Wetness, Coldness, War, and the M240G

When you go into the field here at TBS (and I assume anywhere else in the Marine Corps), you must reconstruct time and reality. It is a monumental task. Over the past week, my company conducted FEX III, the most war-like of our evolutions. I slept only 14 hours over the entire week. Like any experience of suffering and privation, a FEX exposes one’s character in a way that all the little luxuries of society (like beds and showers) can prevent. Since part of the learning experience of a FEX is experiencing the kind of privation that happens in combat situations, there is no extra time built in for personal needs; for example, we must eat when we can and often go without food.

What makes all this especially demanding is the fuzzy thinking of food and sleep deprivation, considering that everything about the FEX requires focus and discipline–the long midnight security watches, the planning of attacks, or the act of sneaking up on enemy positions for reconnaissance.

We spent four full days in the field, plus a morning dedicated to leaving. Monday we were helicoptered in and set up a defense, which we maintained until Wednesday morning. On Wednesday, we conducted a grueling Movement to Contact, a platoon daylight attack, and a night ambush. On Thursday, we conducted a night attack. Every night we manned LP/OPs (Listening Post/Observation Posts), stood Radio Watch, and kept a Marine posted on every Squad Automatic Weapon for security. In the daytime we conducted security patrols, reconnaissance patrols, and held strong points. We engaged in combat with our peers, captured POWs, and suffered casualties.

Although the first day was clear, the rest of the week proceeded under steady rain and steadily increasing cold. We slept in wet sleeping bags (when we had time), we woke up frigid at all hours in wet clothes, we lay prone in ice-cold water, we sat in chest-deep fighting positions that slowly filled with mud. I cannot remember being warm, although many times I achieved a sort of comfort simply by moving around. Yet for all the misery (or maybe because of it), our unit camaraderie increased.

This week, I pushed far beyond my previous limits physically, emotionally, mentally, and morally (by morally I mean ‘in matters concerning my will and morale’). Despite the cold and wet, I am proud to say that my platoon and I went about our business in a more professional manner than we ever had before. During the movement to contact, which is a method of clearing terrain of the enemy, we hiked through thick woodland at a fast pace with full load (70-100 lbs) on our backs, diverting units as needed to engage whatever enemy we encountered. It requires discipline to drop packs in precise order under fire, to engage the enemy with aggression, and then quickly retrieve the packs and run to rejoin the formation. It requires personal discipline to know   your job exactly each time an engagement occurs. And it requires discipline to continue onward when you’re cold, wet, tired, and hungry. But we did it. During the night attack, my squad and I crept to within 60 meters of enemy entrenchments without being detected, achieved surprise, and suppressed them with fire so our comrades could assault through. During the night ambush, we took down an order in driving rain, crept through dense underbrush in 0% illumination without the aid of lights or NVGs, ambushed a convoy, raided the trucks, and transported our spoils back in the same manner, and even resisted a counterattack by the enemy. Sitting at my desk, writing, I find it hard to believe that I and the platoon could have accomplished so much, even with the memory of all those events so fresh.

It is thrilling that we did it–we accomplished the mission, in spite of physical hardship. And that is the greatest feeling in the world. My captain once told our platoon, “mental and physical toughness will take you a long way,” and he was right. It was the mental and physical toughness of my platoon that enabled us to perform our jobs despite the poor conditions and our thinking enemy. Truthfully, every single one of us was discouraged and thought of quitting at one point during the week. But we covered for each other, and inspired each other, and sometimes had to kick each other in the ass to get moving. We were greater than the sum of our parts, and that sustained us. That made suffering seem incidental, except as an excuse to complain. And it made me feel truly like a Marine for the first time.

A few characteristically reflective moments stand out for me, the first being the helicopter ride in. The helicopter is an amazing machine. When you get in, and the engines wind up, it feels like there is no way the rotor can lift the aircraft. You seem to hear each individual rotor blade hitting the air as the aircraft struggles to lift off. But in the air, it is different – we made some turns so sharply that I could literally look straight down to the earth through the windows on the opposite side of the fuselage from where I was seated. Exhilarating? Absolutely.

Another such moment, oddly, was firing the machine gun. I may have mentioned already that I carried the M240G medium machine gun through the night attack, which included about 3 km of hiking to various control points (again, through dense forest), 1600 meters of creeping through woodland in the dark to get in position, and one glorious minute of firing. In fact, though I hated the M240G as a burden, it fires so beautifully that I forgave it everything during the attack. I felt in that moment like I would never love a woman as much as I loved that weapon. It’s 7.62mm (.30 calibre) high-powered rifle rounds make a lot more noise than the smaller caliber M16 and SAWs (5.56mm/.2229 cal). It has a higher rate of fire and great reliability. I felt like Rambo. It was wonderful: the first burst I fired was supposed to be 6-8 rounds, but it ended up being closer to 20, because it felt so good to be pulling the trigger. I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of that machine gun eating its chain of ammunition, or the feel of its buttstock slamming my shoulder, or the brightness of its muzzle flashes. It was (and I don’t use this word lightly) terribly beautiful.

But now, it is all a pleasant memory. I am stuffed with food and enjoying the inordinate warmth of my barracks room. My dry rack is calling. And so I will finish wallowing in the excitement of a successful exercise and dream of it instead. Somehow, the memory of completing a tough job (or jobs), and doing so well, makes ‘home’ all that much better.

Advertisements

Experiencing Autumn

Week 16 has passed here at TBS. It contained two of the more important graded events of the course, the Endurance Course (E-Course) on Friday and the Land Navigation Final today (Saturday). Both events were difficult, but I passed each with high scores. I have tonight and Sunday to recover, and prepare for FEX III, which kicks off on Monday. It will be our hardest exercise of TBS. Welcome to the Infantry.

The E-Course is designed to test an officer’s physical stamina and ability in a simulated combat environment. It a series of three events ran in sequence: the Obstacle Course (O-Course), Echo Trail, and the Stamina Course. The O-Course is about 300 meters of low and high obstacles that require climbing over, ducking under, and vaulting. It is a test of upper body strength and upper body stamina. It is completed by climbing a 30-ft rope. Echo Trail is about 2.5 miles, and travels relentless over (it seems) every hill in Quantico. The Stamina course is much like Echo Trail, though it is about 3 miles long and interspersed with higher obstacles every several hundred yards, including a 20-foot Jacob’s ladder and a hundred-yard low-crawl course under barbed wire. With the exception of the O-Course, we must perform the whole thing with about 35 lbs of gear and a rifle. If you complete it in 60 minutes or less, you “max” it (get the highest possible score), if you take over 80 minutes, you fail. Most Marines are gasping for breath by the finish of the O-Course, only two minutes into the event…and the following 6 miles or so bring you to the edge of your endurance. Physically, it is the hardest thing I have ever done.

Final Land Nav is also strenuous, but in a different way. You are given seven hours to complete the event, and most people require that. In the morning, you are released into a 30-square kilometer training area, and you must be back at a pick-up spot (on the perimeter of the area) by a set time that afternoon, or you are disqualified. There are ten boxes for you to find with your compass and your map. These boxes, as before, are little red metal ammunition boxes mounted on posts, with numbers painted on them (so you can identify which ones you found). Despite their color they are hard to see – you have to get within 50 yards or so before they are visible. They are often a kilometer or more away from each other, and the terrain is very hilly, so a lot of hiking is involved. My route today took me over 20,000 meters, which does not account for the distance I covered actually searching for boxes once I found their general locations. A handy conversion website puts that at about twelve and a half miles, which is no small distance, especially off roads and over hills. However, despite the pressure to pass and the constant hiking, I found the experience breathtaking.

Though I was superficially concerned with finding my assigned boxes, my time in that forest felt like a sojourn apart as I wandered and was casually awestruck by the climactic, glorious throes of autumn. I started the day in a twilit wood, its pale-gold leaves faintly luminous in the promise of sunrise. I have no memory of mid-day, for this late in the season the afternoon seems to begin almost immediately, so low through the sky strides the sun. Areas of mostly bare scrub spoke of the coming winter, and the occasional copse still bearing rich greenery recalled the fading summer. At some point I ate lunch at the intersection of two creeks, the veiled land rising in autumn colors about me, and as I did so it started to rain. It was a hurried, spitting, autumn rain, released in fitful bursts from the fast-scudding clouds above. The later hours of the afternoon were dominated by the slanting sunlight dodging down sporadically between clouds. As I emerged from the woods at last, I was struck by fierce slanting sunlight emanating from a rich blue sky.

But the leaves! Though most lay dead on the ground, they defiantly blazed deep russet and red beneath my grateful boots. I crunched steadily through this wreck of foliage, breath misting before me, and everything in sight was fragile and aflame with exquisite and bracing melancholy. The approaching death of winter carried an air of tragedy, as though it were possible to be sad among such beauty, but if it was a contradiction it seemed natural enough. The light, the leaves, the cool clear air, and the solitude made one memory of sadly human glory. It feels as though I spent today wandering, dreamlike..

Of all victims of the Pathetic Fallacy, I am the most willing and gullible. I am often struck by how alive the world seems at times; not so much external to me but in a dynamic relationship–actively interacting. There seems a great communication at work, mediated by God: I feel strongly that I learned something over the course of the day, nothing perhaps that can be tidily comprehended or put down in writing, but something that manifests deeper than my intellect. It will germinate slowly, no doubt, unheeded by my conscious mind, for now I must focus on other things like the upcoming FEX and my required preparations for it. Yet because of my journey today, I bend to work with a lighter heart. I am refreshed.

Failure and Learning

I write this post in the absolute center of all civilization: The Airport. How different from the schedule-dominated life of the Marine Corps; how different from the mud and sweat of field exercises! The transition is not so much difficult – it is enjoyable to sit among a variety of people, casually listening to music from my headphones – but ironic. It is hard to take this life seriously after having spent time in the field. If I stop to consider, I am surprised that a bunch of 18-24 year old young adults can switch so easily from discipline, effort, and alertness of Marine training to the superficial complexity and savvy of a trend-driven society. There’s a Hemingway-esque romance about it, as if I have a superior perch from which to observe the ‘normal’ world.

Last week was a tough one, training-wise. We completed our 10-mile forced march (in the rain, which is hard on both one’s feet and one’s motivation) as well as FEX II, an acronym that stands for Field EXercise II. This was our first chance to lead and conduct platoon-level operations, with the added concepts of automatic weapons, support-by-fire positions, obstacle plans, offensive tactics (like envelopment), and prepared defensive positions. Like everything else involved in the infantry, it is mentally very challenging. How should you divide your manpower? How should you weight your main effort, or main attack? How can you best use your support-by-fire assets? What is your engineering/obstacle plan? What codes and signals do you use to coordinate the movement of 40-odd people through thick underbrush without bunching your attack up and risking friendly-fire casualties? How do you motivate everybody to dig waist-deep into rock-hard soil? We spent those two days experimenting with different kinds of attacks, trying to properly position grenade launchers and machine guns, attempting to set up barbed-wire obstacles, and hacking ourselves into defensive positions. At night, we sat up behind our machine-guns, alert for attacks. We didn’t sleep. And we struggled to succeed.

I hope I have convinced you that the stereotype of a “dumb grunt” is completely untrue. Besides the grueling physical activity required, infantry operations require a firm grasp of technical data (such as weapon ranges and effects, ideal obstacle configurations, and fire support concepts) as well as creativity to make a plan that uses the assets available in a cohesive, mutually-supporting manner. Only thus is the mission accomplished correctly, which is to say as expeditiously as possible, with the fewest lives lost. It is one of the most mentally difficult things I have ever done – it ranks up there with grappling with the ideas of Plato, Kant, and some very abstract Theology. And speaking of lives lost, there is an additional wrinkle: if you are “dumb” and make a mistake, your people die, and it is your fault. Then you might go to jail, because their lives were your responsiblity. And that makes the exercise even harder. The infantry is quite a bit more intellectually demanding and emotionally stressful than civilian jobs, as my non-military peers tell it. “Dumb grunt” is a grossly ironic title.

We didn’t do very well this week, and that’s what made it so rough. No matter what “bad things” happen out there – if you cut your hands, bash your face against your rifle, twist your ankle, and develop a nasty gastrointestinal disorder – if your operations are successful and your mission accomplished, then you have a great time. If, on the other hand, everything goes right except your attacks (or your defense), then the field sucks. I have thus learned that personal comfort is perhaps the least important thing about Field Ops. I would trade even my own health and wholeness for just a little more success. But hopefully by the next exercise, I will be more combat-effective, and a better asset to my platoon.

For now, though, we got a good lecture on our mistakes and attitude (lazy and sullen) from our platoon commander, who imparted this bit of wisdom that I think worth passing on. Always ask yourself these four questions: what am I doing? why am I doing it? what is it good for? and how do I know? If by the answers to these questions you discover you are doing something wrong (like eating chow in the field while everybody else is working hungry), then stop. I firmly believe that most of our personal failings are due to the fact that we make easy, wrong choices instead of more difficult, less pleasant, right choices. It seems so obvious to me now that each wrong choice I make out there renders my team less effective, and in this business of warfighting and killing, that is inexcusable. More generally, though, wrong choices affect my goodness throughout my life. I think that being a good person is the greatest task we have in this life, for it affects our relationships, our success, our health, and most importantly our happiness. And in my platoon commander’s angry questions I found a way to do better.

Incidentally, it is very eerie in the field at night. I mentioned earlier our nighttime 9-mile forced march, which took place under a beautiful silvery moon. But though we had similar conditions this past week, the effect was strange and silent as we settled into defensive positions. Stranger still, it got almost imperceptibly darker, and shortly I began to hear the faint sound of rushing water. Everything was so still and alone I remember wondering quite seriously whether I was imagining things or not – the silvery light seemed once so permanent that I literally couldn’t believe it was gone, then the rushing water – though I had just noticed it – seemed to have gone on since the beginning of time. If that sounds melodramatic, I promise you it seemed both natural and quite disturbing in the profound solitude of that night. When it finally began to rain, it seemed the strangest thing yet – the whole experience was decidely surreal. It seems even more so now that I am surrounded by the light and structure of civilization.

Between the hike and the FEX this week I feel pretty drained. But I am on my way to a wedding! It is exciting to travel, and I can’t wait to see my old friends. A little vacation to normalcy will (I hope) return me to training next week eager to go back to the field–and do a little better than last time.