French, US Service Members Undergo Desert Survival Training
As the morning sun peered through a tangled web of acacia tree branches, service members from France and the U.S. sat on the rocky ground of the Grand Bara Desert near Goubetto, Djibouti, listening to an instructor detail proper caravan troop placement.
The lesson was part of the French military's 10-day Desert Survival Combat Course, November 1-10, which spanned more than 50 miles and included French Marines and U.S. service members.
"The aim of the training is to give the trainees several tactical and survival tools in order to be able to live and survive in the desert," said French Marine Captain Gael Blanchard, 5th Infantry Overseas Battalion and DSCC lead instructor. "The Djibouti field is appropriate to train soldiers in a difficult environment with the heat, sun and wind."
The heat and direct sunlight caused service members, who carried up to 50 pounds of equipment and water on their backs, to drench their uniforms in sweat, which restricted movement even more once their clothing dried.
"The training isn't complicated or mentally difficult - the challenge is being physically prepared for everything," said U.S. Army Chaplain (1st Lieutenant) Monty Johnson, 1st Battalion 161st Field Artillery Kansas National Guard non-denominational Christian chaplain. "It's a very intense learning experience. We moved at night to avoid the heat. Our down time was during classes throughout the day."
The participants were taught combat lifesaving skills, field tactics, land navigation, proper hydration and water source location, survival cooking, fire building, setting traps, caravanning and weapons training. These lessons, taught primarily in French, were bridged by hikes between the class locations. Overall, communication difficulties between the French and the Americans only slightly impacted work between the service members, said Johnson.
"Even though there were some language difficulties, they were still able to communicate," said U.S. Navy Commander Douglas Wahl, Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa oceanographer. "We worked things out and accomplished our missions." Even through the language barrier and physical hardships, the French Marines praised their U.S. counterparts.
"I'm always very happy to train U.S. soldiers (during DSCC)," said Blanchard. "Even if it is difficult for them to follow the course because of the language barrier, they try to give the best effort they can." Johnson said he was able to use the time hiking to focus on his faith, as well as encourage the other individuals in his group.
"I spent a lot of time during the walks praying," he said. "I took my mind somewhere else and talked to God. It made the time fly by faster, and also inspired me to walk up and down the marching line - checking up on the people. After a while, the French started calling me 'padre' as they expected my routine encouragement."
According to Johnson, one of the classes, which required a good deal of effort, involved participants learning how to butcher, cook and eat a goat.
"It was disgusting," said Johnson. "I'm perfectly happy never eating goat again."
After their meal, the service members packed up their camp sites and began a 13-mile hike to a new location - applying the skills they learned during the day throughout the walk. Students were required to defend their ranks from attacks while scavenging for water. They were also charged with defending their camp while operating on a minimal sleep rotation.
"It was an eye-opening experience," said U.S. Army Sergeant Gordon Lane Smith III, 490th Civil Affairs Battalion non-commissioned officer. "It was very taxing, but I would absolutely do it again. The longer we were out here, the more the French treated us like we have been friends all our lives. They made us feel like members of their family."
Johnson said the bonding and sense of accomplishment that came both before and after crossing the finish line made the entire physical and mental challenge worthwhile.
"After it was over, I spoke with my wife. She told me I hadn't smiled that broadly in years," he said. "I was in my element. I love being in the field, being a soldier and encouraging other soldiers. The desert made me realize I'm where I need to be, and doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing."