Escaping early, in 1991, from what would later become the geopolitical tar pits of Yugoslavia, Slovenia is often referred to as the “green piece of Europe” given its abundant trees, sloping hills and prairies, and picturesque Mediterranean beaches. Situated in Central Europe, across the Adriatic from Italy, and inhabited by around two million mostly Catholic Slovenes, the country is also home to some serious mountains: the Julian Alps.
Little known, perhaps, outside the country itself and the cadre of historians who have studied Alpine warfare throughout history, the Julian Alps are the scene of some of the fiercest battles in the annals of mountain warfare. As a result of this history, one of Slovenia’s niche military capabilities, in which it holds rarely matched expertise, is mountain warfare.
Mostly honed while battling Italian forces in the First Great War, specifically during the 12 Battles of the Isonzo, but also ingrained in the Slovenian culture over thousands of years, mountain warfare is an integral part of Slovene military identity. Over 30,000 ethnic Slovene casualties resulted from the intense mountainous fighting against the Italians in Word War I, as the Slovene contingent of the Austro-Hungarian empire played a major role in beating back, for years, the futile Italian advances into the area.
It should surprise no one, then, that the Slovenes have a pretty badass military mountain school. Formed in Bohinjska Bela, Slovenia, in 1996, the training center is located near the resort town of Bled, an Austro-Hungarian spa village in the foothills of the Julian Alps, situated on the glacial Lake Bled. The mountain school of the Slovenian Armed Forces is the lead institution responsible for training Slovene and allied military units for operations in mountainous areas.
I was lucky enough to attend this training school in the green piece of Europe, though I must say I saw a lot more white snow than green trees and fields. Our SEAL Team Eight platoon was designated a “winter warfare platoon,” and we deployed in the early 2000s to Special Operations Command, Europe. We specialized in winter warfare, including mountain warfare, and as such, we coordinated with the Slovenes to attend their two-week course in order to hone our skills.
Our hopes for some rigorous mountain warfare training were more than fulfilled. We got plenty of winter weather, and we got plenty of back-breaking mountain-traversing experience during the November-December training period. The curriculum focused on small unit patrolling, winter warfare camouflaging techniques, mountain warfare tactics, helicopter insertion and exfiltration from mountainous environments, small unit movement across mountain terrain, and principles of bivouacking in mountainous/winter conditions.
Early on in the training, our SEAL platoon had to first become accustomed to the Slovene mountain warfare training diet. This entailed mostly soups, bread, cheeses, and cold-cut meats for breakfast. The same was packed in rucks for lunch on the mountain, and similar fare was served for dinner. While it might seem like a paltry diet for the amount of calories we were expending trekking through the Julian Alps, the food worked to fuel us. It tasted delicious and managed to provide us enough quality calories to sustain us throughout the arduous days and nights. We also always had the option of falling back on our trusty Mountain House meals and MREs if we were not filled up by the local cuisine.
Once we were accustomed to the diet, my fellow SEALs and I next had to acclimatize to the lower levels of oxygen present in the Alpine air. Living at sea level in Virginia Beach, Virginia, our platoon was obviously less acclimatized to the thin air than were our Slovene instructors. This made for some painful ruck humps through the mountains as we tried to keep up with the Slovenes while operating on less oxygen than our bodies were used to. It was not easy by any means, and they worked us like mountain mules.
Another reason the Slovenes, at times, seemed to trek circles around us as we traversed up 20 kilometers at a time through the Julian Alps—often with snowshoes on—was the significant disparity in weight we carried on our backs. Developed over hundreds of years of mountain life, the Slovenes’ experience in mountain warfare had taught them to pack light. It seemed they rarely carried more than 20 pounds on their backs, while the average SEAL in our platoon was humping around about 90 pounds of gear. Our saying was, “Pack light, freeze at night.” We probably should have amended that saying to, “Heavy ruck, embrace the suck,” but whatever. Needless to say, we expended mad amounts of energy to keep up with our Slovene brethren.
The highlight of the training was a multi-day field training exercise (FTX), which fell over Thanksgiving Day. We were inserted via helicopter, trekked to various waypoints scattered throughout the mountains, then laid up in a hide site overnight. We were able to put all of the training to use, and put our gear to the test in the relatively extreme conditions found in those mountains. It was a good confidence-builder, and “proof of capability” for the platoon. It was also a good way to build teamwork and camaraderie amongst the members of the platoon, as we shared in the pain and cold of the evolution.
We capped off the training course with a Slovene-style “monster mash,” which is basically any beast of a workout emphasizing acquired skills and local terrain in a race format to completely burn participants out and inspire a little fun. I do not remember exactly what the race entailed, other than a snowshoe portion; lots of running up and down the mountain; and a lot of pain in my lungs, given the bitter cold, thin air. I am pretty sure my three-man team came in somewhere near the middle of the pack, and of course the Slovene team dominated on their home turf. But it was fun, and we enjoyed the chance to blow off steam after completing the training course.
We left Slovenia a more confident and well-trained mountain- and winter-warfare platoon, and I, for one, appreciated the chance to train with some of our European brothers-in-arms, soaking up all the knowledge I could from the subject matter experts. If you ever get the chance to go to Slovenia and trek around those mountains, I suggest you take it. You will not regret it.