Soldiers earn tab and wear BDUs in tough new jungle course
May. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM
By Michelle Tan
The Army is reclaiming the lost art of jungle warfare, and soldiers who make it through the new 21-day school can earn a tab and big bragging rights.
The new Jungle Operations Training Course was born out of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division’s regional alignment with Pacific Command and the Defense Department’s rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.
“When you look at the area we operate in, from India all the way through Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and into the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, to East Timor and Papua New Guinea, all of them are jungle,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Fuller, commanding general of 25th ID.
But the training won’t be limited to Hawaii-based grunts.
“We’re offering it up to the Army,” Fuller said. “If that’s something they’re interested in doing, we’d be happy to support it with the right resources.”
The ability to operate in the jungle is important not only for troops aligned with Pacific Command, but also potentially for those working in Africa and other places around the world, Fuller said.
“Eventually, I think it would be a healthy thing to have it as an Army course,” he said.
This is the first time the Army has had its own jungle school since Fort Sherman was turned over to the Panamanians in 1999.
“We have to learn to not only survive in this environment, we have to learn to live in this environment,” said Sgt. 1st Class Dominick Johnson, the senior instructor for the new JOTC.
Maj. Andrew Lyman, commander of the Lightning Academy, which oversees the JOTC, agreed.
“Our focus on the [Central Command area of operations] during the last decade and the closure of the jungle school in Panama created kind of a vacuum of experience, and this is an attempt to relearn a lot of the lessons,” he said.
So far, about 800 soldiers, making up a battalion task force, have completed the JOTC on the island of Oahu — and about 550, or about 70 percent, successfully earned the Jungle Expert tab, a play on the patch that was awarded to those who made it through the Army’s old jungle school at Fort Sherman.
The second iteration of the course kicked off April 21 at the East Range Training Area in central Oahu.
Fighting in the jungle is a completely different experience than what many soldiers today have experienced, Fuller said.
“Most of your engagements are very, very close. You don’t see the enemy until you’re 50 meters or closer,” he said. “You might hear them before that, but being able to pinpoint a location, unless they’re shooting at you first, which you don’t want to have happen, you have to be pretty sneaky to get to them first.”
Johnson said soldiers have to rely on their senses in the jungle.
“We’re so accustomed to being able to command and control our guys through line of sight, but you can’t do that in the jungle,” he said. “The three- to five-second rush, you can’t do that in some places. In some cases, you have to crawl to your objective.
“You’re not only fighting the enemy, but you’re fighting the terrain; you’re fighting the weather. They say the jungle is neutral. It doesn’t fight for you, it doesn’t fight against you, but it’s tough.”
Back to BDUs
The work to stand up the new JOTC began in the summer of 2013 as the 25th Infantry Division was pulled off the rotation for Afghanistan and aligned with PACOM as part of the Asia-Pacific rebalance.
25th ID sent a number of its noncommissioned officers to jungle schools across the Asia-Pacific region, including places such as Malaysia, Australia and Brunei, and brought in experts from partner countries.
Using all of those resources, the division put together its own doctrine, condensing it into a handbook they call the “Green Book,” Fuller said. He added that the division is working with the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., to incorporate the “Green Book” into Army doctrine.
The Maneuver Center is in the midst of updating the Army’s field manual on jungle operations, and it will rely heavily on 25th ID for expertise, said Jay Brimstin, deputy director of the training and doctrine directorate at the center.
“Right now, it’s a very localized effort that they hope to expand and provide a training capability for the Army,” Brimstin said. “I think, ultimately, the way it would evolve is units would attend the course just like units went to Fort Sherman, Panama.”
When it came to equipping its soldiers, the 25th ID went old school, scouring the Army for its remaining sets of woodland battle dress uniforms and Vietnam-era black jungle boots.
It managed to get about 17,000 sets of BDUs; each soldier going through the JOTC is issued two sets. So far, 3,500 sets have beenissued.
The camouflage pattern on the BDUs works better in the Hawaiian jungle than the Army Combat Uniform, Fuller said, but leaders also didn’t want soldiers ruining their ACUs during training.
“In that terrain, it’s this red lava dirt, and it stains the uniforms we have to the degree that you can’t get it out,” he said. “Using the woodland BDUs you don’t even notice it.”
The BDUs also are made from thinner, more breathable material, and they dry out faster, Johnson said.
The division also got about 800 pairs of jungle boots. Each soldier gets two pairs to attend JOTC; all the boots have been issued, and soldiers are authorized to get their own if they choose.
“We got all the remaining inventory of the old Vietnam-era jungle boots and issued as many of them out as we could,” Fuller said. “If you don’t have the right kind of boot out there, you can’t negotiate the terrain. The other issue was immersion foot. If you can’t keep your feet dried out, you’re going to have problems.”
The first battalion task force, soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, in the division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, went through the 21-day course in January and February, and “we will continue to do so until all our battalions go through, and then start again,” Fuller said.
Effectively, each battalion in the division will get the training once every two years or so, he said.
The division already is getting requests from other units — mostly in special operations — to attend the training, Fuller said. He expects a number of small elements from those units to participate in the iteration that begins in July.
The JOTC has 22 personnel and instructors, said Johnson, who trained at the Malaysian tracking and survival schools and the Australian jungle operations school.
The cadre continue to learn and refine the course, Fuller said.
“The terrain this course is run on is some of the most rugged in Hawaii,” he said. “You can’t get across it without ropes, so we had to teach soldiers how to tie knots and the right procedures on how to move up these steep mountains and canyons. We learned a lot of the old lessons that had already been learned before in places like Vietnam.”
This includes what type of equipment to carry, how radios work under the thick jungle canopy, and how the weather can affect day-to-day operations, said Fuller, a veteran of several rotations at JOTC at Fort Sherman.
One of the first companies to go through the course was rained on the entire 21 days, he said.
Fuller said he also would like to recreate the infamous obstacle course at Fort Sherman’s jungle school, nicknamed “Green Hell.”
Return of the tab
To motivate his soldiers, Fuller authorized the Jungle Expert tab for qualifying soldiers assigned to the 25th Infantry Division.
Unless it’s adopted by the Army, soldiers who earn the tab can only wear it while they’re assigned to the division.
But anyone else who passes the course will at least get the tab as a souvenir.
“Soldiers love to be recognized when they do something really hard successfully,” Fuller said. “This is a very difficult course to get through. It’s 21 days of living out of your rucksack in some of the worst terrain in the world. They deserve some kind of recognition for doing that.”
Soldiers love a good challenge, he added.
“Being put in a new environment and being challenged gives them some bragging rights. Soldiers who’ve got their Jungle Expert tab are strutting around pretty good.”
'A different type of challenge'
Pfc. Suchai Vongsvirates, of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, was one of the first soldiers to earn the tab.
“It’s cool because we were the first people to go through, and it was my first tab, so I was pretty happy about it,” he said.
The 19-year-old infantryman went through the course Jan. 20 to Feb. 8, and he’s already looking for more opportunities to get back in the jungle.
“I would definitely enjoy going through more advanced jungle schools in the future,” he said.
The JOTC was “fun, but it was also very hard,” he said. “It was raining the entire time. I think we have four or five guys who got hypothermia in a day.”
Vongsvirates said he was surprised by the terrain they were in.
“If we hadn’t been taught how to make rope bridges for going up cliffs, we would have been completely stuck multiple times,” he said.
Spc. Justin Kropf, a signal systems support specialist attached to B Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, said he’s the only commo guy in the battalion to complete all 21 days of training and earn the tab.
The experience was eye-opening, Kropf said.
“As a commo guy, watching how [the infantrymen] assault the objective is completely different in the jungle versus how they would in an open area,” he said. “In the communications realm, the triple canopy is pretty much impregnable, you can’t get through it.”
The terrain forced Kropf to change the way he operates and the types of equipment he needed.
Kropf used three different types of radios, employed field expedient antennas, and learned to seek out high ground or an opening in the trees to try to maintain communications.
Soldiers in 2nd Battalion’s A Company are already incorporating what they learned into their battle drills, said Sgt. Zachari Einarsen, a squad leader.
This includes how to properly pack the ropes they need to traverse mountainous jungle terrain, how to tie the right knots, and how to fight in different formations, he said.
Jungle training was “a different type of challenge that I think you can’t get in any other training experience,” Einarsen said.
Fuller said he hopes the JOTC builds his soldiers’ confidence.
“The biggest thing I want the soldiers to get from this is confidence that they can go into that environment and be successful, and they don’t have to fear the jungle,” he said. “I remember the first night I spent in the jungle in Panama. It wasn’t really comfortable, but after spending 30 days out there, you learn to manage it, and even thrive in it.”
3 weeks in the jungle
Soldiers who attend the 25th Infantry Division’s new Jungle Operations Training Course spend 21 days in the jungles of Hawaii. Here’s a closer look at the course:
■ Introduction and safety brief.
■ Overview of the Pacific Command area of operations.
■ Overview of the jungle and its hazards.
■ Training on preventive medicine; casualty and medical evacuation tactics, techniques and procedures; and jungle-specific patrol base techniques.
■ Survival training, including how to forage for food, find and treat water, build improvised shelters, start fires and set traps.
■ Jungle mobility training; this includes ropes and rope maintenance, how to tie knots, how to conduct rope-assisted ascents and descents, and how to conduct rope-assisted casualty evacuations.
■ Waterborne operations, including water safety, waterproofing and riverine operations.
■ Day and night land navigation.
■ Ground sign awareness and tracking training. This includes how to identify and track footprints, and how to recognize and identify booby traps.
■ Combined skills exercises, where soldiers put together the individual skills they’ve learned on communication, survival, jungle mobility, land navigation and tracking.
■ Training on patrolling, assaulting and reacting to contact.
■ Live fire training.
■ Live fire training.
■ Company field training exercise, a cumulative exercise that lasts six days.