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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Mounted Landnav

Dismounted (a.k.a. on-foot) land navigation is interesting, but realistically a Psyop soldier will not spend much time walking from place-to-place. We will drive in vehicles (generally as part of a small convoy). We learned how to navigate through unfamiliar terrain using maps, compass and GPS. We were not given moving-map type GPS units (though they may be available while deployed). Instead we used a large-but-reliable unit known as a PLUGGER.

We were given a list of "grid coordinates" to find for each of several missions. A grid coordinate is the military way of specifying a specific position on the surface of the earth. It is similar to specifying latitude and longitude, but uses a different numbering system.

We had a great time taking turns driving the HMMWV, navigating, and communicating (the person in the communication slot worked the radio to report mission progress to the TOC - Tactical Operations Center).

The experience we gained in the past few days will be invaluable for the FTX at the end of the course. The FTX is the final Field Training eXercise. Most of the FTX missions involve first locating and driving to the objective.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Foreign Weapons

Everyone going through BCT gets to qualify on the M16. In AIT, we get to qualify with other US weapons as well. Today we did something that few do in AIT - learned about foreign weapons - the weapons most likely to be used against us.

The class was divided into groups, and rotated around various stations. My first stop was to learn how to disassemble and reassemble an AK-47. It's a very simple weapon, yet effective for that same reason. It's simplicity makes it very reliable. Not accurate, but reliable. We learned that the average enemy we are likely to encounter is poorly trained in the use of the AK-47, making it even less likely that a given shot will find its mark. However, what the AK lacks in accuracy (especially in the hands of poorly trained combatants) it makes up for in sheer volume of lead it can hurl down range.

After learning to disassemble the AK, we had an opportunity to fire it. Unfortunately TRADOC will not let us fire live ammo from foreign weapons, but we did get to shoot blanks. Not as good as the real thing, but fun nevertheless.

After learning about the AK, I moved on to a station that teaches about the RPG-7 (RPG stands for Rocket Propelled Grenade). They are very cheap in a country like Iraq, with the launcher costing perhaps $50 and individual grenades selling for only a few dollars. The weapon can be effective if used properly. It can also be deadly to the user. We were told of a Marine in Iraq who was severely injured when an RPG he was firing "just for kicks" malfunctioned.

We also got to spend a little time with the Dragonov sniper rifle, and the RPK machine gun. The RPK is similar to the AK, but has a heavier barrel to substain high rates of fire for longer without overheating.

Part of the Psyop job is convincing the supported unit that you can add value to their mission. One of the instructors was traveling with a Marine battalion when they discovered a weapons cache. He picked up an AK-47 and properly cleared and disassembled it like it was the most natural thing in the world. Talk about instant credibility.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Most people passed the Land Nav test, but many struggled. Of course the two lost boys had to retest today (see yesterday's blog). The Instructors decided it would be a good idea to send us off solo again, with a new list of points, to refine our skills.

On the way to my first point, I looked up at the treeline just in time to see an A-10 attack aircraft flying just above it, perhaps 200' above the ground. What a great reminder of my ultimate goal - to become an Army Aviator!

I was already good at Land Nav going in to the Army. By now I could pretty much walk straight to my points. So, I quickly located all of my targets, then settled down next to the last one to soak up the sun and write my fiancee a long letter. Few and far between are the times you have an opportunity to just relax in BCT and AIT. If you learn your job well, you may be able to make a few opportunities for yourself.

Once the sun went down, we received a real treat (by SIT - Soldier in Training - standards anyway). We maintained a fire 24 hours a day since arriving at the training location. The Drill Sergeants felt that it was time for us to celebrate our accomplishments. Up they rolled with the company van, and unloaded boxes of hotdogs, buns, desserts, soda (yes - soda. A rare treat!). We enjoyed a feast, roasting our hotdogs over the bonfire.

We began telling jokes, some quite PC and some most certainly not. One really dumb one somehow stuck with me:

A pirate walks into a bar with a big ship’s wheel down his pants. The bartender says, "Excuse me, sir, do you know you have a ship’s wheel down the front of your pants?" The pirate answers… "Aargh, it’s driving me nuts!!"

Then, suddenly, a disturbance in the brush! A figure was running around our camp, holding what looked like chemical lights. It was running... comically. Literally. The Senior Drill Sergeant instructed some of us to give chase. Our team rushed into the trees. The figure ran off, then turned to run right through our festivities! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No... it's... Spiderman?!?! That's right, Spiderman came running through our camp. After quite a chase he was brought down, and his mask removed. Spiderman was really ... Wait! Some of my readers are headed off to AIT soon. Better not spoil the suprise :-)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Bring Fresh Socks

When you're in the field, you want to bring as many fresh socks as you can manage (given all the other gear you need, too). If you only bring one pair per day, it may not be enough. Land navigation today proved that point.

This morning, we set out in two-man teams as a final practice before our solo land navigation test. Two of our points were bisected by a stream. This wasn't your California mountains stream of clear water over sand and rocks. It was stagnant water, and mud, and muck. It smelled bad.

We attempted to cross by balancing on the branches and roots of the many plants growing in and around this source of moisture. Unfortunately, many of our would-be supports were dead and rotting. We carefully applied our weight, tested our new foothold, then took a step. We almost made it. The final 4' proved a little tough. I had to jump for the other side, but the extra force of pushing off was just enough to snap the old root I was balanced on. I came up about 6" short on the other side, and down I went. My boot slid all the way into the muck on the far bank. I quickly stepped up to the far bank, but not before the putrid water had soaked my socks. In the Army you quickly learn that you're going to get dirty, and you get over it. The lesson here is that dry socks are vital to good foot hygene. If you're in the field, be sure you always have a clean pair to change in to.

Back at the base, we sat down to enjoy lunch. They actually gave us plenty of time to eat our MRE's. Suddenly, I heard the cry "Oh Sh!t". Scanning the area, I noticed one of my fellow soldiers had apparently stowed his travel-size shaving cream in his cargo pocket after morning hygene. Something he did during land navigation must have set it off, because his pocket was filled to overflowing with white foam. It was the first time in a while I had a meal with a show :-)

As afternoon came, it was time to prove our land navigation skills. We were each assigned 4 points, and given 4 hours to navigate to at least 3 of the 4. Ever since entering basic training, we have not been alone. In BCT we were ALWAYS in a group and under supervision. In AIT we were sometimes given pass, but the buddy rule was in effect. Even there we had to travel in a group of at least two. It felt strange being out in the woods by myself. Strange in a good way. I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. I did not stress over finding my points because my navigation skills are strong. Upon reaching my second point, I relaxed with some left-over MRE food I had brought along. The 15 minute break, just laying there soaking up the sun, felt very good.

My third point was an odd one. All of the area surrounding it was burned down. I surveyed the area, and noticed that one fallen tree in the area was still smouldering. I did not have enough water on my person to put it all out, but was concerned that any winds could fan the flames and start a larger fire. Three points in hand, 2 hours left on the test, and my 4th point less than 1km from the base, I returned to report the fire hazard.

At the base, the Company Commander himself decided to drive me out to the site of the burn with jugs of water. In AIT you really respect your Drill Sergeants. The First Sergeant, their bosses, is someone you REALLY respect. The Company Commander is the First Sergeant's boss. In spite of his rank (he was a Major), the Commander quickly put me at ease. We quickly discovered that we're both pilots, and spent quite a bit of time talking airplanes while driving to the site of the burn. It was a good time. Before long we found the burning tree and drenched it with water.

The test was scheduled to be over in four hours. As the sun began to set, two students had not yet returned. We held dinner for them. One team, one fight. As it became totally dark, concern began to spread. Then a search party was formed. I was asked to join one of the search teams. We navigated along the route of one of the missing soldiers, checking to see if he had perhaps fallen and broken a leg en route. Drill Sergeants and instructors drove the fire roads. Finally, after about an hour of search, the word came down that they had been found along a nearby highway. One of them had gotten totally lost and followed the other, who it turned out was also totally lost. They went in pretty much exactly the wrong direction for miles and miles before hitting a highway. You might think that they could catch hell once they returned, but the opposite was the case. They were welcomed back with only a moderate amount of jokes.

In all, the day was fun and successful. Just remember to bring fresh socks.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Things that go Bump in the Night

It was a clear night, with a decent moon. It was easy enough to see - if you're in a clearing. Go into one of the many tree groves, though, and things become very, very dark.

Tonight we had the opportunity to put our land navigation skills to the test - in the dark. We broke into 4 man teams, and were given objectives that were kilometers apart. Getting your bearing, and walking a straight line once you have it, is much more difficult when you can't see distant objects well - or at all. We decided to have two team members watch their compass as we walked to maintain direction, while a third kept count of the pace. The fourth team member did a backup pace count, but his main job was to keep track of the big picture - to watch for landmarks such as fire roads and streams, and see if we cross them about when we calculate that we should.

Our objectives were four 3' tall posts, each marked with a chemical light. They were all in wooded, hilly areas so you often had to be within about 30' to make them out. Each of the two compass men walked what they thought was the correct direction, then we started our search inbetween the two, moving out in ever expanding circles until locating the objective. Once we had a particularly hard time locating our landmark, so we decided to have all four people keep track of direction for the next one. My three teammates moved off in one direction, while I took a decidedly different route, about 5 degrees to the left of them. The temptation is strong to think "three of them going one way, and me going my own way... I must be wrong". Still I stuck to my guns, and pretty much walked right up to the marker. I would not suggest separating from your team like that in a combat environment, but there is an important lesson to be learned - don't just assume you're in the wrong because the majority has a different opinion.

After that marker, we moved into a very heavily wooded area. We had to exercise light discipline, meaning we only use as much light as absolutely necessary to navigate. At one point I sensed more than saw something very near to me, and stopped suddenly. Carefully probing the area immediately in front of me with my red lens flashlight, I discovered a large (4") spider no more than a foot in front of my face! Had I not stopped, it would have made contact with my left cheek right below my eye. That would have made for a nasty bite! One person in the group took a photo ... I'll try and get a copy to post (OK we really broke light discipline when we took a flash picture :-) Don't do that in combat.)

Moving back toward the base, we were moving tactically on what we thought was the right bearing. We were in a competition to try and return as quickly as possible, but we also had to move quietly. Moving through a large, open field SUDDENLY the night erupted in sound, and there was a flurry of motion DIRECTLY in front of one of my team mates. He jumped back - just in time to see that he had flushed some quail from their roosting spot :-) We all had a laugh and returned to the base camp.

If I had to describe the night in three words, they would be Teamwork, Excitement and Fun.

Special Forces Land Nav Course

Today we put our classroom skills to the test. Three days and nights of land navigation on the same challenging course used by Special Forces. Each of the first two days are designed as two-man team events. The third day, we set out on our own to prove our skills.

Upon arriving at our bivouac sight, we first setup large, 15-man tents. They would provide our shelter during the cold evenings. Then, we gathered a large amount of wood from the surrounding forest. A perpetual fire would provide our heat (there was also a heated tent for treating cold weather injuries, if necessary). While setting up camp, Tex (the funniest person I have ever met from Texas) caught a lizard and tied it (using the strand inside 550 cord) to a tree. It would become our mascot for our stay.

Even skills you once mastered must be practiced lest they grow rusty. Our first practical exercise demonstrated that for me. We were to navigate to four points, each quite some distance apart, using map, compass, and our pace count (pace count: the number of paces you need to cover 100 meters). Being a pilot, I felt quite comfortable with the task. Tex and I each took a bearing, counted our pace independently, and felt comfortable that our goal - a 3' high white post - must be close at hand. We searched. And we searched some more, and finally realized that something was amiss. After a while it dawned on me. The magnetic north pole of the earth is not exactly aligned with the true north pole. You need to add in a magnetic deviation factor, the value of which depends on where you are on the earth. The correct value is printed on your map. We had both failed to apply magnetic deviation, leading us well off course. One option would be to return to the starting point and begin over, with the correct initial bearing. That would take a long time (it was a timed event). With a basic knowledge of trigonometry, it's possible to estimate the effect of the missing adjustment and calculate a new bearing from the first point you found. That would have been an option. I found an easier route. The point was plotted on my map. I looked for the bends in roads near the point, and the bends in roads I could observe. After just a little while, I formed a mental picture of where I must be on the map, and could then simply visualize the correct position of the marker. Think outside the box. Use all information you have available to you. We learned a valuable lesson today.

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