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.