In Hungary they’re called the ‘Carpathian Boar’ or Sus Scofa Attila.
We landed at the Ferenc Liszt Airport in Budapest, Hungary. The airport named after composer and performer Franz Liszt. Budapest, Hungary’s largest and most populace city, is a gem spread across both sides of the Danube. I was lucky enough to have spent time in Budapest on a previous trip. My favorite memories were the art, architecture, food, and of course, the people.
Hungary or ‘Magyarország’ is home to 10 million people, became a democratic parliamentary republic in 1989, and joined the European Union in 2004. Most claim descendance from the Huns or from the Magyars.
Huns were the nomads who traveled across Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe from the fourth through the sixth centuries. Magyars were the tribes originally from the Urals who migrated down and settled in and around the Danube.
When I was working in Iraq, I would sometimes encounter the proud Bedouin. The Bedouin people are a nomadic tribe that move across the deserts that define the Levant, north Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
When I was working in Afghanistan, I was lucky enough to meet the Kuchi, a tribe of Pashtun nomads who lived off the land while moving scraggly livestock through the barren Afghan outback.
In Hungary, I met the Romani. The Hungarian Special Forces with whom I was travelling referred to them as Gypsies.There was no love lost between these Hungarian soldiers and the Romani. A better description would be a wanderer or traveler. The Romani have been a part of the Hungarian social landscape for hundreds of years.
The Roma (the common local term for the Romani) don’t like being referred to as Gypsies. They feel that they are wrongly associated with the stereotype that they are lazy pickpockets who live on through their thievery. Those referred to as gypsies have been vilified justly or unjustly in the press, literature and film for centuries. They band together and have their children stealing from your bags as the parents aggressively beg from and distract you all the while.
Romani suffer from separation and segregation. Many of the Romani are dirt poor. Some live by their wits, sometimes outside the law.
The area we were operating in within Hungary had been inhabited for a thousand years by Huns, Slavs, Avars, Celts, Romans and Germanic tribes. The stunning beauty of Hungary isn’t the only reason they came and stayed. Hungary’s rich resources and geothermal caves and lakes draw over 15 million international tourists each year.
I developed my love for Hungarian food from my infamous Uncle Paul’s side of the family. Potatoes paprikás krumpli, lecsó peppers, and of course, endless varieties of goulash were available every day for lunch, all I had to do was walk home from school.
Uncle Paul’s family name derived from their mother’s lineage before she emigrated from Bulgaria. She was ‘Bogdan’, therefore as the Matriarch the family became known as the ‘Bogdani’ and later Bodany.
Once on the ground in Hungary I found that you couldn’t swing a dead cat without encountering a Zoltan, Attila or Bela and without one of the special operations soldiers (men and women) claiming to be a descendent of Grand Prince Árpád, Vlad the Impaler or Atilla the Hun himself.
I even encountered a soldier that stated that his family was the actual inspiration for the Dracula stories, not Vlad Dracul. I never learned whether his claim was true, I steered clear of him the entire trip.
At the base where the training was to occur, we met two Romani running a small enclosed, coffee concession. It wasn’t bigger than a phone booth and was mobile so they could move their works to a new location if the business dried up. Their version of a large coffee was no bigger than a dixie cup and the consistency was more Espresso than a normal bean.
They jokingly introduced themselves to me as ‘Uday’ and ‘Qusay’ (I never learned their real names, so the nicknames stuck) and I introduced them to the concept of a “Double Double.” Not the milk and sugar infused American variant, rather the newly invented Hungarian Hybrid where I bought a cup in town and demonstrated how to put four of their shot glasses into one cup for me three times a day.
How I got here.
During one of my vacation trips to Afghanistan I had met Imre Schmidt, current NCOIC of International Affairs for NATO C-IED ‘train the trainer’ courses located in Belgium. Imre was a true practitioner, locating and clearing IEDs to save the lives of US and Coalition forces. Imre understood my work in HBPR&A and used those techniques to find the emplacers, not just the IEDs.
Remarkably, Imre knew Martin Woolley, whom I had first met in Bydgoszcz, Poland during a training event. Martin was the Deputy Leader HQ SACT’s (Supreme Allied Commander, Transformation) CIEF Integrated Product Team. Both Imre and Martin knew General Gabor Lorincz, and so they drug Gabor into one of my briefings against his will. The rest is history.
General Gabor Lorincz, current Commander of Hungary’s 25th Mechanized Brigade said that Hungary would be the first coalition force in Europe to host an HBPR&A course, and he was as good as his word.
Martin Woolley had envisioned the Weapons Intelligence Team (WIT) as being groups of highly trained operators who knew how to collect and exploit evidence left by IED builders and emplacers. NATO learned early that to attack the IED, you couldn’t just target the emplacers. You needed a skilled team trained to gather intelligence in order to defeat the device and attack the networks that recruited, supported and financed the operations. Martin drew up the plans, found funding streams and then ran the first WIT training course. When he saw the brief for HBPR&A he did two things, (1) he quit his job and came to work for HBPR&A and, (2) he endeavored to create the first advanced situational awareness course in European history.
Once Martin gained support, he, Imre and Gabor worked hard to bring special operators from 13 nations together to attend our one-of-a-kind course, first ever course based on my original training concept.
I remember giving Gabor a list of the equipment I would need to carry out the KSA³’s (knowledge, skills, aptitudes, attitudes and abilities) of the course. The list included a request for 35 rubber or de-milled AK style rifles or their equivalent. Gabor looked at me with interest. “What are these for?” He asked. I explained that various role players would be acting as security teams or insurgents and we wanted them to be seen with realistic weapons from varying distances. Gabor answered, “Come with me.“
We walked across the compound and came to a grassy stretch replete with bunkers that from above would have looked like any other football or soccer field. Gabor led me down to the massive wood and steel doors (reminiscent of my image of Dracula’s castle keep) and opened one side. Inside there were racks of the most well-maintained AK-47’s, 74’s and AKMs that I had ever seen in my life. Hundreds of weapons per rack, 20 racks to a bunker.
Gabor said, “We don’t play with toys.”
He was similarly motivated when it came to our request for smoke and explosives simulators. To this day, that practical application range in Hungary was the closest to real combat of any range we have created. Clearly the most realistic, perhaps the most dangerous!
I always need time in the morning to clear my head before a training course.
Hungary was no different. Sleep is overrated, so I decided to be up before the dawn each day, take a jog-walk around the vast compound and then meet Uday and Qusay for a ‘Heart Starter Special’ Double Double coffee.
There was no weight room or gym like you might find in a hotel. The rooms were spartan, they were low ceilinged and made of thick, poured concrete with gasoline fired heaters that likely hadn’t worked since the beginning of the cold war.
While the Hungarians took over the base and made it their own, the Russian Army architecture and construction methods were frequent and obvious.
The property that surrounded the base made it seem as there had been a number of heliports and aircraft landing zones. The patterns seemed familiar but the land hadn’t been maintained for many years. Each day I went further out on my longer runs.
On this particular morning I was far enough out that the sun had begun to rise and there was a low hanging fog clinging close to the ground. I remember thinking how silly I was not to have my camera or shoe-phone with me as I wanted to capture the amazing beauty that was unfolding around me.
It was then that I saw the Carpathian Boar mom with her two kids. Her jet black back was as high as my shoulders. Her tusks were evident as she rooted the ground, digging up fresh roots for her babies. She moved like a rhino through the brush. My guess is that the boar weighed in around 800 to a thousand pounds. I know horses and I know elk, I’ve dressed my share of wild animals, and that guess is probably pretty close to spot on.
I also knew from previous encounters with other species that a wild animal would fiercely protect its young if it felt that I was a threat.
I stopped, my heart raced and instantly I was red hot on this cold, damp morning.
I train people to be prepared for every eventuality and I had found myself less than 25 yards away from a dangerous, wild boar without a weapon or a plan.
I backtracked and began to create field expedient weapons as I went. I was McGuyver-ing it, pulling a plan out of my prison wallet and I moved backwards like a ninja. A rock here, a stick there, soon I had taken pieces of a rusted metal T-post fence rail, some discarded sections of World War Two era barbed wire and a brick and fashioned a basic impact weapon.
The boar never looked up, never stopped rooting and ruminating. The baby pigs squealed with joy each time mom turned over a new piece of dark soil, perhaps their playfulness had distracted mom and saved me from a grisly death!
The breakfast in the Hungarian mess hall that morning was a gruel made of beets and room temperature milk. The accompanying ‘dessert’ was sour cherry soup. The overall theme of the meal looked like a victim of a rocket attack and got me thinking.
How many times had I worried HOW I would die?
I didn’t worry about dying, that didn’t scare me. Rather, I worried about the manner of death that I would face and whether it would be incongruent with the way that I lived my life.
For example, teaching situational awareness and then being eaten alive by a feral hog on a morning run seemed like a horrible footnote for my life. Took me immediately back to that story about the ‘Bear whisperer’ guy who got killed and eaten on film. Yikes.
A few years before this incident, my Personal Security Detachment lead ‘Jonesy’ and I were investigating a possible VBIED outside of Habbaniya, Iraq in Al-Anbar. One of the Marines behind me was covering us with an M240 as we moved to a position of cover. For whatever reason he was screwing with the tripod mount and let loose with an ND (negligent discharge) burst of M118 7.62×51mm FMJ AP that almost cut me in half. The Marine’s answer was a wave and a, “My bad!”
We found the VBIED, it didn’t hurt or kill anyone, but my own security detail almost ‘smoke checked’ me (by accident?). That would have made the news.
I felt the same when I was in Afghanistan my second time.
The Taliban staged an early morning attack and had made it onto the FOB. Alarms were sounding and people were scurrying as the outgoing and incoming projectiles fought for dominance. The noise and smoke obscured rational thinking. My team was safely ensconced at the International D-Fac (dining facility) enjoying a hearty breakfast between explosions.
I had passed on breakfast and like an idiot I was alone between the ‘cans’ (housing area) and the classroom (a makeshift classroom on the upper floor of Kandahar Airfield).
I found that I wasn’t worried about being killed, I worried about the obituary: “Human behavior expert’ killed by fellow humans during attack he didn’t predict.”
Back as a cop on the road, I had an incident where a guy stepping out of a recently car-jacked vehicle wanted to stop me from arresting him and fired a handgun at me so closely that I still remember the lands and grooves of the barrel and the blue light that came from the muzzle. In a nanosecond both of us passed each other, clearly surprised that I was still alive, unscathed – the bullet somehow missing my Botticelli inspired physique.
They weren’t the only near misses and likely won’t be the last. Those types of situations ground you. They really make you think about what impact or legacy you are going to leave on the world. I never wanted fame, but I did and do want to leave a legacy of serving man and womankind.
While driving out to the location of the future Hungarian MOUT range that same morning a few funny things happened. One of the soldiers had an iPad open. None of us had connectivity yet somehow this special operator was able to get service.
When his computer booted up, it resumed playing the loudest most enthusiastic ‘Triple X” porn site available on Hungarian broadband, the soundtrack of which was now echoing in the little Mercedes Benz G-class jeep we were traveling in.
The embarrassment was palpable.
The leader of the convoy was also the TC of our vehicle, he suggested in Hungarian that we pull over for a lunch break on the side of the road as that would also give him an opportunity to ‘discuss’ the incident with the offending soldier.
Our lunch that day and for the next few weeks consisted of a beet or turnip, one carrot, a chunk of Mangalica (the good kind of wild boar). Each evening we had a round green can that contained chunks of vegetable and chunks of meat, leftover Russian “MRE” meals ready to eat, now decades old.
We arrived at the abandoned village that would soon be our practical application training grounds. The wood and supplies had already been dropped off as had been the tents and other necessities. The plan was to actually BUILD a MOUT site (military operations in urbanized terrain-style training village) on this very spot with sweat equity and the combined handiwork of the Hungarian Special Forces soldiers and my fellow Instructors.
It wouldn’t be the first time we did something this grand, we built a MOUT town from the ground up on board Fort Bliss when no such observation and surveillance range existed.
The Hungarian MOUT town took us almost a week of hot days, cold nights and backbreaking labor, but the results were amazing. There was no power, so all of our construction was using ancient methods and hand tools. Once completed, we had a number of Observations Posts at different heights arranged from 600 meters to over a thousand meters from the ‘village’ we created. We had a city center, shops and other observable details that would help make the training cognitively real.
Those soldiers who had been carpenters and sandbag fillers now became set dressers and began their training as either villagers, security members, insurgents or terrorists. Call Sign ‘Hammer’ made the mistake of referring to the insurgent team recruiters as a ‘group of Hooligans’. The name stuck.
During the next few weeks whenever we heard their call signs on the insurgent net we would laugh; “Ooley-Gong One this is Ooley-Gong Seven” and so on. Whenever I am in contact with any member of that travel team, I remind them of the incredible ‘Ooley Gong’ role players and we all share good memories.
The students who attended the course came from all over Europe. They were all Tier One Operators from their coalition force nations. Each received expert instruction first in a seminar-style environment, then outside on the compound property for part task training and then for the last week, out on the range under the stars conducting HBPR&A training on the new site we designed and built.
The after-action reviews were stellar. I still think fondly of that excursion, the great training we were able to share and the hospitality of Gabor, Imre and the Hungarian Defence Forces soldiers and support personnel.
We did have a couple of run-ins with feral hogs during that final week. The Ooley Gong’s took range security very seriously and used pyrotechnics to move the pigs out of our training area and back into the dense woods that surrounded the couple of miles of village and surrounding area that we had fashioned out of the forest.
And like I mentioned at the beginning, I got to meet a couple of the Romani. These few who were insistent on living up to the negative stereotypes.
When I headed out of the TOC tactical operations center just before BMNT begin morning nautical twilight headed to one of the observation posts, I found myself hurrying so I would have time to get up massive, crudely fashioned wood ladder they had built. I didn’t want the students to see me struggle. I didn’t want to be out of breath when they arrived.
A more accurate representation would be a wooden staircase fashioned out of Norway spruce and silver fir, all created by hand and the handiwork of the Hungarian Special Forces team. The stairs were massive and solid.
When I got to the OP, I encountered a problem. The stringers were still in place, but all the treads, steps and risers were missing from the gigantic stairs. I used my flashlight to look for clues and followed a trail of wood pieces and large gutter-spike style nails strewn through the tall grass.
I heard them just as I came upon them. The truck engine sputtering to life and a team of Roma throwing the last pieces of wood into an old, beat up Csepel Autógyár and subsequently peeling away through the dense forest, the passengers hanging on for dear life and yelling, “fuss, menj, menj!” I didn’t need a translator to tell me they were cuing the driver to hit the gas and flee the scene of the recent theft.
The more fidelity you put into a memory, the longer that memory will last uncorrupted. The idea that your memory will forever escape corruption is a pipedream. We have yet to evolve to that level of consciousness.
Capture those memories by reading, writing, saying, seeing them and perhaps most of all SHARING them. Use cameras and yellow pads and tell your story whenever someone gives you the opportunity. Storytelling works and its one of the oldest, best ways of conveying skills during training.
Training changes behavior.