Editor’s note: The first Western forces sent into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were not from the United States. Rather, it was a four-man British Special Air Service, or SAS, reconnaissance and intelligence team known as “Brick.” These elite SAS special-forces troops exchanged automatic gunfire with Taliban soldiers in the foothills of Kabul and set up a communications link with the British intelligence and military in the United Kingdom.
It was with British soldiers that WorldNetDaily’s international correspondent Anthony C. LoBaido trained recently in the jungles of Belize. This first-person account provides unique insight into the esprit de corps enjoyed by the United Kingdom’s fighting forces.
THE JUNGLES OF BELIZE, Central America – Imagine the chance to live and train with an ancient fighting unit dating back to 1694 – then known as the 28th of Foot. A unit whose history is so colorful, grand and epic that it includes fighting against Napoleon’s expeditionary forces at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. A unit whose modern operational exploits stretch from the Korean War to tours in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo. This unit is the one and only RGBW – The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire-Wiltshire Regiment. They are the remnant of the greatest Empire the world has ever known and are considered to be one of the finest units in all of the British army.
Belize, known until the early 1980s as British Honduras, is no ordinary backwater of the fabled British Empire – the empire upon which the sun never set. While modern Belize is known for its pristine beaches and Mayan ruins, it is also a popular destination for various armed forces from around the world. Belize plays host to Panther Cub, the jungle-training program of the British army. Other British training exercises are held in Kenya, Botswana, Cyprus, Jamaica, Norway and Jordan.
Once their training is completed, British forces will be shipped overseas once again to places like Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Oman, Brunei and the Falkland Islands. The elite SAS, or Special Air Service, also undergoes training in Belize. After their training is completed, the SAS jungle sites are completely eradicated. The 3rd Regiment of the French Foreign Legion, based in French Guyana, also undergoes jungle training in Belize alongside the local Belize Defense Force or BDF. The BDF is sometimes used as an “enemy” during hunter force exercises against the British army.
A tribal people
“We are a tribal people. I think that that is a strength,” said popular Col. David Lee, who served 18 years in Northern Ireland. Lee is the commanding officer of BATSUB, the British Army Training Support Unit – Belize.
“Unlike other armies, our troops will usually serve in the same battalion for their entire career. The RGBW is a unique unit. It is county-based. This is a legacy that goes back hundreds of years to a time when the local sheriff would raise troops loyal to the king or queen.”
Lee explained that British forces used to carry out their jungle training in Borneo: “When we pulled out of Hong Kong, we moved our training regimen to Belize.”
Maj. David Brown, the commanding officer of the RGBW, explained that the RGBW also has an international flair.
“We have soldiers in the RGBW from Fiji, Mauritius, Australia, and even an Afrikaner (who apparently bears no grudge for the Boer War),” Brown said.
It is not unusual to find Canadians, Kiwis from New Zealand and Ghurkas training alongside British troops.
Speaking of the Ghurkas, Maj. John Knopp, second in command at BATSUB said, “The United Kingdom has long, historic ties to the Ghurkas, the pro-Western government of Nepal.” The money paid to the Nepalese government for the services of the Ghurkas is one of the leading sources of foreign exchange.
Said Knopp, “Nepal is a feudal and Hindu nation that is struggling to enter the 21st century. That money helps keep Nepal pro-West. The communists presently making trouble in Nepal are anti-monarchists, and they are backed by China.”
Panther Cub is supported by 84 dedicated British soldiers stationed with BATSUB. The BATSUB is also home to 25th Flight, which uses its Lynx and Gazelles to serve both the needs of British troops and casualty evacuation for the citizens of Belize. The Lynx is a duel-engine craft, which features two pilots and can be fitted with TOW anti-tank missiles and mounted machine guns.
“On this exercise, the RGBW is our customer,” Knopp told this writer. “They need battalion support in-country. They are learning to live out of a rucksack in the jungle. There is no other infrastructure. We supply them with that. Companies come to Belize to train year-round, except for July and December, when we let the jungle recover for a spell.”
Life for the military in Belize was not always filled with a few weeks in the bush followed by R&R on the sunny beaches of nearby Ambergris Caye – better known as “Temptation Island.” Until 1994, the United Kingdom maintained over 5,000 troops in Belize. A complete “strike force” featuring Harrier fighter jets was set up, ostensibly to keep neighboring Guatemala from invading.
“The border dispute between Belize and Guatemala is extremely important, because similar border disputes could erupt between Mexico and other Central American nations if common sense and international law do not prevail in our theater,” said Knopp.
“The border flap goes back to 1854, when the British Empire carved British Honduras out of Guatemala. The border issues plaguing Central America find their roots in the Mayan concept that ‘no one owns the land’ and that peoples should be able to migrate freely. It is much like the aboriginal concept in Australia. However, on the Guatemalan side of the border with Belize, the land has been stripped bare by timber merchants, and there are also more than a few shanty towns.”
The British armed forces offer additional support to Belize via a patrol ship based in the West Indies. This naval presence carries out drug interdiction and monitors hurricanes.
“In an emergency, Royal Marines will come ashore and set up mobile satellite communications and generators,” added Knopp. “In October of 1998, Hurricane Mitch was heading for Belize and would have taken this country back two centuries. However, at the last moment the hurricane veered south and hit Honduras.”
Speaking about Panther Cub, Knopp said, “We have some young men who have never been out of London. Coming to the jungle can be quite a shock. For the first seven days, they will learn to live in the jungle. Then for the next two to three weeks, the troops work on infantry tactics. Then comes live shooting. Finally, in the fifth week, they put all the skills together.”
Welcome to the jungle
My adventure began in the jungles of Belize in late August. I flew nap of the Earth along the Macal River, flying in a Gazelle helicopter into the approaching Hurricane Chantal. After a turbulent flight, I landed on the small bridge at the Guacamalo Bridge Camp in the dense jungles of Belize. I was issued my gear, had my face painted with black, brown and green Camtec paint and began the adventure of a lifetime.
A Gazelle helicopter at Guac Bridge.
Out in the bush, logistics really can be a problem. Our camp was far from fixed lines of supply. As such, most of the supplies had to be flown or trucked in from about 200 miles away in Ladyville. Of course, the British always bring civilization with them wherever they go, and the jungle was no different. We were treated to a delicious proper English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, toast with butter and stewed tomatoes every morning. (Haven’t the British heard of cholesterol yet? I’m surprised 7-year-olds back in London aren’t having heart attacks). Another important point of civilization in the jungle – tea-time came round not once but twice per day.
Visits by American journalists to the British army are not unlike the sighting of a comet. They emerge from nowhere, pass by quickly and invariably inspire pagan celebrations. A typical day in the jungle for a visiting journalist is long and hard. It might involve mundane tasks such as sharpening one’s machete, which actually was more like a butter knife when first issued. You will learn to shoot the light, almost toy-like SA 80 assault rifle right-handed, even if you are left-handed like myself, unless you want a hot round ejected into your face.
You will learn the difference between jelly and Jell-O and come to understand that hookers play rugby. You clean your weapons and wash your clothes, but never shave, because even the smallest nick can turn septic.
You wear your jungle fatigues and learn to accept being wet 24 hours per day, either from rain or sweat – or both. You quickly pick up on the acronyms – like Ex, BFA, Op and MFC. You learn that a section consists of eight men, that a platoon has three sections and that a company has between 100 and 120 soldiers or more, depending on support. There are four companies in a battalion. And, as the book of Acts tells us, 2,000 soldiers form a legion, and there are three legions in a band. It’s hard to keep up.
WND’s LoBaido with his SA 80 rifle.
The officers eat last, and if there is no food that day you make do with candy and soda – if you are lucky. You sleep on a hammock and learn to like it. You might wake up at 2 a.m. to relieve yourself and find out just how cold the jungle can get at night. My first night in the jungle I kept waiting for the hurricane to arrive, but it passed over us, only to wreck northern Belize. You check your boots for scorpions and peer into the shadows wondering if the rumor about the jaguar stalking the camp is true. (The animal was indeed interested in wild game caught in man-made traps during survival training).
In the morning, you arise at 4:30 a.m., brush your teeth and use dental floss and mouthwash.
Says Sgt. Pete “Gizmo” Thomson, the RGBW’s chief medic in charge of health, hygiene and safety, “Morning is a great time of day, because we really [make fun of] each other. I really love the banter.” The men called Thomson “Gizmo” because of the white patch in his beard resembling the creatures in the film “Gremlins.”
Of course, the banter – most of the time for this interloper – was indistinguishable. They might as well have been speaking Farsi or Xhosa. There were accents and dialects like Welsh and Cockney among the men.
“Can you please speak English?” I would often plead with the soldiers.
“We are and we do,” they would reply with a laugh.
Another significant cultural difference between Americans and the Brits is the lack of bravado a British person might exhibit, no matter how great his or her accomplishments may be. For example, an American who plays tennis only on the weekends might well say that he is a “great player,” while a Brit who just won Wimbledon might say he “plays a bit of tennis.”
The British Army is filled with many fine young men who exhibit wonderful traits of leadership, heroism and other old-style attributes not usually associated with Generation X. Says Roger Gale, a Conservative Party member of Parliament from North Thanet, “I think we have wonderful young people in the UK.”
Such self-effacing traits are legion around the RGBW. For example, Lt. Charlie Grist’s father once commanded the RGBW. He later went on to become a general in the British army. I interviewed Grist at length, and he never mentioned these facts. Grist and I had one special thing in common. We both taught English-as-a-Second-Language classes – he in India to Tibetans, and I in South Korea and Hong Kong.
Grist, who is strong as an ox, said, “We have the best platoon in the battalion, I think. That’s because of their personalities. In 1999, we went operational in the Balkans for four months. The first two weeks we were in continual operations and had only three or four hours sleep per night, yet we carried out our duties very well.”
During my visit to the RGBW, Grist worked with the Mortar Fire Controllers, or MFCs. They use a microwave radio link and a set of binoculars with lasers to pinpoint enemy targets and pass that information on to the soldiers actually manning the mortars.
“During Panther Cub, we will also work on the non-high tech mortar technique called aural adjustment,” said Grist.
“This means listening, looking and hearing. This is a black art, and Maj. Tullach, a retired New Zealand officer who served in Vietnam, will be here to work with us. It’s witchcraft, but it works.”
Grist is in charge of A Company, a haven in the RGBW for colorful characters. Speaking of the job Grist does with A Company, a fellow officer says, “Give A Company an inch and they will eat you alive. But Charlie uses a unique psychology, and he treats them with respect and acknowledges their knowledge. The colorful characters in A Company bring high energy and high morale.”
Another soldier too grounded to boast is Pvt. Young. Young crawled 100 meters in Kosovo through a landmine field, using only his bayonet to feel for mines, in an effort to rescue two injured Ghurkas. He never mentioned that brave act to me.
The men were smart and brave, quick thinkers and always polite. Some were young college students “hoping to make friends for life” and to make their parents and classmates proud of them.
Others were more experienced. One of those experienced soldiers was Sgt. Mark Anthony Clarke, known as “Knobby.” He was one of my jungle-training instructors known as the Jungle Jedis – the graduate/instructors of the Jungle Warfare School in Brunei. Knobby told me about how he still believes “in the concept of the British Empire.” I, in turn, told him about former colonial outposts I had visited in Burma, Cyprus and South Africa, much to his delight.
Capt. John Penhale
There was also the ginger-haired Capt. John Penhale, who holds a degree in Zoology from Nottingham. That degree no doubt came in handy in a jungle filled with snakes and wild creatures of every stripe.
Cpl. Stephen Johnson was another backbone of the RGBW. Johnson, who was deployed as a sniper in Kosovo, told this writer, “We have the most professional army in the world and the best special forces, even better than Israel. Germany’s GSG9 special forces are outstanding. The Ukrainian Spetnaz we trained with were not so good.”
Speaking of his time in the Balkans, Johnson was resolute: “I was na?ve when I first was deployed to Kosovo. The ideas we had in our heads were all wrong. We had been brainwashed to believe the Serbs were evil, and thus we were there only to protect the Muslims and Albanians. But by the time we got there, the Albanians were throwing grenades at us and they were intimidating and hurting Serbian women and children, so we had to change our focus and protect the Serbs. When the Serbs became the minority, the shoe was on the other foot. The people who were wronged in the past were now carrying out the same type of atrocities, rape and murder and organizing a secret police.
“One particular day we were at the mixed market in Lipjuan. The Muslims took over as a faction in a Serb enclave. Every Monday, Muslims came there from far and wide. We would stop and search vehicles. One day, I was walking around a corner in a market, and suddenly someone threw a grenade at us. My head spun around to look. … The shrapnel hit the truck windshield. None of us were hurt. But if anything went wrong, we were wearing the mess. It is hard to be both peacekeepers and an aggressive force. You wind up being the piggie in the middle, and you can’t win either way.”
Discussing the Russian paratroopers taking over the Pristina airport – an event that, had it not been for the cool thinking of British Gen. Michael Jackson, might have touched off World War III – Johnson said, “The taking of the Pristina airport was a Russian statement to Serbian people. The Serbs felt let down in a political and cultural sense. They never had the administrative ability and kit to maintain forces at the Pristina airport. Within three days, they asked for fuel and kit, as well as a sharing plan for the airport.”
Another interesting soldier with the RGBW is Lt. Rob Armstrong, who, like this writer, is also a former kindergarten teacher.
“I was a kindergarten teacher before I joined the army, and of course I enjoyed the fact that there was a 14-1 female to male ratio. I majored in child psychology and spent a lot of time preparing but eventually found teaching less rewarding. I had a long commute to and from work. A lot of kids at school don’t want to learn. A teacher can’t have winners and losers; they say it hurts self-esteem.”
Asked why he joined the British army and the RGBW, Armstrong was crystal clear in his reasoning.
“I’m from Reading, in Berkshire – actually from the outskirts of their tribe. I asked to be attached to [RGBW] because they are county-based. They are like a family and can’t help but to be like-minded. I did 18 months with them in Northern Ireland when I joined. You want to be surrounded by the best. We are an optimistic people with a sense of empire and history.”
Armstrong talked about the difficulties he’d faced since joining up: “At times, there are difficulties with the rules of engagement we have for every theater we are in. For example, in Northern Ireland, we must only fire warning shots. We give verbal warnings, and we only fire if we are in mortal danger or in the protection of someone who is. We will say, ‘Army! Stop, or I’ll shoot.’ During the motion of throwing, it’s OK for us to shoot, but once a person releases a petrol or nail bomb, you can’t shoot them – even if they run away to get another bomb.”
“The terrorists know our rules of engagement. Make bombs in a coffee can with Semtex, P-4, HME, (Home Made Explosives). There is a tricky situation in Northern Ireland because of the peace process. It’s all about being level-headed and keeping a watchful eye.”
An esprit de corps
The Guac Bridge Camp itself might not have featured much in the way of infrastructure, but the brainpower and soldiering experience on hand was phenomenal. Each day, Brown, Penhale and the NCOs would gather around a crude table to discuss the training regimen. The table was decorated with only a few scattered half-burned candles, matches and an odd novel. The portable white message board – which looked as though it had been ripped out of a school classroom – was the only item the brain trust really needed. On the board, written in black magic marker was the training schedule.
And it was around this simple table that I came to understand the esprit de corps and resilience that so defines the British character. This army has no conscripts, and as such, morale and motivation are high. The sense of history Armstrong spoke of is readily apparent.
Young was saddened by the current anarchy gripping Marxist Zimbabwe, but lamented, “Next time the Rhodesians shouldn’t declare independence.” Other soldiers talked about the British troops who had been taken hostage in the west African diamond and gem outpost of Sierra Leone. Some spoke of the apartheid mercenary army Executive Outcomes that had, for a time, brought calm to Sierra Leone.
When I suggested that British soldiers who serve in Sierra Leone receive stock options from British mining interests, Thompson said, “I think you will find that the British people keep a stiff upper lip about that sort of thing.”
The glue of the RGBW comes from the top down. That means Maj. Brown. A pleasant man and father of two small children, the major always appears immaculately dressed and smelling of cologne (and once, for a joke, wearing a gold medal he’d won recently in a local yacht race). Brown is committed to providing the finest training environment possible.
“I designed our training regimen. And there are not many places in the British army where you can have this kind of opportunity to completely control such an endeavor. I have been given the trust to take 140 men into the jungle. Not often in any field [does one] get this level of respect and freedom of action,” he said.
“All soldiers do training for 12 weeks, even the cooks. They can all fire the SA 80. Other armies are more specialized. We face challenges in the elements. We instill a sense of identity in training and regimental history, as well as officer hierarchy. Sandhurst is recognized as the leading officer-training academy. We have been educated by NCOs, and as such, it is no surprise that we understand what our men require.”
Asked about the biggest obstacles he faces in organizing training, Brown said, “There is a massive tendency in society to micromanage, and we are a litigious society. This could lead one to over-try to reduce risks, but that hurts operational capacity. Out here, the biggest dangers are the roads, and I worry most about trucks flipping over.”
“We have adapted well from Northern Ireland at Drum Cree – carrying duties like the keeping of public order and support, and in two weeks completely transformed to jungle tactics. We are here to do a job. We do it well, and hopefully we won’t be boring.”
Asked just what makes the RGBW unique, Brown offered many reasons.
“As a county regiment, our identity is unified by its own very nature. The RGBW has gone through various mergers. It is like a business – you merge and you acquire. The appeal to the recruiting base is the character of the regiment, which will re-forge county ties. We have the confidence of history and lineage to which the RGBW has been tested,” he said.
“I am proud of our soldiers in the RGBW. I know each one by name. As you well know by now, we have colorful characters, especially in A Company, but they are good soldiers. Discipline and morale are important. I never use Christian names. Rather, “Sir” is used when they address me. [Ironically,] a stricter hierarchy lends itself to informality. There are boundaries. You want respect over popularity. Everyone aspires to be a popular leader, but in that route there is danger to compromise personal beliefs and a high training standard. What makes an unhappy unit is a commander who does not declare where he stands.”
“I truly believe that if the soldiers go back at the end of six weeks and don’t say, ‘It was one of the best times of my life,’ it means personally as a commander that I have failed. There aren’t many problems here. Problems in Northern Ireland for the RGBW centered on guarding the base and other duties. There is none of that out here. I would say that potential problems for a unit would be a lack of time to conduct training at the section and platoon levels, lack of advanced training and the lack of a decent night life.”
Asked about the place the British Army has in society in general, Brown spoke glowingly about his fellow soldiers.
“We are apolitical, and we focus on the mission. But the British army is synonymous with the Union Jack. When you look at Macedonia, the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, Kosovo and Bosnia, public opinion polls continually show that the public has the highest levels of confidence in the army – more than any other government agency. …”
Continued Brown, “We have zero tolerance for criminal behavior. I am a Christian, and if one of our soldiers were married and were to sleep with one of the local prostitutes, I would not have the same respect for that person any longer.
“The British spirit is indomitable. It is a spirit that says when the going gets tough, the tough get going. We know that out of hardship comes comradeship, a sense of purpose and unity of command. All British soldiers, unlike other armies, train for general war and a high level of conflict. Then we can scale down accordingly for peacekeeping. There is no second place in battle.”
The Land of Oz
Sgt. Stuart Lane was one British soldier who really stood out. The pride of Cranbrook High School back in Australia, Lane, who looks a bit like actor Russell Crowe, joined the British army on the “Long Look” exchange.
Oz, as he liked to be called, and I talked about all manner of things. Gun control, the pound vs. the euro, the new European Union army and even novels like “The Razor’s Edge.” Like many Anglophiles, Oz had traveled through the United States and found the simple values of the heartland of America to be most enjoyable.
Stuart Lane, an Australian jungle-training instructor in the British army, demonstrates a trap in the jungles of Belize.
Lane is also a Jungle Jedi and a graduate of the Jungle Warfare School in Brunei. He has served the past two years in Northern Ireland and will be shipping out to Sierra Leone in due course.
Speaking of his time in Northern Ireland, he said, “It’s hard to see men holding a Union Jack in one hand and throwing a nail or petrol bomb at you with the other.”
And even though he is an Australian, Lane brings his own sense of history to the RGBW. Oz’s grandfather Henry Druce served in the SAS. Moreover, Druce was captured and later escaped from Nazi Germany during World War II. Lane’s father also served in the SBS, the SAS sister group called the Special Boat Service, a unit akin to the U.S. Navy Seals.
The legacy Lane inherited from his father and grandfather is extremely important to him. For example, when he was tasked to partake in a special hunter-tracker course in Germany as a part of his training, Oz was determined not to cheat, as some others had done.
“During that bit of training, we focused on escape and evasion and combat survival,” Lane said.
“It was a three-week course filled with navigational exercises. You had to make and use sketch maps, learn to make a compass from a magnet, resist interrogation, make your own clothes and learn to travel through Germany without any kit or money. You might be dropped off at 2 a.m., tossed out of a truck with only a sketch map and a password to guide you to your next rendezvous point. You might be taken hostage, get searched and then sent on your way again. You are chased the entire time by a hunter force complete with dogs and helicopters. You travel 16 or 20 miles at a clip at night, all the while hunted by a team of eight men flying in Blackhawk and Lynx helicopters outfitted with night vision goggles.”
How does one survive such an ordeal?
“You look for food in garbage pails, tins, pizza boxes,” said Lane. “You run in and out of the forest, and you run in figure eights to avoid detection. You might climb up and down both sides of a fence, jumping it again and again to throw off the dogs. Some of the soldiers on the course cheat – they get rides, sleep in barns and what have you. But I would say to myself, ‘My grandfather did this, and he was really being hunted. He would have been killed by the Nazis if he were caught. It was life or death for him.’ I thought, ‘For me, this is like playing Boy Scouts.’”
Speaking of the traits it takes to make it in the SAS, Lane said, “It is a long training course. There is no way to substitute the mental pressure of operations, so to substitute for that they use sleep deprivation. They want men who make rational decisions. You need phenomenal personal skills. They want humility, not arrogance within a team. An SAS man must go through jungle training in Brunei, demolitions training and then get his parachute wings. Then there is also a change in lifestyle and the move to Herreford. The SAS men are not like Arnold Schwarzenegger as characterized in the movies. An SAS team must have smart men, quick thinkers with a variety of skills.”
Lane spoke of the new line of thinking which now dominates the British armed forces. He called this paradigm the “strategic corporal.”
The actions of that strategic corporal are direct, Lane said.
“Think of how quickly news can circle the globe. It goes on CNN and around the Internet. But in the military, there is a long chain of command. From NATO HQ on down to the platoon in the field. There is a lot of pressure on the individual soldier. The actions of one soldier in Cyprus or Northern Ireland could affect the entire British army. We need soldiers who can think for themselves. This makes a commander’s job easier. We want to make the most of individual strengths.
“In the British Army, the officers do the same tasks as the enlisted men, but they must do them to a higher standard. The NCOs are the spine and backbone of the army. The officers are the brains. If there is a casualty here on Panther Cub, we need Sgt. Thomson to sort things out. The same applies in Northern Ireland. In the Ops room, someone must take down messages. If he takes down the message incorrectly, it could mean life or death.”
Speaking about political correctness in the British army, Lane said, “We haven’t got time to hold hands. It’s not that we are not sensitive to the issues of others. We are impartial to religion, race and sexual preference. We do our own jobs. We have soldiers here from Australia, Fiji, Mauritius, Scotland, Northern Ireland and an Afrikaner. If you are good at your job, you get along fine.”
But war is filled with twists and turns and issues that vex the soul, said Lane.
“However, a woman being tortured or raped in a POW camp would seriously undermine my ability to withhold information. Don’t think women should serve in the front lines. They create life, carry life. We all know women are towers of strength. Look at Margaret Thatcher and Joan of Arc. But daddy’s little girl must never come back home in a body bag.
“It is standard operating procedure, tactically during an attack: Leave man behind if injured and pick up later. You put a woman in that scenario; it would change the tempo of attack – there is still that chivalry. Yet women tend to be very analytical, and we use female soldiers to search other female suspects in Northern Ireland. This is quite helpful.”
As a Jungle Jedi, Lane was tasked to teach the soldiers and the visiting American journalist everything there was to know about surviving in the jungle. Having traveled extensively through the jungles of Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia, I was already familiar with many of the techniques of the Jungle Jedis. The first rule of the jungle is to learn that everything is against you. The heat, animals, snakes and the sheer denseness are just a few of the obstacles. Line-of-sight lasers don’t work well in the jungle. Since Belize has no national radar, finding downed aircraft, even with a transponder, can be difficult.
“We teach the soldiers how to make fire, two kinds of killing traps, two catching traps, how to make a bow and arrow, how to purify salt water into drinkable water (in a steel drum placed over a fire with a connecting hose, it turns out). This is the Betty Ford detox center out here. It is a great place to get fit and well,” said Lane.
Lane also explained the importance of each and every piece of gear a soldier brings with him into the jungle.
“I carry a Global Positioning System device, IV drops to keep someone alive, a 9mm pistol, grenades – including smokers – a Claymore mine and a machete made by a local in Borneo. I carry all that in my web gear. It weighs about 40 pounds, but it is equally distributed, ” he said. (In the British Army there is only one Claymore per section, while in the Australian army, each man carries a Claymore).
Taped to Lane’s machete sheathe was a small green box that served as his survival kit.
“In the survival kit, I keep a razor and magnet, a knife with serrated edge, hooks for fly fishing, a condom which will carry two liters of water, a lighter, candle, constipation and dysentery pills, and water purification tablets. Every item must count.”
Lovable characters, lovable moments
When I look back on my time with the RGWB, I will always remember it as my last time of innocence, for shortly after I returned to home to New York from the jungle training in Belize, the World Trade Center terrorist attack occurred.
I’ll never forget how Armstrong and I talked about the best way to teach kindergarten children how to color, or how he told me about the time SAS soldiers slapped him around during “Operation Lame Duck,” a counterterrorism exercise. I’ll remember when I showed Grist how to take a burr out of his hand with a sterilized needle (I used them to pop the plethora of blood blisters on my feet), instead of using his giant Rambo knife.
LoBaido in demolition training
I’ll remember blowing things to kingdom come with Color Sgt. Willam Arbuthnot of the Assault Pioneers, the man I called “P-4 Willy.” Arbuthnot was my demolitions mentor. Using the 400-volt shrike box, electric fuses and P-4 explosive – along with petrol – we created giant fireballs that shook the camp to its very core. P-4 Willy was attached to an Irish unit, and as such, he wore a green clover on his boonie hat – a symbol I knew well from growing up eating Lucky Charms cereal. Arbuthnot taught me everything from A to Z about handling explosives.
I’ll remember how the men asked me to compare the RGBW with the other military forces I had lived and trained with in South Korea, South Africa and elsewhere. I’ll remember how they laughed at my impersonations of the Simpsons (Apu, Moe and Chief Wiggam) and South Park (Kenny and Cartman) while at the same time lamenting American materialism. John Humphries, an Irish reservist, also lamented the moral decline he is currently seeing in Ireland: “You see 13-year-olds having babies and pushing carriages down the street.”
I’ll remember telling Maj. Brown to take the lid off of a beverage container in order to get the last of the liquid within. “It’s easier that way, sir,” I said. He laughed when he could have gotten mad, took off the lid and said with a self-effacing laugh, “Old habits die hard.” At that point, I could really see what a good man he was – a real leader – and just why the men respected him so much. It was impossible to find even one soldier who would utter anything negative about the man.
I’ll remember how a few of the soldiers joked about how they’d pulled down Prince William’s bathing costume during a game of water polo long ago. (I told them, “I used to play water polo, but then my horse drowned.”)
I’ll remember how Johnson – who will soon marry his lovely Danielle – wistfully said, “Wow. In all my years in the army, you’re the first person who ever took my picture.”
I’ll remember the soldier who was evacuated from camp for “snake fright” (he’d sworn he’d actually been bitten, but wasn’t), another evacuee who’d swallowed the tab of a Coke can, and a third who needed shots in the bum after sitting on a less-than-immaculate latrine.
I’ll remember how I jumped up in the middle of the night and grabbed my machete, thinking the jaguar had come to get me, only to discover it was just Thomson snoring very loudly.
I’ll never forget the story they told about one of their comrades who had “fallen in love” with a local Belizean prostitute and offered to marry her and bring her back to the UK. All of the soldiers in the section went to the brothel and had relations with her to “sort out their mate’s crazy idea.”
Yet perhaps my finest and most enduring memory came at my goodbye party at a nearby camp called Augustine. Johnson and Humphries generously bought me a few beers, and there were bottles of rum to hand out. A soldier named Clarence handed out cigars and kept everyone laughing, although I couldn’t understand a single joke because of their accents. But none of that seemed to matter. It is the esprit de corps of the RGBW that cannot be defined, quantified or even imagined unless you have lived it and breathed it. They were very open and kind and quick-witted soldiers with a real zest for life and outstanding sense of humor.
On the night of my send-off party, everyone was well in the bag late in the evening. I noticed one soldier who had his foot wrapped up in a gauze bandage. This led to a real course in the British soldier’s sense of humor I’d missed out on – even though I grew up watching “Benny Hill.”
“What happened to your foot?” I inquired.
Within five seconds, about ten different soldiers replied with their own lewd comments.
“He cut it with a machete.”
“He stepped on a scorpion.”
And several other responses not repeatable in a family newssite.
We were all hysterical with laughter. When we finally calmed down I took out my notebook and pen and said, “Can all of you repeat that?”
Then the same soldiers spoke again all at once.
“Oh, that’s too bad!”
“How are you feeling?”
“Buck up, old boy.”
“Do get well.”
“God bless you, old chap!”
When it was time to leave I told the men how much I enjoyed meeting them and thanked them for their hospitality. I had finally arrived at the end of the rainbow – a trek in search of the British military spirit and tradition I’d first encountered while retracing the journey of Lawrence of Arabia through Lebanon and Jordan. But I was tired and exhausted. I smelled terrible and was longing for the comforts of home. I knew that once I got back to civilization, I would feel more than a twinge of guilt about my hot shower and clean sheets.
And just like that, my adventure with the RGBW was over. I have interacted with many militaries and special forces – from South Korea to South Africa and from Lebanon to Laos. But if I had to choose one unit to join, it would be the RGBW. As an American, however, I am not allowed to join. Yet while my jungle experience is over, for those eager to join, new adventures await in Afghanistan and the four corners of the world.