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N.Y. Senior Airman graduates from jungle warfare school

  • Published
  • By Eric Durr
  • New York National Guard

MANAUS, Brazil – When Senior Airman Caleb Lapinel showed up at Brazil’s Jungle Warfare Training School in September, he met special forces soldiers from Spain, Egypt and Indonesia; paratroopers from Paraguay; amphibious infantrymen from Nigeria, and a Kaibil special operator from Guatemala whose motto is: “ If I advance follow me, if I stop urge me on, if I retreat, kill me.”

“I was worried about that in the beginning,” Lapinel said.

“I said, ‘Wow. I am surrounded by this bunch of paratroopers and special forces; the best of the best from their countries,” he recalled.

He, on the other hand, is an intelligence analyst for the New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, which specializes in flying to Antarctica and Greenland.

He was also at least five years younger than the rest of the class.

But seven weeks later, Caleb Lapinel not only graduated from the demanding course but was one of the two students singled out for awards. He was recognized for being the man who was always ready to help somebody else.

“That was awesome. I was not expecting that at all,” Lapinel said. “I got the flag that we always carried around during the course.”

Each year Brazil’s Jungle Warfare Center, known as CIGS for its name in Portuguese – Centro de Instrucao de Guerra na Selva – hosts a class for non-Brazilians. Founded in 1964, CIGS is now considered the world’s premier jungle training center.

Because the New York National Guard has a State Partnership Program relationship with Brazil’s military, Brazil invites New York Guard members to the school in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.

In 2019, Army Guard Staff Sgt. Thomas Carpenter, a 38-year-old infantryman and Ranger School graduate, finished the jungle training course. This year it was the 22-year-old Lapinel. He made it through the Air Force Survival, Resistance, Escape and Evasion course, and he’s in good shape, but he conceded he knew more about making PowerPoint slides than infantry tactics.

He bought a copy of the Ranger Handbook to cram and turned to Carpenter for tips.

Despite Lapinel’s lack of infantry experience, New York Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Denny Richardson said he was confident he would do well.

“The first time I met Airman Lapinel, I was impressed by his professionalism and ability to perform under pressure without hesitation,” Richardson said. “This young man is comfortable being uncomfortable.”

And there was plenty of uncomfortable in the Amazon jungle, Lapinel said. He learned to avoid snakes, eat bugs, and get used to being wet.

The international course, which is taught in English, is divided into four parts.

The first week is the mobilization week. Students prove their fitness and get their gear ready for the jungle.

The fitness test requires treading water for 10 minutes wearing a uniform and carrying a rifle; swimming 400 meters in 15 minutes; running five miles in boots in 40 minutes; climbing a 20-foot rope using only hands, and covering 12 kilometers with a 35-pound load in less than three hours.

The students also waterproof all their gear. That’s essential because when they were not moving through a wet jungle, they were swimming in a silt-laden river, Lapinel said.

The key was to buy PVC dry bags used for kayaking and load gear into those bags. The bags are rolled tight with air inside. Stashed inside a rucksack, they provide buoyancy in the water, Lapinel explained.

The first session of instruction focused on surviving in the jungle. The students learned how to navigate, what the dangers are in the jungle and, most importantly, what to eat.

The coconut grub, for example, is the larvae of the red palm weevil, which burrows into coconuts but is very edible. Lapinel learned how to dig them out of coconuts and chow down.

“The hardest part is mental,“ Lapinel said. “Once you are chewing, it is not too bad.”

At the end of that phase, the class was dropped into the jungle to set up camp and survive three days on whatever they could scrounge.

“You do everything you can – build a shelter, collect water, make a fire – early on while you still have energy, and then you just try to survive,” Lapinel said.

On the last day, the Indonesian special forces soldier caught a snake.

“We boiled it up and split it 10 ways. It was the best and the only snake I ever had,” Lapinel recalled.

Then the soldiers learned techniques for moving and fighting in the jungle. A key element in that training was using rivers and water to infiltrate, he said.

The soldiers made rafts out of their gear and swam down rivers. It was important to wear clothing that dried quickly – he swapped his Air Force uniform for a Brazilian uniform designed to shed water – and also to keep their Brazilian issue Imbel A2 rifle clean, Lapinel said.

“The rivers we were swimming in ... they have a lot of sediment,” Lapinel said. “There is just a ton of it. We were constantly cleaning sand and dirt and dust out of the weapon, and then to keep them from rusting, we used massive amounts of WD-40 and covered it in gun oil.”

The 3.5-kilometer swim down the Puraquequara River (an Amazon tributary) with their gear and all 10 students in formation was the toughest thing they had to do, he said.

“We started at maybe midnight or 10 p.m. and we just swam for four or five hours in the middle of the night,” Lapinel said. “Two fish actually jumped and smacked me in the face during the swim. But we were so fatigued that nobody was caring.”

The Brazilian instructors accompanying them in boats shined flashlights along the riverbank and the students would see the eyes of black caimans - crocodilian reptiles similar to alligators – staring at them, he said.

The final phase put everything together in a series of patrols and tactical exercises.

Lapinel had no experience in patrol tactics, but the other students did, and shared.

“I was lucky enough to have a lot of people around me who were able to give me the advice I needed,” he said.

“We all helped each other out,” he added. “If I needed help on shooting or had a question on tactics, they helped me. If they needed help carrying the radio or something, I could help them.”

Lapinel’s turn to lead came during a mission to set up an ambush. The team infiltrated the target zone and surprised the simulated enemy force.

He also got plenty of experience carrying the team radio during a two-day, 20-kilometer patrol, he said.

At the end of the training, the students received the CIGS jaguar badge. They also had the right to buy their own Brazilian version of the bowie knife with a jaguar-headed handle made for the jungle warfare center.

“It really is so cool,” Lapinel said of the knife. “There is just so much mystic surrounding it and so much culture.”

Along with being a personal victory, Lapinel’s success at the course helped build the relationship between the U.S. and Brazilian militaries, said Lt. Col. Rob Santamaria, the Army section chief at the U.S. Embassy in Brazil.

“Senior Airman Lapinel’s graduation continues to strengthen the U.S. military’s relationship with the Brazilian Military and reinforces the commitment that the New York National Guard has to the state partnership with Brazil,” Santamaria said.

“I am extremely proud of Lapinel’s accomplishment. His feat continues to demonstrate the high return on investment that the defense partnership with Brazil has to offer in terms of unique training opportunities for our U.S. military.”