Puerto Rico Troops Take on Panama Jungle Training

By Maj. Ken MacNevin, Missouri National Guard


OVERCOMING OBSTACLES -- Spc. Juan Perez (above, right) low crawls through the mud. Puerto Rico soldiers (above, left) ascend a cliff. A soldier (below) crosses a log without using his hands.

Talk with any soldier of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard's 1st Battalion 295th Infantry about what they remember the most from their jungle training in Panama and likely they will say, "Green Hell."

That's the name of the U.S. Army's Jungle Operations Training Center obstacle course at Fort Sherman -- an obstacle course with a bad attitude.

What makes it so tough? Let's run through it:

The start is in a clearing in the jungle near the edge of the Caribbean Sea just west of Limon Bay where the Panama Canal exits. Here troops receive a thorough briefing on safety.

Move out time. Infantry squads sprint to a board wall about five-feet high where soldiers pull themselves up and roll over the wall.

Once that's cleared, they find they're in deep shade in the jungle, looking up a steep, muddy hill, using tree roots as a staircase. At the top, an obstacle of wooden beams and barbed wire that troops either have to roll into or crawl under.

Next comes a sprint down a trail to a large, concrete gun emplacement that is part of old coastal defense positions at Fort Sherman. Here they cross the pit on a six-inch-wide wooden beam. It extends out 20 feet, makes a 90-degree left turn, and runs back another 20 feet.

Back on the trail again for the sprint to the hillside. More like a small mud cliff, the hill leads down to a cove. Getting back down requires using a heavy, knotted rope.

Then someone in the squad is told to lie down on a stretcher. Two other soldiers must carry the "casualty" through knee-deep muddy water around a small island that sits in the cove.

Another sprint along flat, slippery rock along the base of a cliff, which makes the footing treacherous since by this time the troops' legs feel like loose, rubber bands. A combat medic is in sight with a radio just in case someone takes a plunge.

Now it's up the cliff on a cargo net draped over the sheer rock. At the top is a narrow, mud ravine. Then it's over the top to a small point of land and back down the cliff on another cargo net. This cliff drops off 30 feet and another anxious medic waits on the rocks below, just in case. "Always have a three point grip on the net," troops are told from their earlier safety briefing.

The rope bridge is next. Strung between upright timbers are an upper line for hands and a lower line for feet. But the lines are 10 feet off the ground so soldiers must haul themselves up hand-over-hand on a knotted rope. Because other soldiers have already crossed the bridge in front of the squad, the rope is slippery with mud.

Another run down a jungle trail to a knotted rope hanging three feet off the ground. Run to it. Jump for it. Grab it. Swing across a mud pit. Just like Tarzan. But a Battle-Dress Uniform, or BDUs, beats a loin cloth with all this mud around.

A tall tower of timbers with the cross pieces spaced just far enough apart that people must use their arms as much as their legs to shimmy up the 34-foot structure.

A section of telephone poles horizontal to the ground now faces them. Citizen-soldiers must stand on and jump for the next obstacle, a cross beam, roll over it and then drop to the ground.

Next comes some relief from the heat and the mud with a chance to cool off through a 20-foot long, four-foot wide pool of waist-deep water to splash through.

Then the famous infantry low crawl under barbed wire strung on stakes less than a foot off the ground for 30 feet. Underneath, a one-foot-deep trough is filled with mud the texture of runny mayonnaise.

Now completely coated in slippery mud and with their hands placed behind their heads, soldiers must negotiate getting over rows of telephone poles laid across posts about three feet off the ground. They must swing their legs up to straddle each log, each just a little higher than the last.

Finally, the end is near. With one more sprint to the wall they started at, squad members must help each other over the five-foot-tall obstacle and then back to the clearing where they began.

It's over. Puerto Rico citizen-soldiers catch their breath, drink gallons of water to replenish their depleted bodies, and gratefully soak themselves, clothes and all, under the outdoor showers, washing off mud and sweat.

"In about 19 years of service, the Green Hell course is about the toughest I've ever seen," MSgt. Antonyo Baker, the jungle center senior instructor, told the Puerto Rico citizen-soldiers.