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Bob Parker

Bob Parker

Lt. Robert Parker served with the Omaha (Neb.) PD for 30 years and commanded the Emergency Response Unit. He is responsible for training thousands of law enforcement instructors in NTOA's Patrol Response to Active Shooters courses.

Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Jose Medina

Jose Medina

Officer Jose Medina is an active member of the Piscataway (N.J.) Police Department's SWAT team and runs Awareness Protective Consultants (Team APC) tactical training.

Are Tunnel Rats Born or Made?

Develop this specialist on your tactical team to work through confined spaces to find hidden suspects.

January 07, 2011  |  by Robert O'Brien - Also by this author

The military created "tunnel rats" to ferret out enemies who operate in the most dangerous terrain imaginable — tunnels. Throughout the history of warfare, tunnel rats have been employed in one form or other. But it wasn't until the Vietnam War that tunnel rats were recognized as a specialty, requiring very special individuals.

During the Vietnam War, the job of tunnel rat was considered so dangerous and stressful that their tours of duty lasted only four months.  Who was chosen as tunnel rats? Not Spec Ops, rather regular troops selected for their small, wiry size and mental tenacity.

Usually working alone, at times in pairs, and armed only with handguns and flashlights, these fearless tunnel rats entered complex labyrinths of connecting tunnels under the ground that honeycombed much of Vietnam. The tunnels were used to ambush American troops with great effectiveness. The Americans realized the tunnels had to be dealt with.

The military tried every tactic possible, including bombs, explosives, fire and tear gas. Nothing seemed to work until the tunnel rats went to work.  Their success in Vietnam tunnel warfare is the stuff of legend, and they quickly earned the respect of friend and foe.

In law enforcement, let's not reinvent the wheel. Tunnel rats during the Vietnam War invented and perfected the most effective tunnel tactics and techniques. What does this have to do with law enforcement? Everything.

The question remains, are tunnel rats born or made? The answer is both. I'm sure most of us played hide and seek as kids. We quickly realized some kids were better than others, but there was always one kid no one could ever find or hide from. A pure natural who would have made a terrific tunnel rat.

Practice makes perfect — the more experience finding hidden persons/suspects, the better. As in being the big brother tasked with finding brothers fond of hiding or sleeping in the smallest, most impossible locations.

Of course, the LE job of searching for dangerous, hidden suspects is no kid's game. It's much closer to the job of military tunnel rat with deadly danger lurking around every corner and turn. You need the right person with the right mindset, training, equipment, weaponry, and lots of experience to be effective.

The best tunnel rats are usually physically fit, smaller, athletic, agile, wiry and posses the strength, endurance and tenacity of a bulldog. Tunnel rats are "bitter enders" who never give up. They need to be willing to slither along broken glass, rocks, amid spiders, rats, and unthinkable filth. They need to overcome any phobias they have to remain 100 percent focused on the mission of finding and apprehending hidden suspects.

The reality is not all in LE are tunnel rat material. Claustrophobia is real, and often doesn't manifest itself until an individual is faced with having to search a confined space too small or low for any human (except a desperate suspect) to hide in.

Then must then belly crawl along broken glass, amid cobwebs and rat droppings into a darkness your light barely penetrates, quickly losing sight of your entrance point and knowing that somewhere in the darkness an armed suspect waits for you.

While every LEO needs to be capable of searching confined spaces for hidden suspects, some officers will be better at it than others, because they're naturals and experienced. These officers would make good tunnel rats in SWAT.

Tunnel rats should be considered as much a specialty position as breachers/door men and counter snipers/precision marksmen. And while every SWAT officer must be capable of searching confined spaces, every SWAT team needs to have designated tunnel rats who specialize in searching for hidden suspects.

Right about now, many readers are probably thinking the ideal tunnel rat I'm describing is a German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois K-9. And you'd be right, particularly if your team incorporates K-9s for searches.  However, even teams who employ K-9s need designated tunnel rats.  Ultimately, someone has to eventually stick their "tomato" (head) in there to make sure everything's clear and secure.

Whether you prefer tunnel rats or K-9s is ultimately a choice each tactical team must make themselves, and develop their tactics based on their choice. You must choose the right tool, tactic, or technique to best accomplish the job. Picking the right tunnel rat is as vitally important as picking the right breacher or counter-sniper.


Duty Dangers: Into the Hearts of Darkness

Confined Spaces and Tunnel Rats

Searching for Hidden Suspects

Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

usmcvnv @ 1/10/2011 7:34 PM

Correct, the tunnel rat has been around a while. Most of the officers I have worked with were too large to go into crawl spaces and concrete culverts. Me. at 5'10 and a buck and a quarter, had no problem. I never came across an actor, but I was always willing to "go git 'em."

Deadman @ 1/11/2011 12:38 PM

Tunnel rats go anywhere,do anything to get the job done,they are a lone breed,who sometime have to defy space,gravity and even supervisors.Sometimes they are created by circumstances beyond their control because they won't ,cannot quit,refuse to let the other win.The bad guy can't be allowed to foster the idea that he got away,he must be stopped and to that end,everything goes on automatic and only stops when the job is done.There are no rewards except the feeling of accomplishment,ribbons don't matter,medals don't matter,awards dinners mean nothing,slamming the cell door shut does.

kevin @ 8/18/2011 3:29 AM

As a tunnel rat in vietnam with Hotel 2/3 3rd Marine division near the DMZ in 1969 I can assure you that the job was so stressful for the 7 months I did it that I NEVER recovered from the emotional trauma. The thing that bugs me the most is that the US government never even gave us training and to add insult they never even gave us an MOS number. Therefore we never offoicially existed. Nice huh ?

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