Panama was one of the places where the US used to send people to get some good jungle warfare training. As soon as the door of the plane opened up, you knew that you were in a jungle environment. Soon after getting all of the gear off of the plane you would find yourself drenched with sweat, and feeling completely wiped out. The first order of business was actually getting to the base, and that was an interesting experience all of itself.
The airport that we came in on was on one end of Panama, and the base we were heading to was on the other. In between was the Panama Canal. We loaded up all of our gear onto a circa 1980 school bus that had definitely seen better days, and were off to the base. Our driver, 'Pablo' looked to be about 15 years old. Driving across one of the many small bridges, one Marine noticed that he was looking straight down to the water, about 20 feet below. Getting up, he crossed to the other side of the bus and looked out that window. Nothing but water. Half a platoon full of Marines, all of our weapons and gear were on a 20 year old (at that time) bus, driven by a fifteen year-old, across a tiny bridge.
We made it to the base eventually, and began to settle in for the night. We were put up in a huge barracks, with about 150 racks to a floor. There was no air conditioning there, and just lying down in the middle of the night, you would be sweating profusely. The main job of the fire watch that night was to steal the solitary fan from the other platoons in the squad bay, and bring it over to our area without getting caught by the other platoons' guard.
The first class that we got from the soldiers stationed there was a booby-trapping class. It was very interesting, if only to re-emphasize that bombs can be made out of just about anything, with a lot more ease than I would have suspected.
As an aside, I remember one IED class that we got from a particular staff NCO. He was in the middle of his class, describing all of the various ways that he could construct something to make sure that you had a Very Bad Day. Pausing in his lecture, he asked if anyone had any dip for the poor old Gunny. The first can that he got was a can of Skoal. 'Not this crap, does anyone have any REAL dip, Copenhagen?' Of course, in a platoon full of Marines, there is always a wide assortment of smokes and dip, so he was able to 'feed the need'. After packing the tobacco, and taking a Gunny-sized dip, he placed it into his lip and with the practiced motions of long habit, placed the can into his cargo-pocket.
A few Marines chuckled, and reminded the Gunny that the dip wasn't his. He apologizes, and returned the can to the Marine. He then continued his class. Towards the end of the class, he had just finished emphasizing that we should never assume anything, when he pointed at the Marine with the Copenhagen. 'Did I return your can to you earlier?', he asked. When assured in the affirmative, he instructed the Marines to open his can of 'dip'. Neatly packed into the interior of the can was an IED. Not enough to do a lot of damage of course, but probably enough to let you know that you had assumed something, and we all knew what happened when you assumed...
The other classes were equally as entertaining, and they covered a lot of material. Just about anything there can kill you, or make you wish that it had. Finally it was about time for the practical application of our classes, the patrol and range fires.
Stepping off on our first patrol, we heard what sounded like a pissed-off gorilla at a distance of about 15 feet. That thing was loud, with plenty of bass. Made me kind of wish that I had something other than magazines full of blanks and a K-Bar to do any damage if I had too. As the beast was not actively tearing us limb from limb, we carried on with one eye on the patrols, and one eye looking out for him.
When you hear the phrase 'triple-canopy', they aren't kidding. When you are a mortar man, and you can barely see any blue sky to shoot into, this makes for some interesting live-fires. At one security halt, the Platoon Sergeant had a sneaking suspicion that we would be called on to fire soon. Looking around, he saw that only 2 of his mortar teams would be able to fire. Better than nothing, but still not very good. He noticed that there was one branch stretching across an opening. If he could just knock down that branch, he might be able to get another team ready to fire.... He attached a saw-blade to some 550 cord, tied it off, and threw the blade up into the branches.
Meanwhile, directly below sat two Marines, me and this Corporal. According to the SOP that we had at the time, I was on guard and he had a few moments to grab some chow. He had just dug into the jambalaya, I believe it was, when the Platoon Sergeant began sawing on the offending tree limb. After one drag of the blade, the old limb snapped off at the hilt, and fell straight down...
Right onto the Corporal's helmeted head. He was pushed down by the weight and speed of the limb, and rolled down a small hill. The Platoon Sergeant later confessed that he thought that he had killed one of his Marines and that he saw his whole Marine Corps career flashing before his eyes. Thankfully, the Corporal had somewhat of a hard head, and was none the worse for the wear. The MRE didn't fare as well, but that can hardly be considered a loss of any great significance.
After a couple of days, we kind of got into the swing of things, and got to where we could patrol, execute live fires, and return without too much difficulty. I still don't know how great of an idea it is to do it with 81mm mortars, but I suppose that you have to train for every eventuality.
Then came the competitive hump.
The hump was a race between all of the mortar platoons training there. It involved a treacherous hump, timed, along a set course. Platoons had the option of going with flack jackets and Kevlar helmets. A live fire was conducted at the end, and that figured into your 'score'. After the requisite trash talking between Marines, it was time to start. In the interest of not actually losing anybody in the jungle, the platoons were stagger started. This meant that there were no more than two platoons actually conducting the hump at any one time. This cut down on the number of moving parts, and allowed the instructors to adequately keep an eye on their charges.
The platoons that went before us did not fare too well. One platoon finished the course, but with an incredibly looong time. They were unable to get it together to fire accurately at the end of the hump. The next two platoons that went through had a 50%+ heat casualty rate, so the hump and live fire was canceled for them. Perhaps this should have been a clue as to the difficulty of the hump, but we were hard core, we were not troubled. (Sheesh)
This was without a doubt, one of the hardest humps that I have done. With my long legs, growing up playing soccer and swimming, humps have never been too difficult. This was way different. First of all the humidity just sucked all of the energy right out of you. There had been some recent rains so the terrain was about 90% mud, and you would invariably find yourself crawling through the unrelenting vegetation on the up-hill, and sliding down the down-hill, soon to be joined by the rest of your gear and the Marine behind you, falling on top of you. In addition to this, the Platoon Sergeant had such confidence in our manliness that he had decided that we would go ahead and do the hump with flacks, Kevlars, and mortar rounds already issued and stored in our packs.
This kicked my ass, I am unafraid to say.
It kicked my ass enough that I was the last Marine to cross the finish line, and when I did so I celebrated by just leaning over to the starboard side and damn near passed out. As I was unashamedly displaying what I had eaten for breakfast, the instructor complimented us on our 100% completion rate, and commented that he had never actually seen anyone do the speed hump with their flack and Kevlars. After about 10 minutes of shade and copious amounts of luke-warm water, I recovered enough to contribute to the team in the live fire, which we actually did not too bad in.
Traipsing back through the jungle towards the end of the training evolution, we came to a clearing on the edge of the foliage. On a tree stump about 30 feet away from us was this tiny little monkey, watching our progress. Most of the platoon had actually exited the jungle when this little guy opened his mouth, and what should come out but the sound of the Gorilla that we had heard earlier.