Michael's Dispatches

A Beautiful Track

24 Comments

29 April 2009

A quick email from Borneo:

The fact that the United States Army has not created a large tracker-training program is a stunning failure in our combat preparations.  There is no doubt in my mind that some of the Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan would be here today if all of our soldiers conducted even ten days of serious tracking training.  Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that more enemy would have been hunted down.

Day eleven of training was more interesting than day ten.  The morning started with classes on urban tracking.  Some of the students, including me, were skeptical that we could track someone who was walking down roads, sidewalks, parking lots and so on.  Urban tracking sounds like dog-work, and there are four tracking dogs here.  Megan is a ten year-old black lab who has gone out with us on numerous occasions, including early this evening for night tracking.  The classes with Megan are designed to familiarize us with dog capabilities and limitations.  She tracks like a rocket.  Her handler, Sgt Matt Ball, was bragging about her one day, saying she got a medal for catching a murderer.  Even Megan is a veteran.  But we are learning to visually track and so it wouldn’t do anyone any good to put Megan on point for us.

After this morning’s classroom instruction on urban tracking, we loaded up on the trucks and headed to town for a tracking exercise.  Captain George Little, a student from the Royal Marines, was skeptical that we would succeed in town, and so was I.  After all, we were supposed to track someone through miles of area where people are crawling all over the place, and much of the ground was paved.

When we got off the truck, some Gurkhas wanted to talk about my website dispatches; at least one Gurkha has been reading the site.  So the Gurkhas were talking about it, and very happy to see that some Americans were now thinking about the “Gobar Gas” mentioned in a previous dispatch.  Also, the Gurkha who told me about the British UAV getting shot down read that dispatch, and wanted me to convey that they did allow the Taliban to get the UAV.  The British soldiers, Gurkhas in this case, got it back.  I told the Gurkhas that some Americans have questions about Gobar Gas, and that the Gurkhas are welcome to post comments or answer questions from readers.  However, despite that they are outstanding and courageous soldiers, the Gurkhas can be a bit reserved and so we’ll see if they chime in to answer reader questions.

Before setting off to track our quarry through town, we broke into three groups.  My group consisted of six students and one instructor.  Two students were British Marines, another is Para and the last Brit is RAF.  Two officers from the Brunei Army were in our group.  The Brunei soldiers, Lt. Khairul Azme, and 2LT AK Baharuddin, are also enthusiastic about this training.  It was good to have them in our group today; during urban tracking we are allowed to ask people anything we want to ask – just like in real life – and so the Brunei soldiers had a second job as built-in translators.  Our instructor was CSgt. Mick Corry who has a black eye that he earned playing rugby the other day.  Not sure where he gets the energy to play rugby after we nearly melt during training each day.  British combat soldiers are a fit bunch.

So we started off, and I figured we wouldn’t be able to track very far, and our biggest hope likely would reside in asking people “Which way did they go?”  The first prints were actually good enough for us to determine that we were trailing four people, but the sign quickly got harder to follow as it headed to the intersection of a paved intersection.  Cars were flying by and traffic was heavy.  It took me a couple minutes just to get across.  After that first very short stretch of good prints, I think we didn’t see another good beautiful footprint for maybe two miles.  But we somehow stayed on the trail – there was occasional sign – and we took numerous turns through a residential area.  Traffic was still sometimes whizzing by us on some roads, but few people were outside because it was very hot.  Sweat was pouring from me like a rainforest.  We finally came across some locals who were not whizzing by in air-conditioned cars.  Two men were very friendly but they hadn’t seen anyone.  But a woman nearby said she saw five to six men and told us which direction they came from and where they went.  She was right about the direction, but it was only four men.  Her words gave us confidence that we were still following the right trail, which amazed me, actually.

The men we were trailing – British soldiers – had many options on routes to take, and so it would have been extremely difficult for a single tracker to stay on them.  Since we had seven people (six students and me) with ten days worth of tracking training, we were able to simultaneously confirm or deny different routes that our quarry might have taken.  The soldiers spread out and checked all the intersections and down the roads until they found a sign, or confirmed that there likely was no sign.  One lesson was that it would have been extremely difficult for a single tracker to stay on the trail.  Finally, after maybe two miles of paved surfaces we found a perfect track in some sand on the pavement.  The print was exactly like that back at the start point.  It matched up to the photos a soldier had taken, and to a track they had sketched.  CSgt Mick Corry, the instructor, said something like, “Now that’s a beautiful track.”  Mick says that every day, whenever we get a good track.  More than 99% of what we follow is hardly recognizable as a footprint.  But everybody gets a good feeling, a kind of track-joy, when we recognize a print that definitely belongs to our quarry.  Again, this was probably a couple miles from the origin before we finally got a great track.  But that was it.  The tracks disappeared on the pavement again and we got only occasional partial prints or signs.  Kids were coming home from school and were smiling and waving at the British soldiers, who smiled and waved back.  Many others waved at us from their cars.  The kids were leaving footprints everywhere.

We kept losing the track, but since we had seven trackers we kept finding it again, and finally it seemed to vanish near a gigantic mosque.  We totally lost the track.  Several hundred yards away some workers were sitting in the shade.  All the soldiers had rifles.  I walked up to the workers, smiled and said, “Hello,” and one man smiled back saying, “What are you doing?”

“Looking for you,” I said.  He threw his arms in the air as if in surrender, and just laughed at me and I laughed and sat down with him.  One of the Brunei soldiers, Lt. Khairul Azme, asked if the man had seen anyone.  Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen a soul because he’d been there only ten minutes.  He wasn’t even sweating yet.

Finally, a couple hundred yards away, a soldier found a beautiful print and it was definitely one that we had been trailing.  And just close by was another print that we had definitely been trailing.  This was fun and we all got a bit of track-joy going every time we found a beautiful print, or even a good impression of any part of one of the shoes.  Good grief it was hot, though.  The instructor, Mick Corry, must have been happy that the students were doing so well, because his mood was good and he said of the Brunie people, “They sure are a friendly bunch of people.”  Mick told the story of getting a flat tire. His spare was flat, and a Brunei man stopped and took him to a garage.  A man at the garage gave Mick a free tire and just asked that he bring it back when he was finished.  The first man drove Mick back to his car, but the tire didn’t fit.  So he gave Mick his spare, and asked him to bring it back when he was finished.  Two different people gave Mick tires.

In any case, we tracked successfully for about five miles and we never permanently lost the trail, despite that the majority of the trail was over paved roads or sidewalk.  Captain George Little, the Marine, was as surprised as I was.  We tracked four men in a city for about five miles, and it took maybe two hours.  Another group tracked only one man, and they went more than six miles and succeeded.  The third group also succeeded.

In total, our three groups successfully tracked roughly fifteen miles through a city.  We did it with only ten days of training.  It is difficult to understand why every combat troop in the United States military has not had this training.  In reality, even in the most elite units, many people have had only perfunctory tracking training, if any that’s even noteworthy.

In any case, we just got in from night training.  It’s getting late and tomorrow starts early.



Please click here for Part VII of this series on the tracking course in Borneo.

 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ron · 10 years ago
    There are several systems available similar to Gobar Gas - search on "biogas village" or "Human waste ingester" and you may find several examples of development projects that use these systems. Also, see Sintex Company in India that makes a $500 model, that may be pricey for the purpose.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kudzu · 10 years ago
    Yes it took a while but you should really look at the Army's Combat Tracking Course (taught at Ft. Huachuca, AZ) as for how its being taught. Keep digging at us without actually digging into it and you accomplish little in the way of bringing awareness, just create panic and a misinformed readership.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Maggie45 · 10 years ago
    I just get more and more amazed at you as the years go on. Thank you for what you do.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 10 years ago
    Fascinating stuff. Sort of like watching Butch Cassiday and .... all over again.

    What's up with that, Kudzu?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    bill moose · 10 years ago
    Michael
    As a boy growing up in the hills of Va, I have had opportunities to meet a few trackers/hunters. Underneath their BS lies an almost mystical ability to see the impossible. Its hard to believe the amount of info they can get in only the briefest time. It is almost creepy what they can accomplish with the powers of observation.

    So naturally I assumed this was standard training in the US military. At least for guys like snipers or special forces. Imagine my shock of disbelief to read your words that this isn't so! I was literally dumbfounded. I hope and pray that this will now be remedied. And remedied quickly.

    Thank you for your work in shedding light on these serious matters.

    Bill Moose PGR
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RichW · 10 years ago
    Great dispatch Michael, thanks for the updates!

    Kudzu - I'm sure you know the tracking course training, and your own limited experience with it. But when it comes to giving a very good broad stroke view of how things are going, Michael is pretty accurate. He's got years of embedded experience with multiple branches of US and foreign military, plus his own special forces experience to draw from - I'm guessing when he says that our miilitary doesn't teach enough tracking, he knows what he's talking about.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gerard T Lingner · 10 years ago
    This kind of program needs to be expanded so that all our combat forces can benefit from the added expertise. Any kiind of an edge helps. We should take advantage of any that we know of. gl
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kudzu · 10 years ago
    I'm very aware of Mr. Yon's experience, that aside the constant harping on a lacking capability in the US Armed Forces as a whole doesn't really do it justice when it made the conclusion a few years ago that this was indeed a necessary skill. I agree with him that its a lacking capability, but to acknowledge it as he did in this one and then continue with saying "they still don't get it" just slaps those who've made the necessary effort to bring it back to the future.

    And don't think my own experience is as "limited" as you might assume it to be. Some of the readers here got out of the military, some never were, and some of us are still in and still deployed.

    Tracking as a combat skill isn't taught in grand scheme of things because it died out shortly before the 1980s. And now that we're back go fighting small wars, the skill itself has been picked up on by those involved in man-hunting. Its is now, back to where it was in the mid-20th Century as a formal course that is taught in the most realistic terrain and I might add, rather dangerous spots of our country these days. I started pointing out that the US Army had their own course that he could have gone to and it would have given him an insight into what is being taught at Fort Huachuca versus what's being taught in Borneo. The capacity for this course is growing and pretty much open to anyone. They even have mobile training teams that will go to you if you can't go to the Arizonan desert.

    I also disagree whole heartedly on his stance on enchanced interrogation techniques, including the "dreaded" waterboarding. I do however, support and am glad that he does what he does as a freelance reporter and is able to bring you a side of the wars we fight which most of the public and much of the military doesn't even see. He was quite possibly the only one discussing counterinsurgency operationsin Diyala Province, which was the final stronghold of the insurgency and detailed just how hostile it is there while the rest of the media focused on Baghdad. He realized that Baghdad would be won outside of the city by cutting off the supply lines that funneled the weapons into the city. There are many instances where Mr. Yon has proven to be an invaluable resource in providing insight in today's multifaceted battlefields, so don't mistake disagreements with a lack of knowledge.

    So please, next time you attempt to take me down a peg or two try understanding that not all of us reading Mr. Yon's dispatches are armchair soldiers sitting behind an XBox with Call of Duty on it.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kudzu · 10 years ago
    Scott, the course I'm referring to can be found at http://www.universityofmilitaryintelligence.us/functional_courses/ctc/default.asp
  • This commment is unpublished.
    paul Vallandigham · 10 years ago
    I agree: Back in about 2005, I was contacted by a special forces Sergeant stationed at Ft. Bragg, who was back from Afghanistan, and about to go to Iran. He had seen an article I wrote on tracking on the internet( no longer up) and contacted me to get copies of everything I have written, published and unpublished, to send to him. He told me that he was with a group of Non-coms who had been directed to acquire any and all information they can about tracking with the idea of starting a tracking school there at the Ft. Without getting into any details for security reasons, he indicated that he and some of his friends had used their tracking skills, leaned from family members as kids, to locate caves in Afghanistan with fresh tracks or signs of activity. There were so many caves, that the military could not afford the explosives to blow them all up! So, these trackers became valuable assets to the command officers. They also apparently tracked down some of the bad guys, and officers took note of that.

    After Vietnam, the military closed its schools, as usual. It was only when the war in Kuwait came on that the military again began thinking about training and using trackers. The Two schools were opened up during the Gulf War, and have remained open, but underutilized, since then.

    After sending out my articles, I had a phone call from him asking if I would consider coming out to the Ft. to lecture and teach tracking. I gave him a conditional yes, and he said he would get back to me. Within 30 days, we invaded Iraq, and he was gone. He has since come back, and received a commendation for bravery that was reported on one of the sites. I don't have a clue as to the status of the tracking schools, today.

    I have been lobbying for more funding for these schools, and for training more than just special forces in these skills for years. I wrote a letter to Sec. of Defense, Don Rumsfeld asking him to put pressure on the Joint Chief to provide better funding, and to expand this program.

    I did hear that the Death Road in Iraq- the road from the Airport at Baghdad, to the central city- was finally cleared of enemy IED by the work of some trackers, who went out on the flanks off road, and cut sign to find tracks of enemy going to and coming back from the roadway. The tracks led them to the IEDs, and also back to the locations where the bad guys were waiting to dial in their phones and blow the IEDS. The army killed hundreds if not more of these killer teams, until they could no longer sustain the losses, and abandoned the fight.

    The kind of tracking needed to track and trail people is considerably less intense than that needed to locate and follow small animals. All this can be presented to interested soldiers in a few weeks of intense training.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Cox · 10 years ago
    Sorry if this is repetitive -- I haven't read most of the comments.

    There used to be considerable pride among the US Border Patrol agents on their tracking skills. I heard some remarkable stories while living in southern New Mexico in the '80s.

    I wonder if any of the agents with those skills are still around, or if they got tired of being shot at from across the border without permission to return fire, and moved on.

    Excellent reportage, Michael. Very interesting and entertaining reading. I envy you the valuable experience, but not the profuse sweating. Stay hydrated!

    TC
  • This commment is unpublished.
    paul Vallandigham · 10 years ago
    I agree: Back in about 2005, I was contacted by a special forces Sergeant stationed at Ft. Bragg, who was back from Afghanistan, and about to go to Iran. He had seen an article I wrote on tracking on the internet( no longer up) and contacted me to get copies of everything I have written, published and unpublished, to send to him. He told me that he was with a group of Non-coms who had been directed to acquire any and all information they can about tracking with the idea of starting a tracking school there at the Ft. Without getting into any details for security reasons, he indicated that he and some of his friends had used their tracking skills, leaned from family members as kids, to locate caves in Afghanistan with fresh tracks or signs of activity. There were so many caves, that the military could not afford the explosives to blow them all up! So, these trackers became valuable assets to the command officers. They also apparently tracked down some of the bad guys, and officers took note of that.

    After Vietnam, the military closed these school, as usual. It was only when the war in Kuwait came on that the military again began thinking about training and using trackers. The Two schools were opened up during the Gulf War, and have remained open, but underutilized.

    After sending out my articles, I had a phone call from him asking if I would consider coming out to the Ft. to lecture and teach tracking. I gave him a conditional yes, and he said he would get back to me. Within 30 days, we invaded Iraq, and he was gone. I don't have a clue as to the status of the tracking schools, today.

    I have been lobbying for more funding for these schools, and for training more than just special forces in these skills for years. I wrote a letter to Sec. of Defense, Don Rumsfeld asking him to put pressure on the Joint Chief to provide better funding, and to expand this program.

    I did hear that the Death Road in Iraq- the road from the Airport at Baghdad, to the central city- was finally cleared of enemy IED by the work of some trackers, who went out on the flanks off road, and cut sign to find tracks of enemy going to and coming back from the roadway. The tracks led them to the IEDs, and also back to the locations where the bad guys were waiting to dial in their phones and blow the IEDS. The army killed hundreds if not more of these killer teams, until they could no longer sustain the losses, and abandoned the fight.

    The kind of training needed to track people is considerably less intense than that needed to locate and follow small animals. The more eyes you can put on the ground, cutting sign, the safer these men are going to be as a group.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Wayne Hutton · 10 years ago
    I love these reports and hope that everyone in any kind of unit management or training capacity reads them. I'm generally shocked that we all train, or do things, just "because that's the way we've always done them." Networking (which to a large degree is what Michael is doing) and then reporting on it, is exactly what we need. We all need to be reminded that we all don't have to reinvent the wheel, and that sometimes other people's wheel are a hell of a lot better then any we could make anyway. Best regards Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marilyn Lindquist · 10 years ago
    Michael, how did this tracking compare with that you took us through in "Danger Close"? Super reading and exciting to imagine.
    Continurally praying for you and our guys and gals who are so valient, oh "M-flying dot-Y" :-) Ah, Megan shall be added to my prayer list.
    Marilyn
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RichW · 10 years ago
    Didn't mean to disrepect you, I tossed off a quick comment during lunch and it came off wrong. All I meant was that each person tends to see things thru the narrow prism of their own experiences. I don't know what yours is, but clearly its an informed position. However I tend to weigh Michaels opinion quite high on things like this due to the broad experiece he's had with so many diverse units in multiple areas of the world. I don't see where he said "they don't get it", he said its difficult to understand why every combat troop hasn't had it. Anyone being deployed gets months of training, you'd think they'd have a way to include something like this if it's as valuable as people seem to think it is (me included).

    I agree with you on disagreeing about the enhanced interrogation techniques though, but thats just my humble opinion.

    I fall into that "got out of the military" category, but that was a couple decades ago. Don't play XBox, don't own an armchair, and never played Call of Duty. Looks kinda cool though, might have to pick it up one day. :-)

    Semper Fi
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Frank Burt · 10 years ago
    It is extremely frustrating that our military has to consistently relearn skills that are learned at such tragic prices. Throughout the history of each of the services it seems they keep discarding traditional methods in favor of high tech, believing there cannot be any conceivable need for the old ways, only to find that the new technology falls short or the enemy modifies its own tactics to circumvent the new gadgets, usually in some low tech way. Then we rediscover that the old way is the best way.

    We see it with the tracking training Michael is writing about and we saw it back in the old days when such things as aerial dog fighting was discarded in favor of stand-off missiles, only to get our butts kicked by the North Vietnamese Air Force in the early days of the air war there. It wasn't till Top Gun was implemented that we relearned something we should have been maintaining all along.

    The same applies to sniping. We have established and discarded that tactic, only to discover we still needed it so many times its ridiculous. With the emphasis of Special Warfare perhaps it will finally become a permanent fixture. This is especially appropriate in view of the fact that ultra-skilled marksmen were the backbone of the first Army this nation ever fielded.

    The tendency to ignore the value of traditional skills even extends to our Navy and itƒ??s Fleet. There is a push to automate shipboard systems with the aim to minimize the number of crew onboard. The net effect of this will be to reduce manning to a skeleton level where damage control, which is inevitable and requires real people to accomplish, will be ineffective. That will essentially make our Fleet as disposable as pop top soda cans.

    The bean counters and the Futurists need to take a close look at reality and stop discounting tried and true methods of fighting wars.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rick · 10 years ago
    US Army has a great course in AZ. I have met with both instructors and students, both excellent.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    W J Haller · 10 years ago
    Mike

    I lived in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo, for several years.
    Your dispatches remind me of how intoxicating that life can be. Despite the heat.
    Make sure you sample a prawn sambal before you leave.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kudzu · 10 years ago
    He kept saying "they don't get it" with sentences like:

    "The fact that the United States Army has not created a large tracker-training program is a stunning failure in our combat preparations. There is no doubt in my mind that some of the Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan would be here today if all of our soldiers conducted even ten days of serious tracking training. Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that more enemy would have been hunted down."

    I make this point because a large program, that infects the rest of the Army (and military as a whole) is going to to take time. Yes it had to be relearned but give it time and the validity of such a skill will become apparent to the force as a whole and soon those who go to these schools will be teaching their own units and so on and so on. Its how we've operated for a long time: train the trainer. Just as it took us 4 years into this fight to create the AWG to learn enemy TTPs and formally teach them to commanders- now they take that and they've run with it. Like I said before... give it time. We're a million strong force, nearly 2/3 of that is tied up in the Army and Marines. Of that, we're talking about a force that is deployed at least every 1 of years for the past 8 years. Secondly, Mr. Yon admits via the Brits that our course is rather good but provides no ancedotes about statistics: number of students, MOS, units, deployments, cadre... That's rather important when you're making the judgement that this training isn't getting out to the larger force. I know he's in a rather limited area but this is something that could be done back home, I'm sure they'd love to talk him.

    I'm glad Mr. Yon has gone to Borneo and shown us the various schools of thought and training available. Now that I know that this course is open to foreign students I'm going to go back to my unit and push that we send people there in addition to our own at Ft. Huachuca.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John M McCarthy · 10 years ago
    To all who read this, I support civilian missions in Haiti and Kenya. Cooking fuel in these desperate areas is perhaps the most valuable commodity. Any & all info relayed to me via my email will be immediately relayed to the feet on the ground in those places.

    The mission I represent in Haiti is www.HolyAngelsHospice.org and the mission I represent in Kenya is www.ProjectHarambee.com

    Thank you Michael Yon for your brave journalism. Any further info on how to assemble gobar gas grills is greatly appreciated.

    Johnny Mac in Chicago
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 10 years ago
    When I googled it several days ago, I found detailed instructions on building and operating a gobar processing unit.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley, CDR, · 10 years ago
    Here is the link

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/9231051/Fuel-Gas-From-Cow-Dung
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack Lillywhite · 10 years ago
    I lived in Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan) back in the early 80's when working on the Balikpapan Refinery Expansion. We had two rugby teams - one the Bechtel team made up of Yanks, Brits, South Africans, Kiwis and Aussies as well as a Jamaican half back who was pretty fast. The other team was the French team from Total who had an operation there. We played every Sunday in the afternoon with the temps above 100 F and the humidity pretty darn close to it. Some of us had played golf in the morning at the Balikpapan Golf Club ($75 a year to join). You're right Mike, you do have to be fit but getting acclimated to the climate is the secret.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nick · 10 years ago
    Mr. Yon,

    I have some USMC buddies training right now to go out on a Border Transition Team. They're about to leave for 2 weeks in Yuma, Arizona, and I know part of their training will include tracking.

    It's probably not as advanced as the training you've been participating in, but hopefully the beginning of an increase in efforts to train the troops on tracking skills

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