Saturday, June 14, 2014

"War" in peace time

It was reported by the New York Times that the platoon that recently released POW Bowe Bergdahl was a member of was a dysfunctional unit, with lax discipline not unlike similar small units in dangerous, isolated outposts in Afghanistan. I am surprised that anyone would be “shocked” by this circumstance; after all, this wasn’t particularly dissimilar to the images we were provided of isolated small units in the jungles of Viet Nam.

I spent seven years in the Regular Army during the Reagan years; one thing about this “Cold Warrior,” he bailed at the first hint of trouble; after more than 200 Marines were killed in the Beirut barracks bombing in 1982, U.S. troops were only deployed in harms’ way if the stakes were low—such as in the “invasion” of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. It is interesting to note that there was no partisan, politicized attacks by Democrats concerning thay bombing for political traction, as we are now seeing by Republicans in regard to Benghazi. 

Thus I can’t say I know from experience how people of different backgrounds, experience and personality react when confronted with situations in which they are feel alone in a situation where they are surrounded by an often unseen but deadly enemy. Not that I was never involved in potentially “dangerous” situations while during my time in the service, and there was one occasion in which I was disabled in the course of my duties. This occurred while returning from a mission scavenging for spare parts from some military scrap yard on another base; I was driving on the Autobahn in one of those tiny old quarter-ton Jeeps when I found myself faced with one of those life and death situations in which instinct, rather than stopping to take stock in the matter, is required: Some German was speeding at such a clip in the opposite direction that centrifugal force placed his vehicle right square in my lane as he was rounding a curve. 

After a quick turn of the steering wheel and breaking glass later before the lights went out, I awoke on a stretcher, being carted into an Army hospital, where I spent a several weeks in disrepair, just long enough to make sure I wouldn’t fall apart with a broken clavicle (which was never properly repaired, probably because I wasn’t an officer), a broken pelvis and a broken wrist. I did, however, receive a courtesy visit from the three-star Corps commander. 

One thing I can speak to is the fact that there are “all kinds” of personalities in the service, and it is often unpredictable to know how they confront adversity, even in “peace time.” For example, I took part in a “war game” in which my squad was supposed to attack an artillery unit which was camped out under camouflage nets in a clearing. We crept up through the trees to the edge of the woods; I happened to be tagged with some big guy who carried a 50-cal. “portable” machine gun. 

Only minutes after we had set up our “firing” position, a half-dozen soldiers emerged from under one of the camouflaged positions and started running toward us. My partner got up and also started running—in the opposite direction; I asked where are you going, and he said he wasn’t going to be captured, and the machine gun was apparently too heavy for him to carry in making his getaway; being a sergeant, I was expected to insure that our weapon wasn’t left behind, which would have been subject to severe penalty. 

I then did the only thing I could do, which was to “pretend” to fire upon the onrushing attacking force, doing my best to “sound” like a machine gun popping off. Unfortunately, the attackers didn’t do their part and play “dead,” and they ignored my insistence that I had cut them down with my weapon while they were still out there in the open. After that, I vowed never to embarrass myself by allowing myself to be “captured” on one of these practice exercises. 

I recall another incident in which we were camped on hill where we discovered some small bats clinging in apparent slumber to a tree. Some of the guys joked about killing the bats out of the “danger” they represented, and this was objected to by another soldier who claimed to be a ballet dancer in a previous life. There was some ribbing about being effeminate and the like; unfortunately for the bats, our pacifist and animal lover eventually felt “compelled” to take “action,” and he stunned everyone by picking up a rock a flattening the bats into bloody pancakes. 

Drug use in the military—surprise surprise—was not “unknown” when I was in the Army. In Germany, I recall being on a night navigation course for NCOs when a couple of sergeants, once safely under the cover of the forest, broke out their stash of hash. Actually getting caught was another matter. After a surprise wee-hour morning drug test, a PFC in my platoon tested positive for marijuana. I was forced to accompany this smart-ass to see a JAG officer. I knew that his smart-ass friends from another platoon probably told him that he should deny the validity of the drug test, so I asked the JAG officer what would happen to this guy if he denied using drugs. He said that it was better not to contest the validity of the test, because the punishment for a first offense would likely be just an Article 15 and demotion of a grade; denial of the test would likely be a bad conduct discharge. 

After we left this meeting, I asked the soldier if he understood what the JAG guy said, and he kind of shrugged it off, like he had some secret plan to get away with this. And sure enough, when he stood before the battalion commander he confidently asserted that the drug test was wrong and he never used drugs. The lieutenant colonel just kind of waved him off in mildly amused amazement, and that was the end of it; I never saw the PFC again after that. 

I also encountered soldiers with white-supremacist and gang affiliations. One white soldier who I knew to be frequent user of the “N” word complained about Black History Month; when is “White History Month” he asked; I told him that every other month was “white” history month. On the other hand, I recall a black soldier who openly displayed his LA gang colors on the wall of his barracks room, and no one ever told him to remove it (probably because they didn’t know what they meant). I remember him always being on the edge of violent action every time he felt “disrespected.” One white soldier who was once forced to share a room with him kept a chain in his locker for “protection.” One night he went AWOL; I was told that he had felt physically threatened by the gangbanger soldier and had pulled out his chain to defend himself, warding off “friendly fire” before taking his unauthorized leave. 

Some incidents were more on the “amusing” side. I was in Crete on a live fire Stinger exercise for 13 teams from various units in the Corps. I scored at or near one-hundred on the written part of the test, which helped elevate my gunner’s less-than-stellar performance (the only reason why I was selected to participate). During the actual live fire event, we were one of the early participants and “scored” a “tactical” hit. But half-way through, one of the other team’s missiles malfunctioned and took a nose dive right on the beach, instead of into the Mediterranean Sea; everyone started digging holes into the sand as the missile exploded. No one was injured, but the live fire was cancelled right then. A few hours later, our lieutenant breathlessly ran into our barracks room with the “good news”—at least for him—that ours was the only team in the Corps to receive a “Go” rating. And all we got for that—and being forced to consume goat meat, goat cheese and goat milk three times a day—was a lousy ARCOM medal. 

In another “amusing” episode, I had a platoon sergeant in Fort Hood who decided we needed to go out for an exercise on the vast training reservation. He claimed that he knew of a location where no one could find us. Eight soldiers piled into two quarter-tons; one of them broke down before we left the gate, and its occupants were obliged to stay behind. They wouldn’t know how “lucky” they were.

January in the middle of Texas might see mild temperatures in the 70s, and so it was on this day; we all expected to return by supper, and wore only Army-issue shirts. When we arrived at the “secret” location, which was near a creek and hidden from all sides by shrubs and stumpy trees, it seemed that something was wrong with our vehicle too. Some amateur mechanic took a screwdriver to the distributor, and the thing went up in smoke. We tried to call range control and told them we were marooned and needed “rescue,” but true to our fearless leader’s claim, they couldn’t find us. 

Eventually the battery died and we couldn’t use the radio, and as the hours slipped by we kind of noticed that it was getting colder too; it didn’t help that we didn’t bring any food either. Wearing nothing but thin shirts covering rumbling bellies, the platoon sergeant had a mutiny on his hands, as one or two us decided to “investigate” on our own anything that sounded like a vehicle in the distance, despite commands to “stay together.” As darkness fell, temperatures fell to freezing, and when someone suggested building a bonfire, this was turned down too. However, around midnight and no help in sight, even the platoon sergeant was forced to see sense and OK’d the construction of a fire. The whole night we kept burning up on one side and freezing on the other. 

By next morning it was apparent that there was some “concern” by the company that something needed to be done about our disappearance, and a full-scale search was undertaken. We were not discovered until 10 AM, almost 24 hours after this little exercise had begun. The rescuers brought us breakfast, which had turned an unwholesome-looking green after about four hours in the canisters. Needless to say, our platoon sergeant never again suggested we go on such a trip again. On the other hand, we were more fortunate than some; in 2007, Sgt. Lawrence Sprader went out on a land navigation exercise on the same training reservation and was lost. Two dozen soldiers who also participated in the exercise needed medical attention. After a massive search, Sprader was found, dead of hyperthermia and dehydration.

No comments:

Post a Comment