CAMP ETHAN ALLEN TRAINING SITE, Vt. – Service members from French desert commandos to U.S. Special Forces operators have sung the praises of U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School instructors.
The Vermont Army National Guard instructors are known in civilian mountaineering communities as some of the most technically qualified in the world, said Lt. Col. Steve Gagner, the school commander.
Together, the school’s nearly 30 instructors have hundreds of years of knowledge and expertise. Students benefit from the fact they are full-time mountaineers, said Gagner.
“We’re really fortunate being a National Guard schoolhouse. Our instructors don’t have to PCS [permanent change of station] every few years,” said Gagner, noting that because of their ability to stay at the school, they can bolster their mountaineering educations. They have civilian mountaineering certifications in the United States. In addition to their U.S. military training, they have attended European military mountaineering schools in Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France and Finland.
“They are just remarkable, NCOs and instructors,” said Gagner. “Oftentimes, when students come here, they’ll leave saying this is the best block of instruction they’ve ever received. And that really boils down to the interaction they had with their instructors.”
When Staff Sgt. John Hampson joined the Army, his intent was always to end up in the medical field. Although he didn’t take the direct route there, he ended up in one of the most elite instructing positions in the military.
He began his career as an infantryman but always wanted to make his way into the medical community for its practical uses in military and civilian situations. The experience he gained along the way — an infantryman, a deployment to Iraq, training NCO, a basic and advanced leadership course instructor — was vital to qualify him as an instructor at the AMWS.
“The way people process and learn is very interesting,” said Hampson. “The way I teach here is very different than I would teach at an infantry course or a base level NCOES [NCO Education System] course. It’s kind of like developing upon what a student knows already and trying to grow that bit of knowledge.”
Although Hampson only joined the AMWS staff a few months ago, he has a deep appreciation for his role. One of his primary responsibilities is teaching casualty evacuation, a key part of the Basic Military Mountaineering Course.
“It kind of goes with why I switched from infantry to medical,” he said. “You can simulate combat operations really expensively at a place like Fort Knox, with all kinds of stuff that blows up that’s simulated, but it will never be real. But you can go for a backpacking trip for a day with your family and have a 100% real atmosphere and 100% real probability of someone actually getting hurt.
“There’s nothing different that we would do if a student was actually injured in the middle of the woods versus how we train,” he said.
Hampson experienced one of those real-life scenarios on Christmas Day when his 5-year-old nephew fell through the ice on a lake in Maine. The boy’s parents and Hampson fell through trying to rescue the child.
At that point, Hampson drew on his experience and took control of the situation.
“When it looked like it was going to be a problem with more people going through the ice, I saw the bigger picture and got things organized,” he said.
Hampson improvised rescue equipment using a rope and a plastic boat. He directed family members to form a daisy chain to reach the three still in the icy water and pull them out. He then performed first aid on his nephew.
“You’re trying to do everything in your power to keep them on the level that they’re at or make them better. And you can’t do that by just raw grit,” he said. “You have to be able to be smooth and controlled about what’s going on.”
Not many accomplished NCOs can say they once literally “lived in a van down by the river,” but Staff Sgt. Tim McLaughlin spent nearly two years doing just that.
Before becoming an AMWS instructor, a U.S. Army Sniper School graduate, and an accomplished civilian precision rifle shooter, he spent about two years sleeping in his van with a “really warm sleeping bag.” He was a “ski bum,” living out of the van he parked at a ski resort near Vermont’s Mad River.
During this time, from 2007 to 2009, he was a traditional Vermont Army Guard member and worked intermittently instructing at the AMWS. But his focus was his upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
“I was focused on getting ready to go back to war, getting my guys ready, and enjoying the time I had if this was going to be it,” he said.
McLaughlin deployed for the third time in 2010. He served with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain), at Combat Outpost (COP) Herrera in the Hindu Kush mountains. Due to the kinetic nature of the mission, he said he was thankful for the patrolling experience he gained during two previous deployments with the U.S. Army Rangers but was happy to return home to Vermont and employ his mountaineering skills again.
“The mountains filled a gap in my life after I came back from war,” he said. “It was a place where I could still challenge myself, where I could go out and be put in a position where my decisions had consequences. Life was real again.”
In 2015, he became a full-time instructor at the school. After an injury in 2018 affected his physical ability to mountaineer, he turned his focus to marksmanship and began assisting as an instructor in the AMWS Mountain Rifle Course (MRC).
He attended sniper school in 2019 and started shooting in civilian competitions to hone his abilities.
“It’s a skill that provides immediate result,” said McLaughlin. “It’s not theoretical. It’s like a carpentry project — you see the results you made at the end of two weeks [of the course]. It’s a concrete way to improve our units going to war.”
He enjoys the range of experience students bring to the marksmanship course. One day he could be working with Special Forces operators who have fired hundreds of thousands of rounds, another day with Norwich University cadets who have never fired a service rifle.
However, to attend the MRC, students must already be sniper qualified. McLaughlin said the amount of sniper experience at the course often turns classroom discussions into an information exchange, with him explaining how the terrain affects operations.
“Oftentimes, I’m learning from my students since I’m not in an active sniper section,” he said. “But a big part of the mountain sniper’s mission is getting into a dominant position. One minute we will be teaching very foundational skills for mountaineering, and the next we will be in the classroom ... having high-level discussions about external ballistics.”
Although marksmanship is a newfound passion, mountaineering remains part of his life inside and outside the military. He and his wife, who reminds him he’s a “flatlander” because he’s from Connecticut, have traveled to places like the Teton mountains in Wyoming and the Wetterstein Alps in Germany for mountaineering trips.
“That was something that we could share and that we could push and challenge ourselves with,” he said. “We joke that we stopped after two kids because that would be more than two rope teams if we climb together.”
The Lifetime Mountaineer
“Ever since I was a kid, the mountains have been a place where I want to spend my time. It’s just a place that draws me in,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nick Ash, an AMWS instructor. “I love the wildness of it; I love the remoteness. I love the experience of heading up there, and it’s all up to you if you are warm and cozy or wet and miserable. I have always liked the challenge of that.”
Ash knew that attaining an instructor position at the AMWS wouldn’t be easy, but he knew he wanted to be a mountain Soldier and teach mountaineering from the day he joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 2003.
“It took me a while to get here,” said Ash. “But I always had it in my mind that I wanted to work here.”
After deploying to Iraq almost immediately after enlisting, he came home and transferred to the Vermont Army National Guard. He achieved his first goal of becoming a mountain Soldier in Vermont’s mountain infantry battalion. Like McLaughlin, he helped the mountain brigade prepare its Soldiers for a deployment to Afghanistan and was also stationed at COP Herrera.
When he came home to Vermont, he achieved his final goal of teaching military mountaineering at the AMWS. He soon found instructing to be a new passion.
“It’s pretty cool to watch the students because they light right up when they start to get it,” said Ash. “It’s showing them they can accomplish something that they might have written off beforehand.”
Teaching is a passion in his private life as well. Like the McLaughlins, mountaineering is an interest he and his wife share with their children. His children have even taken a keen interest in the development of his military students.
“They always have questions about my students,” said Ash. “They ask, ‘Have they learned how to rappel? Are they placing cams [climbing safety devices] yet?’ It helps my family connect with my job, and that’s something I think is hard sometimes for service members.”
Ash has also used his mountaineering skills elsewhere. As Guard members, the school’s staff and cadre have the unique ability to connect with the community they serve in, and civilian authorities have called on him to use his expertise to save lives.
Sometimes those calls happen in the middle of the night. In 2020, Ash and another instructor responded to a request for aid from the Vermont State Police. They did multiple ice climbs in freezing conditions in the dark, searching for missing skiers. Using only their expertise and headlamps, they found the missing skiers and saved the life of a survivor, said Gagner.
Their capabilities don’t end with the Vermont civil authorities.
“The respect that they have earned throughout U.S. military, civilian authorities, and amongst foreign forces really speaks to their professionalism,” said Gagner. “That professionalism is developed through years of actually mountaineering outside of what they teach. They are widely recognized as some of the absolute best instructors that the Army has, and they are without a doubt the best collection of mountaineers this Army has probably ever seen.”