To Hell & Back: French, U.S. Servicemembers Weather Intense Combat Training

Staff Sergeant R.J. Biermann wrote:

“Take what you think your body can handle and multiply it by five.”

The words of U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Joel Mack became my mantra of survival during my field trip to hell and back across 50 miles of barren Djiboutian desert – a trek for which nothing could have prepared me.

Nearly 40 Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa and Camp Lemonnier servicemembers left camp May 31, 2011, with the intent of soaring through a 10-day desert safari. When we arrived in the Bour Ougoul training area, just outside Goubetto, Djibouti, I feared our greatest threat would be an “enemy” force. Instead, we fought off heat, dehydration, exhaustion, giant flies, knife spiders and dagger-sharp thorns before even switching our weapons off “safe.”

At the beginning of the course, our 160-person company was divided into four 40-person platoons. Each consisted of 30 French and 10 U.S. servicemembers where everyone was required to finish all marches to successfully complete the course.

The seemingly simple requirements proved to be too much for some. By the time we graduated, the number of students had dwindled by nearly 15.

We pushed our bodies beyond their natural and seemingly supernatural limits and our bodies pushed back. Dehydration and exhaustion victimized the majority of drop-outs. Marching more than nine miles, then 12, then another 12 and finally 20, with anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes of sleep after each march can do that to you. Trying to catch up on sleep during the heat of the day was a futile endeavor.

“We quickly realized that, in the desert, if you don’t take care of things they will take care of you,” said my platoon commander, French Army Lieutenant Gildas Hellegouarch.
And that they did.

Throughout the first five days of training we learned to survive in the desert while warring against an enemy force. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we moved our camp to a different location and met for instruction. Here we learned how to prepare and cook a goat; collect, filter and cool water; provide first aid and fight.

The most important tactic for many of us was keeping our water cool. Wet a boot sock, wrap it around your water bottle and hang it off a tree branch. These coolers were littered across the camp’s acacia trees.

After the first five days, we marched 12 miles to a new campsite. As with all course marches we could use night-vision goggles or hope moonlight would lead the way. Red artificial light was only authorized when moving through dangerous areas like a steep, rocky hill.

Moving blindly across a rocky plain, sweat pouring off my brow, my feet blistered and in severe pain, and no visible end in sight, could very well have been the most depressing sensation I’ve ever felt.

And it only got worse.

During the second phase of training, the French instructors dialed things up a notch. We were now required to stand guard, gather food and water, prepare meals, build shade structures and lead offensive attacks against the enemy. Finding time to sleep was on us. I thought sleep was a sure way to tell what day it was; but when you haven’t slept, 10 days can feel like 30.

After two days we departed on a 12 mile march to the final camp. The following evening we began our climactic 20-mile hike to the Grand Bara desert. Walking 20 miles took more than nine hours, with 10 minute breaks every 50 minutes. During breaks we would consume what little food we had left in our rucksack in hope of a needed boost. I even downed dry gelatin powder someone smuggled into the course.

As we neared the finish, one man lost his footing and injured his ankle adding to the “casualty” count. Another was simply too exhausted to go on after a break. Some were so tired they fell into a deep sleep in the 10 minutes we had to rest.

When we reached the edge of the desert, we knew we had only four and a half miles to go. I cranked up my music to spark some motivation. After the 16-mile march I was ready to quit – even with the end in sight. With 50 yards left, a handful of us mustered up what energy we had to sprint to the finish.

Never have I felt such satisfaction. Running a marathon in comfortable shoes, on paved roads, with water stations and cheering spectators is one thing. Walking an ultra-marathon in combat boots, in the dead of night, through a desert takes the cake.

After the 20 mile hike we slept for 45 minutes, and then forced ourselves awake for the graduation ceremony. We stood in formation with our French allies to receive the coveted completion badge – a pin with the outline of Djibouti surrounded by a large circle which rested under a scorpion. A golden sword passed vertically through it all.

In just 10 days, the course evolved this public affairs photojournalist into a new war fighter. I bled, sweat and oozed across 50 miles of what became the longest trek of my life. We defeated every inch of the course with determination, teamwork and self will. I never want to take this grueling course again. But if forced to, the camaraderie amongst my brothers-in-arms would make the “suck” worth it all.

I am the 8,940th person to successfully complete the course.

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