Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, train for company-level combat operations during a recent exercise at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. The brigade's training focused primarily on Pacific-area operations. (1st Lt. Zachary E. Kohl / Army)
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The 25th Infantry Division is resurrecting the Army’s jungle school as it returns to its roots of fighting and moving in the jungle.
The Hawaii-based division has been regionally aligned with U.S. Pacific Command as part of the Defense Department’s rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region, and the Army’s effort to align its units with regional combatant commands around the world.
With the end of operations in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan, the 25th Infantry Division is available to work closely with America’s Asia-Pacific allies and focus on a type of warfare the Army hasn’t experienced since the Vietnam War.
“The 25th Infantry Division is refocused to being the jungle fighters they used to be,” said Lt. Gen. Frank Wiercinski, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific.
This includes having the division’s soldiers work and train with armies in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, he said.
Recently, the division sent Sgt. 1st Class Dominick Johnson to the renowned Malaysian jungle tracking school, where he became the first foreign student to be named the course’s honor graduate.
More exchanges are planned as leaders in the 25th Infantry Division begin to train their soldiers in the almost-lost art of fighting and moving in thick jungle.
The division also plans to stand up a Jungle Operations Training Center, something the Army hasn’t had since Fort Sherman, Panama, was turned over to the Panamanians in 1999.
For the past 12 years, the Army has focused on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Devens, the 25th Infantry Division’s senior enlisted soldier.
“There was a lot of urban and mountain training, and rightly so,” he said. “Everybody was expected to go at one time or another, so that became the focal point.”
A sensory fight
Now, the focus has returned to light infantry operations and jungle warfare, Devens said.
“It’s going to be boots-on-the-ground capabilities, of soldiers understanding the challenges of working in this environment instead of the [Central Command] environment,” he said.
Devens said his soldiers will pick up a lot of skills the Army has learned from its Vietnam and Korea veterans.
These include “the ability to survive by not making noise in the field, silence, concealment, the ability to understand the terrain you’re going to be fighting in,” Devens said.
During combat in Afghanistan, soldiers often are able to see one another and rely on assets such as unmanned aerial systems, radios and snipers, Devens said. Fighting in the jungle is different.
“It’s not a visual fight. It’s hearing and different senses,” he said. “You won’t be able to see each other … because of either double or triple canopy. The challenge is teaching them how to communicate when you can’t see each other, recognizing rates of fire, the ability to operate on the ground by the different sounds you hear from the [weapon] systems you have, and knowing the fierceness of the contact on the ground is based on the rate of fire and type of fire.”
With the inability to see fellow soldiers, the risk of friendly fire is “huge,” Devens said.
That’s why the “ability to adapt, that tactical fieldcraft of understanding how to operate, survive and make contact with the enemy, and attack and defeat that enemy in that environment is a huge challenge,” he said.
Soldiers also will have to deal with heat, humidity and a lack of potable water, he said.
The key is to “understand the environment and not let it be a hindrance,” said Devens, a graduate of the Malaysian jungle tracking school who trained four times at Fort Sherman with 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
“We’ve got to teach them not to let the terrain and environment be the enemy,” he said.
In addition to potentially having to fight in the jungle, the division also is focused on operating there to provide humanitarian and disaster relief. But it isn’t just focused on training within its ranks.
New ops center
The 25th Infantry Division wants to re-establish a Jungle Operations Training Center in Hawaii, much like the one at Fort Sherman, Devens said. The plan is to use the Kawailoa Training Area in central Oahu.
The training area features some of the most rugged terrain in Hawaii, with deep ravines and dense vegetation, according to the Army Garrison-Hawaii website.
But first, the division must focus on leader development, Devens said. “We owe it to our young leaders to make sure they’re trained first,” he said.
These young noncommissioned officers must learn how to train their soldiers in tasks such as being quiet in the jungle and understanding the terrain.
“We’ll make it first a train-the-trainer for young leaders who then train their soldiers,” Devens said. “Then we’ll transition to a fully operational jungle operations training center for the Pacific region.”
In the meantime, the division continues to look for partnership opportunities in Asia.
This includes sending soldiers to the Malaysian tracking and survival schools, a jungle survival school in Brunei, and jungle courses in Singapore and the Philippines, Devens said.
So far, two soldiers are scheduled to attend the Malaysian survival course in October, said Capt. Burton Eissler, the officer-in-charge of Lightning Academy, named after the division’s “Tropic Lightning” moniker.
The academy runs six training courses for the division, including a pre-Ranger program, Air Assault School, a combatives program and a tactical weapons course.
Eissler’s first sergeant also is looking for training opportunities in New Zealand, he said.
“As we look to stand up this jungle operations training center, we’re trying to harness the experience of our partners by sending soldiers to their programs and getting lessons learned based on the current knowledge base in the Pacific,” Eissler said.
In the next year, Devens said he and his team will work on getting instructors in place and finalizing the JOTC training program.
Units from the 25th Infantry Division are training for jungle operations, but the goal is for the JOTC to be recognized by the Army in the third quarter of fiscal 2014, so that soldiers outside Hawaii and soldiers from partner armies can train there, too, Devens said.
“We want this to be the hub,” he said.