After returning to Camp Endurance, the Battalion’s make-shift camp city, William’s team finally got the much-needed rest they required, as did the particularly weary and war-torn Nathaniel Romero. The ground may have been cold and damp beneath his bedroll, but as soon as Romero’s face hit the pack he used as his pillow and his body lay flat on the sleeping bag, he was in another world. His sleep was alive with the replaying in his dreams of the night. In a thousand angles, variations, and endings, he fought the night’s battle over and over. Some of the outcomes were favorable; most ended in his death. He could feel the false puncture wounds from the simulation rounds even in his sleep. The feeling of being shot haunted him, but the ghostly injury became something he learned to live with, as it faded away, along with a busted shoulder and a few cracked ribs. In his dreams, he pushed on, ever adapting and overcoming, in spite of the constant presence of pain. His mind never stopped attempting to resolve his conflicted spirt, though his body didn’t move for another six hours.
Nathaniel read once in a book how the human race is an amazing thing. We are problem-solving machines. Even in our sleep, our time of rest, we build problems, problems which may not need solving, which may have no solution at all, because the problems themselves do not exist in any real or imagined worlds. Regardless, we spend the whole of our nights endeavoring endlessly to solve them. What miracles and nightmares they’ve concocted in our nightly hallucinations one can only imagine, but when the sleeper awakes it is rare that he should encounter an obstacle he cannot eventually invent a solution to overcome.
The next night, he and the rest of the team set out on their mission, for the second time. On this try though, as a result of Romero’s new experiences, Corporal William’s focus and leadership, the quick actions of Suicide, and the enthusiasm and cheerful spirit of Kaiser, they persevered and completed the exercise in just over two hours and twenty three minutes. It wasn’t the greatest time of any fire team in the platoon, but it was a good time.
With the test completed, they had only one final challenge before they could claim that they had completed SERE II training. Their final ritual, one last rite of passage, was a daunting ten mile night march down a worn road through the Carolina forests. Among Marines, it was called the Bataan Death March, though no official documentation would record it as such. It was a reminder of why the training existed. Memorial totems and monuments along the trail marked the struggles and tribulations of those who were left behind, and those who were taken by the enemy. They were the testaments of terrible instances of American men and women suffering brutal fates because they were unfortunate enough to become prisoners of war, or worse, killed under the custody of the enemy. It was a somber march, lasting through the darkest hours of the night.
The Death March finally ended as dawn began to break over the horizon. The haggard troop broke the gentle slope of the final hill just as the sun began to beam across their faces. The sunbeam reminded Romero of his night before, how different this felt. In spite of his body feeling physically broken, and exhausted beyond belief, his mind and his heart were alive and he felt confident again. It was good not to be alone. What a difference a day could make.
As they entered the Force on Force Tactics and Training Command’s compound, their instructors and their battalion’s staff greeted them. They were lined up on either side of the road clapping and cheering them in. The team was directed to make their way to the chow hall of the forty-five area where they cleared their weapons into a barrel and made their way inside. Inside, there were the few other fire teams of the platoon which had made it to the chow hall before them, waving them in with pride and directing them to offload their gear onto little wooden stands at the side of the chow hall. Before them lay a buffet of breakfast dishes the likes they felt they had never seen before. Sausages, steak, bacon and eggs, not the powdered, tasteless eggs, but real eggs; waffles, and pancakes, with whipped cream and every manner of syrup; not to mention all the fruit and juices anyone could ask for. There was even eight types of cereal, if that was what they wanted. No one would tell them to stop. They would gain back their strength, their stamina, and their spirit through the pure unadulterated medium of caloric intake. This was the Survivor’s Breakfast, one of the few honors of training in the fleet. It was ending a brutal training on a celebration. It was a grand feast so that they may honor what they had done.
As the hours wore on, the Marines continued in the mammoth feast. Most everyone went back for more. Some passed out on the table in heaps of exhaustion. Every twenty minutes or so, another team would darken the door, to the cheers of the restored and refreshed Marines who had completed the journey before them. Those who stayed awake carried on and reminisced of the adventures of their last three weeks at SERE. Romero’s misadventures quickly became legend.
They were all surprised when the Battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ryder S. Irons, along with his entourage of officers and staff, namely his Executive Officer, Major Kraft and Sergeant Major Jones made the rounds to see all the Marines in reverie. The Colonel rounded his way to all the tables and cheered on the victors, congratulating the Marines for a good showing.
The procession made its way to Romero’s table. Nathaniel was terrified by the presence of the big brass. Irons lumbered over to the table and with a hardy Texas accent belted out over the chow hall a hearty,
Smiling, the Marines greeted their Commanding Officer in return.
“How you doin’, Sir?” smirked Lance Corporal Kaiser with his orange juice held high, speaking with a bit more familiarity toward the Colonel than Williams, or anyone else for that matter, preferred.
“I’m great, Devil! And how are all my Marines?” He asked.
“Been better, Sir.” He fired back with a snarky grin. Williams, Suicide, and the Sergeant Major stared daggers into the upstart Lance.
“Ah, shenanigans! You Devildogs got this on lock, I bet. I bet you could do this all over again easy with Bravo Company next week, couldn’t you?”
Feeling the looming presence of hate directed at him, Kaiser sat back down and joined the chorus of silence in response to the Colonel’s invitation.
Sensing the subtle reminder of the reverence for command had sunk in, Lt. Colonel Irons broke the tension he had created, “Ah, I’m just ribbin’ you devils. Now… where’s that Devildog who got his tail kicked by a bunch of trees yesterday?” The fire team broke in laughter as all eyes centered on the chagrined Romero. “Ah, so you’re the one, eh? Just tell me this, did that birch have it comin’?”
Romero hid his face in embarrassment.
“Nah, don’t you mind any of that, Devildog. I watched the video of last night. You showed some good heart and gung-ho spirit. It made me proud. No, I’ve never seen anyone nearly killed by foliage, but you showed heart there, warrior. Nearly made the Sergeant Major tear up with pride, it was so beautiful.” The audience looked up at the stone-faced grimace of their battalion’s senior enlisted Marine. No one in the battalion besides Yafante had so many Purple Hearts or seen as much combat. Not a soul believed even for a moment that he was about to shed any tears for Romero, or perhaps had he ever done so for anyone else in his entire life.
“Of course, then you downed one of my Valors in one of the most disastrous rescue calls I have personally, ever witnessed in my life. Thank God, they were all just a bunch of ones and zeroes. I don’t think my printer has enough ink for all those letters home.”
The Colonel’s notoriously morbid comedic sense left Romero mildly sickened with shame, yet again. Before he could sulk too heavily, the Lt. Colonel broke the mood a third time.
“That’s alright though. We’ll get you trained up real good so boot mistakes like that don’t happen again. Isn’t that right, Corporal?” he said, directing his focus on Williams.
The fire team leader replied resoundingly with a “Yes, Sir.”
“I know we will. Remember, the end of SERE II training isn’t the end of it. Once we get back to Lejeune, we’ve got annual training for those who haven’t completed rifle training and the gas chamber and we go back to the field next month. Then we have ITX at 29 Palms to get some practice in with Marine Air-Ground Task Force before we start pre-deployment block leave. After all that… it’s the big show and we’re shipping off with the MEU. We’re going to be balls to the wall for the next several months and SERE II is just the start. We gonna’ be ready?”
“Yes, Sir.” Came the voices of Marines from around the chow hall. The tiny fire team hadn’t noticed that their commander’s speech had attracted an audience. Whatever the case, his message had landed. This training was only the beginning. In a few months’ time, they would be off to sea and perhaps, to battles yet to be born.
As the Lt. Colonel cheerfully dismissed himself from the table and made his way to see the other Marines of his command, a thought occurred to Romero. At some point soon, the training really would be over. He would soon be on a ship somewhere, who knows where, just waiting for something to happen. The Marines existed in this state perpetually, and first to the fight, as the old posters used to say. The United States was at peace now, but the next war could start at any time, and it could very well be him fighting it.
There was so much about this chapter I loved. I wanted to end on a high note. One thing readers may appreciate is that, though the training of The Next Warrior is fictitious, it has its roots in real training being done today.
During the final march out of the testing area, much of it will remind Marine Corps readers of their time in boot camp. Periodic stops at trail markers depicting great events are hallmarks of the Marine Corps experience during the grueling Crucible hike, as is the Warrior’s breakfast.
That said, Proving Grounds has been an amazing trip and I am excited to announce the next segment, due to launch in a few weeks: Disembarkation. Make sure to follow for more updates and the next chapter of The Next Warrior.