Story and Photos by MSgt. Laurie Scott
The "Costa Bravan" infantrymen waited in their pre-assault positions under cover of a triple-canopied Panamanian jungle. Final orders from their commander would come at any moment.
Key Costa Bravan terrain and facilities had been seized by the army of neighboring "Cologa." The mission facing Costa Brava's forces was formidable. They would have to destroy the enemy's fortified bunker at the top of a steep hill. But to get there they'd have to negotiate densely vegetated, vertical terrain booby-trapped with land mines. Then they'd have to penetrate a barrier of concertina wire while under enemy fire.
Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and the Belize Defense Forces were the players in this field training exercise. It was the culmination of three weeks of training at U.S. Army, South's Jungle Operations Training Center at Fort Sherman, Panama.
The Costa Bravan forces were flown to the jungle by helicopter on day one of the exercise. "Intelligence sources identified enemy locations and we began the operation with a night assault into three landing zones," said Capt. Benjamin Solum, commander of Company C, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry. Earlier that morning his Costa Bravan unit infiltrated one of the enemy's company linkup points.
"So far, training has been intense," said 2nd Lt. Florencio Marin, a platoon leader in Co. F, 2nd Bn., of the Belize Defense Forces. Marin and the other Belizeans adapted to the jungle easily. "The jungle here is much the same as in Belize, except the terrain is tougher," Marin said. "The logistics the U.S. soldiers use are similar to ours in Belize but we have learned some new techniques we'll take back with us."
Less than a mile away at the "enemy" position, Sgt. Paul Heltzel, who'd left the cool temperatures of Fort Drum for the steamy Panamanian jungle, peered out from his fortified hilltop bunker. "I'm still adapting to the jungle and the heat," said the infantryman. He added that although they had conducted similar training at Fort Drum, the climate, terrain and training with the Belizeans made the difference. "We came in contact with the Belizeans during a recon. You have to shoot them from the side because they will rush you if you make contact head-on. It's a very effective tactic."
"We have this place pretty rigged up," Heltzel said. "We put the concertina wire up last night. The Costa Bravans don't have a chance."
The Costa Bravans' attack came just after sunup. They scaled the sides of the hill under cover of smoke and even managed to penetrate the concertina wire, but casualties were heavy and defeat was certain under the barrage of enemy fire unleashed from the hilltop.
According to Marin, the most important part of the exercise would be the after-action report in which the victors, the defeated, and even the casualties could give input about things done right and areas that needed improvement.