Face of Defense: Jungle Operations Course Challenges Military Students

by David Vergun
Army News Service

HONOLULU, July 7, 2017 Not everyone who trains here in the Hawaiian jungle survives. It's not that they get eaten by tigers or crocodiles; it's just that they aren't cut out for the environment. As a result, they end up dropping out.

About 30 to 40 percent of the students who begin the 25th Infantry Division [ https://www.25idl.army.mil/?source=GovDelivery ]'s three-week Jungle Operations Training Course held on Oahu here are unable to finish, said Army Capt. Matthew Jones, who serves as commander of "Lightning Academy," which teaches the course.

Mental and physical fatigue can set in quickly for those who are not in top physical condition, he said. Completing the grueling course takes a lot of mental stamina, as well.

*Inland Jungle*

"You are in the jungle from the time you enter until the time you leave," Jones said. "There are long movements over steep terrain. And if you get wet the first day, you'll be wet for the next five days. It wears on you. People drop out."

Most visitors to Oahu come to experience Honolulu and the beach there at Waikiki, he said, and most don't venture far enough inland to learn of the jungles there.

But soldiers who arrive at Schofield Barracks' East Range Training Center, nestled between the Waianae mountain range on the west and the Koolau range on the east, aren't there to surf or swim. Instead, they are there to learn how to survive in the lush jungle there that most tourists will never see.

Eight JOTC courses a year are taught, Jones said, with 75 students per class. Troops from other services as well as foreign military personnel often attend the course.

*Hands-on Training*

All of the training is hands-on, as opposed to classroom learning, Jones said. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are no beds or other comforts of home. During the JOTC, he said, course participants operate beneath the thick canopy of trees atop the insect-infested jungle floor.

During week one, course participants learn basic jungle survival skills such as building shelters from natural materials, moving through thick vegetation or across the water, and procuring food and water from nature, Jones said.

But unlike some jungle warfare courses, such as the one in Malaysia, course participants do not have to eat snakes during JOTC, Jones said.

The jungle environment around the Pacific area of operations includes such a wide variety of flora and fauna, he said, that teaching which plants or animals to eat would be fruitless. Instead, he said, the survival training is general in nature.

Should soldiers be tasked to deploy to a particular jungle area, he said, they would receive a locality briefing prior to their departure.

*Squad Tactics*

Week two at JOTC focuses on squad tactics in the jungle. In the jungle, he said, tactics are different than they would be in more open areas such as in Iraq or parts of Afghanistan.

For example, since the foliage is so thick in the jungle, squad movements are conducted in single file instead of a wedge formation, Jones said.

Communication is also much more difficult in the jungle, he said. The thick vegetation and mountainous terrain limit radio signal strength. During JOTC, students are taught how to make field expedient antennas to boost signal strength.

Week three at JOTC culminates with platoon-level operations against an opposing force, Jones said. Instructors, acting as observer-controllers, follow the students and grade them.

Since JOTC is a leadership course, attendees who are sergeant and above get graded on leadership as well, he said.

*Can-do Attitude*

The soldiers who make it through the course receive a jungle tab and the training is a plus on their records for things like promotion boards, he said.

Besides that, the feedback from the graduates is that they have gained "an appreciation for what it means to have to fight and thrive in the jungle," Jones said.

"It's not as easy as they think," he said.

Probably the key ingredient to making it through the course is having a can-do attitude, combined with physical fitness, Jones said.

"If you have those two, you can do anything in life," he said.

Army 1st Sgt. Jose Deleon, also of Lighting Academy, said he went through the course in 2014, just a year after it opened.

*Challenging Course*

Even though Deleon has earned the coveted Ranger tab, he said the rigorous course was a challenge, even for him.

"When I went through, the thing that surprised me the most was that there was a jungle in Hawaii with challenging terrain and dense undergrowth," he said. "Just getting around was difficult. You're constantly tired, hungry and wet."

Yet, the course is rewarding he said, encouraging soldiers to volunteer for the training.

"Not every soldier gets this opportunity," Deleon said.

Jones said JOTC is now the only jungle training course offered by the Army. While the Army used to offer a similar course in Panama, that course was closed in 1999. The only other jungle course offered by the U.S. military is run by the Marine Corps, at the Jungle Warfare Training Center on Okinawa, Japan, he said.

Jones said he believes JOTC is valuable because one day, soldiers may find themselves operating in a challenging jungle environment. Then, he said, all that training will pay off.

(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @VergunARNEWS)

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