Building New Friendships Based on Blood, Sweat and Sacrifice
Deep in the Northern Training Area of Okinawa, Japan, Seabees assigned to Squad 1 complete the first third of the wet maze and they stop for a break. Exhaustion blankets them.
Dressed in thick uniforms, wearing combat helmets and slinging either an M-16 or M-4 automatic rifle, the humidity prevents even the illusion of cooling down. They share each other's water - a true gesture of friendship.
They pull large gulps from camelbacks and through deep gasps of air, gather as much oxygen as possible. Behind them, their Jungle Warfare Training Center Endurance course Leader Marine Corps Cpl. Dustin Davis begins laughing.
"Take your full ten minutes," he said. "That was the easy part. Stay close and keep up. No one stops running."
The squad groans and shoot looks of disbelief to each other.
"It's about to get good," said Davis more quietly, as he makes his way ahead of the squad.
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 Construction Mechanic 3rd Class Robert Cardona fights through waist-high mud and water while running a six-hour endurance course at the Marine Corps' Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC).U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Fahey
Squad 1 is part of a 63-Seabees contingent from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3. They are in 17,500-acres of dense jungle, occupied by poisonous spiders and three species of venomous snakes - but those are the least of their worries. Their battle is with the endurance course, or E-course - 3.8 miles of pain. It takes an average of six hours to complete. The Seabees are broken up into 12 to 18 person squads and timed to see which squads can overcome all 31 obstacles in the shortest time. Each second is critical, and the squads are led by some of the most jungle savvy Marines in the fleet - many, former Marine reconnaissance elite.
The light at the end of this muddy tunnel is faint at best. The path winds through flooded tunnels beneath roadways and up miles of dark, muddy terrain just to lead back down rain-soaked, slippery rock faces. Along the way, giant-sized wooden walls test the squads' team strength, memory obstacles challenge their alertness, and just as their physical and mental limits are broached, the team must both "monkey crawl" across a steel cable stretching roughly 60 meters over a 30 meter drop, then "hasty rappel" down jagged, wet rocks, leaning face-forward at a 90-degree angle, using a single rope as a steadying line.
There are no safety nets. There are no do-overs.
If a team fails, they feel it - probably for the next few weeks.
Marine Corps Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC) Instructor Cpl. Justin Kirkland reminds Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 Builder 3rd Class Thomas Hodson to breath after completing an underwater obstacle at the Marine Corps' Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Fahey.
At this point in the training, pain is the teacher, and it reinforces every second of instruction received during the week leading up to this final exercise. In that first week, the days were filled with both teacher-led instruction and practical application of orienteering, jungle survival, rappelling and mixed combat tactics. All lessons were both taught and learned under the same leafy canopy as the crippling E-course.
The teams are allowed breaks along the way. These moments provided opportunities for reflection. Many wondered why they were required to attend the JWTC course - the only training of its kind offered by the Department of Defense. They are reminded of their lineage. Seabees are an expeditionary force. Their operating environment doesn't stop at the shoreline, like their seafaring shipmates on the "blue side" of the Navy. The Pacific region's jungles have been a common work area for Seabees since the construction force's inception more than 70 years ago. For many, the Pacific is a second home. The poisonous Habu snakes and palm-sized tree spiders are a normal fixture, seen in bulk both during the training and throughout their careers. The creatures seen today in the Okinawa jungle are great, great grandchildren of those same species seen by Seabees of yesterday who waded through even uglier jungle during uglier circumstances.
"[The training] gave me some real perspective on how our forefathers fought during past wars," said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Cale Vandertuin. "That's all I could think about. I curled up with my legs crossed and ate my meals in the rain for only a few days - they did it for months in real combat. It made me very appreciative of their service."
The Seabees understand better than most of their shipboard cousins what combat feels like and why JWTC is such an important - albeit rare - part of their Navy education.
Seabees fight to protect what they've built. In Afghanistan, they constructed forward operating bases in full battle armament consisting of combat helmets, plated vests, medical packs, knee and elbow pads and sometimes multiple weapons with a minimum of 180 rounds attached to their person. This was roughly 70 pounds in added weight beneath the hot Afghan sun and under constant threat of enemy attack. Under these conditions, they built bridges, constructed walls and poured concrete. Here in the jungle, the threats come in the form of hostile creatures and Marine Corps instructors, and the Seabees aren't sure there is a difference.
"You look pretty big," said a hidden JWTC instructor, pointing to Utilitiesman Constructionman Zach Wallace. "You're hit. Lie down ... CASUALTY! CASUALTY!" he began yelling. "You were supposed to stay QUIET! You weren't. Now your battle buddy is shot. Squad leader - what happens now?"
Construction Electrician 2nd Class Dwayne Watson wasted no time.
"You and you," pointing to two of his squad members, "Post security on the left and right. You two make a stretcher."
Before the words were out of his mouth, Construction Mechanic 3rd Class Jason Hasuga and Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Chris Allen had their Seabee uniform tops off and began buttoning them up around two large branches. While they completed the improvised stretcher, they also used their uniform belts and a broken stick as a tourniquet for Wallace's simulated leg injury.
"This is the fun part I told you about," said Davis with a wink.
A Marine Corps Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC) Instructor helps Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Christopher Allen submerge during an underwater obstacle at the Marine Corps' Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Fahey.
From this point forward, the training lost all sense of simulation. The team had a 200-pound, 6-foot-1 Seabee to carry across, roughly two miles of muddy cliffs, crevices that ranged from 2-inches to 15-feet wide, and all the real dangers of an active jungle.
At the peak of the training's intensity, Watson's shoulders were pierced by the branches, blood staining through his uniform. His arms were failing and all 12 members of his squad were rotating positions to either provide security from simulated enemy attacks or to carry Wallace. The group was managing just a few feet every ten minutes or so through cement-thick mud. The water rose to chin level at times and just as they thought it couldn't get worse, someone yelled "snake!"
"It's crazy," said Watson. "I wasn't even worried about the snake - I mean, I was worried. It's a freaking poisonous snake, man, but I was more concerned with our positions and who was doing what. The training was that good. We got that into it, and knew if we didn't communicate and stay razor sharp, we would fail."
The snake withered off in a different direction and left the squad alone in the mud. They soon climbed out of the chin-level water and trudged up and down slopes and slippery hills.
The trees provided hand holds and massive roots helped steady their footing until they reached the final obstacle - the last hill. There were no trees, no roots.
The hill was an intimidating 45-degree angle going almost straight up and, thanks to the three-day thunder storm, the ground was nothing more than moss-covered clay. It was more slippery than oil and completely degraded. Two scouts, Builder 2nd Class Kesley Olise and Hasuga each attempted to take a step up the hill and came crashing down. There was no footing and nothing to grab on to, and time was ticking.
"LET'S GO!" yelled Davis. "You have a shot battle buddy. He has a family and is dying on your back. What are you going to do? Are you going to quit? Please quit! I dare you all to quit and let him die. Who wants to call his family? You?" he pointed at Watson. "You? You?" he pointed at random members. "Someone is going to unless you get up this hill."
Just as the squad had nothing left and had literally reached an uphill battle, they reached down ... way down and sacrificed. One by one, the squad lay on their stomachs, using their own bodies as footholds for the next person. Creating an uphill path of bones and muscle, the team was able to create a "road" up the hill. The stretcher bearers used the path, putting their fellow Seabees under boot to carry Wallace to the top.
"Stop moving Wallace!" shouted Olise while in the middle of the hill. "You have one job - to lay still. Do your freaking job!"
"I'm trying to help," said Wallace. "I want to help."
"Don't help," said Hasuga. "Lay there. Let's go guys! Last push!"
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 Religious Program Specialist 3rd Class Jorge Reyes performs a "hasty" rappel down a steep ridge while running a six-hour endurance course at the Marine Corps' Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Fahey.
Although painful, Seabees arched and curved their bodies to provide more footing for their squad to climb. During the final steps, there was silence. Near the top of the hill, the sun broke through the thick jungle canopy that had prevented any light during the hike. The sun hit them like hope amid tragedy. As it shined on them, the prospect of finishing the course ignited the group. They began yelling feverishly and erratically.
"ALMOST THERE! ALMOST THERE!" they all yelled out of turn.
At once, the team lunged forward, steadying Wallace before placing him on the ground.
"Let's get our people," yelled Allen. "We're not done yet."
One-by-one, the group pulled each member up. Their heads covered in mud, mouths full of dirt and eyes bloodshot from the pain of boot heals pressing against their backs and heads.
"It was the greatest display of teamwork I've ever experienced or even heard about," said Hasuga. "I can't believe I got to see that. It's amazing. In one week, we paid homage to our past warriors who died in jungles just like this and for a moment, we felt the same camaraderie they felt. There are no words. It's an incomparable experience."
The top of that last hill was the finish of more than just an obstacle course. The teamwork and communication required to take even one step in the hardened jungle provided a rare opportunity for the Seabees to develop a deep bond, kindled from the thick mud and jungle poison.
"How do you describe that kind of action?" said Olise. "We had guys throwing their heads down in the mud, so we could walk on their backs," she said shaking her head laughing. "That's crazy! At a point when my arms were dead, my legs were like lead blocks and my voice was hoarse from yelling and screaming, I have a person's human body keeping me from falling head first down a hill. That's more than friendship. I'm going to love these guys for the rest of my life. They're family."