Final Training Exercise
Free Burma Rangers Ta U Wah Training Camp. Karen State, Burma.
At 6:00 p.m., all of the rangers meet at a briefing for their Final Training Exercise (or FTX), where the rangers are given a simulation in which the Burma army has attacked their village. The objective is to escape the attack, regroup, mark key points on their maps, help their fellow injured villagers, and return to the base point within 24 hours. This 24-hour simulation includes 25 specific tasks to complete. No one is permitted to eat or sleep until all 25 tasks have been successfully completed.
During the 24-hour simulation, each group of rangers treks trail-less jungle terrain to find hidden points on their maps, scale mountains and rivers multiple times to reach mission points, while tested on everything they have learned thus far (including repelling, rope climbing, rope crossing, swimming, security, land navigation, emergency medical aid, situational written tests, and even team building and camaraderie exercises). One of the many teams participating in the FTX, known as VCS who hail from the K5 district in Karen state, are already mentally anticipating their tasks for the day.
Upon full briefing and dismissal to begin their missions, the stand-out athlete and leader for the VCS team, Saw Eh Htoo, surveys his map and begins charting their mission with his three teammates. His teammates include Lay Der Htoo, an athletic, quiet and steadfast soldier; Saw Htoo Htoo, a somewhat passive, yet gifted and strong VCS member; and Saw Sher Kpaw Moo, the toughest, strongest team member and backbone of the VCS team.
The VCS team then plans their next 24 hours and the route they will take to complete their 25 tasks. They proceed to pack up gear in their rucksacks and make a sprint for the first marked point on their map. They must use their land navigation skills to find a small marked tree in the jungle, based on the map coordinates given in their briefing. A third of the missions will consist of finding hidden points in the jungle based on the coordinates they are given, with each point extending deeper into the jungle and proving more challenging.
The four VCS soldiers make a sprint from base camp, providing security and support for each team member, as instructors clandestinely observe them and verify they are utilizing their security skills while venturing into unmarked territory. If the soldiers are caught by an instructor at any time during the test, they will be disciplined with a physical exercise, like sprinting in circles with barbells on their shoulders. These physical “punishments” can prove grueling, especially later in the FTX, when already exhausted rangers have been tracking the jungle and scaling mountains all day and night.
Once out of base camp, the VCS team enters the jungle. Only the moon, stars and intermittent use of small headlamps provide any source of light in the dark thicket. The soldiers scale steep cliffs, cross cold rivers and push through dense jungle terrain, surrounded by shrubs, wasps, snakes, mosquitos and the like. The jungle forestation is so thick, it encapsulates the rangers like an ocean wave, continually beating against their bodies and faces as they push it away. But this is nothing new for the VCS team, born in the Karen jungle, and acquiring an ability to quickly and nimbly maneuver the tough terrain.
The team searches for the marked spot on the map. They sense they are close, but still can’t find the mark. They thoroughly explore the mountainside, tackling bushes and trees in their search. They encounter another team from Shan State who are looking for the same hidden coordinate. Together, the eight of them collaborate on a forty-five minute search for the mark. Finally, one person spots the mark. The first mission is complete. Each team stands in front of the mark and takes video footage as proof they have completed the task. Within the first ninety minutes, the first of 25 missions is complete. The VCS team then returns to base to take a short written test on leadership.
The soldiers finish the written test with ease, with the second of 25 missions now complete. Nearing 9:00 p.m., they begin a night of running through the jungle, while maneuvering across rivers and scaling cliffs multiple times. They need to keep their wits about them throughout these exercises, as they will be tested on their direction, discipline and retention of the skills they have been taught up to this point.
After 8 hours of rigorous physical and mental testing (including rope crossing over a wide river, repelling exercises down a cliff, more written tests, extreme physical exercise and searching for navigation points far from base camp), the VCS team has hit the early morning hours.
After these grueling initial stages, they participate in the Good Life Club (GLC), one of the most rewarding points in the FTX in terms of raising team morale and spirit. In this test, the team bonds for 30 minutes over worship with singing and guitar.
Following the GLC, the team heads to one of the furthest points on the map, where they will be given an emergency evaluation test. They proceed to trudge through jungle for nearly an hour, and just before sunrise, they find themselves utterly exhausted and somewhat lost. As the sun hints at rising, the team forms a circle in a clear patch of the jungle and sits down. Taking a necessary mental and physical break in the pre-dawn twilight, they rest in silence for ten minutes with their heads in their hands, as the fading shimmers of the night sky meet the brilliance of dawn.
Their ten minutes are up. Without missing a beat, Saw Eh Htoo motions for his team to rise, and the soldiers resume their mission. They search the jungle for thirty minutes before arriving at an abandoned house, where instructors are standing by a fire waiting for them. As the VCS team approaches, they hear a soft whimper coming from behind the abandoned building. There, a young boy from the nearby village acts as an injured civilian in desperate need of medical attention. The VCS team runs to the boy and carries him to a sheltered position alongside the building. The soldiers proceed to examine his body for signs of internal and external injuries. They find a wound on his thigh and apply a tourniquet to the top of his leg. They check for concussion or further brain damage. VCS has passed the medical test. After taking video footage of the medical test station, they quickly march to their next mission.
The sun has fully risen now. The chilly twilight hours warm under the rising sun, an omen for the wet, burning heat to come at midday. The VCS soldiers have completed 13 tasks, with 12 still left to be completed in twelve hours. The next mission will include swimming and self-defense training.
The VCS team rushes to the river beyond the training camp to begin their self-defense class. Stripping down to their shorts, they execute the moves they have practiced for weeks in training. Passing with ease, they run to the river. They swim fifteen laps upstream and downstream, with a different series of strokes each time. Though many various teams struggle in this section of the test, the VCS team (known in the camp to be one of the most athletic and competitive of the groups) powers through the swimming portion. Soaking wet, they completely redress and head for their next mission: finding a navigation point far from training camp.
It’s 11:30 a.m. and the heat begins to intensify. Under the blazing sun, the soldiers scale and trek the mountainside, searching for their point. They reach the other side of the mountain, covered in tall plants but without the tall trees to protect them from the beating sun. The boys push through the hot, sticky, burning heat, pushing through the shrubbery and carving their own trail to the navigation point. Battling intense exhaustion, the team powers on, and after an hour of trekking and searching they find the next point. Though the heat poses as a serious obstacle, the soldiers persevere.
The rest of the day, the VCS team searches for more land navigation points, completes more written tests, and narrows their remaining tasks down to three (two land navigation tasks and one final written test).
Around 4:30 p.m., the boys make their way to the second-to-last land navigation point. They are not far from base camp, but the terrain to get there proves difficult. They arrive at a waterfall running down steep, rugged rock. The coordinates suggest that the point lies above the waterfall. Without hesitation, the team scales the rock on the side of the waterfall where they encounter yet another waterfall above. They continue to climb and follow the stream up a narrow path and steep walled rock. Finally, they reach their point beside another beautiful waterfall. After taking video footage of the point, they make their way down the steep path.
While returning to the village for their final written test, the team spots the final land navigation point. However, the rules state that they must first complete their written test before completing the final land navigation point. Though the idea of trekking out to the final point is daunting, knowledge of how they will reach the final point bolsters their fatigued, hungry bodies.
The soldiers arrive at the camp to take their final written test. It’s longer than the other written test, taking about an hour to complete. The VCS team works collaboratively to complete the task. As the sun begins to set, their soaked clothes begin to cool, and by the time they finish the written test they are wet and cold. Now in the pitch dark, they have one more point to reach.
The soldiers run through jungle and cross rivers, using their headlamps and the moonlight to find their footing. Exhausted, they realize they are less than an hour away from finishing the Final Training Exercise. When they finally arrive at the final navigation point, everyone celebrates with hugs and high fives. They have persevered to complete the twenty fifth task. After filming video confirmation, they make their way back to base camp where they will wait for the other teams to finish.
Although VCS finishes in hour 25 instead of 24, they are the second team to complete all the tasks. The only team to beat them is an advanced team that has performed tests like these in the previous years’ ranger training. Some teams will take another five hours to complete their tasks. And some teams won’t even be able to complete their tasks at all.
The VCS boys don’t act arrogant or boastful of their accomplishment that day. They know that they have excelled, but they realize that the tests in the remainder of ranger training will only get harder. They collect themselves and rest deeply that night. They have the next day to recover, as it is a Sunday, and Sundays are set aside as a day of rest in camp. On Monday, they will resume training again. And in one month, they will begin their last Final Training Exercise. This time, they will have more tasks and will be deprived of sleep and food for thirty six hours. Though the task is daunting, the VCS team doesn’t bat an eye at the mission in front of them.