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“Tuning In”

Day 17

06 May 2009

A quick email from Brunei on Borneo Island:

The helicopter lifted off at about 0737hrs, Borneo time.  Our “mission” would begin deep in the jungle where, yesterday, a helicopter pilot had spotted several men crossing a clearing on a ridge that marks the border between the countries of Malaysia and Brunei.  When the men spotted the helicopter they disappeared into the jungle.  Some miles away, an ambush had occurred leaving one dead and several wounded, and so the commander decided to check out the pilot’s hunch that these men might have been involved.  A tracking team was dispatched.

The helicopter lifted off near the sea, and now we were flying inland, deep into the jungle over mile after mile of giant trees.  A meandering river glistened in the morning sun, while small, mysterious streams sometimes came into view before disappearing back under the trees.  In war, the jungle provides incredible cover for the enemy.  He can live in one place and conduct attacks ten, twenty, or thirty miles from his home. All the while coming and going completely undetected.  Billions of dollars worth of satellites and UAVs are worthless here.  The guerrilla can easily preposition supplies of ammunition, food and medical kit along the way, keeping weaponry cached miles away from his home.  He can walk into the jungle carrying nothing but farming tools, and come back days later, carrying nothing but farming tools, after having ambushed an American supply convoy twenty miles from his home.  The chances of catching him are low.

Twenty minutes later, the helicopter descended onto the clearing on the ridge.  The green ferns seemed to turn white as the rotor wash exposed the undersides of the leaves.  The team disembarked to security positions and the helicopter roared away.  Nobody was shooting at us, so from the security positions we took about fifteen minutes to clear the sound of the helicopter out of our heads, and to begin to tune back into the jungle.  The longer you stay in the jungle, the more tuned in you become.  After some weeks, your eyes, ears and nose become far more animal-like.  You can smell soap or a cigarette from a great distance, and can smell men who are hidden.   We just came from garrison and so are not finely tuned in.

But there is another type of “tuning in” that we have been practicing every day.  The eyes can be tuned to the track.  There can be many different types of terrain and vegetation within just a few minutes of walking, so you must practice tuning into different types of ground sign very quickly.  Also the lighting can change abruptly.  Inside the jungle is relatively dark, but there are places where the bright sun of the equator reaches the floor and practically bleaches your eyes.  Dark, bright, splotches, and splashes of light, all mixing with varying terrain means the tracker must constantly re-tune.

It’s similar to tuning a radio by turning the knob.  At first it’s just static, but as you get better and better, you can hear a little music breaking through, or a voice, and then if the signal is strong, the station becomes clear.  Tracking is similar.  Mostly there is static.  Lots of white noise.  But out there, embedded in the noise, are clear signs, if you can tune in.  To tune into a radio station, you need a radio.  To tune into tracks, the “radio” is in your head, and the primary antennae are your eyes.

The terrain was riddled with tracks; the Brunei Army and police had made a camp up there.  They were long gone, but had left sign everywhere.  It can be difficult to judge the age of sign.  It took maybe twenty minutes to determine which of potentially dozens of tracks might have come from only yesterday.  The Brunei security forces come here because the area is a real-world smuggling and poaching route.  Illegal logging is also a problem.  Behind us, were many miles of pristine jungle in Brunei, but on the Malaysian side of the ridge, chainsaws could be heard raping the jungle.  Over the next couple hours, I heard at least four giant trees crash and thunder to the ground.

The soldiers finally found what appeared to be fresh sign, but there wasn’t a single footprint to be found.  So we set off on that sign, which appeared to be fresh. Cracked, dry leaves, a “pointer” here and there.  The primary jungle is clean down below.  No machete is needed.  You can walk any direction you like.

The lead tracker found a single boot print after about 1.2km into the track.  The print was relatively fresh, but it also made it clear that the enemy was “track aware.”  There was a large trap track that most people would have walked through, but the quarry seemed to intentionally skirt it.  Apparently that single boot print was simply a mistake.  In fact, for the first 7.5 hours of tracking, we found only that one boot print, and half of another boot print.  There was foul track everywhere because of poachers and so forth.  A couple days ago, a tracking group from our class, who was tracking tactically in a different area, accidentally sneaked in on what apparently was a poacher.  It’s unclear if — when the poacher fired his shotgun — he realized the soldiers were there, or even what he fired at.  An instructor fired a couple warning shots in the air and the poacher disappeared.  It was proof, though, that the soldiers were doing a good job staying tactical.  They continued on track and succeeded in the mission.

These real world-poacher/smuggler routes were challenging because they were fouling our way.  It became clear, however, that we could just as easily have tracked down the poachers if we wanted to.  Despite that we were under canopy, we were sweating profusely.  Even the very fit soldiers have lost weight since the course began.

We got onto a foul track and went way down a hill, before Marine Sgt. Joe Smith figured out that the tracks he was now following were a little too old.  And this brings up a point that keeps getting hammered home here: the integrity of the tracker is paramount.  If he senses he’s made a mistake, he needs to say it right away.  Joe made the mistake and got on the wrong snail trail, but when he realized the error, we got a good workout heading back up the hill.  Joe managed to find the right snail trail again.

I carried twice the normal water that day because the Gurkhas had warned me about this jungle test, and so did Major Dean Williams.  We didn’t come across any water sources for about the first 7.5 hours, but when we got down from the hills, a few soggy areas provided good track traps.  We finally started catching occasional boot prints, and it became clear that the enemy was avoiding obvious trap tracks. The instructors were not leaving any breadcrumb trails.  They were making it hard.  An instructor had spent the night in the jungle with some Gurkhas.  They left very little sign.  No wrappers or “campsites.”  They were straight-up tactical. They were being careful with their footprints, and so they were difficult to track, but we were on them.  Their discipline and good tactics was a big sign in itself.

Unfortunately, after eight hours of tracking, the day was coming to a close.  The instructor, Mick, had to call it off even as we were coming to the house where the tracks ended.  It was getting late and there was no time in the training schedule to just sleep that night in the jungle.  It would have been crazy to try to track at night in that area, but we could have slept in the jungle and got them first thing in the morning.  “Truth in lending,” we didn’t succeed in getting the quarry on that first day.  We were very close.  But also truth in lending, we would have found the house where the tracks led, shortly after daybreak the next day.

In an incredible coincidence, this Iban house, deep in the jungle, was one of the four Iban houses I located before starting the tracking course.  I had been looking for Iban to take me hunting with blowguns and poison darts.  Very strange that the same house – in all of this vast jungle – was actually the end point of our tracking exercise.  When I found that house several weeks ago, I did not even know the British were here.  (The Iban there are very friendly but unfortunately didn’t have blowguns.  One Iban did tell me that he caught a pig in a trap yesterday.)

If this were Afghanistan, we would have located that house.  And we would radioed back to the battalion commander who would have decided what he wanted us to do.  My guess is that the battalion commander would have told us to avoid detection but keep eyes on the house.  The tracking team had only six soldiers, so the commander is highly unlikely to have committed them to a battle with what could have been an unknown number of Taliban who might be better armed than we were, and they would know the terrain better.  Our advantage was surprise and we needed to keep that advantage until we could increase our odds.

My guess is that the commander would want more information and would have sent a UAV, such as a Predator, to watch the house.  Suddenly the value of the Predator would skyrocket.  The UAV would go from being useless in peering through canopy, to incredibly valuable.  The house was at the end of a single paved road that might have been twenty miles along.  The battalion commander would now have a six-man team (us) on the ground, and a Predator overhead.  The commander’s options would only grow with time, and would be too numerous to attempt to list.

This is how it might have appeared in the news:

ISAF Reports 11 Taliban Killed

Independent News

Friday, May 8 2009 10:24 AM

Kabul, Afghanistan – A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force reported that 11 Taliban fighters were killed in Helmand Province today.  The spokesman said that the Taliban cell was believed to have been involved in the killing of an American soldier on Monday.  Three other soldiers were wounded in that attack. The spokesman provided no further in information.

But if no tracker team had been employed, the next time we heard from that Taliban cell might have looked like this:

ISAF Reports 3 Soldiers Killed in Bombing

Independent News

Thursday, May 28, 2009 11:07 AM

Kabul, Afghanistan – A military spokesman confirmed that 3 ISAF soldiers were killed yesterday in a roadside bombing in Helmand Province.  Four other soldiers were wounded.  At least two soldiers were seriously wounded with burns and shrapnel and were evacuated to Germany.  The nationalities of the soldiers have not yet been released.

Please click here for Part XIV 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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