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Days 14 & 15

Here in Brunei, the seventeen students were broken into three groups for three separate helicopter flights.  The first group to board the single helicopter was comprised of five Gurkha students and one Gurkha instructor.  All Gurkhas are British soldiers, but they have separate battalions.

While waiting for the helicopter, the Gurkha instructor said he spent Saturday playing with his two young children, and even trying to teach them to track.  The kids were not interested.  His next trick will be to hide candy to try to persuade them to get on track, which caused everyone to chuckle.  The soldiers smeared camouflage paint on their faces and hands.  One soldier looked particularly menacing.  I said, “You look like something from a horror movie” (he really did), and the Gurkhas laughed.  The team leader, Sgt. Som Thulung speaks English well.  Sgt. Som is a pleasant but serious man.  With three Afghan tours behind him and another on the horizon, I asked if he thought this tracking training was worthwhile.  Without hesitation, Sgt. Som answered, “Yes.  Very good.  It will be useful.”

We loaded onto the helicopter underneath swirling rotors, buckled in and lifted off.  Below us were the massive Shell oil production facilities, while to our left we could see the oil platforms of Brunei out at sea.  As we flew high over Shell’s own runway, a civilian helicopter could be seen below, rotors spinning, apparently preparing for takeoff.  Flying further and looking down over Borneo Island, we could see great swaths of land where the jungle is yielding everyday to the blades of encroachment.  Large swaths are devoid of trees.  This saddening scene of “progress” creates areas as barren as can be seen in much of Iraq or Afghanistan.  Little grows in many of the cleared areas.  The jungle is wiped clean.  It looks as if acid were sprayed across the ground to prevent life.  When you walk down there, near some of the ponds, you’ll find not even a blade of grass growing around the edges.  Despite the water and frequent rains, some ponds appear sterile of life.  No frogs croak, no birds wading around the edges, not even a spider scampers across the surface.  The surfaces of some ponds ripple only in the breeze.

The helicopter crew was in good spirits, and while we flew near the coast, the left-seater turned around with a big grin, holding a sign:


If they were playing golf, the Navy must have won.

The helicopter landed on a helipad on the edge of some jungle, making a small hurricane of leafs and sand.  The soldiers stepped off and headed for security positions and the helicopter roared away.  The Gurkhas headed off on their mission, while I waited for a group of Royal Marines coming on the next flight.  The Marines soon landed, embarking on their own mission, beginning at an “incident” scene that was realistic for Afghanistan or Iraq.  It’s inappropriate to detail the initial scene, but the bottom line is that the soldiers used their new tracking skills to gather information that would be useful to the commander.  They then began to track the “terrorists.”

The tracking was easy in some places, but mostly it was challenging or hard.  It’s amazing how many types of terrain and vegetation can be found within a few hundred yards, much less a few miles.  There were definite boot prints at the beginning of the track, but the Marines didn’t find many solid footprints for the next couple miles.  Mostly they were following sign, and a few times we lost it and had to probe and cast to get back on the trail.

Following the enemy is just the first step of tracking.  Often, significant amounts of information can be gleaned.  The soldiers were finding more than just disturbed pebbles.  They determined that the quarry probably consisted of 3-5 men, who likely were not trained soldiers.  (In fact, the quarry consisted of four men, and some of the routes they traveled indicated they were tactically unsound.)  Other signs indicated the quarry probably consisted of men, and those men likely had knowledge of the local terrain.  All the while, along the track, the Marine squad leader marked the acetated map, annotating the actual track and points of interest.

By the end of the session, all three teams successfully completed their tracks which ranged from about 2-3 miles each.

The exercise was realistic for Afghanistan or Iraq, except that we were practicing in a non-lethal environment.  The terrain and weather vary so much in both countries that it’s perilous to make sweeping statements about either.  There are plenty of undulating sand dunes, plenty of mountains, and plenty of thickly vegetated areas in both countries.  Both get blazing hot, and have areas that get dangerously cold.

Often, training can have a nebulous feel, like it pertains to nothing in particular, or that it likely never will see use.  But this training feels specific, more like a rehearsal for a defined mission on a specific target for which the “go” has been given.  (All British troops in this class are heading to Afghanistan.)  Every detail is pertinent and implementation feels imminent.  Nobody is saying, “If this were actual combat, we’d do it slightly differently…”  The only significant difference is real bullets.

Over the last week, the students demonstrated their ability to track; however, the course now extends to also picking up information along the way.  The students must then distill that information into a succinct “hot debrief” that a commander can trust, and quickly absorb.  So now, after each day of tracking, the students are expected to present a detailed map, drawings, and important details, not wasting a minute of the commander’s time.

On Day 14, all three groups succeeded in tracking to the end, but the hot-debriefings were rough and in need of improvement.

Day 15
04 May 2009

First light this morning was at 0555, which came one hour after first coffee.

Again, the students were broken into three groups for three different tracking missions.  Group I walked off base to their track.  Group II, which I accompanied, took a truck to its mission.  Group III flew by helicopter out to the jungle.

Group II, my group, reacted to a “report from a local” about some shooting in the area.  The soldiers picked up the track, and along the way found persuasive evidence/sign that the quarry was carrying at least one rifle that used a magazine similar to a U.S. or British magazine (as opposed to an AK or other weapon); there was sign on the ground that a magazine had been there.  The first part of the track seemed to have been made during daylight.  The students missed an area where the “enemy” had taken a small detour and had tea while the enemy had waited for nightfall to cross open terrain.   (We were told later what actually had occurred.)  The students found evidence of 3-5 enemy, which turned out to be four.

The signs indicated that the quarry was “mission oriented.”  The enemy knew where they were going.  They skirted many obstacles without running into them.  Since they seemed tactically competent, it was unlikely they were navigating with flashlights.  (In fact, they were not using flashlights.)  Their movements likely were pre-planned because they were not wandering around, and they seemed to move deliberately to an area where they seemed to have set up an ambush.

All three groups succeeded today, but far more information was garnered than just tracking from A to B.  The students are, in fact, quickly becoming an intelligence asset.

Tuesday will mark Day 16.  I’ll be back with the Gurkhas.

Please click here for Part XI of this series on the tracking course in Borneo.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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