CJTF-HOA personnel complete Desert Survival Training

18 Nov 2003 | Sgt. Matthew B. Roberson

Personnel from the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, conducted bilateral desert survival training here hosted by the French 5th Marine Battalion Nov. 3rd - 10th.

The training provided an opportunity for soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division, Charlie Company, along with sailors and Marines from Camp Lemonier,  to develop inter-operational capabilities with French forces and learn important desert survival techniques at the same time.

The personnel participating in the desert survival training loaded onto buses on the morning of the first day and were transported to the French camp.

Upon arriving, they received a brief on what to expect and ways to make certain they would make it through the training safely.

The briefs were followed by a convoy trip to the desert, where three French platoons and one American platoon would spend the next week learning desert survival techniques and tactics.

The first day of the exercise consisted of classes the service members needed to make it through the training.  Since the classes were not set-up for Americans, Army Spc. Boris J. Boisson, Civil Affairs Battalion, stepped in and acted as a translator.

"It was a great experience being able to help out the students during the class," Boisson said.  "As soon as I found out they weren't set-up to accomadate us, I was able to jump in and help out.

"Some of the terms I had a little trouble with," Boisson continued.  "It was mainly the medical terms, but fortunately the medic from 10th Mountain was able to pick up on them and help me out."

In the first class, food preparation, students were shown how to prepare tea, coffee and bread with spices and ingredients commonly found in Djibouti.  French instructors also explained how to properly kill and skin goats and how to store and prepare the meat once it has been cut.

Next was a class on dangerous animals during which, instructors ensured everyone knew the importance of not killing certain types of poisonous spiders because when killed they release a scent that attracts more spiders.

After the dangerous animals class, students moved to a table where different models of rifles were displayed.  French instructors proceeded to describe each rifle and give characteristics and specifications for each one, including ways to tell the difference between different variations of the AK-47 assault rifle.  Students then took turns practicing disarming, disabling and assembling the rifles.

The last class of the day was on how to start a fire using only materials students would normally be equipped with in the desert.  Here, they learned how to use powder from ammunition, sticks and magnifying glasses found on their compasses to start a fire.  Once a fire was started, the instructors showed them how to transport and maintain the fire over a long period of time and common things found in the desert able to be substituted for coal, like dried camel manure.

After the classes were completed, the U.S. platoon was given food rations for the week.  These rations consisted of rice, flour, noodles, honey, baking supplies, onions and spices.

To handle the tasks of preparing dinner and setting up the camp, personnel were split into two different groups.  The first was responsible for the food and dinner preparations, along with making a plan for how the food would be divided throughout the week. 

Army Spc. James R. Moss, infantryman with Charlie Company, 10th Mountain Division, was urged by fellow soldiers to make sure the food was acceptable for consumption.

"I've cooked for a lot of the single guys back at Fort Drum," Moss said. "I'll have them come over to the house, and I'll fix a big meal for everyone.  I've always enjoyed cooking so somehow I think I ended up volunteering to be the cook and making sure the quality of the food was where it should be."

While Moss and other appointed cooks prepared dinner, the other group organized the camp and gathered enough wood to ensure the fire burned until the next morning.

Day two started with a breakfast of honey bread and noodles followed by students applying slaughtering, skinning and drying techniques on two goats delivered to the campsite by French personnel.   Students were instructed to cook one goat for lunch and cut the other one up and use it for jerky.

After the goat meat was hung to dry, trainees went to their first class of the day.  During this class, instructors showed students how to find, store and keep water in a desert environment.  This included, important points like which types of trees represent water nearby, how to make a cover for water jugs, constructing a water collection site, building a make-shift refrigerator to keep your water and food cool, and how to purify water and construct a well.

"I learned quite a bit during the water class," Boisson said.  "I knew the basics behind how some of the methods of collecting water worked, but I had never got the chance to see it work or use it in a real world situation.  I think there were a lot of things learned during this class that we could all definitely benefit from."

The last two classes of the day involved camels and moving in caravans.  Instructors gave examples of how to move as a convoy using different formations and stressed the importance of moving at night due to the heat and size of the caravan. 

They also explained the purpose and importance of each part of a caravan stating a normal caravan would be led by the reconnaissance (recon) element which is responsible for finding camel trails or hard packed rocks for the camels to walk on.  The recon element is followed by the front security element, or headquarters element, comprised of the convoy commander, medic, radioman and other supporting entities.  Next is the main body, comprised mainly of camels with soldiers flanking both sides to provide security.  The last part of the convoy is the rear security element responsible for anything attacking or approaching from the rear of the convoy.

The last part of the class was utilized by instructors to familiarize the students with camels.  Boisson said the main purpose of this section of the class was to ensure everyone knew how to approach and load camels without getting hurt.  The instructors stressed the importance of being calm, but not overly comfortable, because the camels aren't a domestic animal.

"After the class, I definitely felt more comfortable working with camels," Boisson said.  "I think that if I needed to use a camel in this type of situation, I could."

After the students applied the techniques they learned earlier in the day to construct a refrigerator and water collection point, they ate dinner and rested before heading out on their first night exercise.

The night exercise involved using land navigation skills to find a predetermined target where students had to gather information and disarm any weapons found.  Army Sgt. Jim Lewis, leader of the forward assault team responsible for entering the target area, triggered a practice hand grenade, covering him in white powder, when he picked up a booby trapped weapon to disarm it.  Lewis said other than his mistake, the team did a great job of entering the objective and collecting the desired information. 

The following day started off with a class on grenades, booby traps and how to protect your campsite as well as a class on land navigation.

During the land navigation class, students learned how to travel using the stars, make a compass out of a needle, water, bottle cap and bowl, and how to use a global positioning system.  Boisson said he learned a lot during this class, and when it was over, he felt pretty confident in his ability to use a GPS and navigate using the stars.

The last class of the day was a familiarization course on the different types of animals and plants found in the Horn of Africa, after which students ate and prepared for another night movement exercise.

The exercise, a water re-supply mission using camels, tested the student's ability to move as a caravan.  The reconnaissance element moved out first followed by the front security element.  The main body of the caravan, comprised of camels with security flanking on both sides, moved out next followed by the rear security element.  The caravan traveled using only trails and soft paved roads for 10 kilometers to the watering point where the camels were loaded with water and turned around for the return trip back to camp. 

"The exercises using camels were definitely a challenge," Boisson said.  "You learn quite a bit about where the camels can and can't walk and the difficulties involved with moving as a caravan."

Day four of the exercise students received their final classes on camouflage and how to build a traditional Somali hut out of sticks and mats. 

The remainder of the day was spent preparing food to be taken on the final movement of the class.

A navigation exercise at night, where students had to find rocks in the desert with letters or numbers painted on them, ended the day's training.  For a lot of the students, this was the hardest part of the training.

"The land navigation course was definitely the hardest part of the training," Lewis said.  "We had about 26 kilometers we had to negotiate over rough terrain."

"Generally when we do land navigation, we might have a thousand meters between the points we are trying to find," Moss said. "On the course the French had set-up, there were close to six kilometers between points and the terrain was far more arduous than what we are used to.

"During this part of the training, they gave us GPSs which were a great help as far as pin-pointing the location, but getting to those points was extremely difficult," Moss continued.

The remainder of the course consisted of a three-day movement exercise where students applied everything they learned about caravan movements and land navigation to make it to their final destination.  

At the end of the exercise, students were tested on their ability to make an oven and refrigerator in the desert, set booby traps, keep water cool using different methods shown during classes and construct a Djiboutian hut.

"I think the course was a good experience overall," Lewis said.  "We learned a lot of new things like different ways to skin goats and how to build a hut."

"I think the course presented some unique challenges that we aren't usually faced with in the modern Army," Moss said.  Usually soldiers don't have to worry about food preperation or water conservation because they're given meals ready to eat (MREs) and have plenty of water when they do training exercises.  Moss continued, "With this course, they presented a whole new set of challenges to overtake."

One difference in this course from the previous one, was the addition of Marines and sailors. 

"I really think everyone did a good job out there, and I enjoyed the fact that we had Marine, sailors and soldiers all participating in the training," Lewis said.  "Not only did we learn about the desert and surviving out here, we also learned stuff about other branches of the service."

Headquarters Marine Corps