There’s not much choice in deciding what to wear with the wakeup call. It’s 7:30 a.m. and the color scheme at the Escuela Lanceros (Lancers School) is forest green, brown and black.
As the main base for training Colombia’s Special Forces, Tolemaida, 70 kilometers southwest of Bogotá is more than a boot camp. Black Hawks depart to all corners of the country and the base is all about activity, all the time.
The morning mission of my drill sergeant is to “break my profile and reduce my visibility” as a soldier dressed like a haystack covers my chin and cheeks with camouflage paint. Looking the part of a commando, I have come on a course to learn the different aspects of soldiery – everything from “how to” camouflage to communications and weaponry.
I am a guest of Colombia’s top commandos, the 2nd Battalion Special Forces and those same men who “neutralized” FARC henchman, Mono Jojoy.
BANG! A stun grenade explodes as we enter the reconnaissance display area, leaving my ears ringing. “That was to see how you would react,” says Special Forces Infantry Captain Cristian Orozco who continues his talk unfazed by the noise, while my groupies stagger about. “This day is going to be very hands on,” I think to myself.
Colombia’s Special Forces have airborne capability for rapid deployment which means jumping out of helicopters. So we head to the aerial assault towers for a demonstration. A squad of men with full battle gear abseil down and secure the area in a couple of minutes.
“Right,” says Captain Orozco, “Your turn.”
The soldiers help us into harnesses, strap helmets onto our heads and lead us up six flights of stairs as we climb to the top of the towers decked like the inside of sturdy Hueys and clip onto the descent line. Standing on the running board of this make-believe chopper some 18 meters above ground, I lean back and slowly feed out the rope. I have abseiled many times before, but suddenly I am gripped by nerves as the moment of truth approaches.
“OK, now jump,” says the instructor, and I kick out and rapidly descend towards the ground, controlling my fall perfectly. Exhilarating!
We are whisked to the dog squad and a demonstration of how golden retrievers can find various kinds of explosive from plastic C4 plastic to more improvised devices based on fertilizer and diesel. The dogs perform a vital role in the field, checking territory before the units cross rivers. “People are always near rivers because they need water, so that is where we find the guerilla,” said another instructor.
This is followed by a quick session learning knots to link ropes, or to anchor them to trees. And then lunch: a soldier’s ration of dehydrated carbs with an eternal “use by date” boiled up on a camping gas stove. Menu No.5 is chicken and goulash. Mmm…crunchy peas!
With stomachs full we head to the shooting ranges, passing the white Mi-17-1V used in Operation ‘Jaque’ in 2008 that resulted in the liberation of fifteen hostages from the FARC. First, we are instructed on how to dissemble and reassemble a M4 rifle, or to be more precise, a Colt M4 Bushmaster rifle with Colt M203, 40mm grenade launcher.
After loading a magazine with 30, 5.56mm rounds, we took prone positions lying in the mud to shoot targets at a 40 meter distance. Three rounds go off to see the accuracy of our aim and then 27 rounds in competition. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! More than the noise, it was the air percussion wave hitting me in the head from the person firing to my left that disturbed my concentration.
I wasn’t the fastest, but I scored 269 out of 270. Moving forward 20 meters, we next fired the 9mm Beretta 92 automatic pistol, standing. This was much harder to maintain steady and fire accurately, but I scored 139 from 140, winning the contest. Next, machine gunnery.
An incredibly deafening noise pierced the country silence in loud repeated bursts that echo around the valley, as rounds from M60 E3 and M2-49 machines guns slam into the rocks on the far side. Combat is loud and disorienting. Being in a firefight suddenly seemed the most frightening thing. The noise alone is enough to instill fear and ensure you keep your head down, but seeing how the bullets rip up the target area is mortifying.
How anyone can function while on the receiving end of such an onslaught beats me. The grass is definitely not greener over there.
The M2-49 light machine gun fires the same 5.56 mm rounds as the M4 rifle, and we had a short belt of 50 rounds each to fire at a rock on some remote hillside. A fast continuous hum and the belt was spent. Then the M60 E3 that fires 7.62 mm rounds. This weapon makes a hell of a noise, a deep chugging sound, and with a kick that makes it difficult to see where you are firing – even the red tracer bullets. To command such an assault requires commanding one’s senses.
Next up is the sniper rifle, a U.S. Army M24 variant of the Remington 700 rifle topped with a 10 power Leupold scope. Working the bolt action and getting into a steady fire rhythm was almost smooth after the brashness of the M60. But the numerology and mathematics of weapon-naming still escapes me.
“How did you like that?” asks Captain Orozco. Our smiles say it all. It had been an incredible day of insight into the elite of Colombia’s fighting men and women and a Batallion that takes great risks to ensure that Colombia remains safe and a land of opportunity.