Michael's Dispatches

Tracking Update

25 April 2009
Brunei, Borneo Island

This quick email from Borneo is an update about the combat tracking course conducted by the British military.

Tracking is a lost art in the British and U.S. militaries.  Even among the most highly trained forces, you’ll seldom come across anyone who can honestly track a man or interpret signs.  Many times in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve seen combat forces come up on signs of the enemy – and our folks do set to work analyzing ever smidgen they can find – but only in a single case did I see soldiers who started tracking on a very subtle trail that was less than obvious.  Not surprisingly, those soldiers were “good old boys” from the 278th Tennessee National Guard.  Where those soldiers learned tracking I do not know.  Presumably they got it from growing up in the boondocks, and they probably got it from their granddaddies.  We didn’t get any enemies that day, but the 278th soldiers definitely were able get on what I thought was the right trail, and they tracked quite a distance (after a bomb exploded).  They weren’t playing around.  More recently, I was with some American soldiers in Afghanistan and there was a very minor shootout wherein nobody got hurt.  At least two Taliban were seen going over a hill after the bullets were swapped.  Our boys closed the gap as fast as they could and tried to get them, but we never picked up their trail and the enemy escaped.  I believe that the British and Gurkha trackers I am seeing in this school in Borneo might well have picked up that trail, and nailed the Taliban that day.

The tracking school only started on Monday, and we just finished Saturday’s training which began with classroom work and ended with about five hours of tracking in the jungle.  We started with 21 students but are down to 17 after something between the Netherlands and Brunei governments caused four Dutch students to drop out today.  The Dutch soldiers are upset.  The Brits also are upset because the Dutch were good tracking students, and also the Dutch have Afghan combat experience under their belts, as do most of the British.  And so it’s good to hear about their experiences, and how tracking might apply back in Afghanistan, because most of these Soldiers and Marines are heading back over.  All seven instructors are combat veterans from some place or another.  Some of the students have three combat tours behind them, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan.  None of these Marines and Soldiers had any experience in tracking, yet after having started only on Monday, by late this afternoon in that steaming jungle, they were successfully tracking Gurkhas.  (The Gurkhas had gone before us to leave track.)  I can say with absolute certainty that very few British or American soldiers would have been able to follow those tracks.  Maybe some of those soldiers from the 278th Tennessee National Guard could have pulled it off, but I doubt that 99% of the others could have even found the first subtle signs.

Toward the end of the day, my section of five soldiers lost the Gurkha tracks, and so the soldiers “probed” and “casted” to regain the trail, but we just lost it fair and square.  We didn’t get them this time.

The jungle was losing light, so we started to head out of the jungle to catch some trucks back to base.  There were a few interesting “jungle things” to photograph, and so while the five British students and an instructor headed out, I stayed back with an instructor named Taff Jones, a British Marine, to get the last photos.

There was no trail in or out, and we honestly didn’t know which way the others had gone because we had hardly paid attention.  (Though we knew the exact azimuth to get out, so we knew where their signs should be).  Instead of going on compass, the Taff picked up their trail, which was difficult to see, and we walked at a brisk pace.  Taff seldom even stopped, but would just point out sign as we bounded through.  Taff would say things like, “See that transfer?”  “Flattening here.”  “Look at that beautiful print.”  A few signs were obvious, but mostly they were subtle.  Again, I think 99% of the American or British soldiers would have almost zero chance of following that trail.  At one point I thought Taff lost the trail, because he just stopped and started looking around.  Then he said something like, “They stopped here and turned around.”  In fact they had zigzagged a lot, and later told us they did turn around there.  We found the others waiting for us.  If they had been the Taliban, we could have nailed them.  Or we could have radioed and had them cutoff or ambushed.

All the combat veterans in the course are of the same opinion.  We can put a lot more whipping on al Qaeda and other enemies in Afghanistan if more of our people learn how to track.  Nobody has to be Tonto to do this.  You just need good instructors, good eyes, and the willingness to practice.  This training is cheap.  No ammo, no airplanes, no high tech, and just about anyone can get a lot better very quickly.

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll try to email each day about the progress.

Your Writer,

Michael

 



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

 


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