Monday, March 06, 2006

Survivor - Army Style

That was some weekend! Our brigade decided to finally start doing some real soldiering and not just paper pushing. And so they held a soldier competition called..."Survivor". Each unit was supposed to provide several 5-person teams that were to "outrun, outwin, outsoldier, outeverything else". I ended up being a team leader for my team which was a bit scary.

The competition started on a Saturday morning with a breakfast at a mess hall at Camp Blanding, FL. Well, at least I thought of breakfast as an unofficial first obstacle since it was absolutely disgusting. I guess, not all the teams survived it either, since only 31 out of 33 teams reached the starting point. The second unofficial challenge of the day was to survive an unexpectedly cold morning while geared up for an exceptionally hot day. While at it, we also made some last-minute adjustments to our gear, locked and loaded our M-16s with some blank ammo, and mentally prepared ourselves for the tasks at hand (read - complained about how we didn't want to do it).

At exactly 0900L or 9AM ET for non-military folks, my team was finally given a green light. We briskly marched the first 500 yards to our first challenge - a Leadership Reaction Course. That's where an entire team had to solve an action puzzle based on one of many scenarios. In our scenario, we had to move a box of food concentrates across a contaminated stream over to the other side to save some starving people. The concentrates looked very much like red bricks and on closer inspection proved to be them. And of course, there was no bridge over the stream, just some randomly placed stumps, some not big enough for even one person to stand on them. There were some other details of the assignment that added to the challenge. We were given 5 minutes to come up with a plan and 15 minutes to execute it. Surprisingly, we completed the mission in 2.5 minutes! Even more surprisingly, we got a "NO-GO" on it! Why? Because we forgot that the concentrates aka bricks couldn't be exposed to air for more than 5 seconds at a time. If only we remembered to close the box every time a brick was added or removed!!!

A bit bummed, we left the Leadership Reaction Course and set off on our way to the next checkpoint, a Confidence Course. Some teams actually ran this 3-mile long stretch. Chris' team did. My team wisely decided not to get in over our heads and just walk as fast we could. 59 minutes and some seconds later we arrived at the obstacle course. This was not a timed event, but the points were taken off every time a team member failed to complete an obstacle. And there were plenty of opportunities to fail - 19 obstacles total. Some were ridiculously easy, such as crawling under a barbed wire, walking on balance beams, or moving through a scary-sounding "Nut Cracker" (it's on one of the pictures). Others were really challenging, such as a very long "Monkey Bars" obstacle, an incline wall, and a "Belly Buster". I am very proud to say that I passed all of the obstacles. But overall, my team did rack in enough penalties to set us back quite a lot. Nevertheless, our spirits were high since we knew we did our best and earned some bumps, bruises and cuts along the way that would guarantee us some admiration from our non-military friends and family.

After taking a short break, we set off on the next leg of our course to the IED lanes. Unfortunately, we lost one of our soldiers to a case of blisters. We knew that we would get some more penalties for loosing a team mate. And so we tried to move even faster to the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) lanes, some 3.8 miles away. And we did it, covering almost 4 miles in 54 minutes! Needless to say, we were pretty tired and hurting by then.

The IED lanes were probably the most interesting and the most challenging part of the entire competition. After a short break and a situation brief, we set off tactically (in a wedge formation, weapons at ready) on a narrow sand road into the palmetto underbrush. Some 300 yards into the patrol, our "point" (a forward person) noticed a canister that we suspected was an IED. Immediately we halted all movement, then moved back, set up the perimeter and called in with a report. We thought we were safe, but all of a sudden a second IED, this one much better camouflaged, went off right next to us. Our point person became a casualty. We had to react correctly, figuring out her injuries and providing first aid, calling for MEDEVAC, and then putting her on a litter and moving her 300 yards to a safe area. Now, that last part almost killed us all - carrying a 110-lbs casualty on a litter through loose sand and dirt is not as easy as it sounds. The 110 pounds become more like 1100 pounds and the 300-yard level road feels like an up-hill marathon. But we did it all from start to finish in 9 minutes and 25 seconds - not bad at all!

After catching our collective breath and drinking some water, we pressed on to our final challenge, only 1 mile away. We were so tired and aching! And the dirt road was killing us. But we all broke out into a run as soon as we caught a glimps of the finish line. And so we ran straight to our final challenge - disassembly and assembly of M-16s. I don't really remember much about this task other than we were tired, thirsty, my feet were killing me, and my hands were shacking as I was putting the parts back together. But apparently we finished it with little penalty.

Grateful for this thing to be over, we climbed on an old bus (no AC) and were driven (what a novel experience!!!) to the fun part of the day - a paintball game. On any other day it would be a great opportunity. But we were all very tired to really enjoy it. Still, we got off the bus, received our gear and a block of instructions on use of paintball markers, and set of on a foot patrol. Our first scenario was to react to a sniper attack. Right after it, without a warning, a second scenario - an ambush - kicked in. 5 minutes later, covered in sand, paint, and bits of green plastic from the balls, we returned to our bus.

After getting back to the barracks we had to immediately turn our weapons in and go to an award ceremony. Another team from my unit finished 1st. Chris' team got 2nd place. And I have no idea about my team except that we weren't in the top three. By the time we got to the barracks it was past 8pm (or 2000L for us military people).

It is Tuesday now. The sense of accomplishment and the feeling of pride subsided. What remains are the blisters, the bruises, and the sore muscles. Oh, yeah, and this is going to be an annual event. But no matter what, it was still a pretty freaking cool thing to do! Give me another couple of months to recover and I just might want to do it all over again!