A Mercenary Explains How to Survive in the Jungle
The ex-military operative—now working as a mercenary—trains Asian military regiments in the Filipino jungle. We caught up to talk survival tips and evasion tactics.
Lede image by the United States Department of Defense
This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
I first met the Cyborg* at a gym in Bali. He looked like a blond GI Joe action figure—every muscle and facial feature immaculately defined, five feet eight, ice-cold blue eyes that didn't blink. Later, at lunch, he pulled a digital scale out of his bag to weigh his food. Then he told me about his job.
The Cyborg is apparently the hardest man to find in a jungle. His job? He trains elite Southeast Asian military regiments by being routinely dropped into the Filipino jungle as a "bunny" for trainees to capture. And after four years of doing this, he's never once been caught.
Over sushi, the Cyborg talked wilderness survival tips, evasion tactics, and the strange role that Christianity plays in his hard-nut life.
VICE: Let's start with the name. Where'd that come from?
The Cyborg: Yeah, I don't know about the Cyborg thing. I'm just a regular American guy who loves drinking Bud while watching football. I'm always calling Mom to send over boxes of Reese's. My parents are really blue collar. I'm definitely the black sheep, but my mission is still my family and to spread the ideals that have worked for the West. I joined the military because I was a patriot, and I wanted my children to have the same freedoms I've lived with.
So why did you go rogue?
It wasn't bad blood with the military; I just wanted the freedom to travel and explore the world. That's how I ended up undertaking training and private security advisory roles here in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
Let's talk about this bunny training exercise. How do you avoid being caught?
It broadly comes down to four rules. One: At night, the light doesn't lie. Any light pinpoints not only your location, but also the enemy's. Two: Move only at night and spend the daylight hours observing foreign units, remembering their routines and planning. Three: Travel alone, even though it's more desirable to travel in small groups. Also, if you ever find yourself trapped, use a different route to backtrack.
Another thing is the more you stress out, the more tired you'll get. You need to know about how your mental state affects the way you cope with pain, injury, hunger, and fatigue. This is most important in military situations in big cities where, if you're lost or separated from your unit, the confusion of the city heightens your stress because there is so much to look at. If your eyes dart the wrong way, it can cost you an arm or a leg.
In the end, the problem with all these tips is that they require training. I could spend hours talking about each of the points I just ran through in a matter of minutes. This stuff requires rigorous training in different conditions—countryside, cities, and forests. You can't be lazy; you need to educate yourself about the land you're working in.
It sounds like a large degree of not getting caught is about mental control.
Someone once told me that if freedom is short of weapons, we must compensate with willpower. I later found out it was a Hitler quote, but it's pretty relevant, and I think about it a lot when I'm alone in the jungle. The limits of your mind are your greatest barrier. Once you think you've found your threshold, you've still got another 30 percent left in the tank. You are your own worst enemy. That's what needs to stay in your mind throughout any struggle. It's your doubts, fears, and insecurities that force you into stupid mistakes. You really need to be in tuned with surviving in your head. That's the majority of the work right there. Everything else will fall into place as long as your will remains intact.
OK, let's say you've got the mental control bit sorted. How do you survive in the jungle?
After willpower, the second most important thing is navigation. If you've lost your gear and been stripped of your watch—and most tyrants and terrorists love fancy watches by the way—an important and simple technique is to use the sun to find true north. As long as the sun is bright enough, you can use a branch and a few stones to work out how to face north. It's worth YouTube-ing.
The next thing is to learn about water, edible plants, and hunting. You won't live long without water, especially if you're carrying gear and sweating. You'll most likely be drinking from lakes and rivers, so be wary of flooding, roads, and construction that can contaminate water. You can also learn to filter water from mud.
You also should have a basic understanding of fire building and shelter techniques. When you're thinking about shelter, you need to ensure you're protected from the sun, insects, animals, rain, and the enemy. For this last bit, you need to make sure your body is completely absorbed by your surroundings, by smothering your face with mud and your body in the fauna of your surroundings.
But again, this all takes practice. How many weekends have you got left? Don't waste them at the same shitty bar, listening to the same music. Head out there and spend some time alone. It sounds lame and cliché, but it's actually way more badass then sipping cocktails. It's only out there that you will realize that you can live on your own and be self-sufficient among the earth.
On the subject of self-sufficiency, what's the worst thing you've eaten?
I don't really think about my tastebuds when I'm trying to survive, dude. When you're desperate, you don't care; your mind works differently. You're thinking in carbs, vitamins, and nutrients. Also the only time I've ever been sick was in a restaurant in Hanoi because I did the typical tourist thing and ate a cobra's heart while it was still beating. I didn't get off the toilet for a week. Just thinking about it makes my stomach churn.
Take us through your daily routine.
I start the day with 300 burpees [squat thrusts] when I wake up, followed by jiu-jitsu. Then it's hand-to-hand combat in the afternoon and kickboxing in the evening. It's all high interval training, CrossFit-style stuff. It keeps me active, and I find it therapeutic. I spend the rest of my time studying theology online.
Tell me about your relationship with religion. It seems like a pretty interesting part of your character.
In my own personal experience, I have come within inches of death, and it's always this feeling I get—some call it instincts—but it feels spiritual to me. Pacing around villages in northern Afghanistan just before an attack, I can feel the ambience turn sour, like the timing of the wind misses a beat. So I duck and shots whistle past.
In war, it's all about timing. For me, prayer has an ability to light up my senses to the rhythms of war. I've ran across fields and seen my brothers' limbs get blown apart. Why do I choose certain steps? Why are my instincts inclined to move a certain way? I don't know.
What if it's just luck?
After so many tours, you learn that there's no such thing as luck. It's faith, determination, and hard work. Do great musicians get lucky when they strum the right chords? I don't think so. It's everything they've lived and thought that led them to those certain arrangements. I think the same way about triggers and fire fights.
Have you ever been in any incidents that have made you question your faith?
I questioned my faith when I was a teenager. I joined the military because I believed religion destroyed culture. Back then, I saw religion as a way of controlling the masses, like an experiment that had gone wrong. But when you get to war, you find God in places you don't expect. It's not out of desperation like a lot of people think; I think it's revealed and made transparent when you're at your worst. You're thinking differently when the stakes are high. Some think faith is a sign of weakness, but I think it takes a great deal of courage to really immerse yourself in something that's out of your hands. But like everything we've talked about, it's just part of conviction.