Farewell to a Tarzan training ground

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jim Smit remembers low-crawling through goopy mud on the floor of a triple-canopy jungle, sweating in the equatorial heat, and breathing silently to avoid the enemy.

There were snakes and crocodiles and other fearsome creatures. Once he captured and killed a 15-foot boa constrictor. There was the dense and endless foliage, which made radios useless. And there was the food: bugs for dinner, washed down with water tapped from a nonpoisonous root.

But somehow, the former National Guard platoon sergeant and Korean War veteran considers the weeks at the Army's Jungle Warfare Training Center at the US base in Panama one of the best experiences in his life.

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"Short of combat, it was the best military training you could have," says Mr. Smit, now a retired machinist living in Tustin, Calif. "Besides the cougars and the snakes, it was great. I would do it again if I could."

Like many other soldiers who studied or taught jungle warfare at Fort Sherman, Smit regrets the Army's decision not to replace the 46-year-old school after the US military presence vanishes from Panama at the end of this year.

The Carter-Torrijos Treaty signed in 1977 requires the United States to turn over its more than 23,000-acre military base and control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government by Dec. 31, 1999.

The military already has begun moving its units and equipment out of Panama.

The jungle warfare school closed April 1, and the American flag will come down for good June 30 at Fort Sherman.

The Army spent $1.2 million to operate the school and $700,000 each time it sent one of the 12 battalions that trained annually at Fort Sherman. Officials decided it was too expensive to relocate the school.

"We did consider other sites," says Lt. Col. George Frels of the Department of Army Training at the Pentagon. "But without the proper infrastructure, it was cost-prohibitive. What we are losing is an excellent environment."

Unlike Smit and other soldiers who trained in the forbidding Panamanian jungles, Colonel Frels and senior Pentagon officials say the Army doesn't believe it will suffer in readiness, though some 9,000 US soldiers will no longer train each year at Fort Sherman.

Frels says similar "unit cohesion" skills can be taught at existing bases in Louisiana and Florida. But some military analysts say the unparalleled conditions in Panama cannot be re-created anywhere in the US.

"What US soldiers could be missing in the future is an appreciation of the ground truth," says Dan Goure, a former Pentagon strategist and now deputy director of military-political studies at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's similar to when we left the Philippines. We left some very good training grounds."

The US began training its military in Panama in 1916, two years after the 50-mile canal was opened to traffic under US control. But serious training in Panama didn't occur until 1943, when America fought the Japanese in the rugged jungles throughout the Pacific islands.

The Jungle Warfare Training Center opened in June 1953, after military officials fighting the Korean War promised to keep the art of jungle warfare alive in the Army. "Had we had the same kind of training before the Inchon and Iwon invasions and the trek north to the Yalu River, we might have taken many less casualties [in Korea]," says Smit, who attended the school in 1967.

Fort Sherman gained its reputation for being one of the Army's most grueling training grounds during the Vietnam War. From 1961 to 1967, the number of its graduates grew from 1,700 to 9,145 a year, and soldiers like Smit say it was crucial to the military's ability to wage war in Vietnam.

Since then, the school has focused on training special operations forces and bringing soldiers from nations around the world to train with the US Army. In late 1989, when the United States invaded Panama, forces based permanently at Fort Sherman helped secure the Panama Canal, guard prisoners of war, and patrol nearby villages.

"Soldiers who have trained in the jungles at Fort Sherman claim there is nowhere else in the world that this training can be replicated," says Capt. Larry Winchel, a spokesman for the remaining forces of US Army South still in Panama. "It's really the end of an era."

A quick glance at the jungle warfare school's Web site reveals widespread concern that the Army is forfeiting its expertise in jungle fighting. On the site's bulletin board, former students and instructors praise the school and lament its closure:

"It amazes me that there has been a decision to discontinue the training," writes Maj. Steven Roscoe. "It was one of the highlights of my 20-1/2 year career! Sad that era has to end," signs MSgt. Michael Tsung. "It is a crime that it is being closed down. Readiness will surely suffer," writes mortar platoon infantryman Paul Cox.

Soldiers hold the school's training in high regard partly because they quickly learn the jungle is the great equalizer. The modern technology that so often separates America's military from others is often useless in a jungle, as the US learned in Vietnam: Radio signals can't penetrate thick vegetation; there's not enough light after sunset to power night-vision goggles; and hand-held satellite navigation receivers can't get a clear signal.

Sergeant Smit still remembers what it felt like to slog through swamps in 95-degree heat shortly after arriving in Panama (a change from the below-zero temperatures of his unit's base in Michigan). It was the sort of training every soldier should have, he says. "We learned how to survive."

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