Vigil with the Stars

“Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,
Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun…”

These lines of Keats, from an ode to autumn, came to mind this evening as I strolled home from the survival pool. The light was fading and the seasonal fog was forming (as it alway does now around nightfall, to remain until mid-morning tomorrow). The time of day and my recent exertions in the pool cause a pleasant, sleepy, inspired mood, which is well expressed by the lines of the poet. The sun is certainly mature these days, pale and low on the sky. The mist comes and goes comfortingly, offering a pleasant sense of isolation from a sleeping world. There is a signature beauty about in these quiet fading days of fall.

I have been afflicted with melancholy these last few weeks. The passing of high summer light and color, the imminent end of TBS, worries about my next step (which is still a mystery); these things are oppressive. I don’t think the mood ever caused me to lose sight of the good in life, but I couldn’t seem to break out of my mood enough to appreciate them. Now I feel free, and I think I know why. But more about that in a bit.

I am fascinated and drawn this world in limbo between fall and winter. Trees, solitary in their emerging nakedness, still bravely cling to a small remainder of their earth-colored leaves. The clear sky looks clear and remote between the naked branches. The stars at night are stunning and unbelievably clear – I saw my zodiacal sign for the first time ever last week. I am a Scorpio, which is the beast that jealous Apollo sent to kill the great hunter Orion, who had attracted the attention of the god’s sister Artemis. And sure enough, a diamond-bright scorpion stalked the deep night sky in trail of tall Orion. The woods are cold and quiet, introducing a profound solitude not present the torrid, lively summer months. Perhaps for this reason, my imagination has been running down the paths of reflection and fancy, especially when in the field.

Training reached a “culminating point” last week in the form of Field EXercise (FEX) 4. It was an exercise in frustration. In order to recreate the situation of Marines currently abroad, we engaged in Stability And Stabilization Operations (SASO) at simulated middle-eastern town (maybe the frustration is realistic). Operating in six shifts, we alternated between defense of our position, patrolling, and duty as the “Quick Reaction Force,” which we called the QRF. The role-players at the town engineered many crises, and our command element required many patrols, so I spent two-thirds of my time on my feet, as often as not with the Radio on my back. The only “down time” we got was during our spells on defense – but they only lasted four hours apiece and required wakefulness and attention. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees during the day and got much colder at night. I ended up with maybe nine or so hours of sleep all week, and four or five meals total. Nothing makes you suffer quite like being cold, tired and hungry. But I saw the stars.

They were brilliant that week. I saw them more clearly than ever before. The moon, bright in the thin wintry air, set early each night. We were not allowed artificial lights except in special cases, so the stars, prominently, were the only source of light. In the cold, sleepless watches of the night they kept a remote and crystalline vigil; to a life-long city dweller like me it was breathtaking.

That singular experience always returns to me in the quiet times between our activities. This weekend will be short for us since Sunday is scheduled for Urban Patrolling on the FBI Campus. The constant activity is cathartic in a way because it induces a kind of relaxation that eludes me when idle. So after a full day, and remedial swim training (required because the original training was cancelled due to lightning strikes), I walked out of the pool building much lighter in mood and greeted an autumn world covered and sinking to sleep. So I am back where I started. And it is a symptom of all this work and strain that I can enjoy childlike pleasures like the onset of autumn or a particularly beautiful night.

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Birthday Ball and Road Trip

As you may or may not know, the 10th of November is the birthday of the Marine Corps. Since 1921, every Marine in the world has celebrated that date. Usually this is done by lavish ball, but for Marines in the field (or Iraq) it simply means a special meal of an ordinary MRE. No matter where a Marine is, on this date he or she will commemorate with other Marines our many years of professionalism, warfighting excellence, and esprit de corps. Although the celebration doesn’t always take place exactly on the 10th, it always includes a reading of the Commandant Lejeune’s original birthday message, a reading of the present Commandant’s message, and a cake-cutting ceremony using an officer sword,  where the the first two pieces cut are given to the oldest and youngest Marine present, with the the oldest passing the first slice to the youngest to symbolize the passing of tradition. Our Ball was held at the Richmond Marriott, and it was a special night. Our guest of honor was Colonel Regan, who (with two Navy Crosses) is one of the most decorated Marines alive today, and great festivities. We finished the celebration with a trip to the bars in our uniforms. It was exceptionally good to be a Marine.

The week that followed was short and painful. Because we receive 96 hours of liberty for most federal holidays, we were scheduled to end our week Wednesday at noon. However, we had the two largest tests of the curriculum on Tuesday and Wednesday, and many clases to prepare us for our “war” coming up next week. Evidently the “war” is quite a realistic – there will be role-players simulating angry mobs, families, small children, news crews, and (obviously) fanatical insurgents. We use MILES gear, which is a high-quality laser-tag system that will “kill” an opponent if you correctly sight in on him or her with your rifle and pull the trigger, so the combat is realistic. It sounds very exciting, though (as usual) there will be little food and sleep. Oh well. Bring on the suffering. It makes me a better warrior.

But now I sit writing to you from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, cosily nestling up to beloved academia and reminiscing. I just attended a Shakespeare class with an old high school friend (who attends this university), which re-fired my desire to explore the rightness, wrongness, and purpose of humanity at large. The whole point of college, as I saw it, was to determine one’s future, and not in the vocational sense (which is the epidemic cheapening of our higher education system) but rather the moral sense. How do I go about becoming a good and happy person? How can I be good and happy throughout my life? Perhaps the insight of Shakespeare, Aristotle, and Keats might help.

I drove from Quantico to Charlottesville on Wednesday to visit the University of Virginia, purposely avoiding the interstates to travel on the less travelled and more scenic US Highway system. In a breathless swirl of colored leaves, I discovered the Appalachian Mountain and their foothills, a dramatic and steeply rolling hills country covered with forests still unfolding the climax of autumn. The landscape was patched with horse pasture and tended fields, and occasionally I would pass through a small picturesque town.

The University of Virginia has a pretty campus. The purpose of the visit, though, was to vist a college friend doing grad school work there. It was good to touch base with her and hear what it’s like to pursue academic studies, instead of suffering through field exercises every other week. We went to dinner, then the next day I continued into North Carolina.

This was my first exposure to the south: the near-indecipherable accents spoken here, the casual omnipresent politeness (there was even a sign welcoming me to Durham which had a large orange addition asking me to “Pardon the Construction”), the coverage of Nascar on FM radio. But the charm was undeniable, especially at UNC–it’s very noticeable how friendly people are. When I went out with the other college kids, it just looked like everyone was having so much fun. I mean, people were friendly at Notre Dame, but they didn’t seek to include their bar neighbors in whatever conversation they were having. And the weather was great.

It was healing, in a way, to see these friends, too. Sometimes the best form of relaxation is merely stepping out of current life with some friends, and enjoying new places and old memories. That wasn’t exactly the purpose of this weekend especially after the Birthday Ball and my residual Marine glow. And though their results seem mutually exclusive, together they were just what I needed. And now I am ready for our upcoming war.

Lessons in Aggression

So the week before last was a “Classroom Week,” and we endured many long TBS classes about Urban Combat, called “MOUT” (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), and the skills associated with it. We also had a “Junk on the Bunk” inspection (JOB), which means that you must display all (and I mean all) issued/required gear on your bunk to prove that your gear is clean, serviceable, and combat effective. It also is a way of measuring our discipline: our gear must also be tidy and presentable. So we all spent several long nights scrubbing our gear outside under the hoses and letting them dry. Overall a rather irritating week.

The subsequent week (last week) we spent at the MOUT facility, a three block square “city” constructed of concrete cinder-blocks. To get there, we hiked 12 miles with a signficantly heavier pack than we usually do, which pretty much destroyed the company. I, like many, ended up with the extra weight that other Marines had to shed to keep up – the ironic reward of hacking the pace. Fortunately, we got some rest that evening: we built a fire, barbecued some burgers and listened to a leadership discussion by a battalion commander who had been to Iraq twice. The next day we learned about, and conducted, several convoys, fighting off ambushes by simulated insurgents several times. Wednesday we practiced room clearing, tactical movement through urban terrain, and urban squad operations. Yesterday we conducted a platoon attack on several buildings, and today we practiced running vehicle checkpoints before coming back to barracks (where I am writing this now).

This was all much more interesting than the previous squad and platoon attacks. The first reason for this is that we used simunitions, which are essentially paint-balls fired from an M16. They mark you when they strike you, and they sting. They add a realistic element to the combat exercise, because you know when you’ve been hit and you begin to really think about things like cover and concealment. Furthermore, our aggressors, the CIs (Combat Instructors), are enlisted infantry marines with combat experience who LOVE to shoot at young officers. They were a talented and motivated foe.

The most important lesson of the week was aggression. Aggression is brutally necessary in MOUT. The instructors say that “inside a building is dangerous, outside is lethal.” Since every street or terrace is overlooked by windows and doorways from adjacent buildings, you are most exposed outside. Therefore, you sprint, and I mean sprint, from building to building, slamming into walls and rolling off, diving into windows and doors, and generally being aggressive and motivated and beating yourself up in the process (which is what a bunch of twenty-something males want to do anyway). It is ridiculously fun. Inside is even better: You are liable to be fired upon from corners of the room, from down stairs, from trapdoors above. It is incredibly manpower-intensive because the nature of buildings exponentially magnifies the amount of usable space and obstacles the enemy can use to fight. For that reason, you clear hallways and rooms in teams of two or more, stacking up in a column outside the door in a tight column, then you burst into the room together with guns blazing, hoping your combined firepower overwhelms the enemy. It makes me excited just thinking about it (though I recognize the deadly nature of this type of combat in, well, real combat). Often we would suppress the room with a grenade (we used practice grenades which sound like the real thing but don’t spread shrapnel) before busting in. And this goes on (exhaustingly) from room to room to room, in every building of the city.

This particular FEX had another benefit: Hot Chow every night. Hot Chow is a magnificent event where they truck out cases of steaming food, all for to serve you an entire dinner cafeteria-style, which after days of MREs is incredible. We also got sufficient sleep, for the first time on a FEX: we went to bed shortly after it got dark (7:30 PM) and woke up before 6 AM. It all felt very healthy and wholesome, in fact. The only bad thing about this recent FEX was the cold rain we had all Thursday, and the cold all day Friday. It was pretty comfortable otherwise.

And that is all I have for you. It’s a short post for two weeks’ worth of events. And I have little in the way of reflection. I am melancholy at heart, as I always am when autumn gives way to winter. It is still several weeks until the happier times of snow and holidays. But I continue to try to adapt along this journey, and hopefully come ever closer to personal contentment and the virtue necessary to be a good Marine Officer.