ASHLAND — Maj. Kirk Mickelsen picked up his camouflaged rucksack, tightened a few straps, then swung it onto his back.
"I've got 2:54 — at 1500 we are moving out," he announced in a booming voice to the assembled gathering of young men and women mustered in military cammies and boots.
That would be 3 p.m. civilian time. A few minutes later, 18 Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets, each carrying 30 pounds of sandbags in their rucksacks to give the exercise a little more bite, stepped smartly out for a six-mile march.
A red and white guidon held by sophomore cadet Timothy Plaza at the front of the unit announced to the world: "SOU Raiders."
The ROTC program at Southern Oregon University, launched just 18 months ago after a nearly 20-year absence, is on the march.
In fact, three SOU seniors — Thomas Blaser, Owen Lee and Justin Neville — will be receiving officer commissions on June 17, marking the first time in 18 years a student at the school will have received an ROTC commission.
"I really had no intention of trying to make history," said Blaser, 23, of Portland, a health education major. "I just want to be able to help prepare and defend our country against any threat."
But that lack of program history did add to the challenges, said Lee, 25, of Eugene, a criminal justice major.
"We've kind of been feeling it out and fumbling our way a little through our junior year and this year," he said. "Typically, an ROTC department is run and taught a lot by seniors."
Obviously, there were no seniors last year. But cadets say leadership provided by full-time Guard soldiers assigned to the program such as Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Austin provided the needed experience. A senior military instructor, Austin was busy this day organizing the march, then leading other cadets carrying plastic rifles through a mock drill in urban warfare behind the ROTC headquarters.
"It's exciting for us to see how exponentially our program has grown," Lee said. "We had maybe 10 cadets in the entire program last year. We've grown to over 30 since then."
Neville, who was unavailable for an interview, is an Iraq War veteran and criminal justice major. The three will be commissioned during a ceremony on June 17.
SOU's fledging program has exceeded all expectations, said Oregon Army National Guard Lt. Col. Thomas Lingle, a professor of military science at the University of Oregon and head of that school's ROTC program, where more than 100 cadets are enrolled. The local ROTC is an affiliate of the parent program at the U of O.
"The SOU program has been absolutely phenomenal," said Lingle, 46, a helicopter pilot by military training. "When we started looking at establishing a partnership with SOU, there was no cadet corps, nothing."
ROTC cadets from Ashland now compete favorably with others from around the state in military training operations, he added.
"I can summarize it as an incredible success story," Lingle said. "Colonel Ensley was the guy who made it happen. He had a good team but his leadership made the difference."
He was referring to Oregon Guard Lt. Col. Keith Ensley, who was deployed in 2009 to teach military science at SOU and re-establish the local ROTC program, the only one between Sacramento and Eugene.
In 1990, what was then Southern Oregon State College launched an ROTC program, but it quickly fell victim to the Army's national reduction in force as the military downsized. The program was canceled the following year in Ashland, albeit enrolled cadets were allowed to finish out the program, with the last class being commissioned in 1993.
Mickelsen, 42, is a member of the local 1991 ROTC graduating class, majoring in education. He recently stepped forward as head of the program to fill the boots left by Ensley, who is retiring.
"We want to commission about 10 officers a year," Mickelsen said. "The main focus is producing lieutenants for the Oregon Guard.
"But not only do I want to create officers for the Oregon Guard but I want to create leaders that are going to be teachers in Talent, business people in Medford — create professional officers in the Guard but also leaders in the community," he added.
A 1986 graduate of Ashland High School and a former high school teacher, Mickelsen said the university has been very supportive.
"I've heard nothing but positive feedback so far," he said.
"They have been very well -received — they are model citizens," said SOU Provost Jim Klein. "The energy and spirit they have brought to campus, as well as the financial help, has been appreciated.
"But we are a veteran-friendly campus," he added.
Capt. Brian Moyer, 31, a 1998 South Medford High School graduate, is the ROTC recruiting operations officer, freshman adviser and instructor.
"The quality of our cadets is really high," said the full-time Guard officer who has served two tours in Iraq. "They are working hard on their grades. Their physical fitness is outstanding. It's amazing to see young people today doing so many good things."
There are now about 30 cadets, and slightly more than 25 percent of them are female. The ROTC cadets receive scholarships worth about $18,000 a year to be used for tuition, housing and books.
Their military classes, which run parallel to their academic major, include a syllabus of 24 credits. They study everything from adaptive team leadership to land navigation and army tactics.
And the cadets are out doing physical training at 0630 — 6:30 a.m. — three times a week.
The program is operated in a restored house off the main campus near the football stadium. The house will be named the Desolenni Annex on June 2 in honor of Capt. Bruno Desolenni, a Crescent City, Calif., resident who was an SOU graduate and member of the Oregon Guard. He was killed in Afghanistan.
The fact he was killed during a Guard deployment is not lost on the cadets. They know they may one day be sent into harm's way as citizen-soldiers.
But that possibility comes with the territory, Lee will tell you.
"My parents were kind of nervous when I first joined since we are currently in a time of war," Lee said. "But they have had some time to get used to the idea since then."
A friend encouraged cadet Troy Goossen, 20, of Klamath Falls, a junior majoring in photojournalism, about the program. But an older brother, a Marine Corps veteran, tried to talk him out of it, wanting him to finish college first, Goossen said.
"I joined to be part of something bigger," he said, hoping to become a military police officer in the Army reserve.
Cadet Megan Johnson, 23, of Gold Hill, a 2006 graduate of South Medford High School, said that her father, a Marine Corps veteran, encouraged her participation.
"I took some military science classes as a civilian and got hooked," said the sophomore majoring in sociology.
To her, the cadet corps is family.
"The camaraderie here is great," she said.
That doesn't mean the training is a walk in the park, cautioned cadet Kamie Short, 20, of Yoncalla, a sophomore majoring in outdoor adventure leadership.
"Just being physically fit is challenging, especially during the summer," she said. "If you don't keep up your training, when you come back you will be way behind."
She spoke just before heading out on the six-miler.
"I was a private in the Guard — I wanted to learn how to be a leader so I joined the ROTC," she said.
For cadet Ryan Stapleton, 27, of Portland, who is working on a master's degree in business administration, the challenge is balancing all the demands of a busy life. He is a 2009 SOU grad, having received triple degrees in economics, political science and international studies.
"The hardest part is combining all this with my MBA program, especially prioritizing and planning," said Stapleton, who will graduate from the ROTC program next year.
"That and learning all the Army terms," he added.
Pre-physical therapy major Stephanie Rokes, 21, of Yreka, Calif., also has one year left to complete the ROTC program.
"I'm proud of what I'm doing but at the same time a little nervous about all the responsibilities of being an officer," she said.
Taking it all in was freshman Nalani Barnes, 18, of Tucson, Ariz., an education major who is on SOU's women's basketball team. She was busy filling out papers to sign up for ROTC.
"I was always motivated to go into the military," she said. "When I was recruited to play basketball here and found out about the ROTC program, I figured I could play basketball as well as do the military thing."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.