OKEECHOBEE — This week, Lt. Col. Heath Papkov brought Army ROTC groups from several universities to hear Mayor Dowling Watford speak on the Seminole Wars.
Papkov serves as Chair & Professor of Military Science and Leadership located at Florida International University. He leads the U.S. Army’s “Southern Strike” Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), consisting of 19 cadre, over 225 cadets, and spanning 12 university campuses across South Florida. “It’s the pathway to basically become a commissioned officer in the United States Army,” said Papkov. “This gives students who want to go to universities like Florida International or Florida Atlanta, rather than West Point or the Naval Academy or other service academies like that, an opportunity to still pursue a career in the military — reserves, active duty or National Guard.”
Each year, they select a battle, so the senior class can take what they have learned, go see the battle site and relate what they have learned about the battle — mistakes and successes. This year, they chose the Seminole War II. They wanted to look at the war from both aspects, that of the Native Americans and of the U.S. military. They looked at the history leading up to the war and chose the Battle of Okeechobee as one of the main battles that ended the second war. “I believe it was about 400 Seminoles versus thousands of U.S. soldiers,” said Papkov. “We wanted to come for the reenactment in February, but it did not happen because of COVID.”
The students who traveled to the Okeechobee Battlefield site on April 6 were from Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University, University of Miami, Palm Beach Atlantic University and Barry University. They only brought their seniors. The trip is a senior tradition, usually taking place right before the students are commissioned as officers. It’s called a staff ride and is a right of passage for the students. Last year, the seniors had to do their staff ride virtually due to the pandemic and they chose the battle of Wanat in Afghanistan. “Typically, we want to go out to the physical location though so you can really understand what went on,” he said.
Captain Andrew Elliot , an instructor at FAU, accompanied the group. Elliot served as executive officer to Papkov. He was tasked out to help with the trip.
Going active duty after graduation as a second lieutenant in the infantry, Luis Jaime, a political science major at FIU, is one of the seniors participating in the staff ride this year. “The seniors run the program along with the cadre back home, so this is our staff ride,” he said. He is interested in learning more about the battle. “We learned about it before coming here,” he said, “but it’s another thing to see the actual battlefield.”
Watford is considered one of the local experts on the history of Okeechobee, including its battles. He not only serves as mayor, but is serving his tenth term as a city council member and serves on a number of boards and committees in the area including the Okeechobee Battlefield Friends. Watford also spends a lot of time planning, preparing and participating in reenactments of the Civil War.
Gary Ritter and Magi Cable both of the Okeechobee Battlefield Friends and some volunteers were present to help with the presentation as needed.
Not only did Watford tell the cadets about the battle, he also brought along some of the items used in the battle such as a flintlock musket, haversack and canteen, and he wore a uniform that would have been worn during the Battle of Okeechobee. One of his most unusual uniform components was his hat, called a foraging hat. It’s odd shape made it unique but suited for holding water or food found in the wild.
“The Battle of Okeechobee was fought on Christmas Day 1837,” he said. “What a day to fight a battle.” He told the cadets the war was very unpopular, similar to the Vietnam War. No one understood why anyone would even want Florida, considering the alligators and mosquitoes. The Seminole Wars were very much about slavery, he explained. Slaves would escape and come down to Florida where the Seminoles would take them in, and they would assimilate into the tribe. The plantation owners wanted their slaves back. In addition, the battles cost millions of dollars. The mayor discussed the differences in the way the U.S. military fought and the way the Seminoles fought. The students were given several handouts to help them in their research and were given the opportunity to ask questions.
After the mayor’s presentation, a lunch of hamburgers, baked beans, chocolate chip cookies and chips was provided by Watford, his wife Cheri and Vance Shirley before the students got back on the bus for the long journey home.