Many of the training pieces that deal with either the Selection course or the SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Course) we write from a perspective of one of the cadre members, which I was for a time during the early days of Selection.
Passing Selection and the SFQC was/is no easy task and many of the candidates that tried…and failed were good men who just didn’t meet the standards. Passing the Land Navigation course was perhaps the biggest failure producing event in the course. Possibly even more so than the physical events like the runs (with LBE and Weapons) and the Rucksack marches, which were increasingly longer and faster as the course wore on.
Land Navigation, now called the “Star” Nav course is still operated in the same area as the SFQC has always operated in. But back in the day, the central location, the start/finish point was an old rifle range. I understand that is now long gone and there is construction going on out there.
So back in the day, there we were, all bright eyed and bushy tailed candidates who were looking to get a first time go on the Land Nav course. And we all had the same gear, map (Camp Mackall Special), map case, compass, protractor, pencil, grease pencil, notebook, M-16, 55-pound rucksack, and 4 quarts of water.
The points, arrayed in a series of draws, (so they are harder to find of course!) are green metal fence stakes that were placed in the ground with a metal tag and a card punch so that no student would be able to recreate it and cheat their way thru.
We had a series of classes at Camp Mackall in the old classroom that was hot as hell in the summer and drafty and cold in the winter. The information came fast and quick and the Land Nav instructors knew their stuff, having done this for several classes. During this time, we were deemed fortunate as North Carolina was getting deluged with constant heavy rain that only seems to occur in the south or the tropics. The compound at Camp Mackall was seemingly all standing water and the runs and rucks in the evening during the classes were done in mud that seemed to cling to everything in vast clumps.
We finally headed out to the “rifle range” and the cadre gave us an area to set up our poncho hooches. We were basically free to set them up wherever we wanted, it wasn’t like the “Big Army” and every squad in a row. The cadre took us out for a “terrain walk” and quickly reconfirmed our pace counts and then it was off to do the first of our practice land nav courses before the final test.
The first day was more difficult than I had envisioned. The terrain and the thickets were tough, much tougher than I, in my cockiness had given credence to. I found only two points in the day but after talking it over with some of the other students after the day navigation and comparing notes, I approached the night with a renewed sense of purpose and found two points at night and returned within the time limit.
The second day went better, I blasted out fast and found three points in the day. I plotted my fourth but seeing where it would take me, it didn’t make sense to go there and not be able to make it back within the time limit. I again found two points in the night practice course having a good fairly clear lane to the first point and got there quickly, the next one wasn’t bad either. Making it back to the start/finish point in plenty of time before the time limit, I thought that this was going great…. Oh how quickly things change.
Getting back into the poncho hooch, I was glad that I piled the pine straw thick on the ground beneath me. About five minutes are getting in, the sky opened up and we had one of the biggest downpours I’d seen prior to getting stationed in Panama. It poured all night long and the rifle range was looking the Red Sea.
By morning the rain had moved on and we were off to our third and final practice Navigation Course before the final exam the next day. My first point was at the edge of Big Muddy Lake where it opened up into the large part of the water. It would be easily recognizable once I got close. The thickets around the pond were thick. I see now, some of the cadre members have nicknamed this area the “Dagobah System” in a tip of the beret to the Star Wars film franchise which is brilliant.
I knew I was getting close, I could just make out the water through the trees. As I got about 50 meters away, I could see the worn down trail from other Land Nav students. I bolted down the clearing and right to where the point should be and ….nothing. Pulling out my map, I did a check of the area and it matched up perfectly with the map. Scurrying around, I figured it was hidden behind a tree or a shrub. Still nothing.
A few minutes turned into 30 and making wider and wider circles around the edge of the lake was getting nothing. A few moments later, I heard crashing thru the woods and another Land Nav student came out right where I had. We made eye contact but said nothing since the students were forbidden to speak on the course. He obviously had come to search for the same point.
That’s when I made the mistake of doubting myself I shot back into the thicket and started to go west, a few hundred meters later, I came out back on the lake but it didn’t match the map at all, there was a swampy area farther back to the east, I headed to find it and would shoot my way back. At the edge of the swampy area, I came across another point, not mine. But plotting it and shooting a back azimuth to my point, it was exactly where it was supposed to be. I crashed back east around the lake until I got back to where I had originally begun the search. The second student was still there and doing another map check and was now joined by a third student. The #3 guy gave us a shrug as if to say, WTF! Screw it I thought, “It has got to be here…” I whispered. #2 guy looked left and right, and didn’t say anything but nodded.
Time was running out, I headed back, pissed off and frustrated. The SFC at the start/finish point was a big, tall lanky guy who was short and generally sarcastic when talking to students. I told him I got there, searched the area, found the other point back at the swamp and made my way back and the point wasn’t there. A few minutes later the other two students came in with the same story. The SFC cadre member wasn’t having any of this.
“You guys are a f***ing soup sandwich, that point is there, I put the tags on the stake myself four friggin’ days ago.” The other instructors chimed in, calling the three of us some choice names. The NCOIC of Land Nav came over and asked the three of the same things about the point, the location and what the terrain looked like at the edge of the lake. It was then that he and the SFC gave each other a look. “Get your shit and get in the truck.” We looked at each other and thought we were being booted out. We climbed into the back of an Army pickup and they drove us close to the lake. We stopped got out and they said, show us where you’re at. We walked down to the edge of the lake. The two SF guys looked at one another and smiled.
The SFC waded out into the lake about 15-20 feet where the water was up to his neck…reaching down, he said, “the water flooded the lake with the rain…here it is.” The NCOIC laughed…”At least you know it’s here. Let’s get back.”
The next day for the exam, everything fell into place, getting the requisite number of points in the day and night, with a big sigh of relief, I’d passed. As I was turning in my card, the SFC was at the turn-in point. I gave him my card. He glanced at it and said, “These points are all wrong.” Seeing the shocked look on my face, he smiled, “You’re a first time go, get out of here.” I started to walk off when he asked, “you have to swim for any points today?” I said no, everything was fairly dry. He said, “I wasn’t dry. I moved that point back into the edge of the shore in case anyone else had to go there.”
So I guess the moral of the story is, is that you’ll never know what curves will get thrown at you during the course…just hang in there. The solution to the problem may be “just under the surface.”
Photo: US Army
*Originally published on Special Operations.com