Natali Juarez sits cross-legged on a green, standard-issue cot. Her hair is up, in accordance with military hairstyle standards, and the word “ARMY” is printed across her T-shirt. Beside her lies a Vietnam-era M16 assault rifle. She stretches out her neck, lifts her chin and opens her mouth into a wide, toothy grin, a piece of floss stretched from one hand to the other.
She’s teaching her squad how to floss. “You have to get it riiiiight up against the gumline.”
They’re all sitting in a large, Army-green tent, one of hundreds in an expansive city built from canvas. The tents stand tall in thick mud and strong against the relentless rays of Kentucky’s summer sun. The city of tents is deep within Fort Knox.
In years past, the fort housed both the gold supply of the United States and the Army’s armored division. But today the only large operations happening inside are connected to ROTC, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps – including the U.S. Army’s single largest training program, the Leader Development and Assessment Course, or LDAC, an expansive test of leadership skills for students hoping to become officers.
LDAC is the final leg of the ROTC journey. A strong ranking can mean a long career in the Army, but low scores can mean the end of the line — a free college education, but not much left to come.
Juarez is competing with 6,122 other ROTC cadets for active duty positions as Army officers. Just fifty-four percent will make the cut. In terms of leadership, Juarez is already a clear front-runner. The twenty-seven-year-old is just a few inches over five-feet tall. She has dark brown hair and bright, shining eyes, and she’s hungry to prove herself. Juarez can turn the worst ordeal into just another pleasant moment along her triumphant march through life, and she’s using her skills to march through LDAC with a smile on her face.
Most of the cadets are exhausted from being “on” all the time. They’re used to the less formal ROTC programs at their universities, and today they’re only really trying while their commanding officers are watching, like a smiling waitress whose grin disappears as soon as she turns away from customers.
Juarez isn’t like them. She can switch from disciplined and intense to bubbly and supportive in a moment, but she never stops being “on.” Her effort never flags.
LDAC is Juarez’s final test before joining the Army medical branch. She has a month of training to prove herself — a short stretch of work compared to the long road she took to get here.
“I want a future,” she says. “I want to live a very happy life, not stressed about getting shot if I cross the street for a cup of coffee. I want to be a dentist specialized in braces — an orthodontist.”
Fort Knox loomed before her, but Juarez comes from a community with perhaps just as many guns.
She grew up on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. She was four during the Rodney King riots. She was there when the city hit its record-high murder rate. Gangs, drugs and violence surrounded her — and influenced her personality.
“I was a thug,” she says. “I didn’t care. No one could disrespect me, ’cause I was the boss.”
She found her salvation in teeth. Juarez dropped out of Thomas Jefferson High School at seventeen after completing a dental assistant certification program. She moved out of her neighborhood – which the L.A. City Council renamed “South Los Angeles” in 2003 in an attempt to shed its violent past – and began a GED program, working long hours at a donut shop to make money to send back to her family. When a local dentist took interest in her, Juarez starting working her way up to a full-time position at a dentist office next to UCLA.
Her new boss took Juarez under her wing and helped her start paying for her undergraduate education, but she wanted to make enough to provide financial support to her family and pay her own way through life.
“She only saw that I needed to stay and go to school,” Juarez said. “She didn’t understand that I had to pay for my mom’s bills. I had to pay for my own bills.”
She joined the Army, spent a year performing dental operations in Iraq and finally returned to the states to finish her undergraduate degree.
When Juarez arrived in Kentucky, her experience overseas put her a step ahead of the other cadets.
The flight touched down in Louisville International Airport in early June. Hundreds of cadets gripping identical forest-green tote bags flooded the airport. Juarez immediately started organizing her colleagues into orderly formations. Under her direction, they marched onto their bus and set off for Fort Knox.
As Juarez took command, commanding officers took notice. As she straightened out her colleague’s ranks, one officer stopped and stared for a moment before muttering a simple question.
“You’re prior service, aren’t you?”
Everywhere she went for the first few days of in-processing, she says, officers took notice of her abilities. By the time the training really began, she was already a top commanding cadet of her regiment — a company commander. She was one of twenty-four with this title out of over 6,000 cadets.
She had set herself off well from the start, but LDAC’s challenges were yet to properly begin. There were tears to come.
After about a week of what the cadets’ affectionately refer to as “death by PowerPoint,” Juarez and her regiment arrive at Fort Knox’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Site — known to cadets as “the gas chamber.” Cadets wrap around the small cement building in a single-file line. It has two doors: an entrance on the back, and an exit on the front. Juarez stands in the line completely indistinguishable from her fellow soldiers. They’re wearing heavy protective suits and their faces are hidden under gas masks.
She rounds the corner to the entrance of the chamber as the door swings to a crashing close. An officer counts off ten cadets, including Juarez, and has them form two rows, five cadets deep.
Then they wait.
A repeated sound echoes from the other side of the building. First, a sudden, frantic coughing rings out. It’s immediately followed by the metallic clang of a shutting door.
After the tenth clang, it’s their turn.
LDAC cadets have a checklist to complete for their graduation. Most items are harmless training sessions covering a range of topics from athletics to critical thinking. The mandatory trip to the gas chamber is an equipment training operation designed to force cadets to trust their equipment.
The accompanying taste of tear gas is just a side effect.
The entrance swings open, and they are rushed inside. Two men wearing standard Army briefs and gas masks stand at the far side of the room. They motion for the cadets to line up in front of them. In the center of the room is a small table with a tin can on top. Wafts of gas float off the can as gas capsules burn inside.
The cadets tense up in anticipation.
Outside the chamber, an officer sits in observation. He watches the operation with a hand shielding his eyes from the sun and a grin stretched across his face. He tells anyone who will listen how perfect the weather is for this. Tear gas only burns the moist parts of your body, like your eyes and throat. But the heat means the cadets are sweating, and the humidity means their clothes are damp. He chuckles to himself.
When their masks come off, there’s a split second where they still feel fine. Then it hits. Sweat sears one’s neck, eyes burn and lungs are inflamed.
“What’s your name? Where do you go to school? What’s your favorite NFL team?” the officer says.
The cadets must stand for at least sixty seconds breathing in the toxic gas. The officers still don’t let them leave until they say their favorite team is the Cowboys.
Juarez chokes out her responses and slams against the door to find clean air and join the ranks of recovering cadets. She looks and sounds pretty rough, but some others are worse.
“It hit me fast,” one says. “It hit me faster than lightning. It burns. I feel like crap. I feel like all my intestines are spinning.”
That’s one task off her LDAC checklist — time to head back to camp.
A little over a week later, the cadets spend a solid half of their days sitting in their tents. An outbreak of heat sickness cancelled much of the training, and now the officers are careful to keep the cadets in the shade as much as they can.
Walking through the tents, one can find cadets running footraces, singing march songs and writing letters. Stuck without cellphones, little communities are quickly forming in each tent. Nightly rainstorms leave their floor a muddy wasteland. Little paths of plastic weave throughout the camp, offering the cadets few safe places to step. A wall of porta-potties line one side of the encampment, a large dining pavilion stands opposite. Gray shirts stamped ‘Army’ are everywhere the eye can see. Christopher Payne, a cadet from the University of Georgia, summarizes his entire month-long experience in one statement.
“You wake up at four a.m., train until ten. Then nap until five,” Payne says.
Juarez is across the tent complex receiving her orders for the next day. She stands in a circle with her squad, paying close attention. One of her observing officers, Master Sgt. Kent Vaughn, stands nearby listening and watching.
After the orders are delivered, Juarez runs off with her squad to tackle their laundry situation.
“She’s a very strong leader,” Vaughn says. “She’s very strong, a good team player. Helps anyone and everybody who needs help.”
Vaughn and his fellow officers have a consensus on Juarez. She was squad leader her first three days at LDAC, and company commander since then. Now they’re trying to fade her into the background to let others shine.
Juarez, on the other hand, is just trying to find a clean pair of socks.
The cadets were required to hand in dirty laundry after a week of training — a hygiene requirement. Unfortunately, it never seemed to come back. It still wasn’t in the next time clothes was due, and now their wardrobes are running out.
All over the tent city, cadets are inventing ways to wash their clothing. They have tiny bottles of shampoo from the showers and plenty of water sitting around in giant containers. Everything from trash bags to rolled-up mattress pads are used to wash clothes. Soap soaks down into the mud, mixing into the mess.
Juarez is outside her tent hanging up clothes to dry. The sun is still up, but she’ll be in bed soon.
Every morning the camp awakes in a regular, scheduled pattern. Hours before sunrise the first cadets are up — the leaders. Information is poured into them before being passed on to still-sleeping subordinates. In hierarchical waves the tents come to life, little by little. The final wave awakens in a great stir. No one wants to be the last in the tent.
There’s just under a week of LDAC left for Natali Juarez. Her checklist is scribbled all over. The gas chamber is done. The rappel tower is conquered. Machine gun ranges are a thing of the past. Just one thing stands between the cadets and their final freedom.
The leaders are organizing cadets to board busses. Natali is just one of the crowd now — her leadership is completed. She just needs to finish.
The buses make their way to a different campsite deeper in the woods. The cadets are now simulating a full deployment deep into enemy territory. Their enemy, a fictional organization of Spanish-speaking Islamic extremists called SAPA, surrounds their base. Every morning they make their way to the field and perform simulated combat operations. Some of the cadets, such as Cory Mitchell from Virginia Tech University, are getting into the role-playing.
“From what they tell us, the enemy forces are out everywhere in the trees watching us,” Mitchell says. “We’re told we can’t salute the officers ‘cause if we do, the SAPA might shoot them. We’re always living in constant situational awareness. Watching our backs. Watching our buddies’ backs. But overall it’s pretty nice. They give us hot breakfast with jalapeño ketchup that’s outstanding.”
The combat scenarios continually ramp up in difficulty. They culminate in a final, dangerous operation. Cadets must navigate through a forest to find a SAPA-friendly encampment, enter peacefully and make contact with the village elder.
Juarez is creeping through the woods with her squad right outside the enemy’s field of vision. Officers dressed in civilian costumes are everywhere, and several are visibly carrying weapons. Cadets swarm from the trees to secure the area. No shots are fired yet.
Juarez is helping to set up a perimeter as cadets open fire with blank rounds. Smoke grenades explode and shouts ring out. Officers spring into action and begin calling out names of dead cadets as people are “shot.” Juarez smiles. In twenty-four hours she’ll be graduating. This is the final test.
“I just want to be a dentist,” she says. “That’s my goal.”
Juarez will go on to graduate LDAC and commission as a second lieutenant. A few months later she will receive word from the Army. She will become an active duty officer in the Army Medical Service Corps.
But for now, Juarez just finished a day of field training. She’s been eating nothing but field rations for days, and the cadet laundry service still hasn’t returned her clothes. Her showers are scarce and rushed, but her pristine teeth are still shining.