Friday, December 31, 2010

Swamp Patrol

In 1988 I was attending the U.S. Army Ranger school having progressed through City week and the Mountain phase I was now located at Eglin AFB Florida for what was called "Jungle Phase." It really should have been called "swamp" phase in my opinion since we spent most of our time knee deep in water. This phase concentrated on platoon size operations and all of us Ranger students had to pass a patrol as Platoon Leader (PL). We were also graded on other leadership positions such as squad leaders or Platoon Sergeant (APL). Upon initial arrival we were given the obligatory speech about how we had had it easy up to this point but that this phase would weed out the wannabes. Our Ranger instructors also showed us a huge American Alligator. This thing was about 20 feet long and lived in a pond surrounded by a fence on the Ranger compound. It had a name but after over twenty years I can’t remember what it was.
Eventually we were allowed to put our gear in the barracks and we spent the next two days taking classes and trying to stay awake. Even though we were in a garrison environment for those two days we still were only given one Meal-Ready-To-Eat a day and four hours of sleep a night or less. At this point after about thirty days of this regimen our bodies were starting to seriously break down. We thought about food constantly and we fought against fatigue on a minute by minute basis. This was supposed to put stress on us similar to what we might face in combat as leaders. Funny thing though, when I actually got to combat later on in my career I was always well fed and I usually got enough sleep, that’s because in real combat the Army doesn’t want a bunch of sleepy, hungry guys performing high priority missions if they can help it.
So during one class on poisonous snakes indigenous to the area, as we were dozing through a PowerPoint presentation, our instructor pulled out a large wooden box and said he was going to show us a live rattle snake. So as he reached into the box he let out a loud yell. “Oh my God it just bit me!!!!!” Then we saw this large snake go flying across the room as he flung it away from himself. He had thrown it towards the opposite side of the room than the side I was sitting on and the students on that side were climbing over each other, over the chairs, and up the walls trying to make some distance between themselves and the snake. When the snake landed it just lay there, upon closer inspection it was discovered that it was a rubber snake. All the instructors where laughing their asses off at all the dumb ranger students that had been trying to run from a rubber snake. Looking back I admit it was pretty funny and he sure kept us awake for the rest of his class.
Eventually class time was over and we started the by now familiar routine of operations order, gear prep and deployment for a ten day patrol in the swamps of Eglin AFB. We loaded deuce and a half trucks and after about a two hour ride in the covered back of these trucks, the Ranger Instructors “encouraged” us to un-ass “their” vehicle and pull security as they drove off down the sandy road. I was prone with my M16 rifle facing out towards the enemy as part of the 360 degree security we established while the student designated at PL got his bearings. I was just a squad member on this first day so I had nothing in particular to worry about. In addition to my regular gear I had a 120 foot nylon rope back-fed into my rucksack for our anticipated river crossing of the Yellow River. The Yellow River meandered its way through the training area surrounded by a large swamp. This swamp was due to the fact that elevation changes where practically non existent as we looked at the map. I was pretty happy about this after finishing the mountain phase of the course I was ready for some flatness. Little did I know that even flatness has its drawbacks.
As we got started on the patrol I was a rifleman on the left flank of the B-Team or the second team of the 3rd squad in the patrol order. Each team consisted of a point man, a Team leader, an automatic rifle man and three rifle man. We were all arranged in wedges with the Squad Leaders and Platoon leader positioning themselves with their RTO’s (radio operators) in the center of each formation. We started walking keeping a separation of 50-100 meters between elements as the terrain dictated. As in most of the south we were patrolling through sandy soil, covered with pine needles from the tall pine trees and short scrubby pines that were growing thick in the area. As we had been dropped off in late afternoon eventually we stopped to conduct a listening halt right around EENT or end evening nautical twilight. This served two purposes, it allowed us to acclimatize ourselves to the sights and sounds of the “battle field” as darkness fell and it allowed our PL to orient himself to our objective.
Our initial objective was a cache of Zodiac rubber boats with which we were to move ourselves and our equipment to our raid objective. The boats were more than a days patrol away so we would be spending the night in a patrol base before we reached them. Eventually after patrolling until about 0100 through the pie forest we stopped as the PL did a leader’s reconnaissance for a night time patrol base. Once an acceptable spot was located we all moved in forming a cigar shaped perimeter with inter-locking fields of fire and automatic weapons strongpointed along likely avenues of approach. As one ranger pulled security the other one utilized his entrenching tool to dig a shallow fox hole. Once everyone was dug in we were allowed to pull 50% security. This meant one ranger could sleep while the other stared into the darkness straining to see the “enemy” or more likely a Ranger Instructor sneaking up to try and steal equipment from a sleeping ranger.
Morning came early after I got about 2 hours of sleep and we moved out again towards our objective. Shortly after moving out we started to encounter the swamp surrounding the Yellow River. From this point on I would not have dry feet for about a week. We slogged through the mud moving now one behind the other in a “Ranger File.” Due to the terrain I couldn’t see anything but the rucksack of the ranger in front of me. My goal became a struggle to keep within arms reach of my platoon mate to the front so as not to break contact. All the while under water roots and branches continued to try and trip me up and the mud tried to pull the jungle boots from my feet. Eventually we reached the bank of the river where several Zodiacs where pulled up on the bank. Each boat could hold 12 rangers. We piled our rucksacks in the middle and straddled the side of the Zodaic with one knee in the center and one on the outside edge with our leg almost but not quite dangling in the water as we tucked it behind us. We launched our boats and tried to get in rhythm as we paddled down the river for what was to be a 12 kilometer movement to our disembarkation point.
Paddling down the river was almost a relief with the exception of trying to stay in cadence with my fellow rangers. Our Ranger Instructor sat in the back giving us “constructive criticism” on our technique and navigation down the river. I said almost a relief because shortly after we pushed off I started noticing some of the local fauna sunning themselves on the banks of the river. The fauna I was seeing was many many alligators more than this Iowa boy had ever seen and certainly the only ones I had seen in the wild. I started being very aware of the leg that was inches from the river and continually tried to tuck it further up under my butt as I kept a watchful eye out for any reptilian predators.
Eventually we beached the boats and the little river ride was over, we disembarked as it was getting dark again. We climbed out straight into the water about waist deep and started to slog our way on azimuth towards our next objective which was a patrol base on the dry side of the river. We would not reach it that night and would be spending the night in the swamp with no sleep. Once we entered the trees and bushes surrounding the river it instantly got pitch dark. The only thing you could see was the luminous “cat eyes” sewed on the rucksacks and patrol caps of the ranger to your immediate front. It was so dark you could literally not see your hand in front of your face, and the branches and roots of the very closely grown together trees in the swamp constantly looked to poke you in the eye or trip you up.
We spent the next 10-12 hours wading through the waist to chest deep water, keeping our weapons above our heads so as not to get them wet and struggling to keep up with the man ahead. At one point we halted and the word was passed back to bring up the 120 foot rope as we needed it for a river crossing. As I struggled to the front of the file I was thinking to myself, that I thought we had been walking through the freaking river for the last 5 hours. One ranger tied the rope around his waist and left all his gear as he swam across the 100 meters to the opposite shore. He then secured the opposite end to a tree and pulled security while we sent his gear across with another ranger. All of us took turns snaplinking to the rope and making our way rucksack, weapon and all across the river.  When it was my turn being, fairly short at 5’7”, I almost immediately lost my footing as the river got deeper. My rucksack actually acted as a buoyancy device and kept me afloat as I held my weapon out of the water and pulled myself with my other hand along the rope. Unfortunately it was also pulling my chest strap across my throat and threatened to choke me out before I got to the other side. Eventually I did make it though and pulled security while the rest of the platoon crossed and we re-stoyed  the rope in my rucksack. The now wet rope weighed about a million pounds as we continued along in the dark.
As the sun came up we entered a clearing that was on some higher ground. While not totally dry it was dryer than anything we had walked on in the last 10 hours. The sunshine was sending its early morning rays through the rising mist of the swamp causing light to bounce off in tiny rain bows. As I looked to the left and right of me my fellow students, muddy, wet and bedraggled looked like something out of the living dead as they emerged from the mist on to dryer ground. I wasn’t in any better shape myself as somehow I had managed to rip a hole in the entire left leg of my BDU pants and my muddy leg kept poking its way out every time I took a step. It is funny how some images remain with you forever. But I will never forget this image of our platoon emerging from the swamp after an exhausting night of patrolling into a bright morning sun. I can see it now in my minds eye right down to my prune-like hands and muddy boots. I participated in many patrols in my career, both in training and combat but this one was one I will never forget.

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