Proving Grounds – Part 11

The two former boot camp rack mates, Nathaniel Romero and Joshua Kruger, gamed together for a few more hours, reminiscing of only a few weeks ago, as the car drove Nathaniel home. Finally, around four thirty in the morning, Nathaniel had to call the evening, said goodbye to his friend and fell asleep. His car arrived home safely, as it always did, and that is where Nathaniel’s mother found him the next morning, asleep in the driver’s side seat in their driveway.

From then on there was little left to do than what he was obligated. He hung around town another few days on boot leave. His family continued to strut him around like a prized show dog and when not being paraded, he slept. The bed may not have been as occupied as he had imagined it before, but it felt good to just sleep as long as he wanted without being required to stand at attention within five seconds of Drill Instructors screaming “Lights!” when it was still dark outside. He would only have another four days before reporting to the School of Infantry. He would sleep them away with the last ounce of blissful youth left to him.

When he left to go to SOI, he was surprised that his family didn’t act as broken up about it as when he went to boot camp. His friends didn’t even show up to see him away this time. By that point, it seemed, the novelty of him going off to the service must have been used up. Last time, he was only going to be gone a few months and then come home. This time he would be spending the next few months practicing the tradecraft of the warrior arts before joining with some unit destined for God only knows what. He might not return for another year, maybe more. Who knows, a war might begin tomorrow and he might never come back at all. This was a far more real a departure than boot camp, but no one beside him seemed to notice.

For another two months, he trained with the Infantry Training Battalion at the Marine Corps School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, California, the same base he had trained out for rifle training and the Crucible in boot camp. Here he had became a Marine and SOI’s job was to make him a warfighter. Everything he went through at basic training seemed to be little more than the world’s most prestigious summer camp once he started infantry training. The forced march humps through deserts were longer, and the nights spent in their squad bays were fewer. They spent, what seemed to him to be almost their entire time out in the field. He found he was growing to not mind it so much.

From here, his training centered on advanced infantry tactics. He spent mornings in classes, set in bleachers where a plethora of lethal instruments were displayed before them and taught by senior Marines with painstaking detail. At training and practical application exercises, which followed, he found it fascinating the degree of flexibility that weapons like the Claymore mine could offer an infantryman, even decades after such weapons first saw combat. Midmorning saw the firing ranges, where they learned the implementation of every skill the Marine Corps could impose on their targets. He would lob ordinance from the M-203 grenade launcher and fire the M136 AT-4 Light Anti-tank Weapon. His best days involved heavy weapons, like the M2 Browning 50. Caliber Machine Gun. There were moments when he wondered how anyone would put this much firepower in the hands of a kid only eighteen years old. His afternoons were spent practicing maneuver warfare, squad based movements, clearing houses in mock villages, and calling in air support. In the evenings there would be the long treks through the desert back to camp and sleeping beneath the stars.

It wasn’t just a free for all. Every day, it felt like, he was tested. What they learned on Monday, they’d be tested on Tuesday. If you didn’t pass with an eighty percent efficiency, you had to do remedial. Fail again, and you might lose your specialty job class you were shooting for. The competition for leadership and bragging rights was fierce, as well. Everyone was out to prove themselves in world’s most lethal fraternity, and absolutely no one wanted to fail.

The environment didn’t lend itself to a quality learning atmosphere. The mornings felt bitter cold, especially as early November set on. In those early mornings, it was easy to feel like the king of fools for choosing this as a lifestyle. After daylight broke the precipice of the low mountain horizon, though, and the California sun beamed on his face, he felt peace again.

At the very least, he was no longer considered just a worthless recruit. He was now, however, a real Marine, and was treated as such. It was too bad that this did not mean a great deal, but there was at least a new impetus on what he was doing. Training was no longer about the show of discipline, learning how to tie boots or iron Charlie shirts. Boot camp made basically trained Marines, but the School of Infantry made the most lethal fighting men on the planet. On those brisk nights when he was surrounded by his friends and fellow platoon members, the other warriors in training, he slowly began to feel the change.

As the dark and the cold faded with the morning light, Private Nathaniel Romero stopped feeling so attached to his old life. He stopped longing for the attention of women he would never have and which he discovered, he needed less, as well. This life, the smell of dust, sweat, and the mud, inundated with the sulphuric metal aftertaste of gunpowder and the sights and sounds of fire raining down from the skies… this was a good life. From time to time, he would look up his old friends from home and high school. Some were getting crap jobs in town. Many were enrolled in some community college with no name and offering little future. Romero reflected on this some nights. He would watch the moon set over the sea or distant mountains while standing fire watch on one such lonely mountaintop. Sometimes, he would have the chance to see the Super Cobras practicing their formations deep within the hills of Pendleton. They would open a barrage of fire and metal, decimating the old tanks and shacks built to absorb them. It invigorated him. It made him feel like a warrior to watch the stream of tracers pour from the gunships. As he provided watch over a hundred of his sleeping comrades before the next day’s training in the combat arts, in those few moments, he really pitied those other guys from back home. Sure, they were warm in comfortable beds and might be pulled out to attend class in some air-conditioned lecture hall, but after that so many of them would go on enduring lives that wouldn’t matter. It was sad in many ways, but Romero thought to himself that his was finally a life of meaning, one that he could be proud of, and so he began to embrace it.

“You gotta’ learn to embrace the Suck, gents.” This was advice the old combat instructors would tell them on those long cold nights or when humping the barrel of a fifty caliber machine gun six miles. That’s what Romero was doing now. He was learning to embrace the Suck.


Me 3Back to the grinding stone.

Recruits are stupid creatures. They think only as far as boot camp and then everything after that is a mystery. I wanted to illustrate that. Eventually, there is a time of awakening when recruits have to realize that there is life after boot camp and you have to eventually become a real Marine, with a real job. You have to get over the, more or less, childish fantasies of what being a Marine will be like and, as they say, embrace the suck.

Quite honestly, there is a lot about the military life that is terrible to endure. This will be the same in 2025 as it was in 2005 for me. It will be the same in 2525, I bet. The point is, being a Marine is hard work that is often ridiculously more difficult than anyone could rationalize, but you have to learn to embrace that. It’s the same for soldiers, and even those guys on the big boats, or (and I am trying very hard to stretch this one) the Air Force. There are things about the life that just can’t be communicated to outsiders in the civilian world.

Eventually, that novelty of being a new Marine wears off and you just have to embrace the blank check life you signed on for. Once you do that, though, you realize it isn’t so bad. You realize how much suck you can endure and you take pride in that endurance. At that point, you sort of get what it is that makes military veterans so special in the first place. It had nothing to do with boot camp, but on learning to enjoy the life that sucks… for Freedom!

Happy Veterans’ Day,

Jon


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