LATHAM, N.Y. – New York Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Thomas Carpenter knew it would be sink or swim when he showed up at the Brazilian army's Center for Jungle Warfare Instruction in October.
He was enrolled in the six-week International Jungle Operations Course the Brazilian army runs for foreign Soldiers.
But the 38-year old training NCO in the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, knew he had to pass the initial swimming test or he was going right back home.
"It was quite a struggle to get the swimming," the U.S. Army Ranger School graduate recalled. "It was a nightmare."
For a week after he arrived at the school's Manaus, Brazil, headquarters, he was in the pool working with instructors until he could swim in full uniform, with his weapon, towing a pack.
Six weeks later, the Prospect, N.Y., resident not only earned the coveted jungle warrior Jaguar Badge the school issues, but he was also the third honor graduate for the international course.
"I was too dumb to quit," Carpenter said.
Making it through the school is a pretty big deal, according to Army Lt. Col. Rob Santamaria, a military liaison in the U.S. Embassy in Brazil.
"Most jungle military experts consider the Brazilian army Jungle Warfare School to be the premier jungle school in the world," Santamaria said.
“Staff Sgt. Carpenter's graduation from the Brazilian army Jungle Warfare School's International Course has given the New York Army National Guard instant credibility and garnered much respect with the Brazilian army," he added.
Carpenter's performance didn't surprise anybody who knows him, said Command Sgt. Major David Piwowarski, the New York Army National Guard's top non-commissioned officer.
"Staff Sgt. Carpenter embodies the spirit of the minuteman," Piwowarski said. "On very short notice with no specific train-up, he responded with toughness to this demanding course with just the training he already had under his belt and a lot of guts."
The New York National Guard was invited to send Soldiers to Brazil's jungle warfare school as part of the new training and exchange partnership between the New York National Guard and Brazil's military initialed in March 2019.
He picked Carpenter for this short-notice mission "because he is a consummate professional who has always been willing to accept challenges," Piwowarski explained.
Being able to swim well is such a vital part of the jungle warfare course because rivers replace roads in the rain forest, Carpenter explained.
"Where they operate in the Amazon jungle there are only two roads," Carpenter said. "Most everything is done through the river system. They use the river networks to transport supplies and people."
On arriving at the school, all participants must pass basic skills tests, including the swimming requirement, to indicate they can tackle the course. Then they move into the jungle.
The first phase of the six-week course focuses on living and surviving in the jungle, Carpenter said. The soldiers learned what they could and couldn't eat.
"We didn't do any snake eating, but I had to catch one," he said.
They also learned to avoid deadly insects and animals and snakes.
Dealing with the constant moisture was another skill they learned, Carpenter said.
"The rain is not like the rain here," he said. "It is like a monsoon rain. It is a constant battle to keep the rust away and keep everything in good operational order."
Navigating in the dense jungle is also a special skill, Carpenter said.
Depending on the season, the water levels in streams and rivers can be drastically different. The Brazilians issue different maps for different times of the year reflecting those changes, he said.
And the jungle canopy makes it difficult to create maps that have precise contour features, he said.
The soldiers learned to follow the "dry line" while navigating, he explained. They would stay on the high ground and avoid the ravines, which meant it took longer to go anywhere.
Those survival and navigation skills were tested in a four-day exercise in which each squad was dropped in the jungle and given a distance and a direction and tasks to conduct along the way.
"They dropped us off in a place where they knew there were no fruits and vegetables we could eat," he said. "We pretty much starved."
The next two weeks were spent in the water. They helocasted – jumping from a helicopter into the Amazon – and learned to make rafts and to waterproof gear.
Eventually, Carpenter and his squad, which included soldiers from China, Canada, France and Paraguay, conducted a 2-kilometer river insertion.
"We were in the water for three hours that night," he recalled.
"We were wet 24/7," Carpenter said. "If we weren't in the water it was raining every day. If it wasn't raining, you were sweating through your uniform."
The final phase of the training focused on military tactics in the rainforest. That training was similar to the Army's Ranger School, Carpenter said.
The men planned and conducted patrols and tactical missions. They rappelled into the jungle from hovering helicopters. This phase was capped with a long-range patrol.
The main difference between Ranger School and the Brazilian jungle training is that the jungle is multiple times denser than the woods and Florida swamps Rangers train in, Carpenter said.
At the end of the six weeks, Carpenter and the other international students, which included one other American, were presented with their Jaguar Badge – the official symbol of a Brazilian jungle warrior –and a machete.
"It's a pretty cool machete," Carpenter said. "At the end of the course, you have a machete ceremony."
"Somebody already qualified presents it to you and then you christen it by waving it through the smoke from a fire," he added.
Since Brazil founded its jungle warfare school in 1964, over 6,300 soldiers have made it through the course, Santamaria said. This includes 530 graduates of the international course the Brazilian army runs once a year. Carpenter is the 30th member of the U.S. Army to make it through the class, he said.
His goal now is to bring the skills he learned back to his unit and other New York Army National Guard formations.
"I'm not a good NCO unless I train Soldiers and make them better than me," he said.
The main advice he would give to other Guard Soldiers heading to the jungle course is to focus on swimming and then swim some more.
"Everybody who came there was prepared," Carpenter said. "I was the only idiot who had no clue."