Arta Plage, Djibouti -- Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa personnel faced three challenging obstacle courses during the French Commando School here.
Throughout the three-week course, the American trainees learned the nautical and collective obstacle tracks require every squad member to work together in order to successfully complete them.
Unlike obstacle courses in the U.S., the nautical track is pieced together in the choppy waves of the Gulf of Aden. Here, the service members were required to get across the eight-part obstacle course as fast as possible.
"The two O-Courses are team reactionary courses that place an emphasis on team solutions in order to negotiate complex obstacles while in a stressful environment," said Army Master Sgt. Chris Fields. "In infantry words, it's ... (difficult)."
The first time through these obstacle courses was the slowest times most saw, knowing it was more of a walk-through than a race against the clock. The trainees were given three separate chances to complete each track during the school, the last being graded for score.
Though the trainees are told the records of each obstacle, none were close to breaking them. For the American trainees, squads and individuals raced to receive a passing time, not beat a record time.
With assault packs and rifles slung across their backs, trainees pushed and pulled each other up and over the various portions of the courses.
The obstacles are spaced 30-ft. apart, and after swimming to the first one, squad members heaved each other over a platform sticking out of the water. After all have made it over, they swam to the next event, a 10-ft. rope climb up a wall.
At the top of the wall, trainees jumped off and swam to monkey bars. They had to make their way across without falling, then swim to a shifting balance beam obstacle. This was followed by yet another rope climb with a second set of monkey bars to cross.
Pressing on, the squad swam under and over a number of boards before swimming breath beneath a 10-ft. cargo net. Upon surfacing, they quickly swam to the shore and cheered on the remaining members until they all crossed the finish line.
"The hardest thing about the course is having to drag the rifle and rucksack along with you," said Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Cobb. "We train for combat situations; so doing this along with the teamwork is an excellent way to train together."
After completing the nautical course, the trainees moved to the collective obstacle course located at the bottom of a nearby ridgeline. With packs and rifles still on their backs, the nine-man squads began the course at staggered times so all three squads could participate in the obstacle course without passing the lead squad.
The collective course was similar to the nautical track in that all members used each other's strength to complete the eight-objective course. Across the ridgeline, the squads carefully worked together, accomplishing each objective.
For the first obstacle, the squad members built a pyramid to get over a 15-ft. wall, and low crawled under 20 yards of barbed wire to get through the second. They ran up the ridgeline and hoisted each other over another tall platform before they climbed up and over a 15-ft. cargo net tower.
At the peak of the mountain squad members crossed a shaky balance beam and then maneuvered down the mountain by jumping from boulder-to-boulder and crawling through a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, they climbed up a simulated chimney, then ran to a zip line, where they slid down to the last obstacle. Here, they carried a wounded casualty on a 100-lb. stretcher across 200 yards of open field.
The squad leader, who was the only member allowed to speak throughout the course, decided the best method to complete each objective the fastest. It was his job to brief the squad on what to do and ensure they carried out his instructions.
"The first time was tough because everyone had their own idea on how to get through," said Marine Cpl. Adrian Otero, squad leader during the course. "After we ran through it once, the second time was almost a breeze. When we all came together, we performed as one and finished the course much faster."
Every member of the squads played an important role during both the land and water courses to complete the obstacles, according to Otero.
In addition to the team courses, the Commando School also required trainees to test their individual skills. This was done on a course which tested trainees' athletic ability, along with their knowledge of proper techniques, to get through the course as quickly as possible.
The individual course, called "Hells Way," is built into the rocky cliff face of a mountain.
It started with a climb up a cargo net. They then walked across a 10-ft. balance beam before moving around the mountainside to the next obstacle. Next, individuals climbed 40-ft. up the mountain to a 50-ft. stretch of triple guide-wire they had to carefully walk along.
Safety is the first rule when moving to and from different objectives, so the trainees are required to be secured to safety lines at all times. Even with safety lines attached, many trainees still searched for additional assurance by clinging to the closest platform or rock face.
To complete the next stage, individuals crawled across 30-ft. of double guide-wire on their hands and knees and then jumped out to a 30-ft. vertical pipe they slid down. At the bottom, they jumped from platform-to-platform, the distance becoming greater each jump.
Those who completed the platform jump, shimmied up another 30-ft. pipe and ran on to their last obstacle, a 30-ft. single guide-wire. Individuals had to inch across on their stomachs without falling.
"It was very hard for me to push myself to go through this hellacious course," said Spc. Jon McCoy. "But after completing it the first time, I shaved my time in half the second round. I was pushed to the limits at Hells Way."
The French instructors, who were always on hand, gave helpful hints along the way that were needed on the final test.
On the final day, the squads knew they were ready, and all passed without hesitation, according to Otero.
Whether swimming through water or climbing over the mountains, all three obstacle courses were new to the trainees attending the course and have given superb results in building unit cohesion.
"It took a lot of heart and teamwork to complete obstacle courses like these," said McCoy. "If someone had trouble making it up a rope or across a 50 ft. cable, the rest of the squad was there to make sure he didn't give up. Everyone was in this together."