Story by Spec. Tom Findtner
With each slash of the machete, the platoon of U.S. and Belizean infantrymen inched through the maze of roots, vines, logs, brush and volcanic rock. The mission: to assault a suspected enemy position in the heart of a remote section of tropical rain forest.
"I wish we had some flame-throwers out here," muttered SSgt. Richard Robillard, a platoon sergeant for Company B, 5th Battalion, 87th Infantry, from U.S. Army, South, at Fort Kobbe, Panama. The USARSO soldiers responded with muffled agreement and marched on single file under the weight of bulging rucksacks. Flame-throwers weren't on the packing list for this mission. Participating in the first combined training exercise between the United States and Belize, the 79 troops of Co. B were on a two-day training mission near Salamanca Camp, Belize -- site of the Belize Defense Force Jungle Warfare School.
The three-week exercise, dubbed Bushmaster '96, was conducted under guidelines established by the USARSO Platoon Exchange Program. The program encourages combined training opportunities between U.S. and Latin American troops. Besides improving military relations and interoperability between countries, platoon exchanges enhance skills, professionalism and regional awareness. In recent months, USARSO also conducted infantry platoon exchanges with Chile and Venezuela.
The field training exercise was a test for Co. B, the culmination of a week's worth of jungle operations training with 73 Belize Defense Force soldiers. The troops received instruction on battle drills, bayonet assault, jungle survival, mines and booby traps, land navigation and communications. Hands-on training reinforced the soldier skills taught in each course. Together, the infantrymen humped through the jungle, shared their professional expertise and made lasting friendships.
"From day one, the U.S. and Belizean soldiers trained together with no problems whatsoever," said Capt. Thomas Leto, commander of Co. B. "As a matter of fact, they acted like they were long-lost brothers. All in all, it's been a very worthwhile venture."
To test the soldiers on their tactics and techniques, they were divided into four platoons, each containing squads of U.S. and Belizean soldiers. Then they were issued an operations order for the field training exercise. After scrambling from a pair of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters onto a tiny landing zone of matted elephant grass at daybreak, Robillard's platoon penetrated the surrounding jungle. Progress was slow; troops covered just 100 meters during the first hour.
In Panama, the Americans were accustomed to training in the jungle a stone's throw from the doorstep of Co. B's headquarters. But Belize's densely foliated environment was in stark contrast to their familiar backyard jungle. "The jungle here is two-to-three times as thick as in Panama," said Maj. John Moore, operations and training officer for the 5th Bn., 87th Inf., and officer in charge of U.S. task force in Belize.
Like passing an Olympic torch from one runner to another, platoon members rotated the machete and the point position to share the chore of carving a path through the seemingly unending green wall. "You get burned out real quick hacking through the jungle," said SSgt. Ray Nunweiler of Co. B. "The BDF has a saying: 'Men can rest, but the machete never does.'"
The U.S. and Belizean soldiers moved deeper into the dense, triple-canopy jungle, inching their way closer to the objective. But there were other obstacles to face. Jagged cliffs, boulder-strewn creek beds and steep mountains -- which frequently were not depicted on the soldiers' topographic maps -- added to the task. Six hours later, the platoon reached its objective. After devising an assault strategy, the soldiers launched a surprise attack on the "enemy" position. Within minutes, the troops took control of the site and searched the area for intelligence information. The soldiers discovered a map and letter that indicated a meeting involving the enemy's leader was slated for the next day. The platoon slept in the jungle, sending out patrols to locate the rendezvous site. The next day, they conducted an ambush and captured the fictitious enemy leader.
In two days, the platoon trudged through 20 kilometers of the most rugged jungle the U.S. soldiers had ever experienced. "I've moved through a lot of terrain, but the virgin jungle here will stick in my mind for a long time," Leto said. "We literally had to cut our way through the vines and trees to make a path. It forces soldiers to use all of the skills the Army teaches."