The aroma of the salty air and Caribbean heat initiated instinctive memories of his time in San Diego, California, drilling endlessly on the Parade Deck of the Recruit Depot. Far from his home in the desert town of Hobbs, New Mexico, he found a rare form of bliss while aboard MCRD San Diego. He hated boot camp like anyone else, but the Santa Ana winds weren’t blowing, so the moist sea air saturated over the base, a sensation something he had never known as a boy surrounded by the rock and sands of New Mexico. The scent would temporarily engulf him as he and his platoon marched across the base to the cadence of the Drill Instructor’s singsong. Nostalgia has an odd way of wiping away the sting of the psychotic screaming of the DIs.
On his fifth or sixth cycle of combat breathing, he caught a whiff of lubricant, perhaps from his weapon or one of the others on the tiny vessel. As he continued his focused breathing, his thoughts flowed to infantry training in Camp Pendleton; laden with heavy gear, climbing along every hill and mountain the deserts of Southern California could offer. He learned to use what he believed to be every weapon the Marine Corps could muster ammunition for him to hone the lethal arts. Beyond this, he spent many hours carrying every one of them along the long miles to the training ranges. He fired so many rounds during the school of infantry that he was confident he could name each weapons system by the subtly varying combinations of different lubricants and gunpowder that served as each weapon’s aromatic signature. Those lubricants marked his memories of that time. He rubbed his fingers together, feeling the spot on the side of his knuckle where CLP would crack his skin every time he did weapons cleaning for the many hours the weapon’s company armorers demanded from them each and every time they went to the field.
The field. His thoughts drifted to the field, and the overnight maneuvers where they would be out for days in training. It was the best part of the School of Infantry. Sleeping out under the stars, shaving with a knife and bathing with wet rags with your rifle at your side. It just felt like refined manhood and he loved it.
One night in the field stuck out particularly to him then. He was standing firewatch over the rows and rows of tents and sleeping Marines, high on the hilltops of the training battalion’s grounds. Distantly, he could see the sea glimmering in moonlight toward the far end of the horizon. That night, he considered, was probably not altogether different from this one. The more Nathanial thought about it, somewhere there were Marines going through their own training cycles, looking over the hills and observing the moonlit night and the sea. Wherever those new Marines were, they were covered in the same grime and gun grease that he was when it was his turn. Somewhere then, there had to be another Marine standing watch staring out into the sea, preparing to join him in the field in the Marine Corps’ endless march.
His breathing returned to normal by that point. He didn’t realize when it happened, but he was in a state of calm by then. Lost in his nostalgia, he continued to reflect, taking him back to places far beyond the tensely cramped vehicle cabin.
Romero drifted to when he met his platoon nine months before.
He thought of the countless times his ruthless fire team leader, Corporal Williams, drilled them on the field outside their barracks, punishment for some imperceptible slight observed during the day’s training exercise or for some failure to observe some obscure custom and courtesy to a higher-up. They’d run in short bursts, only long enough to be seen, but not long enough for the enemy to catch them in their sights well enough to take a well-aimed shot. Romero would be carrying a massive tripod and at the end of their dash he would intentionally throw himself to the ground, knocking the wind from his chest. As he did, the massive M2 tripod he held above and behind his back would fly forward propelling the legs into the ground. The Marines designed this little maneuver so that the force of his fall would cement the legs fully in place. He would roll out, and Suicide would be right behind with the weapon, whatever it might be that day, then Kaiser would be along with the ammunition. His Corporal would yell, scream, and shout, ridiculing every conceivable failure in their maneuver, only to make them do it again, and again, and again.
Then he thought of the midnight crawl through SERE II training. He thought he would never survive SERE, and part of him questioned if he entirely had. The exercise pushed him, some might wonder if it pushed him too far. He went through what the Marines of the training battalion attached to the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course called “Going there.” The visualization and augmented reality software embedded in his helmet, along with the enhanced realism of being hunted by fellow Marine trainers, pushed him over an edge after weeks of training. At some point, he forgot that he was actually in a training environment. He fell so deep into the simulation that he nearly killed one of the Marine trainers and was pulled from the platoon for a few days for psychological evaluations. He made it through, though, and was able to join the platoon in preparation for the deployment that he had worked these last few months preparing for.
Romero never knew what to make of his ordeal in the forest. While he had been cleared by the docs at base medical, he felt the experience left him rattled and he never told anyone about his rifle’s imaginary pep talk. He still had nightmares about the downed plane and the other Marine in the forest from time to time. As much as it prepared him, it gave him just as much reason to be concerned over how he would perform on days like today.Would he lose it? Would he snap? Could he kill if he needed to? Would he be a liability or would he be the hero?
He could feel his heart rate escalating again. He needed to change the subject of his internal dialog. He pushed through to thinking about after SERE II. The work ups for their current deployment were already under way. The unit shipped out to jungle training in Apra Harbor, then to the swamps of Guam and continuing on, they crawled through the jungle muck of South Korea before returning to his new home, and every slimy, sand flea infested hole in Lejeune. Then came the formation three months before the invasion. It was the monthly formation where Marines received promotions, awards and where command passed down word in preparation for whatever was going to happen in the month to follow. This one was special, since everyone was still deep in the preparations to set sail for this very deployment.
It was special for Romero in particular. The time had finally come for his promotion from a Private First Class to a Lance Corporal. It was a meritorious promotion, three months early. Perhaps the honor was awarded because of his new status as a unit mascot after SERE II, or perhaps to deploy the unit with as few PFCs as was possible. He and the other Marines being promoted, stood on a parade deck, which for them was really just a supply lot built intentionally too large for gatherings of the whole battalion. The rest of the battalion stood in formation in the position of rest, talking and carrying on about the deployment to come. It was days before his unit cast off in preparation for whatever event, calamity, disturbance, or other adventure may yet come as part of the Marine Expeditionary Force. The Battalion Sergeant Major called attention to the Marines. Those receiving honors were marched in front to the place where the battalion staff officers stood. His fellow fire team members, Fannon and Kaiser pinned on his Lance Corporal rank insignia, the chevron and crossed rifles, known throughout the Corps as the mosquito wings.
The pins where the rank was worn were put on without their backings, an effort for expediency in such a large formation. What this meant, however, was that his chest was left vulnerable to the needlepoints on the back of the tiny emblem. This was made abundantly clear when Fannon and Kaiser each made a fist and pounded the chevrons into place, stabbing sharply into his clavicle. Some might call it hazing, others a rite of passage, but the pounding welcome left Romero months later with a smile, rubbing his chest where he remembered the mosquito bites had been beneath the flak jacket he now wore.
“That was a good day,” he thought. His panic subsided. Feeling a sense of fatigue come over him, Romero closed his eyes and, without realizing it, drifted off to sleep. It would probably be the last sleep he would get for a long time.
In the last section we talked about stress factors that come into play and how that can totally destroy a person’s ability to fight. Stress sucks, but it can be even worse for someone who can’t control it.
Once you do, though, your mind clears. During what is called by Lt. Col Dave Grossman the parasympathetic collapse, everything becomes lucid again as all the stress your body endured melts away. Unfortunately, you also have to fight the overwhelming to pass out… which Romero just did.
Fortunately, he still has a long boat ride, so he’ll be fine. In fact, the rest will probably do him some good.
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