Battling cold, conquering mountains at Army school in Alaska
Staff Sgt. Paul Willey, an instructor at the Army's Northern Warfare Training Center, in Alaska, inspects a student's equipment during the Basic Mountaineering Course. Willey has taught arctic warfare, survival and mountaineering courses at the school for the past three years.

FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska. -- Army Rangers, Navy Seals, and Special Forces are all considered elite troops in the U.S. military. They are all highly trained in their fields and prepared for just about any worst-case scenario.

But what if their helicopter was redirected to a frozen mountain range in Afghanistan' Would they know how to adapt and overcome the cold and rugged terrain' If they trained at the Army's Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska, the answer would be "yes."

Who's tough enough to train such an elite force' Soldiers like Staff Sgt. Paul Willey, an instructor at the Northern Warfare Training Center, known as the NWTC, that's who.

Willey actually experienced such a scenario when his unit was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003.

"One of the first things that happened was we got pulled into a [quick reaction force] mission. We had to relieve the Rangers from an aircraft that had gone down and it was in the mountains." Willey said, "We're out there and there is snow everywhere, and these guys have their Gore-Tex jackets over BDUs."

"There was a lot of rank and a lot of experience there," he said, "and they had no idea how to survive in the cold, but here comes Willey literally walking around the perimeter trying to modify their uniforms."

He said one of the Rangers asked him, "How do you know all this'"

"I just came from Alaska and I learned this at this school," Willey told him, referring to the Cold Weather Leaders Course.

Willey attended the course at the NWTC in 2000. He returned three years ago to become an instructor there.

He has trained Soldiers how to survive in the arctic and to traverse difficult mountainous terrain.

He has taught everything from the basics of skiing and snowshoeing to rappelling and crossing ravines.

"We teach (Soldiers) how to move on snow shoes. We teach them how to move on skis, and they are always going to have their rucksack," Willey said. "It is more than just a heavy piece of equipment they have to carry around. It has everything they need to survive in there."

All instructors must be able to perform the tasks of the given course to standard and then attend an Instructor Qualification Course.

"They have to be able to pitch these classes back to us, their peers, before they even get in front of a student," Willey said.

After the new instructors show they have learned the lessons they will teach, they are observed for a period of time to make sure they're ready.

Instructors also take courses above and beyond what is taught at the NWTC, Willey said, "just to make us better instructors."

They go to Anchorage for advanced avalanche courses, Joshua Tree National Park in California for advanced mountain training, and go through what Willey describes as a "[combat life saver] class on steroids."

While he teaches advanced skills unique to mountainous and arctic environments, Willey said he also stresses the importance of some Soldiering basics.

"We give a land navigation refresher and I have had [sergeants first class] who have failed. It's amazing, because everyone is so reliant on their GPS," Willey said. "What happens when the batteries die'"

"By the time they leave here they have a better understanding of how their equipment works and how to use it successfully," he said.

Because of their skills and expertise, NWTC instructors are sometimes called upon to assist in search and recovery missions with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, because of their high level of training and skills in arctic and mountainous terrain.

At one recovery site, Willey said, "we put in hand lines and cut the steps and did everything to make sure [the recovery team] could traverse to the top safely."

Willey will soon be leaving Alaska for another duty assignment elsewhere. He said he will pass on his wealth of knowledge to his new Soldiers and peers, so if one day, they ever encounter arctic or mountainous terrain, in Afghanistan, for example, they will know how to survive and accomplish their mission safely.

Page last updated Fri February 25th, 2011 at 20:12