Story by Tanner Cole
Photos by Harrison Hill
Feet clad in muddy boots marched through the Kentucky woods, each bearing its mark of the day’s training.
Some reeked of tear gas.
Others carried scorch marks from freshly fired machine gun shells.
Their exteriors looked similar in wear, but each belonged to a soldier with a unique motivation for wearing them.
With scars by the hundreds and stories to match, the boots and the soldiers wearing them trotted together toward a temporary home.
A pair of those boots belonged to Natali Juarez.
Juarez grew up surrounded by crime in South Central Los Angeles. She was just over 5-feet tall, and her pearly white smile contrasted the rough reality of her past.
She wasn’t the typical soldier, but Juarez tightened up her laces and stepped forward to lead.
The U.S. Army enlists people from every walk of life. Drug dealers, preachers, immigrants and parents.
Anyone can find a role.
If America represents a melting pot, then maybe no better example of that exists than those who defend it.
They all seek to serve, but many want more. The Army needs leaders and draws a world of “types” from which to choose. The challenge comes from the Army’s need to create a system that can turn anyone wearing the boots into a military leader.
Every year, Army ROTC students from throughout the country gather for a final test before becoming Army officers — the Leader Development and Assessment Course, or LDAC.
LDAC, a month-long evaluation process marks the end of the ROTC years. College students —surrendering cell phones and donning camouflage — submit to the scrutiny of ever-vigilant evaluators.
Once commissioned, the students look to become tomorrow’s Army leaders.
Traditionally, the cadets head to LDAC the summer before their senior year of college. Upon graduation from their university, they commission into the Army as second lieutenants. Their performance at LDAC determines whether they find a place serving in the active duty military. Every year, hundreds of cadets hoping for one of these spots end up in the reserves, forced to draw themselves a new plan.
Historically, LDAC took place in Washington state, but in 2013 a command decision led to transferring training to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Within a year, the Army moved its single largest training program clear across the country.
For the first time, LDAC cadets flocking to Fort Knox were greeted with a bit of news from Fort Knox's commander, Brig. Gen. Peggy Combs. She told the cadets that LDAC was ending. In 2015 the program was being consolidated with another to form a new training regimen.
In an instant, the cadets became Fort Knox's first LDAC students and LDAC’s last graduates.
The soldiers — as they do — accepted the news, embraced the Kentucky heat and humidity, and they and their boots headed to their living quarters: Army-issue tents.
Juarez and 6122 other cadets arrived at the Louisville National Airport throughout June. They stepped off the planes and immediately fell under the watchful eye of a cadre of Army officers assigned to observe, train and test them.
Swarms of cadets with stuffed duffel bags and stashed away boots launched an assault on the airport’s walkways in a disorderly parade, much to the chagrin of the watchers.
Natali Juarez sprung into action and organized her colleagues into formation. Her fellow cadets immediately obeyed, and she instantly gained respect from the cadre.
Some years back, Juarez was a self-proclaimed thug living in south-central Los Angeles. She didn't speak English until the 11th grade. When her brother and his friends gave her a paper bag, a location and a little cash, Juarez didn't look inside the bag. She simply drove and made a drop, she said.
“We were just doing what we were told,” she said. “That's what I did. But when I realized that I didn't like taking things away from people that worked so hard for their things, I just didn't want to associate myself with any of those individuals.”
At age 17, Juarez dropped out of high school and moved out of her neighborhood to live on her own. She completed her GED while working 4 to 11 a.m. shifts at a donut shop. She soon made use of the dental hygienist training she received during her three years of high school to land a full-time job at a dentistry in Westwood, California.
Her employer Teri Gibson, the owner of a private dentistry practice just off University of California at Los Angeles’s campus, took Juarez under her wing and treated her like a daughter. Gibson helped her refine her English skills, and paid for Juarez's first year of college at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. As her life took a dramatic turn for the better, Juarez was amazed to see herself surrounded by successful people.
“If it wasn't for her I wouldn't have gone to college,” she said. “I wouldn't have understood that black people and Hispanics can be successful and are doctors and lawyers. But I came to a point where I couldn't support myself and get good enough grades in school to go to dental school, so I joined the Army.”
Juarez served as an Army dentist for two years — the beginning of a long career spent wearing boots.
During a tour in Iraq, she began developing her leadership skills, even through something as simple as making her whole squad floss.
She spent her first three days at LDAC as squad leader, and then became company commander — the highest position a cadet at LDAC can achieve. By then, the cadre had seen enough and asked Juarez to start helping turn others into leaders, a member of the cadre if you will.