Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Army Training, Sir!

General Barnicke: Where have you been, soldier?
John Winger: Training, sir.
Soldiers: Training, sir.
General Barnicke: What kind of training?
John Winger: Army training, Sir.
Soldiers: Army training, Sir.
- from the motion picture Stripes

You know, when I entered the Active Duty military as a young second lieutenant, I figured that it was all business, all good soldiering, and there wasn't any of that joking around silly stuff of fiction to be had anywhere, anytime.

Boy, was I wrong.

My second day on actual Active Duty, in fact, is a day I'll remember for a long, long time.  See, I'd shown up the day before, dropped off of the back of a 5-ton truck in the middle of what most Seattle area residents were enjoying as a nice, relaxed snow day, to take charge of a platoon-leaderless platoon of motorized infantrymen doing light infantry maneuvers.  Yes, that all works out to mean that guys who were used to putting their rucksacks in the back seat of a Hummer and driving to the battlefield were ordered, on a day of inclement weather, to put those rucks on their backs, move on foot through thick woods, and close with and destroy enemy forces.

In retrospect, just that last sentence is comical as crap.  Shouldn't be, but it is.

For our first enemy contact, we were crossing a narrow but rapidly-flowing stream that had been covered in snow when an opfor (opposing forces--our own troops playing against us in war games) machine gun (firing blanks) opened up on us.  We closed with and destroyed the position in a suitable timeframe, granted, but not before one of my soldiers slipped and fell directly and completely into the 12-inch-deep stream, causing instant hypothermia followed by a quick Medevac.  *sigh*

Oh, he ended up being just fine, but I wasn't just worried about his welfare.  We'd been told over and over at West Point that a platoon leader whose troops had to be removed due to heat or cold injuries was liable to be removed of leadership on the spot. So there I was, first day on the job, liable for--yeah.  Dang. 

They didn't, though.  Relieve me, that is.  I stayed in charge, and we kept pushing forward to the next objective.  There, we assaulted a hill, again firing blanks, and we successfully took the hill and dug into defensive positions.  Only, then my platoon sergeant needed medical attention, and not due to cold injury. No, he'd consumed too many Cokes in a heated Hummer, and he was dehydrated. 

Double dang.  Crap, even.  Any chance I ever had of becoming a general officer, I saw slipping through the cracks down the mudslide that was the hill we'd taken through the warming snow, and all that on my first day.

The next day dawned cold and crappy, but that is the kind of weather that makes most infantrymen happy.  We rose and left behind the comfort of--um, holes in the dirt--and continued in a southwestward direction toward what was marked as the Final Objective.  I, the newbie platoon leader, was in the middle, the second most senior platoon leader to my left, and the senior PL, the guy ready for another post soon, to my right, all moving steadily through the damp and chilly forest.

It didn't take too long to get there--which I must admit I found a little suspicious at the time.  "Alpha Six," the company radio called out for the my commander, "enemy position spotted to our front.  Sending scout, over," the senior platoon leader to my right said, and wow, I thought--smart man, apparently--I'd had us as not quite there yet according to my own map readings.

Then again, you know what they say about second lieutenants with a map.  If you don't, then go to any web site where there's a lot of derogatory cursing going on, and you'll get the gist.  Despite the weekends I'd spent as a kid with my dad roaming the Tombigbee Forest with a map and a compass, I was supposed to have no idea where I was, as evidenced by the golden bar upon my lapel, and I was fine with that as I waited for instructions to attack from the company commander.

"Alpha Six," an embarrassed voice finally came across the line, "We scouted the enemy position, and found that it is our position from last night."

They'd left our side and land-navigated into a full circle.


I giggled a lot that day, thanks to the confirmation that others were as prone to errors as I was.  More so, even, when it came to land navigation.  In fact, I still giggle about that, today, many years after I left the active duty infantry behind me for good.

A year, ish, later, I had my own Senior Lieutenant moment.  This time we were at Yakima, our major training ground for motorized Fort Lewis troops.  We were playing against an opfor again, and to be honest I was really looking forward to being relieved as a platoon leader by some young butterbar so that I could move up to battalion staff. 

"I see troop movement to the front," one of my squad leaders called, and I relayed that information up to Alpha Six.  I didn't see anything, granted, but I was hunkered down in a Command & Control position near the middle, and the squad leaders, all experienced sergeants, were looking out over the killing field we hoped to command with their night vision sights.

"Keep me informed," my company commander radioed back. 

Some time later--I don't know; it was well into the nighttime hours, and I wasn't watching a clock--the same squad leader reported more troop movement to his front.  I relayed it up, and the company commander radioed back, "Keep me informed."

The third time the squad leader reported movement, it was well into the early morning hours, and so I was tired of the lack of progression.  I raised the platoon radio handset in preparation to order one of the forward troops to get out of their vehicle and check out the movement to the front when another, somewhat more senior, squad leader radioed in.

"You idiot, those are cows," the rebuke came clearly across the platoon's frequency.

Dutifully, I reported the cows up to the company commander.  After all, I wanted him to get whatever rest--and, um, giggles--he could, right?

In the morning I asked him whether he'd relayed the cows report to battalion.  "Nope, didn't have the courage," he said, and that made me laugh.

Hey, at least I had the courage to report the cows.

The strange, writer-centric part of this?  If I hadn't lived it, I wouldn't believe the incredible humor that was part of the service lifestyle.  Too often we writers get drawn into ideas about how things should be instead of how things are, and we forget that real life is way, way stranger than any fiction we can create.



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