The Chinook helicopter, a workhorse of Army aviation, groaned as it powered up, its dual rotors beating the sticky humidity of the Panamanian jungle. Inside, despite the immense noise of the turbines, you could sense (if not outright see and hear) the slight twisting of the frame as the beast arched its back and lumbered into the night sky. The reddish hue that illuminated the chopper’s interior highlighted the darks and lights of the soldiers’ camouflaged face paint.
As a twenty-one year old infantry scout, I lived for this kind of adventure. In fact, despite having deployed overseas during the first Gulf War, this was without a doubt the wildest adventure I’d been on, six weeks in the Central American jungle. If you’ve never experienced the wildness of a triple-canopy jungle or rainforest, it’s something you won’t easily forget.
The first several days along the Canal Zone were filled with the usual repertoire of safety briefings and cultural and environmental orientations. We had groaned when we first heard about these, but they’d turned out to be both exhilarating and terrifying, first hand exposure to all those creatures and situations that could kill you in the jungle undergrowth. The briefings ended and the lines for phones (this was before the days of cell phones, kids) grew quickly longer with soldiers calling home to state the seemingly obvious. We were likely going to die down there, killed by the giant spiders, the poison dart frogs, or eaten by the Cayman alligators that infested the jungle rivers. But when those calls ended, the look of wonder and excitement on each of our faces was palpable. We loved it!
But Panama was far more than just a simple adventure. You can get those nearly anywhere you set your mind to it on the globe. It was a crucible, a rite of passage for us as individual soldiers and as a scout team. Patrols through kilometers of waist deep muck and mud. Blistered feet and festering wounds from the Black Palms. Hundreds of bites from carpenter ants that fell down your back when you stooped under a fallen tree, only to have your whip antenna strike the rotten trunk along which the ants marched. Stifling heat and suffocating humidity that turned your fatigues white with perspiration stains and rotted your feet in your constantly waterlogged boots.
There’s something to be said for hardship bringing a group of individuals together with a bond not easily broken. Unfortunately, in many organizations, leaders create (intentionally or unintentionally) hardship that is both inauthentic and unrealistic. Panama was neither inauthentic nor unrealistic. In fact, the training eclipsed all else I received in the Army, and you won’t find a more unforgiving and authentic environment on the planet. What you see is definitely what you get!
In recent years, I’ve reached out to my platoon leader, Lieutenant Chandler. I’ve asked about the training and missions on which we were involved during that deployment, about the preparation and planning that he undertook as the leader of this band of jungle brothers. His answer surprised me, “We didn’t have to orchestrate anything….the jungle produced its own training, challenges, and hurdles. To have built anything into that training would have been to undermine the natural obstacles that faced us. It was, honestly, the easiest training evolution I’ve ever had to plan.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Lt. Chandler’s words. Their applicability to all training rings so true. If one tries to build authenticity into training, the results too often falls short. Authenticity, by definition, is a natural state. Attempts to replicate or create it backfire. The key is, instead, to structure training around an already existing authentic environment. And that’s precisely what the Lieutenant did during those six weeks in the jungle.
And looking back, as I stood up from my webbed seat aboard that Chinook helicopter, its rear ramp lowered, I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off that ramp. Only black lay beyond, and somewhere thirty meters below, lay the Shagris River, along which we sped in the pre-dawn darkness. But step I did, along with three other scouts. And trust me, it was indeed…..authentic!