Bushmaster Basic

Story and Photos by SFC Larry Lane

IT was oh-dark-thirty and the soldiers were already hidden in the dense Panama jungle, waiting for the order to push toward the enemy. Somewhere in the thick stand of palm trees the "Costabravian Liberation Army" rebels waited for the 10th Mountain Division soldiers to attack or give up. The rebels had been harassing the legitimate Costabravian government by terrorizing its citizens and looting the countryside. The Fort Drum, N.Y., soldiers had to dig out the rebels from the jungle before they made it across the Chagres River, a natural boundary line and potentially hazardous obstacle. The rebels owned the jungles and swamps, but the Americans had trained for this kind of war.

Mosquitoes and chiggers chewed into the soldiers' flesh and into their patience. "Are we ready?" soldiers asked themselves. Their eyes couldn't seem to adjust to the dark. No one "owns the night" in the jungle. The double canopy of trees masked the ambient light, impairing sight even through night vision goggles. Howler monkeys roared and clumsily swung from tree to tree, sounding like lions to anxious soldiers. But the troops ignored it all and waited for the three-company force to finally get the word to move out.

Radios kept the soldiers in contact with each other as they headed for a hilltop where reconnaissance said the rebels had been seen in large numbers, corralled there by the Americans. They had no idea when the contact would come, but knew it would be in-your-face kind of fighting - little time to react and a lot of firepower.

Dawn sent sparse light through the treetops and seeping through to the jungle floor. There was enough visibility to see the enemy, who initiated sporadic fire. Weapons roared and squads performed carefully honed jungle combat tactics. Observer controllers followed the scattered engagements, pulling injury cards and judging kills, woundings and fratricides. After two hours of up-close and personal fighting with the guerillas, a whistle sounded the end of the battle and of three weeks of jungle warfare training.

It's training, but the battles at the Jungle Operations Training Center at Fort Sherman, Panama, seem a live round away from being the real thing. For three weeks, light infantry soldiers, Rangers and others learn jungle warfare skills in some of the most challenging surroundings the Army has to offer.

One week is devoted to core training, a second week to situational training exercises and the final week to a battalion field training exercise. Core training gives soldiers an education in the dangerous plants and wildlife of Panama. The point of the black palm, for instance, will stick into flesh and break off, causing an infection. Bushmaster snakes, brown recluse spiders and a variety of insects can be harmful, if not fatal. Soldiers also learn jungle land navigation, recognition and avoidance of mines and booby traps, and how to build a field expedient antenna.

Jungle experts like SSgt. Elfren Padilla train the soldiers on jungle skills. Padilla's right arm is a daily reminder of why a soldier needs to respect the Panama jungle. He avoided a three-foot snake on a trail but sidestepped into another that bit him and slithered back into the jungle floor. By the time he got help, they had to cut his BDU top off because his arm had swollen to twice its normal size.

"This shows you what can happen. I make sure they don't fall into the same mistake," Padilla said. The jungle experts are also called "Bushmasters." "I think I got bit because I was in a hurry. I wasn't putting much attention to what I was doing, because I was trying to rush through the jungle. I always advise them to watch where they step and to touch nothing."

"Somebody has to show them," Padilla said about his duty. "Someday we might have to fight in this environment, and we have the tendency to be afraid of what we don't know. I'm still afraid of snakes, but at least I know what to expect."

The STX week teaches specific skills needed by the infantrymen, scouts, mortarmen and engineers. Squad and platoon-sized elements conduct live-fire exercises. Mortarmen run through an employment and maneuver live fire. Engineers learn field-expedient demolitions. After the first two weeks the soldiers, from the newest infantryman to the battalion commander, are tested in the FTX.

In an open battlefield, a platoon or company-sized element may be dedicated to one overall mission, led by a single voice. In the jungle, the squad leader or scout are often at the center of the action, said Cpl. Jeffery Frazey, a team leader.

"A battalion-sized attack is difficult in the jungle," Frazey said. "You're talking about several hundred guys out there, trying to link up and mass their fires on one objective. You begin to lose that command and control. Guerilla forces usually fight in squad or platoon-sized elements. They like to send out little teams to mess with you."

Soldiers depend on the effectiveness of their squad's training. "My team has been working together for two years and we know what everybody is thinking. We work real well together," Frazey said. "I've read a few books about Vietnam and it seems like the same set-up: heavy jungles and little trails. You've got water for river crossings and steep hills. It involves everything. This is perfect for infantry."

"There is nothing that gets as tough as this," said Lt. Col. Victor J. Bero, a battalion commander in 314th Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mn. Div. “This is true light infantry country. You have to carry everything you need and depend upon every asset you have to sustain your force. There is no one battlefield operating system more important than the other."

Bero knew the challenge would be the ability of squads to independently carry out smaller missions. His rotation also concentrated on higher echelon staff planning.

"My squad and platoon leaders have performed well and I've been very pleased with our ability to navigate in the jungle," Bero said. In moving through a thick jungle, a squad may be confronted with a 50-foot cliff drop, making night maneuvers rare and hazardous. Navigation by terrain association is virtually impossible. "We are used to a different type of terrain at Fort Drum. Coming here, there are no shortcuts. You have to do it all yourself."

With limited landing zones for helicopters and the large obstacle of the Chagres River running through the training area, medevacs and the resupply of water are difficult. A commander not familiar with boat assets soon learns how the Army landing craft and Navy special boat units can help move troops through the jungle or transport scouts on recon missions. Transportation problems force soldiers to become creative. Soldiers of this rotation came up with the idea of putting empty water cans out on a “trout line” for easier pick up by support boats.

"I would hate to see JOTC go away because I don’t think you can replicate this anywhere," Bero said. Fort Sherman will be turned over to Panama when the Panama Canal Treaty runs out in 1999. "The Army doesn't have any other training area like this. With future operations in Third World nations and jungle operations, I don't think you'll be able to train these guys anywhere else like you can here."

The JOTC uses OCs for assessing "kills," having stopped using MILES this year for several reasons. In the rainy season, wet MILES gear had a habit of omitting a noise that could give away a soldier's position. Soldiers also developed the bad habit of hiding behind thick brush that a MILES laser could not penetrate, but a bullet could. The terrain makes using battle simulation difficult and would deny the soldiers hands-on training challenges.

"It's great to do computerized stuff and have war games, but this is where you actually get to see it," said CSM Wilbern Marler of the 10th Mn. Div. "Here soldiers learn how restrictive jungle fighting can be. The troops are just feet apart before they see each other. It's just chance engagements and most firefights don’t last more than 30 seconds," a characteristic that would be difficult to replicate on a computer.

The soldiers are also trained in "cordon and search" operations, learning how to approach a strange village and ferret out the bad guys from the friendly villagers. This training scenario became a reality for 10th Mountain Div. soldiers deployed to Somalia. The JOTC received a letter of thanks from a soldier who said the cordon and search training and the booby trap and landmine recognition lessons helped save lives in Somalia.

Soldiers going through JOTC also learn that several weapons in the Army inventory are not practical in close quarters jungle combat. Spec. Raymond Herman said his M-203 grenade launcher may be ineffective in the tight working conditions of the jungle. "We couldn't use buckshot and there's very little space where you can use grenades. Illumination rounds would be difficult going through the weeds. I probably wouldn't be able to use it at all," he said.

Dragon anti-tank gunners were used as scouts, since they had no targets for their weapons. As a result, scouts like Cpl. Anthony Madden got the opportunity to see more face-to-face action than they usually do. After setting up an observation post, he and other scouts sat back down in their positions. "Two minutes later, a patrol of OPFOR, about eight of them, came over the hill. We had fun. We took five of them out and they 'killed' three of us. One of our guys got away and called for fire."

Squad leader SSgt. Matt Rovnan was able to watch and assess his team leaders in action. "We had a three-man OPFOR element move up the trail against our rear security. A young specialist team leader managed to hold his people off until just the right moment and 'killed' all the bad guys without any problem."

On his second rotation, Rovnan worked his squad as a reaction force and secured the command and control point. "I got to watch the company commander and actually see what he goes through during missions," Rovnan said. "I had no idea it was that much work trying to control all of these elements. I think he had something like 185 guys he was trying to control. He's a busy guy."

The Jungle Operations Training Battalion schedules 12 three-week rotations during the year at the JOTC, but that is as "locked in" as the training gets, said Lt. Col. J.C. Hiett, the JOTC and Fort Sherman commander.

"There's very little of what we 'have' to do," Hiett said. "I have a three-week POI, but I can execute pieces of it to meet the requirements of the battalion. At a combat training center, you're locked into a scripted scenario from the time you get there until the time you leave."

The low-tech, low-key environment of the JOTC gives the rotational battalion commander more room to explore his force's capabilities in a non-threatening environment, Hiett said.

Unlike some other Army training centers - the Joint Readiness Training Center and National Training Center, among them - JOTC concentrates more on learning than evaluation, Hiett said.

"Down here, there's no pressure. We are not force-feeding the battalion commander anything. They learn by their own mistakes and they capture what they want to take home. They have to recognize their weaknesses, admit to them, then go home and work on them."