Crossing the high beam above American Lake instills terror in many during Confidence Course training at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Whether the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Cadets are plagued by a fear of heights, water, or simply nerves, it’s not uncommon to see the future officers come to a standstill. Though encouraged by fellow Cadets and Cadre, the shaking legs and anxiety are enough to stall all training progress.
Just when all hope seems lost, a man in a striped polo shirt and relaxed khakis pensively makes his way down the dock. Cadets quickly clear out of the way and in a few moments, Sgt. Maj. Gary Fortunato, a man known as the “Cadet Whisperer,” breaks through the noise and fear with a firm voice.
“Take a deep breath and as you exhale, put your foot up onto the block,” said Fortunato. “Now picture a set of stairs. Pick up your foot in one motion and put it on the block.”
It’s not long before the trembling Cadet on the high beam agrees to lift one leg over the step. Fortunato continues to provide firm instructions and encouragement, until the Cadet reaches the other side of the beam. Those waiting in line to complete the obstacle clap and Fortunato quietly retreats back up the dock; he has talked yet another through their fear.
Fortunato is the senior military advisor for the Confidence Course committee and has worked at the Confidence Course for seven years. The Providence College instructor from Pepperell, Mass., has built a reputation for helping Cadets conquer their fears.
“You’re dealing with the fear of the height or the fear of the water or both,” said Fortunato. “So you got to put them in where they can actually deal with it and they don’t zone out on you.”
Fortunato said about one in 10 Cadets will hesitate on the high beam while one in 30 will actually freeze at the step. The key to getting Cadets across is forcing them to focus on the actions rather than their fears.
“Basically, it’s first to get them to calm down, to get their breathing back to normal because when an individual starts to hyperventilate, their body starts to rock with that so they lose control of their ability to do the things they need to, ” said Fortunato.
Cadet Morgana Wyman, 11th Regiment, Alpha Co., from San Bernardino, Calif., is one of the Cadets Fortunato was able to help during Water Confidence Course training. Wyman said that Fortunato’s instruction helped her make it through the obstacle.
“It helped for him to tell me what to do because then I didn’t have to think about it,” said Wyman. “Listening to him made me feel like I do whatever he said because if somebody else did it and they figured it out, then I could figure it out.”
It’s not uncommon for Cadets to thank Fortunato for his help after completing the water course. The instructor has learned to take pride in his reputation as the “Cadet Whisperer.”
If a Cadet is having an extra difficult time, Fortunato will occasionally give them a recondo rock to keep in their pocket and remind them of all they’ve already accomplished whenever they feel fear.
As the camp comes to a close, Fortunato plays a part in guiding future leaders over their fears, helping them reach their goal of becoming Army officers.
“It’s really getting into the psyche that they can do anything,” said Fortunato. “No one gets over a fear of heights, but if you know how to work with the heights, it doesn’t prevent you from doing your job. For these young Cadets, being leaders that they hope to be, they have to know that they have that power inside themselves to reach in and make it occur.”
Story by Samantha Saldivar.