TOLEMAIDA, Colombia – Special Forces, SEAL, Ranger, paratrooper are all titles and terms that tend to garner respect and admiration from U.S. military personnel and civilians alike because of the physical and mental strength it takes to earn them.
In the country of Colombia and throughout much of Central and South America, the title of “Lancero” is viewed with the same admiration because it takes a certain amount of dedication to become one.
On a hot and humid afternoon at the Escuela de Lanceros or Lancero School, a gold and red badge with the title “Lancero” was presented to four U.S. soldiers during a ceremony at the Colombian military’s National Training Center in Tolemaida, Colombia, Dec. 3.
Capt. Richard Franko, Sgt. 1st Class Aledaine Lugo Garcia, Staff Sgt. Jose Centeno and Staff Sgt. Michael Hayden stood proud during the symbolic graduation ceremony as they were officially made part of a unique and multicultural brotherhood, the band of Lanceros.
Despite the pageantry, flare and colorfulness of the ceremony, the event was the culmination of 73 days of intense physically arduous and mentally grueling training described as intense and downright brutal by the U.S. Army’s newest Lanceros.
“I would say this was one of the toughest courses if not the toughest course I will ever be a part of,” said Centeno, who is assigned to 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, based at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. “We were put through sleepless days and nights, lack of food and intense physical training every day.”
Rightly so, the Lancero course has earned the reputation of being one of the hardest military courses around the world.
The Lancero program was established in 1955, and its core system was founded after members of the Colombian National Army went through U.S. Army Ranger school at Fort Benning, Ga., and used what they learned to form their own special operations school in Colombia.
The Escuela de Lanceros is designed to develop its students into experts in small-unit tactics and irregular warfare. The school helps prepare the Colombian military’s best warriors to combat hostile organizations such as the insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, who the Colombian government has been in armed conflict since 1964, although the Colombian government has engaged in peace talks with the FARC over the past year in order to seek an end to the conflict.
The two-and-a-half-month course is broken up into several phases and students learn several skills such as irregular and urban warfare in both mountain and jungle terrain; water survival; air assault procedures; Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training, commonly referred to as SERE; and basic medical and human rights training.
The course is as much physical as it is culture-based, and the four U.S. troops gained a better understanding of the Colombian culture and forged a bond with their Colombian and international counterparts.
Like Centeno, Franko and Hayden are assigned to 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group at Eglin. For them, earning the title of Lancero gives them instant respect with their regional partners. As members of 7th Group, these Green Berets specialize in working and building military capacity and lasting partnerships throughout U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility, which geographical landscape spans from the Caribbean and across Central and South America.
“The language barrier was a bit challenging in the beginning but as the course went on, I really applied all of my training to get me through the course,” said Hayden, a native of Phoenix. “Despite the physical demands of the course, the best part was the friends made. There is a special bond that is formed with guys from different nations because we are all going through the same hardships of the course.”
Along with the four U.S. soldiers, international military members from Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and for the first time Paraguay attended the course. No matter what flag is on their uniform, everyone in the course has something interesting and unique to share with their fellow Lanceros.
For most of the new Lanceros, they described the mountain and jungle warfare portion of the course as the most challenging. From long hikes, various road marches ranging from 10-30 kilometers and various other physical and mental draining events, the training took its toll.
“I can tell you that the jungle phase of this course was very hard,” said Lugo Garcia, a New York City native. “Rucking in the jungle was definitely the most difficult part of the course because the terrain is rough, the weather is hot and humid as we carried 70 pounds of gear walking up and down mountains and through the jungle.”
Franko, a native of North Judson, Ind., added that this school was just as tough and at times harder than the U.S. Army Ranger School.
With training like this, it’s no surprise each Soldier lost an average of 30-40 pounds during their time in the Lancero course. For Lugo Garcia, a graduate of the U.S. Army Ranger School, assigned as an operations noncommissioned officer at the National Training Center based in Fort Irwin, Calif., the course was unlike anything he had done in the past.
He also said that he is proud and grateful for the opportunity to attend this course, which is rare for anyone outside of the special operations community.
“This experience was certainly something I will never forget, and I am very proud I was given this opportunity since I am not assigned in special operations,” he said. “I hope more Soldiers in the “regular” Army get a chance to attend this course.”
Colombian Maj. Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez Barragan, the commander of the Colombian National Army, presided over the graduation ceremony and spoke to the graduates about the significance of being a Lancero.
“Lanceros hold a very special place in our nation,” he said. “Being a Lancero is something that is recognized around the world and nations send its best soldiers and leaders to this course. I salute you for earning this accomplishment and you are forever a part of our family.”
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Sean P. Mulholland, the commander of Special Operations Command South, based at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., was the senior U.S. official at the ceremony.
As a Theater Special Operations component under the guidance of the U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Southern Command, SOCSOUTH is responsible for all U.S. special operations training and personnel in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
During the official presentation of the Lancero badges, Mulholland and other senior Colombian military officials were invited by Rodriguez Barragan to “pin” and congratulate each Lancero.
Mulholland, a Lancero himself and former instructor at the school, presented each of the American Lanceros with the badge and congratulated them for the well-earned achievement.
In true Lancero fashion, the ceremony ended with all the graduating students doing pushups before marching off the parade field.
Centeno, a Cuban-American from Kissimmee, Fla., placed second overall in his graduating class, and said the physical hardships over the past 73 days and lack of sleep and food was worth it because he truly has a new found respect for his fellow American soldiers and his international brothers-in-arms.
“As members of 7th Group and always working in this region, it gives us creditability with our Colombian partners,” he said. “Being a Lancero is a way of life and I can’t be prouder of this achievement.”