It was the spring of 1989. I was still new in my role as an Air Base Ground Defense Instructor- the Air Force model of a small team infantryman designated to provide ground combat support in order to protect assets on an Air Force base by running combat and reconnaissance patrols up to five kilometers from the perimeter from the base.
I had been pushing my student patrol for about 30 hours at that time. The weather had been typical of spring in the Eifel Mountains, wet and cold. It was always wet and cold. It rained on average 200 days out of the year and when it wasn’t raining it was socked in by clouds. On days the sun would peak through we would joke about getting our ration card out since sunshine was always in short supply. But on this field training exercise the temperature had descended much lower than normal and we had snow flurries to compound the already miserable conditions. The students I was pushing were not that well experienced in the outdoors and from my perspective not very motivated. The student leader wasn’t really a leader he was operating from his pay-grade and not so much from his Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) status. It was frustrating and as the rookie instructor I was, I took it out on my squad of students by pushing them harder.
Somewhere around midnight, soaked and cold, the student patrol leader called for a halt. My students who were wet from the rain and mist on the outside and sweat on the inside began to collectively knock on the door of hypothermia. Physically drained and emotionally spent, they laid prone in a 50-yard line. Apathy was quickly setting in. In a survival situation when you are physically, emotionally, and mentally drained it is hard to recover. I decided to call for a “safety time-out” which meant we were no longer tactical and not “playing the game” and led my team back to an area where we had cached MRE “extras” and two 5-gallon water jugs. I got them into a 360, and started a fire. Fire is a friend in these situations and you could slowly see hope return in their facial expressions.
In a matter of moments we had a roaring fire where 15 guys were huddled together trying to dry out. I collected everyone’s cocoa mix, sugar packs, and metal canteen cups. As they were warming I heated water in two 5.56 metal ammo cans and mixed in anything I could think of to provide liquid carbs.
This was a huge lesson for me. The greatest was to not push my students as hard as I did in the conditions we were in. It was already cool and they were sweating as they moved through the woods. The next was to stay calm. When I first realized the situation we were in and I could lose several students to hypothermia, my mind raced and I worked through the feeling of running back to our instructor camp for help. I am confident that if I had lost my cool and runaway from the situation (when I thought I would be running for help) I would have lost a few.
The other lessons were around apathy and doing for others. When people get apathetic and sit down and do nothing, they will die- especially in situations where lack of movement and action will ramp up the time table to death. As far as doing for others- I was in the same situation if not worse than my students. At that time I weighed in around 140 lbs and had no fat reserves. Doing for others helped me keep my cool, gave me a purpose to go on, and a positive outlet for my frustration and despair.
I was lucky and fortunately I knew where we were on the map and how to quickly get my students to safety. I have gone over this scenario many times in my head and recognize both my mistakes and what I would do the same and what I would do different if it happened again. As it turns out I was confronted with a similar situation another instructor was placed in with his team and the lessons I learned proved invaluable.