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The Swamp of Death

At least once per day, an instructor or two will mention the American course at Fort Huachuca.  The British instructors have respect for their American counterparts and want to keep cooperation as close as possible.  The commander here, Major Dean Williams, keeps mentioning the name of David Scott-Donelan, who teaches the U.S. military, and Major Williams reckons that Mr. Scott-Donelan is about the best and most experienced combat tracker you’ll find.  There’s plenty about Mr. Scott-Donelan on the web.  I was happy to learn that the American military hired the best to teach our folks.  So imagine my surprise this morning when Mr. Scott-Donelan emailed me out of the blue with a detailed message about his courses.  I asked for permission to quote his email.  This is most of what Mr. Scott-Donelan wrote:

…I brought MODERN Combat Tracking to the USA in 1994 and have been teaching the subject ever since all over the USA and US possessions overseas. So far I have personally conducted classes amounting to over 6,000 military and police personnel.

In addition TTOS has a contract as part of the US Marine Corps COMBAT HUNTER project to train the entire 180,000 USMC in several different levels of Combat Tracking through a train the trainer program.

So far over 2,000 Marines has received some level of training ranging from a 1 day seminar for officers to a three week course at Fort Huachuca and we are at present running more courses for the USMC to raise the basic level of instruction from a 5 day course to 10 days.

In addition TTOS has the contract to conduct tracking training at Fort Huachuca and we have trained close to 1,600 soldiers in the last three years here. The course, although at the moment a non-permanent course, has been so successful that the Army is in the process of turning the class to a permanent course which will be a Joint Services venture. Add to that the fact that the Army TRADOC Commander…has ordered that the Army adopt a similar program to that of the USMC which will mean that 1.5 million soldiers will have some level of tracking training.

…the British run a very good jungle tracking class, I must tell you that their senior instructors including the past Officer Commanding, Major Bryson Gifford and the present Commander, Major Dean Williams have been to the Fort Huachuca and completed training with us. We also have trained Australian Commandos, British Royal Marines, Dutch Royal Marines, German Recon soldiers plus soldiers from over 20 other countries.

Our course also includes night tracking in pitch darkness, urban tracking, tracking with UAV coverage, IED Indicator recognition and a day of anti-tracking, i.e. defeating the tracker which may have saved the lives of the marine snipers killed in Afghanistan.

I would like to invite you visit one of our classes at Fort Huachuca as and when you can. Let me know.

Take care out there!

David Scott-Donelan.

PS. The reason why we have not yet sent anybody over to Brunei is only because our classes are solidly booked up until the end of the year.  We will send instructors over when things slow down a little here.

Founder/Senior Technical Director
Tactical Tracking Operations School, LLC

3044 Player Avenue
Sierra Vista, AZ 85650-6606

Awesome email from Mr. Scott-Donelan, and what a nice surprise.  It’s great to read that the United States military apparently is already on this.  They will be far more lethal to the enemy.

After classes, we broke into three sections and headed to the jungle.  My section began with six students (seven with me) and three instructors.  Only one instructor was needed but the other two wanted to keep practicing their own skills.  All the instructors enjoy tracking.  It’s truly fun.

Earlier in the morning, four soldiers had gone ahead of us leaving about three miles of trail.  The first tracks left a road and headed across a mud filled ditch.  The students each jumped over the ditch, but three of them got to play in the mud when they didn’t make a smooth landing.  They tracked through a marshy area and then came onto a little patch of Afghanistan.  It looked just like the desert there.  Some of the tracks were very easy to see, but the rocky bits were tricky, though the students stayed on track.  This was an exercise in “pursuit tracking,” so the students were supposed to move quickly to close ground with the enemy.  Major Dean Williams, the commander of the course, and a soldier named Dave, set off tracking someone else and finally were onto monkey tracks and Dean found a snake track.  Dean and Dave wanted to give the group a head start so we could track the students, who were with instructor Taff Jones tracking the quarry.

So when the students left the bit that was like Afghanistan, they followed the tracks into the jungle and that’s when the adventure began.  After giving them about a twenty-minute head start, we set off tracking them very quickly.  We didn’t find any tracks for a ways, but the sign was clear.  After about 500 meters we finally found two “beautiful prints” – as Mick the instructor likes to say – in a wet area.

Some of those laying tracks must have been Gurkhas, who have a habit of breaking twigs in the direction they are traveling, and we found two broken twigs facing the direction of travel.  The jungle was very hot and we all were completely drenched in sweat.  Maybe a half-mile into the jungle, we came to the Swamp of Death.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have stopped and made snowshoes from some jungle vines.

I’ve splashed around in swamps since I was a kid, in the army, and around the world; however, I’ve never been in a proper Swamp of Death. I know the instructors hadn’t been here before either because if they had, we would not have gone in.  It started off fair enough, just a little mud and splashy time, up to the knees.  But within half a minute, zooonk!  My right foot broke through some mud and it went to my knee.  My leg didn’t want to come out, so I pulled harder and still it didn’t want to come out.  I jerked harder still, it schlocked out, and I nearly fell over.  The foot hole in the mud was like a blowhole on a whale.  Swamp gas burped out with a deep moan.  It actually sounded like an alligator burping.  I’d seen an alligator burp in Florida one day at Lake Alice in Gainesville.  I’d seen it eat a cat.  I was maybe fifteen feet away watching the gator swallow the cat, which took many minutes.  The gator was only five or six feet long, but alligators even of that small size burp very loudly.  Alligator burps are impressive.

And so as we pressed further into the Swamp of Death my feet kept going deeper and deeper. It was a proper workout to get my feet back, and often after I finally managed to them pull out, the earth burped like an alligator and smelled like one, too.  After ten steps in the quick mud, I was winded, but now the fun really began.  Both legs plummeted through the mud which came up to crotch level.  My legs were stuck and I couldn’t get them out.  Luckily, I had stowed the camera in my rucksack, because this was serious.  How am I going to get my legs back when I am still sinking?  I was about to do the quicksand swim by plopping on my belly because I didn’t want to ask Dean and Dave to come into the same mess I was in to pull me out.  I jerked very hard on my right leg and it felt like the jungle boot wanted to come off.  I finally got it out but with the realization that you really could get stuck in this like a fly on flypaper.  At times we could scramble down logs or step on grass, but often we had to get back into the mud. You had to move quickly because standing still just sent you deeper, so it was exhausting. At one point Dean took a proper plunge off a log and fell into the mud, but luckily there was grass and he didn’t sink.  We avoided a memorial service out there.  After maybe 30 minutes, we got out of there and I just laid down flat on the ground, exhausted, for about five minutes looking up at the jungle canopy.  What I didn’t know at the time was that Marine Nathan Lewis did in fact get fully stuck and couldn’t get out.  He tried the mud swim but that didn’t work, so another soldier had to come and help wrestle him out.  I doubt any tracking dog could make it through the Swamp of Death.  Megan the Labrador likely would have gotten stuck and started crying for Matt to get her out.

The only thing missing were the man-eating plants and crocodiles, but no crocodile would have been dumb enough to go into the Swamp of Death.  Whoever laid that track needed to be tracked down and smacked.  Good training, though.  It was also a fine demonstration of how the military takes the fun game of tracking, and crushes it into Army training. Not long after leaving the Swamp of Death, we came into an area where pigs had been rooting around, and I thought, ‘What next?  Swine flu?”

Bottom line: after about three hours, the students had tracked through probably a dozen types of terrain over about three miles, and despite having gone through the Swamp of Death, coming back drenched in mud, the students were all smiles.  They succeeded!

It would be good to meet up with them in Afghanistan to track up some Taliban.  Or, if we get really lucky, we’ll get on the trail of some al Qaeda.

Please click here for Part VIII 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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