How exactly do you lose an whole Legionnaire? Not a piece, not a morsel, not a stray, frayed corner or loosely bound front cover, but an entire operational soldier. This land is not for the light hearted, nor the disorientated, that's for sure.
The missions over here in French Guiana consist mainly of taking a riverboat up/down stream to a debarkation site. From there, one marches several kilometers until we stumble across a pre-identified illegal gold extraction site where poverty-stricken clandestine Brazilians scrape manically at the earth's surface in search of that coveted yellowish metal. We silently remove our backpacks, load our rifles and then rush into the clearing screaming "Armée Française!! Armée Française!!", watching powerlessly as the gold smugglers scarper for the tree line.
French Guiana being an actual department of France means that our hands are tied on many levels on operations over here. No chasing the gold diggers into the jungle (OK, well that's mainly a safety issue for us), no explosives (WTF!?), plus a plethora of other restrictive operating procedures that really only allow us to tie our shoelaces unattended and maybe relieve our bodily functions at pre-arranged intervals throughout the working day. Frustrating? - yes. But surely I should have long-since passed the frustration issue at this point.
Here in the tiny port of St.Jean de Maroni, a combination of soldiers and gendarmes undertake cooperative missions as described (ever so enthusiastically) above. In anticipation of our operational deployment in the jungle, we undergo a 5-day training course (as described in my last blog). The gendarmes' lasts 3 days. Attention must then be paid to the assessment of each individual's performance and a decision on their aptitude for the forest taken. Each individual beneath a certain rank, it would appear.
The patrol in question saw a group of legionnaires and a group of gendarmes head off in to the thick green mass in search of another gold-digging site. The infiltration march was long, but the sacks had been lightened back at the boats with any non-essential items removed and left behind for collection later in the day. No problem ("normalement"). A bit of the way along the trail, an incomprehensibly overweight gendarme started to complain of breathing difficulties. Pulling up completely and demanding that a legionnaire be left behind for security while the others went on, there was initial hesitation. Our captain was reluctant to leave one of ours behind, seeing as it was one of theirs in trouble. Why not another one of theirs? Nope, we needed all the gendarmes we could carry, apparently, and this fat fucker was un-carry-able. So, GPS co-ordinates were taken and the rest moved off in search of the gold site while the crocked and the guard awaited their return.
Unfortunately, the crocked felt ten times better in one foul swoop and decided to lead the unwitting legionnaire on an ill-advised march to catch-up with the others. If the fat fucker genuinely felt up to speed, that would be one thing to consider. His lack of a GPS, however, was rather the over-riding issue that he himself failed to factor in before setting off on his quest. Needless to say our lads arrived back at the site several hours later to find the two culprits gone. Vanished. Uh oh!!
And so the panic began. Back at the base, the captain of the French army - together with our own CO - launched a full-scale search for two missing persons in the equatorial jungle. The chances weren't looking good. Average life-expectancy for a fully-equipped soldier in the jungle is 72 hours. Forget all illusions of improvised animal traps and refined hunting methods. A soldier, with as much water and food as his bag/back can carry, lasts 72 hours. Straight up. No-one knew anything, and so the minds raced and wandered. A snake bite necessitating movement/evacuation. Kidnapping by displaced gold-diggers. Everything was possible. Nothing was ruled out. Groups were mobilized back at base to head into the dense forest searching for the lost. What would they find? - no-one dared imagine. Rifle burst flared up into the tree canopy, helicopters passed overhead, the search went on and on and on. Where were they? What happened to them?
As it turned out - a wrong turn. Instead of going right on the path, the fat fucker of a GPS-less gendarme chose left. A left turn, a wrong turn that brought the terrible twosome almost fourteen kilometers away from their group who were forced to abandon their mission in the search for their comrades. The gendarme is question was a major. A major for whom the 3-day preparation course was deemed unnecessary. Indeed.
Let it be noted that - in general - the gendarmes are truly a top, professional bunch of lads. Their particular job-description is amongst the most wide-ranging and inconclusive of all the French security forces. Working hours determined by the job at hand, annual overseas tours guaranteeing heightened salaries and domestic tensions in equal measure. Heading into the jungle equipped with loaded side-arms and streamlined kits containing the BARE minimum, they truly are an admirable and formidable force to behold.
Except this one fat fucker. This one fat fucker, and the system failure that allowed him anywhere near an equatorial rainforest.
They found our guys eventually. 36 hours later. Relieved was not the word. Infuriated stole implicit precedence. Naturally the gendarmes have revised their tactics, their techniques, their deployment of physically questionable personnel into the heart of darkness. Fortunately, it wasn't a case of too little too late. But it very nearly was. Despite the irony given the heat and humidity, one long-standing mantra rings eternally true here in French Guiana.
Stay frosty, soldier.