U.S. forces leave behind ideal jungle training ground; Panama base hosted troops since the 1950s
The Washington Times ) Tom Carter; 01-11-1999
FORT SHERMAN, Panama - The peasants of the fictitious nation of Costa Bravo went about their chores as though unaware that more than 100 U.S. infantrymen were moving through the jungle, about to invade their picturesque fishing village.

Beneath the royal palms and almond trees, one picked up trash and cleaned here and there. A second gutted and cleaned a fat sea bass in the surf. Another tended a fire and prepared the day's Caribbean- style soup of pig tails and red beans to be poured over rice.

Ernesto Atherly, whose grandfather came from Barbados to help build the Panama Canal early in this century, gathered fallen coconuts to make his daily batch of coconut cookies.

The infantry unit from Fort Lewis, Wash., had information that rebels from the Costa Bravo Liberation Army (CBLA) were using the village as a staging ground and had hidden weapons there.

The peasants, all paid "actors" from Colon, were directed to behave in a hostile manner and try to keep the soldiers from accomplishing their mission.

Mr. Atherly, an elderly gentleman who lost most of his teeth as a professional boxer in his youth, said he loves his job.

"I am the only man in Panama paid by the United States to throw eggs at U.S. soldiers," he said with a friendly smile.

The "Cordon and Search" exercise, held at U.S. Army South's Jungle Operations Training Battalion (JOTB), requires young soldiers, many of whom have seen nothing more exotic than a cornfield, to navigate the jungle, seal off a village, negotiate with hostile villagers they cannot understand and handle opposition forces.

First Lt. Anthony New, of Minnesota, said the experience had given him a taste of the frustrations of dealing with an alien culture. "Yeah, it is play acting, but . . . the language barrier and the local customs make it difficult," he said. "I've never been in a situation like this before."

The search operation was just one of dozens of unique training exercises that soldiers go through at the base every year. What thousands learned here during the Vietnam era saved many lives. Drug enforcement and FBI agents have been trained here as well.

They learn jungle navigation, survival and boat handling. There are steep mountains, rivers, the ocean and swamps, complete with bugs, strange plants and animals. And there is the searing heat and cloying humidity of the double-canopy rain forest.

"Everything we do here can be applied elsewhere, but here everything is more difficult - this tests all your tactical and technical capabilities. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere," said Maj. Dan Gettings, the executive officer of the base.

The base, like all U.S. military assets in Panama, will close next year as the United States abandons territory it has held since building the Panama Canal in 1903.

Jungle training has lost some of its immediacy, with American forces more involved of late in the desert of Iraq and urban settings in Bosnia and Somalia. Still, Fort Sherman is the single base that military personnel regret losing in Panama.

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, head of the Office of National Drug Policy and former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, calls the loss of JOTB "a shame."

"It is the best jungle and riverine training center in the world. I think it is a significant loss" both for military preparedness and his current portfolio for the war on drugs, he said.

Fort Sherman, named for the Union general who burned Atlanta during the Civil War, is 23,000 acres of extraordinarily beautiful rain forest, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean. It is home to dozens of mammals, hundreds of bird and thousands of insect species. Orchids and bird of paradise plants bloom in profusion. Howler and spider monkeys gallop through the canopy. Coatimundi, cousins to the raccoon, harass soldiers and steal their Meals-Ready-to-Eat.

Built to defend the Panama Canal, the fort was set up as a base for jungle training in 1951 following military campaigns in the Pacific during World War II.

Many soldiers describe the training as the highlight of their military careers.

"I came here as a platoon leader in 1981, and I fell in love with Panama," said Lt. Col. Byron Conover, spokesman for U.S. Army South. "I remember lying out in the forest, with snakes and anteaters crawling over me. It was like nothing I'd ever seen."

But not everyone enjoys that kind of raw back-to-nature experience.

"I don't like going through the jungle - too much water, too hot," said Spc. Daryle Rider of Baltimore, standing beneath a coconut palm and dripping with sweat under the weight of his 50-pound pack. "You don't know what creepy critters are out there."

Asked whether he was learning anything that might one day save his life, he admitted he was.

As the boys from Fort Lewis made their way through the fictitious Costa Bravo village, they were harassed by villagers and sham CNN reporters and forced to submit to local rituals. Several soldiers were baptized by villagers and required to eat raw eggs as a peace offering.

After assuring the residents they could be trusted, they were allowed to search the huts and found part of the rebel weapons stash.

Several soldiers were shot during a short skirmish with CBLA rebels, including one named Jose Cuervo. A military instructor gave each victim a card describing the nature of his wound to give the medics practice in the field.

At the end of an intense day, the instructors gave the group "fair" marks but found several areas needing improvement.

The base's commanding officer, who regularly beats his men at running and bicycle endurance races, expressed his regret at losing the base. But as military men, added Lt. Col. Tom Heany, they would salute and move on.

"We are not going to spend too much time crying over spilt milk," he said.

Copyright 1999 News World Communications, Inc.

Tom Carter, U.S. forces leave behind ideal jungle training ground; Panama base hosted troops since the 1950s. , The Washington Times, 01-11-1999, pp A10.