Michael's Dispatches

Quick email from Borneo Island:


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.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 12 years ago
    These are great skills to acquire. I expect you will be a very valuable imbed if you are ever able or allowed to put them into practice.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mary · 12 years ago
    Perhaps you could summarize the course or supply a link to soldiers and/or their commanders who would like to learn more about tracking. It would be nice if we identified and remedied deficiencies (chinks in the armor) quickly, but we are not the guerrilla fighters in this war, we are the bureauracy and the enemy knows it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mary · 12 years ago
    Maybe you could summarize the course information on your website or add a link to the course for soldiers and commanding officers who want to learn more about tracking. It would be great if we could identify and remedies the deficiencies in our military (chinks in the armor), but we are not the anarchist guerrilla fighers in this war, we are the bureaucracy and our enemies know that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gerald T. · 12 years ago
    Mike- Very interesting stuff, as is everything you write. This is especially interesting to me as it's something I can share with my four year old. He is really into tracking, and we spend a lot of time after snow and rain falls tracking our local coyotes, fox and rabbits, and sometimes people. Does the school give you any books, or recommend any, that we might be able to find, and that soldiers might be able to get hold of to help them get a better grasp of the concepts? I know that tracking is a skill you practice, but written text is a place to start. I like Mary's idea also- if you can find the time- a summary and/or links to more info to help people expand their knowledge of this important skill.
    Keep up the good work!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Maggie45 · 12 years ago
    I can tell that you are in your element, Michael. I love your reports. Thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    M.L.PERRY · 12 years ago
    Mike, great training insight of British & coalition tracking training on Borneo. My son who is training in Okinawa & Japan for May inbed to Afganistan, states they also have segments of "tracker" training. They are first-timers in combat but are being prepared for what is in store.
    Keep up the good info on AfPak prep and war.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eric Frazier · 12 years ago
    Hi Mr. Yon,

    I very much appreciate the work you are doing in keeping us informed as to what is really happening in the war on terror. Keep up the good work, and take care.


    Eric Frazier
    Chapel Hill, NC
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Geoff · 12 years ago
    Awesome stuff, Michael, thanks. Hopefully you'll be able to upload some pictures, I bet your camera is on overdrive.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gismo Fly · 12 years ago
    Dear Mike,

    I pity the poor bloody crocodiles. Ghurkas and Yon....scary.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Larry Sullivan · 12 years ago
    Hi Mike,

    I was wondering. I learned to track and orienteer from a guy as a kid. Later i took a few classes at LL bean in Maine. The instructor at LL Bean told us one day that the most difficult track he ever did was to look for a 25 year old man with down syndrom who was lost in the woods between the US and Canada. He said that the guy did not panic and just wandered around and left an easy to follow trail that would all of a sudden just end. He would have a very hard time picking it up again. If you are so inclined and the instructors are also ask "What was their most difficult track".

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave · 12 years ago
    Apache trackers in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona are some of the best in the world. Like the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII they know the high plains and Western Mountains. I wonder why our government hasn't asked their help.

    Tom Brown was raised by an Apache tracker Stalking Wolf and runs a wilderness survival school in NJ He has written many books about tracking. You can find them on Amazon.

    I trapped the Passaic River in NJ when I was a kid and learned to read animal sign. Maybe that is why the 278th Tennessee National Guard is good at tracking. They probably both hunt and trap
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bill · 12 years ago
    gobar gas generator, where can i get the plans to make this?

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