A small team of reconnaissance Marines and sailors from a riverine unit deployed to Panama through the month of June to train local troops on amphibious operations. (Courtesy of Capt. Jacob Auchincloss)
A Reserve captain led a small team of Marines and sailors on a monthlong deployment to the jungles of Panama, where they teamed with Colombian special operators to train three local forces to operate together on land and at sea.
Capt. Jacob Auchincloss, with 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company, based out of Mobile, Alabama, led eight Marines and a corpsman from his own unit, along with six sailors with Coastal Riverine Squadron 2, based out of Virginia, through the month of June. The Marines and sailors linked up with five Colombian special forces troops to train members of Panama’s police, border patrol and aeronaval service.
Like other partner nations in the U.S. Southern Command area of operations, the Panamanian troops are beefing up their counter-narcotics patrolling, Auchincloss said. But aside from that, he was responsible for moving forward a SOUTHCOM action plan that encourages more training led by Colombians in that region of the world, he said.
“The goal is that the Colombians take more of the initiative to train their neighbors,” Auchincloss said. “They obviously speak the language and they’re quite proficient in jungle and riverine patrolling. They also have more of a stake in it, frankly, than we do because the drugs are coming up through Colombia.”
Through the month of June, Auchincloss said he split the 41 local troops into two teams. One team of 21 focused on riverine training with the sailors, while the other 20 troops practiced jungle patrol tactics with the recon Marines, he said. He spread members of the local police, border patrol and aeronaval service between the two teams so they could share what they learned with other members of their service.
“We wanted to ensure there was a good group of officers and [noncommissioned officers] on both teams so there could be cross-pollination afterward,” Auchincloss said.
Operating for weeks as such a small team was both a challenging and rewarding experience, Auchincloss said. As the officer in charge, he was responsible for planning and overseeing the missions, but also for dealing with logistical challenges that arose.
When they first arrived, they had to find a workaround when they didn’t initially have access to all the boats they needed to conduct the riverine training, he said. And he had to think about how to get food out to the troops separated into two different training areas.
Sending small teams of Marines, led by captains like Auchincloss, out on independent missions that last for weeks falls in line with the Corps’ roadmap for the next decade: Expeditionary Force 21. He said his advice for other captains who might find themselves leading troops on a training mission in an austere environment would be to understand the host nation’s needs and exactly what skills they want to develop.
Even over a matter of weeks, Auchincloss said, Marines can teach other militaries a lot through setting the example. His NCOs showed a great deal of initiative throughout the deployment, he said. That was vital to showing the Panamanians that they could better utilize their NCOs and junior officers to carry out planning.
Within weeks, he said Panamanian NCOs were pitching in with the mission-planning process. They were also making great strides in communication during the riverine training. Much of that came as a result of the strong example his NCOs set, he said.
“In that kind of compressed time frame, the best thing you can do is model the behavior you want them to incorporate,” he said.
“You need to be demonstrating what right looks like, including the ways that officers and NCOs should be acting in a unit. Over the course of the month, it’s going to sink in.”