Arta Plage, Djibouti -- Personnel supporting the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa made history Nov. 20 when they became the first Americans to graduate from the French Commando School here.
Twenty Army soldiers and five Marines completed the three-week course and were each awarded the French Commando medal and a certificate of completion.
"It was one of the hardest training operations I've faced, but at the same time one of the better schools I've been through," said Lance Cpl. Bryan Napier, who graduated in the top five of his class. "I feel honored to represent the American platoon in the top five. It will definitely be an experience to remember."
Before entering the course, service members were required to take a test ensuring they could meet the physical demands of the commando school. The test involved pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, squats, an upper-body rope climb and a 200-meter swim with a rifle.
Within the first few days, the original 34-member platoon had dropped to 26 due to either failing the test or injury during training.
"The reason for attending the French Commando School was to better prepare the soldiers and Marines for nautical and mountain warfare challenges in the terrain of Djibouti," Army Master Sgt. Chris Fields said. "These particular challenges trained each soldier and Marine for a hostile situation if one occurred in an area similar to this region."
The American platoon trained alongside a platoon of French Foreign Legionnaires. Both accomplished the same training, but as separate units. The two forces participated in training and exercise that included working with each other's equipment and competed in timed races over different courses.
Under the supervision of French instructors, trainees were graded on a variety of exercises requiring the nine-man squads use teamwork to successfully complete the tasks.
With assault packs and rifles slung across their backs, trainees negotiated obstacles courses that forced them to use every member in their squad to complete the course.
Engaging in obstacles positioned on mountaintops, attached to a rocky cliff face and afloat in the Gulf of Aden, squads were required to complete courses under a set time.
The water and mountain obstacle tracks are eight-part objective courses that must be finished together as a squad. In the mountain obstacle course, squads carefully worked together to accomplish each objective.
Trainees were graded on their ability to complete these obstacles. Combined with the individual track, service members' scores were calculated and used for their final graduation score.
The individual track, called "Hells Way," is built into the side of the mountain with pipes, wires and ropes leading to the eight different objectives. Although some were hesitant at first, expressing fears of height, all trainees were required to complete the course within a set time.
"The commando school immediately jumped into the training and kept us on our toes at all times," said Napier.
Though the training sounds mainly physical, trainees also received classroom instruction prior to conducting tested training missions.
These classes involved land navigation, explosives, squad formations on land and water, Zodiac beach assaults, ambushes, raids, helicopter flights, cargo drops, knot tying for rope bridges and rappelling, hand-to-hand combat and training for prisoners of war.
"Through the course, the French instructors methods of instruction and practical applications were set up very well," said Fields. "As we got physically tired and weary in our upper body, the classes moved to movements and strengthening in the lower body ... in-between were classes based on knowledge. Their instructions and exercises were scheduled evenly throughout the course."
Several times the French and American platoons joined together for live-fire exercises at various ranges and beaches. The two platoons would exchange rifles to become familiar with each other's weapon and its firing capabilities. Some exercises involved mock medical evacuations by American humvee and French helicopter, while the two platoons would provide suppressive fire on the nearby range.
At sundown, when the trainees were not in the field or in the water operating Zodiacs, they were prepping for scheduled night missions.
Marching several miles up and down mountainous terrain, the platoon executed ambushes and raids on specific targets assigned by the instructors.
"Marching though Djibouti is a lot harder than it looks," said Spc. Jon McCoy. "Walking at night over large loose rocks was very stressful for everyone."
Venturing miles into the field for their last three days of school, the two platoons combined for day and night missions including beach assaults, ambushes and raids. The lessons previously learned while getting through obstacle tracks were applied in maneuvering the two platoons over land.
After accomplishing all their missions, the trainees - exhausted and relieved - returned to Arta Plage to graduate and be officially recognized as Commandos.
"Overall, I think everybody did extremely well in the course," commented Fields. "The challenges they faced in this course were some they will never meet again. Later on in these now Commando's lives, whether in the military or as a civilian, if they are faced with troubled times, it will be less of a challenge to them to overcome it."
Fields went on to say the training with the French is essential to the mission in the Horn of Africa of detecting, deterring and defeating transnational terrorists in the region. "It enhances our operations and gives us the ability to see real world situations in an environment we are not as familiar with as the French are. It is imperative that if we are to fight together as allies, we must train together in this war on terrorism."