So every now and then someone high up in the chain of command looks around at someone else high up in the chain of command and remembers that from time to time we are all supposed to be soldiers and wander about in the woods doing soldierly things. Then, after much hemming and hawing and yes-sir-ing, someone is bound to come up with a plan to send us all out into the field for a few days to remember just how itchy our sleeping bags are. Such was the case this week when out we went for fun in the sun.
Only it wasn’t so sunny. It was raining. And cold. A rather rare early summer cold front decided that it would be a lovely time to squat over our training area, commencing the first evening and only starting to brighten up as we packed to depart.
Now of course, this is no tactical field unit wandering around in the woods. That was a point I should have remembered, having heard the stories of how last year one of the non-commissioned officers packed his entire entertainment system, complete with playstation, for the annual event. Having come from a place such as Fort Bragg, I brushed aside such stories and gathered my military gear. I should have paid attention, as my first sergeant sent out an email telling us to pack our sleeping mats because there were no mattresses. Mattresses? Yes, mattresses. Our field time began with moving our things into large open bay barracks. Not quite the Hilton, but certainly more comfortable than bedding down with the German wildlife.
But it was not all fun, games, and bedsprings. Due to a logistical error the other company did not exactly “plan” their portion of the exercise and hell had already broken loose by the time my company arrived. The chemical chamber being the first event on the schedule, we soon discovered the other company had failed to secure any gas tablets. Moving along to medical evacuation, no one had confirmed the event with the local helicopter unit. And so it began.
My first sergeant got things back on track by having several of the non-commissioned officers, including myself, begin teaching the classes we had been assigned. He then worked with the other company’s commander to plan how to get most of the classroom material in during the first day instead of spread over two and a half days. While this meant we would get to go home a day early, it also meant that my hour block of instruction expanded to over seven hours as they broke down into teams and cycled through the different classes. It also meant that the following day they could do the testing lanes, for which I had now become a grader for the duration of the exercise. Luckily myself and the other high-speed NCOs grading at my station found an open door to the laundromat near our testing site and sat inside out of the rain while waiting for teams to move through, unlike the poor NCO at the theater who had to stand outside waiting for teams in the rain on the windy side of the building. One team found him hunkered down under the steps to the theater in one iteration and had the additional task of coaxing him out. I was also lucky enough to be with one of the loudest NCOs who had, coincidentally, lost his voice while teaching reaction to indirect fire drills the day prior, most of which involved a lot of whistling and yelling “BOOM” at the top of his lungs at a group of running soldiers. We worked out a system that he would tug on our sleeves and we would yell “BOOM” for him.
The weather didn’t clear much the following day when we wandered out to the land navigation course. I found myself working again with the loudmouth NCO who was now regaining his voice and happily back to tormenting others (myself included, of course) and asked my first sergeant to put my soldier on my team because I knew he was weak in land navigation and wanted him to be my map reader, figuring that way we could spot any errors and fix them before we got obscenely lost. My first sergeant, always up for a laugh, not only gave me my soldier, but gave us one of the company “problem” soldiers as well and then made myself and the loud NCO privates for the duration of the exercise, making my soldier the team leader. The loud NCO, who is former infantry, asked me to jab his eye out ten minutes into the exercise as we patiently explained a third time how to correctly plot points on a map to my poor and exceedingly nervous soldier.
Points (roughly) plotted and the compass in the hands of the problem soldier, we made a third junior soldier the pace counter and followed our motley crew into the woods. A kilometer and a half later, we were scouring a patch of woods looking for a cutout figure with a point marking on it. A half hour later, we were still circling the same patch wondering if it hadn’t been removed the last time the German Panzers rolled through the area. Finally another team wandered up and informed us that while we were looking for the cutouts, as described at the beginning of the exercise, the points were ACTUALLY marked by a piece of white engineering tape (cloth) tied around a tree with a tiny slip of paper stapled to it with the coordinate information. We must have walked by a tree with a piece of engineering tape on it six times in our wanderings. My friendly co-NCO could probably be heard all the way back at the start point. In the misplanning adventures of the event no one had actually gone out looking for the points to confirm what they looked like prior to our commencing the course, so apparently no one knew until one of the soldiers got curious about the engineering tape and then spread the word to the other teams.
Now that we knew what we were looking for, we progressed much smoother, except that we insisted on training the soldiers the right way to track points instead of what some of the other teams were doing which was “take the road.” About an hour and a half in I was kicking myself for that as we negotiated the fifth stream, fell over fallen trees, and slipped on wet bark into puddles of muddy terrain. The grass was up to my knees and my weapon, an M16 from Vietnam, caught on the overgrowth that masked the holes, roots, and fallen branches. About the sixth time I fell I realized that I probably wouldn’t walk the following day (I was right) and when we finally found our points and returned to the start point I informed my first sergeant that not only could the garrison take that course and shove it (I didn’t even have to finish the statement, nor apparently was I the first one to mention it) but I was going to head back over to the pace count area and find out what my crawling pace count was because for the amount of time I spent sprawled out on the ground during the course I might as well just move along that way.
But there was some relief as the first sergeant called together the NCOs and informed us that we could go ahead and go home immediately instead of waiting until the following day. Now, I actually don’t mind and even sometimes like going into the field and soldiering about, but the news did bring a sense of joy to all those gathered there, including myself. I learned a lot in the past few days, mostly things about what I still have to teach my soldier before I part ways and leave him at the mercy of the Army, and now I just have to work it into the training schedule. I do wish it was more than an annual event, as I tend to find that soldiers get a lot more out of going to the field than sitting through a class in a comfortable office, but the lack of planning for the event was starting to eat away at my psyche which is always a dangerous predecessor to my opening my mouth and getting into trouble.
And my sleeping bag was getting a little itchy anyway.