God Bless Midwest Catholics

Over the weekend of June 8-10, I traveled to Washington DC for a wedding. It was held in St. Veronica’s church in Fairfax County. The ceremony was not particularly sentimental. The vows were traditional. The readings were appropriate and mildly unexpected: no 1 Corinthians chapter 13.* The homily was neither moving nor eloquent but was down-to-earth and accessible. The consecration was professional rather than grave or solemn. Nobody exclaimed in penetrating whispers after the mass, “What a beautiful ceremony!” The best accolade I heard while exiting the church was a simple, “that was very nice.” And it was nice. It was simply nice.

For me, the simple niceness of the ceremony had a lasting effect and rare value. The clumsy analogies in the homily referenced the groom’s profession as an artist and the bride’s profession as a doctor to point out that a successful relationship requires both creativity and imagination from the artist’s side, and discipline and precision from the doctor’s side. He pointed out that the practical foundation of a good marriage is, in essence, good business sense (the organized hospital); while the personal or spiritual element foundation requires quiet, comfortable, inspired interaction (found in the studio). The entire content of the homily, in fact, was plain advice on how to make a permanent, close relationship between two people work.

In essence, the priest made the wedding ceremony one of commitment. He invited us, the family and friends of the new couple, to witness their bond. The advice he gave, not preachy, was a resonant blueprint for a good marriage. Sentimentality is pretty, but steadiness is more lasting. Steadiness is made of loyalty and care–and while it springs from the more erotic love of two young people who have “fallen for each other,” it is in a sense more romantic. It is the source of contentment and happiness over a long life, instead of over a short period.

Then, before distributing Communion, the priest reminded his congregation that the Catholic Church refuses the Eucharist to those who aren’t Catholic themselves, because the sacrament is not only the body and blood of Christ, but also represents the recipient’s full accord with the teachings and laws of the Church. Since about a quarter of those present did not appear Catholic, I thought this was an awkward thing to say. It seems rude and demeaning, probably, to them, who consider themselves as much a Christian than any Catholic. But, as a priest, he is bound to respect and uphold the laws of the Church, even when it is unpleasant. And I admired him for it.

During my trip back on Sunday, I had a two and a half hour layover in Chicago’s Midway airport. As I walked through the terminal to my next gate, so I could find a place to settle down and read, I heard over the intercom an announcement for Mass. Though I had planned to go to Mass that evening (my church offers a 5:30 PM Mass), I was intrigued. I changed course for the chapel and took my place in one of the seats.

Slowly, the place filled up. There were several families with children, many couples of all ages, and many solitary travelers (like me) in the room before Mass started. Eventually it was standing room only. The priest entered quietly, we all stood, then he started by admonishing that we all should stay after communion for the completion of the Mass. He also offered confession afterward to anyone who was interested. Again, I found this admirable — admonishment discussing others’ sins are not something one does gracefully, if at all, in our culture. The prevailing attitude of “who are you to judge ME?” makes such religious matters awkward, like stating the Catholic Church’s position on communion. Too often, then, are these subjects ignored. It is easier to talk about other aspects of the faith. But this priest–frail, old and a stranger to all of us–invoked his ecclesiastic authority.

I should point out here that I don’t think many of the “parishioners” at the airport Mass needed the priest’s reminders. We were a motley collection, consisting mostly of private, sometimes ugly people quietly going about our business. There was nothing exceptionally social in our demeanor, nor particularly inspired about our worship (though we did sing at times). I felt, though, a strong and solid faith among us; everyone there seemed to be enjoying their duty to God in a quiet, satisfied, and lasting way. It reminded me of Notre Dame, where I saw the same thing — students and professors who rarely spoke about religions went to Mass quietly every weekend and led essentially good lives of kindness and generosity.

Was the priest at the wedding from the Midwest? I don’t know, but I heard the trace of a flat “a” sound while he spoke that reminded me strongly of the Midwestern accents. His homily was a study in the plain, practical common sense that Midwesterners bring to their religion and religious duties, which characterized the short Sunday travelers Mass at Midway airport. And though I go to a church now that is much more charismatic, I recognize a lot of value in good sense and practical discipline in my own life, spiritual or otherwise.

I certainly don’t think the Notre Dame Mass experience lacked inspiration or that my current Mass experience lacks values–neither is true. But like a relationship between two people, a relationship with God also requires both inspiration and work. And since I have become so used to the inspiration side, it was good to be reminded of the “work” side.

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Wings of Gold

I did it. I earned my Wings today. I capitalize it because it is such a big deal to me: it has been my goal for the last 18 months. I am the Marine Corps’ newest Naval Flight Officer / Weapons System Officer. I completed two flights today, and shortly thereafter I was doused with champagne and ice water to celebrate. The Flight School Adventure is over. What makes this even more memorable is that I winged with a classmate who was also in my company at TBS. He crewed the other aircraft – since our last events are BFM, or “dogfighting” events, we always go up in pairs – and though I got the best of him in our engagements today, neither of us would have made it this far without working together. Tomorrow another classmate gets winged, and we are looking forward to celebrating together this Friday after the ceremony.

Perhaps I should back up. When I transitioned from the T-39 to the T-2, I my remaining events comprised three different kinds of flights. FAM flights came first, designed (through a simple air navigation mission) to give me the time to get comfortable in the new cockpit and aircraft. WEPS flights are low-level air-to-ground flights meant to provide practice operating as a section, or as two aircraft in one flight. For the rest of my career, almost every single flight will have at least two aircraft in it. The third kind of flight is BFM, which stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvering.” These are the most fun. We depart the airfield as a section, head out over the water, fight each other until we get low on gas, then come home. Today I completed my final BFM flight first, then flew my final WEPS flight. Experiencing both kinds of missions made for a fitting wrap-up.

The T-2 is perhaps the ugliest aircraft ever built, at least when sitting on the ground. In the air it seems much more aerodynamic. It is also, literally, a vintage aircraft. It was designed in 1957, and the last modification we have was probably completed in the late ‘60s. We still fly it with genuine ‘60s flight instruments, too…no computers here, which can be frustrating. For example, the instrument which shows our aircraft heading and navigational information actually drifts over time, and requires constant correction off an old-fashioned wet compass. Every 10 minutes of flying—less if there has been any kind of maneuvering—we must readjust our navigation displays. It is ironic that this instrument is so unreliable, considering how important it is to fly the right heading, especially when a) flying in very busy airspace (so you don’t hit another aircraft), b)flying in clouds (when you can’t see) and c) when flying an approach (so you actually find the runway). Another crazy feature of the T-2 is the Electrical Disconnect Switch. Since the T-2 was designed as a pilot trainer, somebody thought it would be a good idea to enable the Instructor (presumably in the back seat) to simulate a total electrical power failure. So they installed a switch that actually shuts off the generators and the battery – so it doesn’t so much simulate an Electrical failure so much as cause one. Then, of course, you become an emergency aircraft with no way of navigating or communicating…and oh by the way your engines may fail without the electrical spark plugs, which means you either have to airstart one of them or eject. Brilliant.

Idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, the T-2 is a pretty perky little jet. We routinely pull up to 6 Gs during turns and Aerobatics, and it low over the ground it flies really well. During WEPS flights hug every curve of a road at close to 400 mph, then execute a high-performance pull, roll inverted, dive in at our “target” to deliver weapons, then pull hard up and away again. It is fun, dynamic, and physically draining – imagine trying to keep your head up looking around and your arms moving around a cockpit when they weigh five times more than usual! Yet BFM flights are the most fun, not only because you are fighting a buddy, but also because you continually operate the aircraft in high-G, high-performance flight. You might pitch up to arc over the top of your opponent or slice around in a max-performance turn to get behind him, or (if you’re in trouble) you might “unload the jet” (go to zero-G flight) so as to accelerate quickly. In this kind of flying, the only instrument you watch is the altimeter, because you are upside down as much as you are right side up, and the only thing that matters is not hitting the ground. It is extremely exciting flying. It is what I signed up to do. But before I could get there, I had to complete the obligatory aviation simulations.

T-2 Simulator Events are pretty low-key. The instructors are all former military pilots who work for Lockheed and have a contract with the Navy. Some of them have fought as long ago as Korea , and many have ejected at least once from their aircraft. One of my instructors flew the now-obsolete F-8 Crusader, now distinguished as the last American fighter jet designed with guns as its primary weapon system. It was fast, though, and my instructor told me that a peer of his was flying around at Mach 2.4 when the wind blast sheared his canopy right off the aircraft. Desperately trying to slow his jet down, the pilot was pulling the throttles to idle and putting out the speed brakes when the wind pulled his upper ejection handle out from the top of the seat, and ejected him at Mach 1.7. He was hopelessly out of position and slammed by wind traveling over 1,000 mph, which caused his knees to break so badly that his feet were slapping against his helmet visor while he parachuted down. The pilot lived to fly jets again, though my instructor had this comment: “that man does not walk like you or me anymore.”

Despite the sea stories, sim events are graded and can be stressful. My last sim was with an instructor who I had flown before. Though he is widely regarded as one of the nicest instructors around – in the lingo of flight school, a “Santa Clause” – I have always performed poorly with him. He wasn’t mean to me or anything, but for some reason I never, not once, had a good flight with him. Remarkably, he only failed me once. At my Intermediate Graduation, where I graduated first in my class, he pulled me aside afterward to ask incredulously, “How, out of all of these students, did you graduate first?” Anyway, when he walked into the T-2 student lounge to pick me up for my final sim, he stopped in his tracks, looked at me appraisingly with a funny little smile and said, “So we meet again.” Fortunately, I had a fairly decent event (though certainly not my best), and afterward he handed me my gradesheet, saying, “Well, you’re free of me forever.” We had a good laugh about that.

One little side adventure I had during this phase was a trip to Washington, DC. This took place during my three FAM flights. It is nice to do them “cross country,” because not only do I get experience flying outside of Pensacola (which I am very familiar with, but I can travel to cool places for the weekend. The flights themselves are pretty low-key, too: I am only responsible for basic navigation, a skill I have been working on since the first phase of training. Friday we flew to NAS Oceana (at Virginia Beach), and then my student partner and I rented a car to drive to D.C. We had a good time: I spent an entire afternoon in the National Gallery, saw a bunch of old friends, and generally relived the days of TBS when I visited DC every weekend. Sunday morning we drove back to Oceana and took the two quick flights home. Travel is one of the benefits of Aviation.

And now, this upcoming Friday, I will officially receive the Wings of Gold. I am near the end of my time in Pensacola , and that makes me just a little sad. I have grown to love it – everything from the beautiful white beaches to the friendly dumpy dive bars has made this an interesting and entertaining cultural experience. I will leave some good friends behind as I move on, but that’s part of a military life – and it isn’t really new. My old room-mate John has gone to California ahead of me, though not to San Diego, and another old room-mate will shortly move from Jacksonville to Whidbey Island, and yet a third has deployed to Iraq. I was nervous when I first moved down here – I only really know one of the guys I would be living with, and practically no one else in the greater Pensacola area. But shortly after moving in, my other room-mate approached me in a bar and said, “I don’t know how to say this, but I really wasn’t sure if living with you was going to work out or not. I didn’t really get along with you at Notre Dame. I’m pretty surprised it has gone so smoothly so far.” I guess that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I had felt the same way. And now I have many good friends from this Pensacola experience.

Enough reflecting. Tonight it is time to celebrate my newly-earned Wings of Gold.

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.

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.

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.