Worker protests. Suspended dining services. Expired rations. Water supply cutoffs.
Reports of conditions at this year’s ROTC Cadet Summer Training (CST) at Fort Knox, Kentucky read like dispatches from a neglected outpost or underfunded sleepaway camp, not a flagship officer training program managed by the biggest branch of the wealthiest military on earth.
Thousands of college-aged officers-in-waiting have congregated at the base for a months’ worth of classes and field drills designed to imbue the Army’s next generation of “tough, adaptable leaders” with the skills needed to “thrive in ambiguous and complex environments.”
For some aspiring lieutenants, the ambiguous and complex environment that awaited them at CST may have been more than they bargained for.
Tales of shoddy provisions and contracting woes began flooding social media platforms in late June. Army Times sifted through the rumors, contacting base officials and CST participants to separate fact from fiction.
The deluge began, as with most contemporary digital scandals, with a viral TikTok video. The eleven-second clip, which has amassed 1.5 million views since hitting the platform July 3, showed dozens of Fort Knox employees gathered in a driveway chanting, “No Pay, No Work” in rhythmic unison. Other clips uploaded to the video-sharing service capture the scene from different angles.
Cadets, cadre, and other CST support personnel — speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press — said the walkout occurred during the final week of June outside Sprocket 1, the cadre’s principal dining facility (DFAC).
The videos’ bold-texted captions claimed the protesting DFAC employees hadn’t been paid in over a month. Richard Patterson, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Cadet Command (USACC), acknowledged in a statement to Army Times that the command “terminated the food service contract that supported the Warrior Restaurants for CST on July 1st due to the contractor not fulfilling its obligations.” Patterson declined to say whether or not unpaid wages precipitated the termination, deflecting the matter to the contracting company. Army Times was unable to confirm whether the DFAC employees had gone without pay prior to the walkout.
The strike and subsequent contract debacle derailed the program’s dining operations. The cadre’s DFAC shut down until July 5, when base leadership hired a new temporary food service provider. USACC shifted Army cooks to the chow line to keep other cadet dining facilities up and running.
Base leadership relied on extra stockpiles of Meals, Ready-to-Eat to plug the gaps in the food supply. Adding to the displeasure of replacing hot meals with pre-packaged food, trainees found that some of the distributed MREs had expired.
Patterson confirmed to Army Times that “some of the MREs at Cadet Summer Training have passed their inspect/test date stamped on the MRE cases by the manufacturer,” but stressed that the out-of-date packets had been tested and inspected by certified food inspectors before distribution and were safe to eat.
“During Cadet Summer Training 2023, so far, cadets and cadre have consumed more than 288,000 MREs,” Patterson said. “Out of these we have had a few that were found to be not suitable and we replaced them immediately. We have instructed our cadre to immediately report any issues, capture the lot number of any MRE with a problem and send it directly to the chief logistics officer to further investigation.”
Subpar grub still slipped past inspectors. One member of the instructor cadre told Army Times that a number of cadets under their purview received moldy MREs. Several cadre personnel said they struggled to carve out time for DFAC meals (when they were available) because of demanding schedules.
Multiple sources told Army Times the dining situation had largely stabilized by July 7. Yet that semblance of normalcy was again disrupted the following week.
On the morning of July 10, Cadet Summer Training personnel received a message from Knox leadership ordering them to “refrain from drinking from all freshwater sources except the water point at Densberger and bulk water at LSA Baker,” two facilities on base. The warning also prohibited trainees and staff from refilling water containers at “any water points or any buildings on Fort Knox.” (Some cadre members reported never receiving official notice of water issues.)
Later that afternoon, Hardin County’s water authority diagnosed the problem as a “water main break” — a burst pipe — that sapped water pressure across the entire installation. County officials issued a boil water advisory in response, prompting base officials to set up “multiple potable water points throughout Fort Knox and the training area to ensure cadets and cadre had fresh drinking water,” according to Patterson. The county ultimately lifted the advisory Wednesday afternoon.
“U.S. Army Cadet Command leaders, soldiers, and civilian staff responded to challenges within hours and returned to a normal feeding schedule, checked multiple lots of MREs and, even an interruption in the local water supply was something that Cadet Command’s leaders and logisticians overcame so rapidly that training was not affected and our cadets and cadre were kept safe,” Patterson said.
Few training participants — past or present — seemed surprised by the turbulence.
“USACC willfully ignores [quality of life] for cadre and cadets every summer,” one ROTC graduate vented in response to a comment request from Army Times. “Same BS, different year.”
Correction: This story was updated on July 15, 2023, at 1:40 pm EST. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that some cadets were forced to buy food off-base with their own funds. This was inaccurate. Cadets are not permitted to leave post during the training evolution.
Jaime Moore-Carrillo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News. A Boston native, Jaime graduated with degrees in international affairs, history, and Arabic from Georgetown University, where he served as a senior editor for the school's student-run paper, The Hoya.