Living in Charleston, South Carolina can be a little funny at times. Today was supposed to be “Snowmageddon”, with a light dusting of the fluffy stuff and the commensurate shutting down of any and all services. My kids left school early, and we all waited. By nine pm it hadn’t hit and I had to take the dog for a walk.
As I turned the corner of our street, the rain/sleet finally began to fall, and the weather snapped my memory to times that I had once hated, but now cherish.
Nowadays people talk about veterans with combat in mind, and they have every reason to do so, but I’m not sure the average civilian understands how hard a military life actually is. Yeah, combat is hard and scary, but when I walked my dog tonight I didn’t think about the assault I did on Christmas day in Iraq, even though the temperature was about the same. I was brought back to a training mission I’d done eighteen years before.
It was in Hunter Liggett, California, and I wasn’t even in charge. I was an observer/grader for a scout platoon, and we’d run up against a river. The temperature was about forty degrees, and I was praying the scout element would choose not to cross. I would hammer them in their evaluation, but I was praying all the same. They chose to cross, and we built a bunch of poncho rafts.
That sentence doesn’t really convey what happened. We built a conglomeration of makeshift rafts and swam across a river in forty-degree weather. For no other reason than the “enemy” was on the other side and the platoon owed it to their higher command to report.
That night was quite possibly the most miserable of my entire life. I curled up soaking wet in forty-degree weather and sucked it up. Because that’s what was expected of me. What was expected of every single one of the so-called grunts of America.
Special Operations are the heroes after 9/11, and deservedly so given what they’ve done, but I think the average grunt is getting short shrift. There are movies and stories about the vaunted SOF folks, but having accomplished what I have, I wonder if America understands what the average grunt has done. World War II had The Band of Brothers. This war is no different.
During my career I have had a multitude of things branded into my soul, and make no mistake, the majority was from my time in Special Operations, but tonight, walking my dog, I didn’t think about Special Forces. As the rain turned to sleet and I wondered what the hell I was thinking by leaving my house, a second memory hit me. I was walking up a mountain called Site Alpha as a straight-leg infantryman. A battalion movement that was designed to crush us, with everyone carrying everything they owned on their back. Some carried more than others.
I was a Platoon Leader, so I only had my rucksack and weapon. As we went up, the lines got blurred, and men got mixed up. It became a slog for survival.
I overtook the mortar platoon and saw a man on his knees. He had his rucksack just like mine, but strapped to it was a mortar base-plate for a 60MM mortar.
He was done.
I knelt next to him and said, “Give me the plate.”
He said, “No. It’s mine. I can make it.”
There was no way that was true. He weighed about a hundred and five. I ordered him to give me the plate. He did so. I strapped it to my ruck and stood up. At that moment, I knew I had made a mistake.
There was no way I was going to make it to the top of Site Alpha with this thing on my back. I was astounded that anyone in leadership expected a human to carry such a thing. I staggered forward under will alone, now convinced I’d be one of the men carted off by the medevac vehicles. I trudged upward, grunting and ashamed, now getting passed by the men in my platoon.
I would fail.
Eventually, I bent over, heaving and sweating, wondering what I should do. Not wanting to show weakness, but knowing that’s what I held. A man tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and saw the Mortar Platoon Sergeant. He said, “Give me the plate.”
I did so without question, and he began moving up the mountain as if he had nothing on his back. I say that again – he took the weight and began walking as if it was nothing. We eventually reached the top and the battalion took a rest break. I crashed on the ground, knowing I should have been checking on my men. I took a pull from my canteen and saw a man above me.
It was the platoon sergeant. He said, “You’re a good man. I appreciate it.”
He walked away without another word. I got off my lazy ass and began checking my men.
I’ve done a lot of high-speed, top-secret things, but the truth of the matter is that every soldier I’ve served with has been something special. More so than the average “vet in trouble” news story will tell you. I’ve seen the “lowest” that America has, the guy who joined to “stay out of jail” (a myth) or just to get college money, and that guy is pretty damn good. Maybe the best we have to offer.
I’ve done more in my career than I ever expected, and served with the absolute tip of the spear, but I still have a soft spot for the average grunt. I see the stories about SEALs and other SOF, but at the end of the day, the truth of the matter is that the Band of Brothers is alive and well, and we’d all do well to remember that.