- Published: Sunday, 26 April 2009 13:28
26 April 2009
We just finished day seven of a twenty-one day tracking course. The instruction started with a little classroom work on surveillance and deception tracking. All of the instructors and nearly all of the seventeen students are combat veterans. This is helping the instruction go very well. The students who are combat veterans are especially keen on becoming trackers; for them it’s a no-brainer that every infantry soldier should have a level of tracking proficiency. An instructor pointed out this morning that all those UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are nice, but how often do you really get those? Not to mention that even the best UAVs can’t see most tracks/sign. Since nearly everyone here has fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, everybody knows that the reality of UAVs is that, although they are incredible assets, UAVs have severe limitations. And usually they are not around. High-tech is not a replacement for basic soldiering skills, especially when the high-tech isn’t around much of the time.Two British soldiers, both on their second tours of Afghanistan, were just pulled out of Afghanistan specifically to go to this course. So they literally just got here from the war. Both are Gurkha infantry soldiers and have been fighting for five months straight. Lance Corporal Bir Bahadur Rai, who served a tour in Bosnia and two tours in Afghanistan, told me in the jungle this morning, “Tracking definitely can help in Afghanistan.” He should know because he said his unit had over fifty fights this year. His buddy, Corporal Shree Jimee also did two Afghan tours and completely agrees. Interestingly, too, I’ve been asking a lot of Gurkhas what they think about the Taliban as fighters. Rai said, “Taliban are brave, very brave. But not good at fighting.” Corporal Jimee agreed that the Taliban are very brave but not good at infantry fighting. Interestingly, Rai happened to mention that during one firefight, a small British UAV was flying over and actually saw a Taliban successfully shoot it down, which is pretty impressive. Or, more likely, it was the result of a lot of spray and pray. Rai said that later he talked with the UAV operator, who had no idea what happened to his airplane. It just disappeared. It’s probably hanging on some Taliban’s wall.
One of the “babies” here is a 23 year-old Royal Marine named Craig Tucker. I say baby because Marine Tucker has only done one combat tour, which is not a lot in this crowd. Craig told me that he is learning all he can in this course because he sees great value; he stepped on a bomb and got launched about a meter in the air. Luckily, the main charge -- three mortar rounds -- didn’t detonate, but the primary charge did. His pants were partially blown and burned off, and Craig got lightly fragged in the hands. He was not badly damaged, and actually went on a mission the next day, which he said he didn’t want to do but he went. I said, “Bottom line is, you did it brother!” Craig is convinced that if he knew then what he has learned in the first week of this course, he probably would not have stepped on that bomb. Craig is a true Marine; he’s getting ready to go back to Afghanistan and is learning all he can. One of his buddies, Corporal Darren Davis was there when Craig got launched, and is also attending the course in preparation for returning to war.
One of the more experienced soldiers, Sergeant Joe Smith, took to showing me photos of the baby twins his wife recently delivered. He wanted to talk about the babies more than war stuff, but Sergeant Smith has completed combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan and is about to return, and so I asked him to tell me frankly if he thought this course is worth the time. Yes. Big time. Every single veteran here says the same.
This morning, one of the instructors mentioned that sniper teams who had moved into hide sites and made excellent camouflage, were tracked down by the Taliban and killed. He didn’t have any further details, but seemed certain that it had happened more than once. Even a perfect hide site is not much value if you leave a snail trail to your position, and Tonto-Taliban gets on it.
So today we went back to the jungle and practiced deception tracking. How to fool the tracker – you’ll need more than good luck if he’s a good tracker. The students also practiced detecting tracking tricks.
Luckily, the weather was fairly cool today because it nearly rained; the other days have been scorchers and we are drinking gallons of water and coming back drenched. We still came back drenched in sweat, but I drank only half the water that I usually guzzle. The Brunei jungle is very nice and practically nobody is getting any insect bites, but we did see a pretty looking green snake today. Otherwise, birds are the only animals I’ve seen. I asked one of the soldiers if he wants to go with me one night to find a crocodile, so we will likely do that soon. And I asked a couple other soldiers if they want to go with me when I ask an Iban native to take me hunting with a blowgun and poison darts. So there might be a few side-trips during the training. Otherwise I’ll stay on track and update you nearly every day.
Please click here for Part IV of this series on the tracking course in Borneo.