Troops put to Test
|Special Warfare Center and School|
Sunday, March 18, 2001
Troops put to the test during
Special Forces TrainingThe first of two parts
By Nomee Landis
Choppy waves slosh over the bow, soaking the uniforms of Capt. Martin Schmidt and others lying on the deck. It is about 0500 hours, or 5 a.m., on Feb. 18.
The sun will rise soon, though, Schmidt thinks, and his clothes will dry.
By now, the 12 soldiers have been traveling for 10 hours. This infiltration of Pineland is the first test of Robin Sage.
The journey began the evening before at Camp Mackall with a lift on an MH-47 Chinook helicopter. A ride on an open flatbed trailer, gripping a tarp for cover. A 9-kilometer hike along a narrow trail through the woods, with directions scrawled on a paper the size of a gum wrapper. And the journey will end in Pineland, a make-believe country where fiction and reality butt heads for 14 days.
Their immediate mission: Link up with a group of guerrillas fighting to reinstate the democratic government of Pineland, build rapport with them and teach them to fight.
Their ultimate mission: complete Robin Sage, earn their green berets and win the right to serve as Special Forces soldiers in real countries around the world. Those who do will belong to a small, elite group of soldiers whose motto, de oppresso liber, means to free the oppressed.
Robin Sage is the 19-day final exam, of sorts, of the Special Forces Qualification Course. It tests skills in survival, tactics and dealing with people, as well as judgment, decision-making and ethics.
Robin Sage is the largest unconventional warfare training exercise in the world. Special Forces soldiers have been training at Robin Sage, or its predecessors, for more than 40 years.
On board the pontoon boats are Capts. Aaron Duncan, Eric Carver and Schmidt, Staff Sgts. Lamont Townsend, Derek Burd, Joseph Paisley, Ronald Keller, Enrique Reyna and Asa Leckie and Sgts. Aaron Peters and Greg Trainor. Lt. Ahmed Ali Ahmed Kashoob of the Sultan Special Forces of Oman rides with them.
Together they are Operational Detachment Alpha, or ODA 924, one of 11 student A-teams infiltrating Pineland during this Robin Sage exercise.
The uncertainty of what lies ahead during the next two weeks weighs on their minds, says the 28-year-old Schmidt. They are at the mercy of the auxiliary, members of the Pineland underground resistance, to lead them to the guerrillas. How will the guerrillas react to them?
Schmidt, who is from Rochester, N.Y., has spent the last six years in the Army. He has served in Korea.
Staff Sgt. Burd’s toes are numb. Burd, at 32, is the oldest member of ODA 924. He wonders whether there will be heavy name calling at the guerrilla camp or language he and his team won’t understand.
‘‘The stories don’t help any,” Burd says. He has heard tales about Robin Sage from previous students. ‘‘But you’re not supposed to think about that.”
For the next two weeks, the 12 students will face freezing rain and wet gear and miles of ruck marches in daylight and darkness. They will deal with strangers who may be hostile or friendly. They will face tense situations that threaten to divide their team. All of this to see if each of them can keep his cool, complete the mission.
Not all of them will succeed in Pineland -- the woodlands of the Uwharrie National Forest and the country surrounding it, all about 90 miles west of Fayetteville. Not all of them will get the ‘‘go” they are looking for the first time through Robin Sage.
It is 0400 hours, Feb. 18, when the guerrilla chief, Maj. Tom Pain, pulls himself from his sleeping bag. He dresses quickly and throws thick logs on the fire, fanning the flames with cardboard. His camp sits just up a hill from the south shore of Badin Lake.
His 17 guerrillas, or Gs in Robin Sage terminology, snooze on in sleeping bags on the ground or tucked under poncho hooches strung between pines. Pain’s bodyguard, Taz Man, is the only other person stirring. He sticks close to Pain.
Two fires burn in the camp, guarded and fed, day and night.
Pain warms his hands over the flames, heats water for coffee. He is waiting for a group of American soldiers. He has heard they will bring food, weapons, ammunition and medicine to support the guerrilla war.
Pain is here for revenge. OpForland -- or opposing force -- soldiers have killed his wife and daughter. He was accused of working for the Pineland Free Press, the voice of the resistance, and was captured. On the way to prison, Pain’s buddy, Col. Jack Daniels, ambushed the party and set Pain free.
‘‘We’re just fighting to stay alive,” Pain tells a member of the Pineland Free Press. ‘‘We’re not really fighting for the government. But I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. I’ll probably get arrested.”
In real life, the guerrilla chief is a retired Special Forces soldier who lives in a log cabin in Montana.
All of the G-chiefs are retired Special Forces. They travel from around the country to work at Robin Sage.
Pain does not break out of his role often, and then it is only out of earshot of his men. He wears a black knit cap over his graying, cropped hair, black jeans, a fatigue jacket and dust-coated hiking boots.
‘‘If I stay in role, it works well,” he says. ‘‘But if I start talking about what I did in the military, it’s a distraction. And if I catch them on the side talking about what they did back in their units, I’ll square them away.”
Back home, his friends call him Mark. Here in Pineland, he is only Maj. Pain.
‘‘Welcome to the land of the longleaf pines./ The summer land where the sun doth shine./ Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great./ Welcome to Pineland, our down-home state./ Viva la Pineland!”
After an early-morning formation and a chorus of the Pineland oath, the guerrillas, some dressed in camouflage and others in black civilian clothes, fall out to prepare for the arrival of the Americans. They stash extra meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, so ‘‘it looks like we have no chow.” They chop wood. They joke. They eat, hovering over the fire burning in a metal drum, reclining on slick black vinyl chairs they found tossed in the woods.
The guerrillas are real soldiers from Fort Bragg units, tasked to provide support for Robin Sage. This is real training for them, but they all have roles to play to help test the students.
‘‘There’s not much to do until the Americans get here,” Pain says.
The boats pull up on the other side of Badin Lake, and the soldiers pile out, hoist their rucks. Two guerrillas, Jaybird and Swain, meet them there. They walk. And they walk. There is ice on the ground.
The two guerrillas, carrying only light rucks, seem to be leading them over every hill. They lose their way at one point.
Once in a while, Sgt. Greg Trainor stops to shift his ruck and stand still for a moment. Trainor is 26, a New Jersey native who joined the Army at 19. He left the 82nd Airborne Division to come to the Q-Course because ‘‘you get to a point when you want something more.”
Others feel the long night weighing on their backs, too.
Sgt. Burd thinks the guerrillas are trying to wear them down, wear them out, so if there is hostile action when they arrive in camp, they will not be able to react.
But the guerrillas are not hostile toward them. They give them a rest before they get into camp.
By the time Jaybird and Swain lead two of the Americans into the guerrilla camp, the imaginary war in Pineland has been raging for more than 18 months. The guerrillas have been raiding and ambushing people to support their efforts to reinstate the democratic government led by Dougal Canteth. He is in exile in South Pineland.
They shake hands, swap introductions with Maj. Pain, sit on logs arranged around the fire.
This first meeting is critical. If the students answer the G-chief’s questions to his liking, if they impress him, he will invite them into camp. Otherwise, he’ll kick them out, forcing them to work harder to win his confidence.
Carver speaks quickly in answer to Pain’s questions.
Carver: Our mission is to see how you conduct your operations and give you advice on what you want your unit to do best. We’ll come up with training plans and supplies -- weapons, ammo, food.
Our medics can set up an aid station. Our engineers can build a latrine, cooking pits, clandestine fires. Our weapons sergeants can teach you to clean and fire your weapons. Our communications sergeants can provide radios.
Pain wants to know what the team has brought. How many radios and what kind? How much food? What kind of medicine?
Pain: You know, you Americans have a history of starting something and leaving before it is finished.
Carver: We plan to stay and do all we can to finish this mission.
Pain: Let’s get something straight from the get-go. If you hold out on me, you’re going to piss me off. Let’s get that straight.
Carver: Yes, sir.
Pain: Have you got a pistol? I need one.
Carver: We do. But my men are responsible for their weapons.
Pain: We were told you would bring weapons and money. What you’re telling us is that you’re bare-boned?
The meeting lasts more than an hour. Pain grills the medics, the engineers, the weapons guys and the communications guys.
When Capt. Aaron Duncan takes a seat opposite Pain, Duncan questions the presence of a photographer in camp. How does Pain deal with traitors?
Pain: I execute them.
Duncan: You need to look at the bigger picture, how the rest of the world views your actions.
Pain: I’m not worried about the big picture. I’m worried about chow. The way I see it, the more OpFor guys we kill, the less we have to fight.
Throughout the conversations, Master Sgt. Tim Moore stands behind the students -- unsmiling, arms folded. Moore, of the 1st Special Forces Training Group, is the cadre team leader, the evaluator who will determine which students will pass Robin Sage and which will not.
Already, Moore says, there might be some personality conflicts developing on this team.
The missions his team will attempt are based on real-world missions from World War II, Vietnam and other conflicts and on Moore’s own experiences with 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Moore must also devise scenarios that will test his students’ moral courage and their ability to think on their feet when faced with dilemmas.
How will they react when faced with human rights violations in the guerrilla camp? How will they deal with journalists in camp? It is all a part of the test.
The initial link-up between the students and the Gs goes well. ODA 924 sets up camp with the guerrillas.
The first mission is set for six hours after the initial meeting. The guerrillas have learned that a truck, loaded with supplies, is scheduled to drive down a road a few miles from camp at 1700 hours. The objective: Take it out and get the goods.
Staff Sgts. Lamont Townsend and Joseph Paisley will accompany two squads of guerrillas on the first mission.
But there is training to do first.
Without sleep and within two hours of their arrival at the G-camp, the Special Forces students start working one-on-one with the guerrillas. Establishing a rapport with the Gs is a start toward a primary goal of Special Forces soldiers: winning the hearts and minds of the foreigners they must work with.
In one corner of camp, Capt. Schmidt touches on the basics of claymore mines with two guerrillas. At the ambush, they will use a claymore to stop the truck.
In reality, this training would be much more difficult, Schmidt says. ‘‘There is no language barrier with these guys,” he says. ‘‘When you add a language barrier, it’s going to get even more frustrating.”
A few feet away from Schmidt, Staff Sgt. Lamont Townsend, a weapons sergeant, dismantles a squad automatic weapon, or SAW, while two more guerrillas look on.
Nearby, in a makeshift aid station constructed of three camouflage ponchos, Staff Sgt. Paisley teaches Stretch, another guerrilla, how to assess an injured person: Check his airway. Check his breathing. Check for bleeding.
The hike to the ambush site takes Paisley and Townsend and the two squads of guerrillas several miles from camp. They walk, single file, over thickly forested hills. The earth is soft and littered with sticks and fallen trees that snag their boots. They walk through a stream, stepping toward slippery rocks. Led by Maj. Pain, they work their way up a steep, clear-cut hillside strewn with sun-bleached branches and stumps, rainwashed gullies. They place their steps carefully here. From the hilltop, the green waters of Badin Lake are visible above the treetops.
One guerrilla smokes a cigarette on the way. Townsend pulls up the end of the line.
They stop for chow in a gully, fanning out in a circle so they will notice if someone approaches. When they sit down, the dense brush conceals them. Chow is crackers with peanut butter, lukewarm MREs and canteen water.
While they eat, Paisley wraps the sprained ankle of O.B., one of six women guerrillas.
Paisley, who is 24, grew up in Atlanta. He has been a soldier since he was 18.
Pain asks him about killing.
Pain: So, in your army, you don’t go back and kill the wounded?
Paisley: No. It gets you bad press.
Pain: If you don’t go back and kill the enemy, won’t they come back to kill you? What you’re saying is to make sure they’re dead to begin with? I don’t understand your point. Killing is killing. There’s nothing wrong with coming back and finishing the job.
How did your former president say it? It’s another definition of ‘‘is.”
Just up a rutted, red dirt road from the resting spot is the corner of the paved, two-lane road around which the truck will drive in a little more than an hour.
Maj. Pain, Townsend and Country, a guerrilla squad leader, discuss where the claymore mine will be placed. Pain squelches Townsend’s suggestions, making sure he knows this is still his show.
With 40 minutes to go, the claymore is set, and the men lie belly-down behind stumps and trees and berms, weapons pointing toward the road, just a few feet away. Country covers them with dead leaves.
And they wait.
The skies are clear blue, but any warmth doesn’t make it to the shade. And the triggers of their M-16s are cold.
Every few minutes, the hum of an engine breaks the silence. The cars and trucks drive past the hiding soldiers and their pointed guns, unaware that just a few minutes behind them, a truck will round the same curve and gunfire will erupt from the woodline.
When it does, it all happens quickly. First comes the thumping of a diesel engine from around the curve.
The truck rounds the bend. A smoke grenade bursts in front of it. The claymore explodes. The truck rolls to a stop, and the shooting starts. Men pop out of the leaves and from behind trees with the thmp-thmp-thmp of machine-gun fire.
The bodies of two OpFor soldiers lie sprawled outside the truck. The Gs pull from the truck cases of MREs, an M-4 carbine with a grenade launcher, five empty magazines, a knife and chem lights.
Within minutes, the guerrillas and the two Special Forces soldiers have disappeared through the trees and back down the dirt road with the loot, the mission a success.
But this is only the first of many missions, only the second day in Pineland. And while Maj. Pain has invited the students into camp, he has not yet grown to trust them. That will take time, just as it does on real missions.
Over the next two weeks, each member of ODA 924 will have to prove himself again and again to Pain. And to the evaluators. And to himself.
Reprinted from The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer Copyright 2002