicate in the Army and counterinsurgency operations is just incredible,” Thibodeau said. “An incredible leader.”
It’s certainly too soon to say whether Thibodeau will rise to McChrystal’s prominence within the Army, but he will go into the infantry when he graduates, he said. Blackburn, who will oversee the two-day competition, said that many challenge participants go on to become U.S. Army Rangers or other special forces.
He called Thibodeau “a tremendous military athlete.”
“Sandhurst is one of the more challenging courses that they have here,” Blackburn said. “It takes lots of practice, and you have to have a whole lot of composure. Where Felix is exceptional is that he has that kind of composure. He is naturally a Cool Hand Luke kind of guy. He is kind of a calming influence on the squad.”
Thibodeau had to overcome 300 fellow West Point cadets on 36 teams in similar competitions that have been ongoing since last fall, Blackburn said.
“Just to be on the final Gold and Black team is a huge accomplishment, let alone to be the squad leader for it,” he said.