JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Eleven weeks of rigorous high-elevation training in India culminated with the "Best Student" trophy awarded to U.S. Army artillery officer Capt. Matthew Hickey with the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.
Hickey, a 26-year-old officer hailing from St. Paul, Minn., attended two courses while training at the Indian Army's High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) located in the Himalayan Mountain Range near Sonamarg in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Hickey's first course in high-altitude training was the Mountain Warfare Basic Course, which lasted seven weeks. He successfully completed the basic course and spent another four weeks at the Mountain Warfare Advance Course, where he distinguished himself by earning the best student award.
Mountain Warfare Basic training began in early May 2013 with a class size of approximately 225 service members. The top 75 students progressed to the Mountain Warfare Advance Course which was completed in late July.
Hickey said HAWS, which dates back to India's inception in the 1940's, is a well-known and prestigious school within the Indian Army and around the world.
"It's akin to our Airborne school a little bit, like how we pioneered this idea of putting Paratroopers behind enemy lines … HAWS is kind of like that. It has evolved into this very important and advanced mountain warfare school that has a training side and an operation side, and it has a lot of strategic value…It was a neat place to be at because of the history associated with it."
High Altitude Warfare School students are predominately Indian Soldiers, but Hickey was joined by three other American Soldiers: a sergeant first class from the 1st Special Forces Group, a sergeant first class with the 19th Special Forces Group, and a staff sergeant with the 2nd Ranger Battalion. Hickey's class also included soldiers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Botswana and Bhutan.
Main curriculum points at HAWS include mountain warfare and survival skills.
"It's just as much of a warfare course as it is a mountaineering course … Everything is taught with military operations in mind. It's not just, 'How do I climb a mountain?' It's, 'How do I get a lot of Soldiers to a particular place on the mountain to achieve a particular objective?'"
According to Hickey, the course is broken down into five rated categories: Rock Craft, Ice Craft, Endurance Testing, Tactical Operations, and Written Exams.
Rock craft, the school's core curriculum, measures a Soldier's skills in knot tying, rope fixing, rock climbing, and choosing the best route to employ a group of Soldiers for a cliff assault.
Ice craft measures skills in traveling across glaciers and establishing camps in a snowbound environment.
An endurance test is held every week. The test includes running over undulating terrain for distances typically ranging between 10 to 15 km. Soldiers are tested in low-oxygen, high-elevation conditions of around 12,000 feet while carrying loads ranging between 20 to 50 pounds.
The tactical exercises, generally 36-hours in length, employ skills learned at the school. Tasks include moving squads and platoons through mountainous terrain in order to set up patrol bases to conduct combat operations.
All events were graded, and upon completion of the course, written exams were taken.
The daily routine was physically demanding. Rock Craft required a hike of anywhere between 8 to 15 km from base camp to arrive at the training site, while the Ice Craft portion required an ascent from 12,000 to 14,000 feet to get to its training area.
"It hardens people…It's difficult to live and operate in a mountainous environment," said Hickey.
"The course was taught in Hindi…It was translated to us, but a lot of the language of mountaineering is not necessarily spoken. It's in the actions: tying knots, inspecting knots, inspecting harnesses, knowing the sequences, so it wasn't all that difficult to pick up on things, even when it was in Hindi."
Learning mountain warfare was the biggest objective for Hickey, but he also obtained insight into the Indian culture and how the Indian Army operates. He said Indian cultural norms hold economic and social status in high regard, and these fundamental norms reciprocate into their Army and how they operate militarily.
"The Indian Army is hard working. Their enlisted Soldiers work extremely hard…When their Soldiers get into the Army they are excited to get the opportunity to prove to the junior commissioned officers, and the officers that they are capable of accomplishing things."
"As much as I learned about mountaineering and military tactics, I learned just as much about the Indian culture and how it affects the way they do their operations."
"I developed some relationships with some of their NCOs and their officers, both on the student side and the instructor side, that hopefully I can maintain as we (US) and India continue to develop a relationship."
In another cultural and humorous learning opportunity, Hickey's roommate, an officer from Kyrgyzstan, showed up at the training with little guidance and a small amount of gear.
"We called him Eddie. He was a lieutenant from Kyrgyzstan. His real name was Elzair Abdykaimov. When he showed up, he said his real name, and he said it kind of funny, so I told him I would call him Eddie if it was alright, which he said it was alright to."
"My name for almost the entire time was Michael instead of Matthew," said Hickey. They couldn't pronounce my last name either, so my name was Capt. Michael Hankey, instead of Matthew Hickey. I knew I was going to butcher a lot of their names, so if Michael Hankey was easy, I was good with it, same thing with Eddie."
"Everybody was pretty laid back and low key. Even some of the instructors, if they had difficult names we would just give them a nickname, and they loved it. We would nickname guys after animals. We had Rhino, and Cobra, and Tiger, and all sorts of stuff, and they loved it. It was a lot of fun!"
Abdykaimov spoke very little English, and did not know Hindi. He relied on another officer from Tajikistan, Lt. Rajabov Umedjon, to translate English and Hindi to his primary language, which was Russian.
"The funny thing about Eddie was, not only did he not speak English or Hindi, and he was at this course where they only spoke English and Hindi, he didn't know what course he was going to. His Army just kind of sent him out, telling him he is going to this course in India…So all he brought with him was one suitcase. In it he had his combat uniform, his boots, his beret, he brought a couple of gifts from Kyrgyzstan, and the rest of it was full of Marlboro Red cigarettes."
"And, that's all he brought with him…Eddie had never climbed a day in his life. He didn't know anything about mountaineering, and by the end of the course, he was the number one rock climber. It was pretty remarkable how he just showed up there, not knowing what he was going to do, not even knowing what people were saying, and he just had this incredible natural ability to feel the rock, and understand balance, and rhythm, and the techniques associated with rock climbing, and by the end he was head and shoulders above anyone else."
"In between every rock climb, and in between every endurance event, and before PT, he'd be sitting there smoking a Marlboro Red cigarette…He was just going with the flow, so long as he had a cigarette nearby, he'd be doing just fine."
"Eddie and I got to know each other pretty well. His English improved, and then for some reason it got worse as the course went on, so we goofed around about that…I'll stay in touch with Eddie…He has a bright future. So does Umed (Rajabov Umedjon), from Tajikistan. I probably became closest friends with those guys. Any time you go to a foreign school, and you find some other foreign officers, you kind of latch on, because you have that in common."
In addition to the Best Student award, Hickey was given a pin for his uniform, and officially certified in the Indian Army's Basic, and Advanced Mountain Warfare courses. He was honored to be one of four American service members selected for the training.
"It's important to understand that the High Altitude Warfare School has a long history…Ever since the 1940s they have been doing some remarkable stuff, so High Altitude Warfare School is regarded as one of the top and most prestigious schools in their Army."