The first time you face death, it's frightening. Well, it's actually frightening every time you face death, but after the first couple of times the novelty wears off and you come to accept the fear, embrace it. As the adrenaline surges through your limbs and makes your heart palpitate at what must surely be an audible volume, you anticipate the coppery taste of Fear that lies to the sides and back of your tongue. The first time it paralyses your rational mind and you act on instinct. That instinct frequently leads you from the harm of Death as he approaches. That same instinct does not always work in ways you would like though; it does not grant you the cat like grace of Jackie Chan or the wooden resolve of Clint Eastwood.
More often than not it grants you the endurance and stealth of a maddened wallaby, wind milling all of your limbs in conflicting directions and screaming indecipherable portions of your native language, out of order and interspersed with animalistic grunts and whimpers. You scuttle in three directions at once and void your bowels as a last defensive gesture of futility, hoping perhaps to preserve your fresh corpse by making it as unpalatable a treat as possible for the oncoming tiger or out of control trolley that bears down on you. While there is no set method to losing absolute control of your rational mind to the instinct that preserves you in times of danger, it's safe to say that Jerry Bruckheimer would alter the details if your life story makes it to the silver screen.
That will only happen the first couple of times though. After a while, if you continue to survive both the danger and your own reactions to the danger, you become accustomed to the Fear and you learn to harness its power. Not everyone gets the opportunity to come to grips with their mortality to such a degree as to control their Fear. Others of us do. Most of those that succeeded do so because they seek out danger and embrace the Fear as a narcotic. They are the type that kayaks over waterfalls, rides rocket powered water buffalos down mountains and dream of starring in Mountain Dew commercials. They risk their lives willingly for the charge of adrenaline and endorphins that celebrate will over fate.
Then there are people like me. I've faced death more times than makes me comfortable, but I am not a thrill seeker. I'm just shortsighted, stupid and very durable. I'm more of an Ernest P. Worrell than I am a Martin Riggs, surviving my ordeals to please the comedic interests of some higher power rather than through any technique or hardiness of my own. For a while M. Night Shyamalan had me convinced that I might be impervious to mortality. Despite my own interest in continuing to live, it seems sometimes as if I go out of my way to be a moron and test the limits of being unbreakable.
Fort Carson, CO. Summer, 1991
Rehearsal is the key to successful combat operations. That's what the officers always told us, but myself and many of my peers were under the impression that rehearsal was a waste of time. We weren't consulted though. Soldiers do what they're told; they aren't normally consulted on training methodology. Still, many of us treated combat exercise as a joke, convinced that when the chips were down we would do the right thing, make the right choice and move fast enough to escape danger. To prove our points and engage in some small rebellion against authority, most of us simply went through the motions of training. We ran only half heartedly towards bunkers, careful not to exert our selves past the capacity of our meager field rations to reenergize us. Instead of diving recklessly towards cover, we crouched slowly to avoid the imaginary bullets. Diving would make our uniforms filthy and we might be visited by an impromptu field inspection at any time. Murphy's laws of combat clearly (and accurately) state that 'No combat ready unit has ever passed inspection.' And 'No inspection ready unit has ever passed combat.'
This attitude always caused problems during live fire exercises, for what should be obvious reasons. All of the sudden our banal training fugue had the ante upped by replacing our imaginary bullets with real ones, and our fantasy death with the possibility of a rubber sleeping bag.
In this too warm Colorado summer our company live fire training was to eclipse several days. It was my draw of the straw that kept me at the range on guard duty over the evening while the rest of my comrades returned to garrison for what we colorfully called the Three S's; Shit, Shower and Shave. More than a handful would also imbibe in the fourth S, sloppy fucking drunk
I was joined by another sad soul whose name has passed through the sieve of my memory into oblivion. We were to stand guard in a range tower until the rest of the unit arrived the next morning. Our duty was to remain vigilant and prevent any wrong doers from commandeering our ammunition or rifling through the variety of equipment left at the range rather than transported back to garrison for the evening.
The guard tower that was our abode for the evening was a single small room with 360 degree visibility provided for by wall to wall windows. It sat fifty feet in the air at the top of a madman's erector set assembly of aging iron and was accessible only by a lengthy and narrow set of stairs. It was very much like a Forest Rangers looking post but not nearly as comfortable. We had little to entertain us during the evening save for field rations and the bottle of vodka What's-his-name had brought with him.
Drinking on duty!? Sure it's technically against regulations, but I strongly suspected that the coyotes and gophers had little interest in our ammunition and field gear. We were, after all, forty miles from anything resembling civilization in the wilderness of southern Colorado. We imbibed in the demon liquor and swiftly passed out.
The following morning I regretted my actions. Not for any trouble it got me into, for no one was the wiser, believing that my grogginess was due to sleeping in a tin and glass shack in between guard rotations and not the natural result of drinking to excess. My trouble was that my platoon had drawn first go at the live fire range that morning. My platoon sergeant saw no reason why I shouldn't participate and I gathered my gear and ammunition with the rest of my platoon.
The exercise was simple. Advance in platoon formation towards the objective. Once the objective was reached, or we came under 'fire' we would split into squads and assault the bunkers at the objectives. While the bunkers were manned by nothing more than targets, and all incoming fire was simulated, we had to be especially cognizant of our approach on the objective and our lines of fire as we engaged the green target silhouettes of the enemy. We were firing live ammunition, and during combat maneuvers we had to ensure that we didn't cross into another squads sights, or that we didn't fire into their ranks as they moved in front of us.
Unlike the field training we normally engaged in, this was deadly serious stuff. We trained all the time though, and despite our objections to it, rehearsal really did help. We knew what we were doing and this sort of operation was pretty routine. A cake walk. Easy as a cheerleader. Simple as a barefoot Appalachian banjo savant. Unless you're hung-over and chock full of liquor and MREs.
I was handling my condition with aplomb though, and my queasiness and dizziness had been mostly drawn out by the long walk interspersed with sprinting and the concentration required for accurate rifle fire. Things really didn't go to hell in the proverbial hand basket till we reached the objective.
Our platoon had divided into squads once we reached the objective, a hill with several smallish foxhole bunkers constructed of sandbags. As the assaulting two squads approached the bunkers we further divided into groups of two, each assaulting a bunker while the remaining two squads covered our approach by firing at popup targets located a safe distance away from the bunkers to prevent any accidents.
The idea was that I would run towards the bunker at an angle away from it while my Battle Buddy fired on the bunker to suppress the enemies fire and allow me to come back in, dive to the side of the opening at the bunker, toss in a grenade simulator and hunker down for the muted pop of the simulators explosion; signifying that we had successfully killed the inhabitant. Then, I would use suppressive fire to allow my buddy to approach and we would continue this in sync with the rest of the squad until all the targets were dead. Like I said, simple stuff.
When I dove at the bunkers side I reached for the grenade, pulled the pin, tossed it through the hole and a short three seconds later was rewarded by a satisfying but tiny explosion. I turned my head to call out to my buddy, to signal that I was beginning cover fire and it was safe to approach when I heard a loud warning.
'Gas! Gas! GAS!'
I recognized my company Commander's voice and turned toward it just in time to see the gray cylinder of the CS gas grenade land in the dirt a mere eight to ten inches from my nose. I had only the briefest portion of a second to contemplate the flat circular bottom of the grenade, for although I could take issue with my CO's aim, there was nothing wrong with his timing and the canister he had hurled first sputtered then jettisoned a thick cloud of noxious gas straight into my face before I could react.
CS gas is horrible stuff, I hate it. It attacks the mucous membranes and causes severe irritation of the skin, tremendous mucus discharge from the nose and mouth and superhuman activation of the tear ducts accompanied by occasional blindness and vomiting.
I had all of that in mere seconds. As the cloud of gas expanded to conceal my bunker and others close to it, I had already started vomiting. My greasy payload of corned beef hash and vodka left a slimy trail as if a giant vomit snail had passed by and it was the only orientation cue I had in the quickly thickening fog. That is to say, it would have been if I could see. My vision was stolen only nanoseconds after I started vomiting, and the only reason I knew I still had eyes was because they burned like someone had scooped salt into heaping hillocks over my eye sockets.
To the credit of my training, while my brain swiftly became disconnected from rational thought, I attempted to don my protective mask and evacuate the burning from my lungs as best I could. A number of problems quickly arose with my mask. Unlike much of the rest of my platoon, I did not carry the standard M17 Gas Mask.
My primary role at the time was as a driver for the squads M-113 APC. Because of that I carried an M42A1 gas mask. It was essentially the same in function save that the filter, instead of attached to the cheek pads, remained in the carrier at my hip and was attached to the mask by a lengthy hose. Ostensibly, it was so the canister could be attached to an on board filtration system in the vehicle. The hose frequently became entangled with the mask while trying to extricate it from its berth.
As luck would have it, that's exactly what happened. In my panicked attempt to remove the mask from its bag and remove myself from the immediate area of the gas (while blinded) I began to run in random directions, yanking on the mask stuck to my hip. The result had me spinning and sprinting in circles while snot, tears and vomit continued to escape from my head. I eventually freed the mask only to hurl a mighty flow of puke into the chin cup while attempting to don it. Unperturbed, I continued my attempts, rationalizing that a bit of rainbow yawn was preferable to asphyxiation, only to discover that in my hung over state I had failed to check the mask before beginning the exercise. It wouldn't fit over my head because it still had the cardboard shipping form in it. By this time I was incapable of dealing with something as complicated as cardboard and I gave up on the mask. As I dropped it to my side, still running in circles, as I crossed into someone else's field of fire. Bullets sang past my head and tore at the dirt by my feet. I was dragging my mask by the umbilical connecting it my hip and I could hear people calling frantic cease fires. I was beyond caring and a dim portion of my soul prayed that one of the bullets would strike me down and save me from my pain.
Some other, more preservation concerned, part of my mind retained the capacity to understand that I had tripped into some deep do-do while simultaneously forming a plan to filter the hated gas. I threw myself to the ground and dug at the rough ground with my bare hands until I had a shallow hole deep enough to contain my head. Like a camouflaged and distressed ostrich I buried my head in the sand and breathed through the soil, allowing it to act as a rudimentary filter. Fortunately I had stopped vomiting, but my nose and eyes continued to jet their respected fluids. Time passed, immeasurable that was likely no more than a few minutes.
I heard running footsteps and the shouts of my CO and platoon sergeant. 'Spoon! Spoon, are you alright! Answer me soldier!'
I rose up on into a kneeling position, my face covered in mud of my own making and still connected to the ground by thick ropes of mucus like a newly gestated deformity of H.R Giger's imagination. My chin and chest were covered in this combination of booger juice and vomit slurry mud. A stunted trail of slime stretched behind me, accurately mapping my chaotic path, for all the world looking like a horror house version of little Billy's day on the block. I said the first thing that came to my mind.
'Nice shot Sir.'
Just to emphasize my sarcasm I threw up a little before I heard the CO's response.
'God damn son, you look like shit! That was the funniest damn thing I've ever seen.' He didn't stop laughing for what seemed like an unusually long time.
Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site, Fall, 1991
The Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site is on the southern border of Colorado. It's a 3900 acre training area that the Army units posted in five states utilize for large scale combat simulations. Live fire exercises are common and so is un-extinguished pyrotechnics. The Army excels in expending simulation munitions, which are designed to simulate more devastating explosions with smaller ones for the training benefit of the soldier. They're mostly cost saving techniques as it is far cheaper to attach a package of sparkly fireworks to a plastic target to simulate the steel on steel strike of a missile than it is to go around shooting real missiles at real tanks.
These simulators are frequently left in place or discarded rather than hauling them back to the munitions depot since they are low powered pyro that break down quickly when exposed to the elements. The enterprising and resourceful soldier can find them in abundance if he knows where to look. My compatriots and I had secured several of these devices within a short matter of time. The platoon leader had chose an Assembly Area near a cluster of low hills and while he and the platoon sergeant were picking out locations for the squad leaders to set in foxholes, we had scouted the area under the guise of setting up a field latrine.
Among our booty was one of the afore mentioned steel on steel simulators. I chose that one as my toy, and secreted it in my gear as we received our orders. My squad leader, Sergeant Walker, pointed out several locations and informed us that each team had to have a full size, camouflaged foxhole prepared for the battle by tomorrow afternoon. A foxhole is a big hole, shoulder deep, one rifle wide and two rifles long. Approximately 5' x 3' x 6'. The tailing pile from the hole is used to fill sandbags, create a partial roof and camouflage the hole. Two motivated men with entrenching tools can dig and camouflage a text book foxhole in 2 - 3 days. We had about 24 hours, which meant we would dig all through the night.
No one was particularly happy about that, but there wasn't a whole lot we could about it either. Undue complaining just caught you more crap, so we dug. Fortunately we did have proper tools like shovels and pick axes as the soil in the area more resembled concrete than anything else. As the evening wore on into late night, our efforts began to slow and tom-foolery was inevitable.
During a break (a break being any lengthy portion of time an NCO was absent) I removed my prize from its hidden location and examined it; which is to say I cut it open with a knife and spilled out its contents. The device was a white plastic cylinder about seven inches long and maybe three wide. It had some wires and what was surely an electronic detonator used to trigger the device. The charge was a blackish granular powder with about a dozen small nodules roughly the size of marbles that were a different material. I proclaimed the charge to be black powder and the nodules to be either magnesium or phosphorous.
No one seemed care about my prognosis, so we set about trying to make everything go boom. With an eye towards caution and scientific exploration I smashed the detonator assembly with a large rock that had been excavated at great effort from our hole. It rather disappointingly, made no reaction and I was left with a collection of smaller electronic stuff than I had before. As disappointing as that was I continued to the next stage of my endeavor, the charge.
I piled a portion of the granular powder in the concave bottom of an upended soda can. Previous experience had taught me that this method provided a steady base above the level of the ground. The soda can was very good at holding largish portions of flammable material and kept them away from the ground, which could become blackened, revealing my activities or even worse, catch fire.
The powder simply would not light though. Crude fuses were snuffed out and matches hurled at the mound were extinguished. It was frustrating and it was clear I had to take extreme action as my growing crowd was becoming anxious. I took the protective caution of donning one leather field glove and flicked my bic. Holding the disposable lighter in the gloved hand I shielded my eyes and cautiously crept towards the flammable load of fun. The flame wavered in the slight wind and with my cautious movements as it slowly approached the black granules.
Nothing happened. I held the flame in the powder for several seconds to no avail. No bang. No flash. Nothing. I was pissed and wasn't afraid to share that information. I repeated the process several times but the results were identical.
And then, a break through! As I had attempted to strike the lighter for another attempt, I had failed to notice that a small amount had been scooped into the flame hood. As the striker rotated, its sparks were hot enough to ignite the powder that I was now convinced was not black powder but some other material. A satisfying whoosh and a bright burst of light was my reward.
A hastily formed plan shot from my right brain to my left brain and back again to the right. Having met with no resistance or logical impasses in the few seconds I considered the plan, I thrust the bic into the pile of presumably flammable powder, and flicked the striker wheel again.
Success! The material caught and burst into a white ball of impossibly bright light. I was immediately blinded. That was no big deal, you get used to temporary blindness, but the second sensation that flowed along my synapses was of immense heat, followed by a constrictive tightening of the gloved hand.
My brain hadn't recovered from the shock of the light yet, so I had felt no real pain but the tightening of my gloved hand convinced a portion of my animal brain that I had irreparably damaged my hand in a pyre of chemical destruction and that it was indeed aflame and melting. That same part of my animal brain did what it was programmed to and activated my flight response. I also decided that screaming and swearing would be a good idea.
As a general rule one really shouldn't run around in circles while blinded when one spent the last twelve hours digging several body sized holes in the ground. It wasn't long before I fell into a hole in a manner that was probably very amusing for any onlookers. Indeed I could hear a good deal of laughter from where I landed.
Before I could crawl out of the hole the radio came alive with questions and threats. Sergeant Walker came running up several minutes later, at least that's what I was told. My sight still hadn't returned and I had spent most of the time begging for inspections of my hand. I was told that it had not caught fire and although it looked weird, it didn't appear damaged. The lack of sympathy and concern from my squad mates is not unordinary considering the circumstances. The time to examine me for injury was not upon us yet, we still had to make up excuses and lie to save our asses.
While Sergeant Walker grilled us for info I pretended to be capable of sight. I must have looked ridiculous and it surprised me that we were getting away with what had nearly been very disastrous. Sergeant Walker eventually bought a crazy story about my cigarette lighter 'mysteriously exploding' for no apparent reason and he left us to continue our digging, emphasizing how important it was, for our own good, to have the foxholes completed on time.
My sight returned in about fifteen or twenty minutes and I was finally able to examine my hand. The glove had probably saved me from a terrible mutilation. The heat of the fire, which had nearly consumed the soda can, had shrunk the glove over my hand. It was so tight that I had to cut it off and after doing so was relieved to find that my hand was unharmed, although I did lose some of my eyebrows and eyelashes.
I was later told that the flash was seen several miles away by another company preparing their own foxholes for the same battle and had thought it the opening salvo of combat. They spent several hours on full alert before realizing that nothing else was coming. The commander eventually got word of the nights events and amazingly the story of the faulty lighter continued to hold. I suspect it may have simply been easier to believe the lie than to try and comprehend the reality.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Winter, 1992.
You'd think that actually being in a combat zone would be satisfactory for combat training. I thought so, but command did not. My company had been deployed to Saudi Arabia after outright hostilities had ceased during the Gulf War. We had arrived with the mission to provide security to several secure facilities and stand by as a reserve force in case Iraq got froggy and decided to hop. We were all on special duty with 24 hours on guard duty, 24 hours off and then a regular twelve hour day. We maintained that schedule the entire time of our deployment and we all got enough interaction with the locals and crazies that we figured we didn't need any additional training.
As usual though, we weren't consulted. The CO, who desperately wanted to do something 'combatish' had decided we would do a company sized field march in combat formation. We loaded up our gear, checked out our rifles and got on the buses. We had no operational areas for training and our base was located in the suburbs of Riyadh, an area deemed too populated for this kind of field exercise. We were in the desert though, so it was the consensus that we could drive a suitable distance and find enough open area to do our road march.
By some process that I am unaware of, a location was chosen and we disembarked from the buses, formed up and started to march out, away from the lights of the city. We'd been at it for an hour or more, plodding ahead, making sure we didn't lose sight of the guy on the right and left, when word began to circulate that we might be lost.
It's hard to navigate in the desert. The maps have little in the way of defining topographic features and at night there is even more disorientation and fewer visible landmarks. The GPS we had at the time wasn't nearly as accurate as the civilian models available today and only received signals from three satellites, they were also fairly large and heavy, which was pretty irrelevant because we didn't even have one of them that evening. A halt was called and the leadership moved forward to confer on the best method for getting us back to where we had been.
It was an embarrassing and difficult decision. There was some speculation that not only were we lost, but no one knew where we were because the CO hadn't been able to receive permission for the field exercise and had therefore just gone ahead and done it. No one knew we were gone, let alone where we might be. To further complicate our situation, we were a company sized element of 100+ men with weapons and no ammo. We looked for all the world like a combat ready force, but we were completely incapable of engaging as one.
It was decided that we couldn't just walk towards the glowing horizon that was Riyadh as we had no idea if there were any rural residents between us and the city that might mistake our unit for an invading army. The good news was that a full company of soldiers leaves a trail that is relatively easy to follow. We would back track.
The formation was closed to a column and we began the walk back to the buses with a few scouts out front to determine our course as best as possible. The plan seemed to be working and we would occasionally pass something that jarred my memory; an odd shaped rock or interesting swell of ground accompanied by the clear footprints of a combat boot.
Of course nature turned against us. Clouds rolled in and the wind began to pick up. Neither was unusual for the winter in Saudi Arabia, but it was certainly ill timed. It became harder to follow the track and our rate of movement began to slow noticeably. There are times when you think, quietly and to your self, 'This sucks. Nothing has ever been this much suck.' The moment you think that, it always gets worse and you regret calling god's attention to your plight.
At first I had to strain to hear the dogs. Saudi Arabia is full of packs of previously domesticated animals turned feral. The Saudi's don't domesticate cats, and rarely do so with dogs, but the workers they import from other countries do. These animals are released and form wandering packs that roam the outskirts of town feeding off the enormous amounts of garbage the Saudi's throw into the desert.
They wailed and growled and barked, sounding hungry, mean and close. It wasn't long before everyone could hear them without straining and they were closing on us fast. As they got louder, we moved faster by an unspoken agreement that there wasn't dick we could do if they caught up with us. We had no way to protect ourselves from the dogs and although none of us knew if they would attack, we weren't prepared to bet on it.
An entire company of United States Army Infantry, lost in the desert outside a large city, ran from a pack of dogs. This wasn't like a normal company sized PT run. If you dropped out of ranks during one of those all you got was an ass chewing. If we dropped out of this run, we might get more than our ass chewed. Fear drove us beyond exertion.
On the plus side we managed to make it back to the buses very swiftly. Once the city came back into view it wasn't difficult for any of us to remember our path and the buses were located in short order. The dogs had stopped following us at some point, but no one stopped running until we reached the warehouse district where the buses were parked. While the company recovered their breath, drank water and huffed and puffed, I was detailed to alert the bus drivers of our early arrival.
I approached the bus and knocked on the door peering in. After a night of adrenaline stimulated sprinting I was completely unprepared for the sight that met my gaze. One of our soldiers had entered into barter with our head bus driver, Hage. For one bottle of questionable home brew liquor our soldier had traded his penis pump to a delighted Hage. Not expecting our return to be so swift, Hage and his friend had taken the opportunity to work each other over with the pump. They seemed delighted with the device and were unperturbed by my knocking. Some things are just funny, even if you haven't spent all night running from a pack of dogs.
Life is precious to some. Even those who can't agree on the market value of other people's lives agree that their own is worth something more than a pocket full of coins. I've lost count of the times that my own life has nearly been sacrificed for the whim of the winds. These three times the Pale Rider came for me, but these three times were practice runs. The day he rows me across the Styx I likely won't even realize it until well after the coins have cooled on my eyes.