Are we out of the woods yet?

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Story by SGT Brianne Roudebush on 08/31/2018
Perched at the top of a hill, Sgt. First Class Chris* uses binoculars and a map to track his students across the steep, brushy terrain at the land navigation course on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, February 14.

Officers from the San Diego and Los Angeles Drug Enforcement Administration field divisions, the San Diego Police Department, the San Diego Sheriff's Department and the San Diego Sheriff's Department SWAT team attended the three-day course.

Chris, a senior weapons sergeant with the California Army National Guard 19th Special Forces Group and a ground tactical member of the Counterdrug Task Force, developed the land navigation course after identifying an operational gap among the law enforcement officers CDTF supports.

"To my knowledge, law enforcement officers don't have an institutional training facility that teaches them to be a rural-based cop," Chris said. "The unique thing about CDTF is that we can bring these military skill-sets and experiences to our law enforcement partners."

The course teaches basic land navigation principles including: map and compass reading, terrain association, route planning, latitude and longitude formats, and proper GPS use.

"Most of the illicit outdoor marijuana eradication operations are on public lands," Chris continued. "There are generally no roads that lead directly into the grow site, so we have to conduct some sort of dismounted navigation to the location."

A Los Angeles DEA agent taking the course recalled a time where his team had to do a significant amount of land navigation in order to arrive at their objective.

"I was just following the other guys up through serious brush - getting all cut up and tearing up our clothes," he said. "If I had this training before that, it would have been so much easier."

Chris said the feedback he has received has been extremely positive. He places a strong emphasis on the practical application - ensuring students spend a majority of the course outside the classroom.

"I can show guys all day long what a hill looks like on a map," he said. "But it really clicks when they actually walk it."

The DEA agent echoed these sentiments, adding, "Covering the basic material so we understand it and then quickly going to the field to apply it really reinforces the information. It sticks in your head because then you have personal experience with it."

Chris also developed an intermediate land navigation course that officers who have completed the basic course can attend. The intermediate course builds upon the basic skills and teaches officers how to create their own maps.

"The officers are not usually going to have military-quality maps to use on their operations," Chris explained. "I teach them how to make the maps themselves with tools they will have at their disposal to use when they prepare for a mission."

Chris said he enjoys teaching these classes because he likes being able to pass on his knowledge.

"Seeing people catch on to what I'm teaching and become more proficient until they can eventually do it on their own is very fulfilling," he said.

As an infantryman who went straight to Iraq after Basic Combat Training, Chris said most of his land navigation skills are self-taught.

"When I decided to try out for SF, I knew that land nav was a big part of what the Special Forces does, a part of their mantra, and also a part of the selection process," he said. "I went out and set up my own land nav course and got hopelessly lost for a few hours. I ended up not even going to work that day because I spent all night trying to figure out where I was at."

Not one to be deterred, Chris continued to practice and by the time he got to Special Force Assessment Selection, he breezed right through the land navigation test. Now it is something that he genuinely enjoys.

"I think it's really cool that instead of following a trail, let's go hike and find a point," he said.

*Full name withheld in accordance with 19th Special Forces Group policy.

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