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Well, I was in Bogota for a night before I departed Colombia. Last week was the first time I’ve been in Colombia for, I reckon, going on six years.
My unit did some reorganizing, and I wound up with Exercise Fuerzas Comando in my planner’s portfolio. Fuerzas Comando is a US-sponsored exercise conducted every year in one of our partner nations in Latin America or the Caribbean. This year, Colombia is our host nation. We invite every country in the region to send its best commandos to compete in what can best be described as a Counter-Terrorism Olympics. Shooting, sniping, stalking, assaulting; it’s all in there. There’s also a Senior Leader Seminar, where top Special Operations commanders and ministerial-level participants will convene and conduct panels and discussions and senior leader stuff on mutual problem sets. That conference will go off in Bogota. The competition itself will be in Tolemeida, a couple hours south of (and 6,000 feet lower than) Bogota.
Tolemeida is the Colombian military base that is a mix of the US’ Ft. Benning and Fort Bragg. Not only do they do a lot of general combat arms basic training there, it is the home of the Lancero school (think Ranger) and the Comando school (think Special Forces). It’ll be a great venue for the exercise.
The US team that traveled to Colombia to begin planning this miracle consisted of 19 people. Two officers (both Majors), two contractors (one of which was humble me), and 15 NCOs, all experts in their staff specialties. These kids (and, well, me) are going to plan, coordinate, and set up the entire exercise, from soup to nuts. They’ll manage the transportation of anywhere from 19 to 22 countries’ teams — to include their weapons, no easy feat — into Bogota and then get them to Tolemeida. They’ll ensure that all the competition sites are ready and up to snuff. They’ll improve the barracks (air conditioning is definitely cool; Tolemeida is hot. Triple-canopy-jungle hot). They’ll contract the meals and the internet and all of the support and sustainment for over 100 pipehitters to show up and compete for the cup. It’s truly a staggering task, that the unit conducts every year.
We arrived at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, on Sunday, 19 January, and linked up with our rented, up-armored SUVs and contracted drivers, and made the three-hour trek from Bogota to Tolemeida. Many improvements have been made on the road, and the drive wasn’t as white-knuckle as I remembered it. Our hotel was beautiful and just outside of the Tolemeida base. It was, if you will, the recreational club for the military. Pretty as it was, the place was definitely bare-bones.
The hotel took no cash, only credit cards, which kind of defeated the purpose of the cash I had withdrawn and changed into pesos. I had to send an emergency email to my bank saying “I know I didn’t tell you I was going to Colombia, but I’m in Colombia. Please don’t see charges from here and cut off my card, or I’m coming home a whole lot skinnier.”
I had a couple of packing “fails” on this trip. I ruefully had to acknowledge that I had become one of the pampered pansies that is used to staying at high-end hotels in capital cities, and wasn’t quite on my game when it came to packing for someplace a little more austere. Some of the stuff I didn’t pack was:
- My insulated steel water bottle. Plastic water bottles are great and all, but the water gets hot.
- Cutter, for keeping the bugs away.
- Benadryl, for when the Cutter doesn’t work.
- An emergency survival candle. The bathrooms didn’t have windows or fans, ’nuff said?
- Enough Copenhagen. Sure, I packed just enough, but that’s never enough. Two guys didn’t or couldn’t bring their own Copenhagen, so I ended up giving them cans, which left me a little short and I had to ration my usage. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any for our three-hour trip back to Bogota (unacceptable) or for the three-and-a-half-hour flight home (also unacceptable).
The leader of our intrepid group was a Civil Affairs major who, if there’s any justice, will pin on lieutenant colonel soon. I know of no Civil Affairs guy who has been by-name-requested by so many Special Forces commanders. He’s smart, motivated and squared away — and he doesn’t hesitate, when appropriate, to jump up behind the 50-cal. machine gun and lay down the law according to John Moses Browning. Not necessarily a requirement for exercise design, but I like the mindset. He’s also a native Spanish speaker, and he’s logged lots of time in Colombia.
The NonCommissioned Officer in Charge was a US Special Forces guy who is a natural-born Colombian. He came to the US at/about ten years of age. He did a hitch in the Marine Corps, and then joined the Army to go SF. It was inspiring and humbling to watch this guy brief, talk to, and debate Colombian general- and field-grade officers. He spoke articulately and with full decorum, but never backed down an inch. There is no NCO corps that can match ours.
I’m going to stick a fork in this post now. I’ve got a thousand different observations and comments ricocheting around the inside of my skull, but I’m having trouble imposing order on them. I’ll keep posting, though, on my trips for this exercise. Maybe if I go into the trip planning on writing a post about it, I’ll be able to come out on the far side and actually be able to post coherently.
Since it’s Fuerzas Comando, here’s the obligatory super-coolio video: