Monday, May 17, 2010

May in Martinique

20 years ago this month, I was a relatively new soldier, and in Martinique at the French Army Brevet Commando School; an unlikely member of a platoon of hard-core infantrymen. Beyond the rather colorful experiences, the training provided a glimpse into the soldierly character, which today you can find on display in the far corners of the world. But alas, never truly appreciated here at home.

The French Army had trained hundreds of units from armies throughout the world at this course at Ft. Desaix. Jungle exercises were combined with water operations, both being the expertise of the island’s unit, the 33rd French Marine Infantry Regiment, responsible for security in the Antilles.

The course was based on passing a number of tests, for which you’d receive the Brevet Commando badge.To win a spot in the platoon, Army Reserve and Guard units sent selected soldiers to a stateside competition, half of which consisted of usual Army measures -- pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and running, all timed. The other half involved swimming -- a timed half-mile in a 50-meter pool, followed by the order to keep swimming in the pool for distance until you sank. Growing up in Los Angeles with ocean-centered parents, I had been swimming and surfing since a kid and was a fair waterman; I made the platoon.

When the unit mustered at an Air Force base for the C-130 trip to Fort du France, as a new guy, I was astonished at the accomplishments of my comrades: Special Forces tabs, Ranger tabs, Expert Infantrymen and Expert Medic badges, air assault and airborne patches, several containing the gold star signifying a combat jump, combat patches on the left shoulder, and explosives ordnance engineer markings. Only because I could swim was I on this plane.

French officers met us when we landed. They loaded us into trucks, and in the nature of the foreign military anywhere, wanted immediately to jack up the Americans. We drove to the base and were unloaded at the obstacle course.

Now, obstacle courses are the pride of every military base in the world. And for the uninitiated, we're not talking a course in the sense of plastic cones set up on an asphalt parking lot, or a 10-foot rope bridge where you bond with your sales pals. We're talking miles of huge, gut-wrenching physical demands.

I recall from memory a few highlights from the Regimental course at Fort Desaix: A timed run through a flooded marshland, repeated repels off 100-foot plus cliffs, low-crawling through a football field of mud and leeches and island snakes, clambering up and down 50-foot cargo nets (with no safety nets below), and a particularly eye-opening 150-foot crawl across a one-inch cable suspended 200 feet above a boulder-strewn field. This was accomplished by lying on the cable, securing your pack and rifle, and dragging yourself hand-over hand to the other side, your trailing leg and boot curled around the cable for stability.

If you slipped off the cable, you hung, spinning crazily, by a rope attached to your midsection and to the cable with an O-ring. Then, a fellow soldier had to crawl out and push the O-ring along the cable, practically inch by inch, across to the other side, compensating for the soldier’s weight while balancing his own weight.All of the above describes only about one-third of the course, which we would do every day we were there, sometimes at night with only covered flashlights and the moon.

That first day, Staff Sergeant Josh Freeman (Landon School, 1983) a former soldier of the year with the 5th Special Forces Group, broke the course record, an astonishing feat. Consider: tens of thousands of men, including the French cadre, had been over the course for years, and our guy breaks the record coming off an eight-hour flight. The French had grudging respect, and redoubled their efforts to burn us up.

Other daily tests followed. Some were as old as the days of the Roman Centurions: hand-to-hand fighting, tying a series of complicated knots in ropes that could support a truck lifted ten feet off the ground (disaster befell the knots that slipped), and 36-hour forced marches through impassable terrain. On night patrols, we’d steal silently through Martinique towns, tested on whether we aroused an outcry from police or residents. During the day, we’d cut through jungle and sharp stands of sugar cane, all done with compass, hours upon hours, trying to outflank the French cadre lying in wait for us. Sweaty, bleeding, and ascending some forsaken volcanic hill with full pack and rifle, I remember going past a fresh, ever-smiling French training officer and thinking, with the hilarity that sometimes accompanies extreme fatigue, “Man, this guy is getting his kicks dragging my rear end all over this damn island.”

We stayed in the field night and day and no matter what, guys were always in good cheer, no matter how awful the circumstances. One evening we were navigating a massive swamp, trying to find footing, our heads going under again and again. Suddenly, truck lights went on all around us, we were hauled out with ropes, driven to a barracks and inexplicably given 3 a.m. training on the French FAMAS assault rifle.

Two days later, we were ordered to the top of the fort walls and lowered by ropes deep into old ammunition bunkers. Each soldier was accompanied by a French non-com. The aperture closed, and in utter and complete darkness, we were handed an FAMAS and told to disassemble and then assemble the rifle in two minutes. Enlisted man Nellie never had a mechanical bent, but I’d recalled the late-night class and thinking optimistically at the time that the FAMAS had fewer parts than an M-16, which I could strip. I patiently outlined the rifle with my hands and used a fair memory to recall the steps taught two nights before.

We were given cursory training in tides, currents and wind and then paddled inflatable Zodiacs for miles on the open ocean, with only one compass for four boats, meaning even the slightest error on an azimuth meant hours of wasted effort. Another test involved being pushed out of a ship and with nothing but three empty canteens for flotation, you were required to make it to shore.

The final test was the water obstacle course. After swimming a long distance in a bay in full uniform, you lunged out of the water to grab ropes and climb a scaffold, dove to the sea floor to retrieve objects, swung hand-over-hand across a 30-foot jungle gym, crawled over and around rusty pylons, then headed into a submerged pipe on the floor of a lagoon, fighting off a claustrophobic, drowning panic while traveling 40 feet through the conduit and coming up in deep water before making your way to a beach.

Don’t get me wrong, U.S. Ranger and Special Forces training makes this course look like a picnic. The guys in the platoon were used to the pounding and this was just a two-week stopover for them. Nevertheless, the thing was, no-one whined, no-one complained. They all went from one challenge to the next. It was remarkable, and the general bonhomie got under the skin of some of the French cadre.

Even after two decades, I recall some of the men -- diminutive Tim Urban, the SF engineer, the HALO-jump artist and clever Robert Parsons, and John Roberts, SF medic, a Jumpmaster qualified paratrooper, multilingual State Department diplomat, and one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met. Ironically, 20 years ago, only a seer could have predicted that some of these soldiers would be launching out of Saudi Arabia into Kuwait and Iraq six months later, and eleven years later, lunging into Afghanistan and then again, Iraq.

One scene encapsulates for me the creed of the American soldier. On the first day those wily Frenchmen put us on the obstacle course at twilight, one man did slip off the cable and dangled helplessly 100 feet above the ground. While those of us who had crossed watched, on the other side of the canyon, there was an instant rush of guys to the starting point, scrambling to get to the cable. A senior non-com issued a quick order and then he immediately crawled out and slowly pushed the man, using the O-ring, to the other side.

In that instant, I saw the reflexive selflessness of the American soldier -- a guy was in trouble and needed help. Everyone stepped up.

At the end of the course, every single man who got off the plane was awarded the Brevet Commando badge, one of the few platoons in the 33rd Regiment’s training history to accomplish this because units always lost a couple men to injury. The French Army officers were stunned even as they made the announcement. For me, while I was proud to have the award, I felt more privileged to be associated with these men.

Two decades, I feel the same way. Now leading an easy, conventional life, I am fully aware there are hundreds of thousands of American servicemen across the globe engaged in everything from the tedium of garrison duty to the terror of combat. All of them, in some fashion, have in them that unique soldier’s character which I saw so vividly in Martinque. A type of character which all aspire to, but seems only a soldier fulfills.