By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsApril 6, 2016
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (April 6, 2016) -- Give Capt. Jordan Laughlin a map and a compass, and he can probably get you from Point A to Point B faster than anybody else on post. That is, if you can keep up with him.
Laughlin, a 10th Mountain Division (LI) intelligence operations officer, has been a competitive orienteer ever since he picked up the sport in 2007 while attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Orienteering is a competitive form of land navigation that requires athletes to use only a compass and a terrain contour map in a race to the finish line. Competitors navigate from one control point to another in a pre-determined sequence, choosing how quickly they move and the routes that will get them there the fastest.
Originally from Palmer, Alaska, Laughlin said he spent a lot of time outdoors and ran cross-country in high school where he also learned a little about orienteering. It was at West Point where he developed an interest in the sport.
Laughlin tried out for the team during his freshman year at the academy and began learning about orienteering while developing the time management skills needed to handle a rigorous academic schedule with club activities.
"It was a pretty unique experience and a great time," he said. "I learned a lot really quickly. I affirmed my desire for the sport and spent as much time as I could to make myself better while balancing academics."
Orienteering is often described as a "thinking sport," and athletes develop an ability to use speed and mental acuity while navigating courses of varying terrain. Even as a novice to the sport, Laughlin proved to be a quick study.
"For me, it was about learning the precision required to both navigate off of the map as well as navigating using primarily the compass," he said.
Laughlin said orienteering requires significantly more precision and speed than the land navigation normally associated with military training.
"There was a great learning factor just understanding the nuances of the map and how detailed they are," he said. "You have to be able to translate what's on the map to what you see on the ground and how to use that information to be the fastest individual on a navigated route."
Then there was the speed factor.
"I constantly pushed myself to get faster on the roads and faster on the trails and in the woods," Laughlin said. "It's not just running on a track, because you have to be able to jump over obstacles, go around trees, up and down hills and through muddy terrain."
The West Point Orienteering Club was founded in 1975, and it has dominated intercollegiate competition nearly every year since.
Laughlin added his own footnote to that history when he was selected to compete in the U.S. Junior World Orienteering Championship and became a member of the World University Orienteering Championship team in 2008. In 2010, he competed in the O-Ringen, a five-day orienteering competition in Sweden.
He was named training officer for the club during his senior year and served as course designer for the annual West Point meet that is validated by USA Orienteering. Just months after graduation and having been commissioned as a military intelligence second lieutenant, Laughlin represented Team USA at the 2011 World Orienteering Championships in Savoie, France.
After that, Laughlin took a hiatus from competitive orienteering while he focused on his Army career. He deployed to Afghanistan from July 2013 to January 2014, serving with 1st Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, from Vilseck, Germany. Laughlin hasn't been able to attend the world championships in the past few years due to military obligations, and he is fine with that.
"I've definitely had some great experiences, but my job comes first," he said. "In the future, I want to get to a few different areas I haven't seen before. The military championships this fall is in Brazil, and I'm really excited to be able to compete for a slot on that team."
It would be his first time competing with Team USA at this event. The World Orienteering Military Championships is hosted by the Conseil International du Sport Militaire (CISM), the lead organization for all military sports on the world stage.
"I was pretty busy when I was stationed in Europe," he said. "Mostly I was racing on my own and with a local club there, but I was keeping in contact with the team."
Competitions sometimes turn into small reunions, as former club members and fellow USMA graduates tend to gravitate toward each other. Teammates like Hannah and Kevin Culberg, USMA Class of 2011 and 2012 graduates, respectively, are some of the lifelong friends and associates he's gained through orienteering.
"With a small group you can motivate each other to go out and train, and we did that quite a bit," he said. "Hannah has achieved quite a bit of success, and I like to take a little credit for that because I dragged her out to train a few more times than she dragged me out."
First Lt. Hannah Culberg, who is now an engineer assigned to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, was the first woman from West Point to earn a spot on the U.S. Senior Orienteering Team and was the top-ranking U.S. female athlete at the 2013 World Orienteering Military Championships.
Over the years, Laughlin has met other graduates and former club members who have continued excelling in the sport. Recently, he reunited with Capt. Bryce Livingston, a former company mate of his at West Point who ran cross-country. Livingston represented the U.S. Armed Forces team at the CISM Orienteering Competition in Austria in 2014, while stationed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. He recently arrived at Fort Drum as a 2nd Brigade Combat Team operations officer, and Laughlin looks forward to training with him.
Earlier this year, the U.S. National Team Selection Committee chose Laughlin as a member of the 2016 U.S. National Orienteering Team. He will compete in events at the elite level, an echelon higher than what he competed in the previous two years as a member of the performance team.
"I was in the Captains Career Course last year and I was mostly focused on that," he said. "But I had a little bit more time to go out and do some more orienteering training than I had as a platoon leader. So, it's great to be able to get to the point that the committee recognized my performance."
Now, it's about maintaining a rigorous training schedule, even through the winter months. There are workouts standard to long-distance training such as interval, tempo and long runs, but there are also orienteering technique training sessions that are like workouts for the mind.
"You have to keep your mind engaged," Laughlin said. "You are constantly thinking and evaluating where you are, how hard you need to push or back off a little bit so you can focus more and navigate cleaner so you get to your point."
Laughlin said when athletes aren't training on tracks, trails or in the woods, they practice what is called "armchair orienteering" to exercise the mental aspects of the sport. One popular orienteering website, World of O, contains a repository of maps from international competitions that athletes can use to evaluate and strategize how they would navigate those courses.
"Every course you enter is a little bit different, so this website lets you evaluate how you would race it and then see how some of the world's elite athletes approached it," he said. "That's one of the armchair techniques I use a lot."
He said the closest orienteering maps are in the Tug Hill Region, where he will spend time training, while also working with local clubs.
"I did a training camp this fall in Harriman State Park near West Point with the local Hudson Valley Orienteering Club, and then another training camp in Boston with some friends," he said. "The Northeast has the greatest density of orienteers right now, so it's just a matter of talking to people and figuring out who you can work with."
Laughlin said orienteering has been a rewarding experience for him, personally and professionally.
"I attribute my orienteering experience to having assisted me greatly in my career," he said. "It helped me out throughout my infantry training, through all the land navigation requirements. It's also helped me with me just developing this fortitude, wanting to keep going. When you're tired at the end of a two-hour course and feel like giving up because you just didn't find that point exactly right, you just have to continuously push yourself."
He said developing those skills for sport also benefited him on deployments and during military intelligence training.
"I think it has definitely helped out a lot in multiple facets of my life, and then it also just keeps me fit. I think it's the ultimate sport because it works both your mind and body," he said. "I find it better than just running because I'm able to do it longer and harder, and enjoy it more, by being able to do it with a map in my hand and a purpose. It's a great sport."