“Accountability is key,” said Michael Bell, George Mason University Reserve Officers’ Training Corps recruiting operations officer, as several armloads of dummy M-16s — affectionately known as “rubber ducks” — were carefully removed from Bell’s van by a line of ROTC cadets.

Every Thursday, Mason’s Patriot Battalion hosts a leadership lab designed to test the cadets in hopes of preparing them for a career in the Army. Many are already contracted to join upon graduation. Some are not contracted but have the option to sign later if they decide Army life is for them. Still others have served a tour, sometimes two, in Iraq or Afghanistan and have come to get their degree.

“They’re commissioned as a second lieutenant on graduation,” Bell, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, said.

The lab this Thursday focused on tactical movement; it was an exercise where the battalion is broken into squads of approximately a dozen cadets, each squad tasked with a certain scenario, typically involving the capture and securing of an objective. Cadet Kyle Corle gathered his squad in a circle in front of the intramural fields. He and cadet William Black built a hasty plan of action from multicolored tabs arranged on the grass. He discussed the endgame of their scenario and the handling of EPW’s — “enemy prisoner of war,” a new phrase for a new army.

As Corle’s squad began the practice motions, a few feet away, another cadet instructed his squad on the importance of analyzing the equipment of the enemy to get a greater assessment of the situation. The styles and approaches were noticeably different from Corle’s.

Corle’s squad readied their “rubber ducks” and marched into the thick forest near the West Campus parking lot. The cadets fanned out and established a defensive perimeter, with cadets Corle and Black at the center. Overseen by cadet Douglas Diaz, Corle and Black once again cleared out a swath of underbrush and prepared for the coming assault.

Cadet Michael Wong knelt beside cadets Anne Ward and Patrick Gooley, each prone with their rifles trained back toward the fields. He instructed them on proper cover positions and they adjusted accordingly. Meanwhile, Diaz instructed Corle and Black on the coming assault, emphasizing the purpose: to neutralize enemy targets and to keep the enemy from establishing a foothold. As Bell would later put it, “You train like you fight.”

Diaz informed Corle and the team leaders that the operation was about to begin. Corle relayed orders to the squad leaders. They traveled and spread out, deeper into the forest. Cadets Robert Lee, Khoa Doan, and Michael Le Bell took up positions along a dirt path while cadets Ward and Gooley again brought up the rear and scanned the flank.

The forest erupted with shouts of “Bang, bang, bang” from the distant and unseen left. After a shift fire order, the closest team advanced through the forest in a controlled charge. As they passed the downed enemies they converged with the formerly unseen team. As the first team aligned on the ridge, the second team secured the Enemy Prisoner of W.ar

As Le Bell checked one of the prisoners — older cadets dressed in civilian clothes — his teammate registered that one of the prisoners had tucked a grenade under his vest. As he called it out, Diaz shouted the device had detonated and Le Bell fell to the ground. Corle shouted that they needed a medevac, but Le Bell was dead. Though the day ended on a somber note, there was a general sense of accomplishment following the exercise.

“Overall, this was very well done,” Wong said as he debriefed the squad. “Now what do we do with that? We take it and move it forward.”

Cadet Corle and his leaders were praised for never failing to persevere and seeing the mission through even if it involved improvising.

“It’s fun!” said cadet Jacob Franklin, a sophomore, on the way back.

Ward, a grad student, still said she thought it was enjoyable but was less enthusiastic. “It’s just a lot of responsibility.”

“It’s overwhelming initially, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes,” Wong said, reiterating the message of Bell. “Make sure everyone is safe. Accountability is key.”