After receiving word that Romero would be psychologically stable enough to continue training after the night’s events from HM2 Schubert, and then seeing that Williams led the team off for their much-needed reprieve, Gunny Yafante walked back to his waiting Latvee. The Latvee was the command vehicle he and Lieutenant Grabowski used to maneuver through the platoon’s drills and keep watchful eyes on the teams’ progress through the obstacles. The Lieutenant was waiting for him in the front seat, scanning emails on his tablet. Yafante sat down in the passenger’s side and slammed the heavily armored door shut, rocking the vehicle gently.
The Lieutenant was nonchalant and spoke to Yafante over his tablet. “You seemed pretty hard on them back there, Gunny.” His tone denoted more curiosity than disapproval. Yafante, though, wasn’t keen on being questioned by anyone, regardless of whether they were his commanding officer or not.
“Yes, Sir.” Replied Yafante, feigning an equal ambivalence to the event.
After a pause where Grabowski realized that his Staff NCOIC wasn’t going to enlighten him willfully to why he had come down so hard on a Marine who quite obviously seemed to be close to the edge, the Lieutenant opened his tablet’s vehicle control program and set it to the field command tent. The vehicle’s engine started up and a few moments later, it began to move, following the waypoints programmed for it. Personally, Grabowski would have rather driven the Latvee manually, rather than leave it to some autonomous robot. He enjoyed the tactile sense of control, and rush from taking the vehicle off-road. In the autonomous age, however, such luxuries were unnecessary and seeing the overflow of messages from division headquarters to the supply shop he had to deal with, along with having a platoon to run, manning the wheel himself was one luxury few officers could afford. He stared off past the dashboard for a moment and then returned to the work awaiting him, both on his tablet and in the seat beside him.
While still half focused on his tablet and the scores of emails still needing his attention, he questioned the Gunny further. “It was an interesting choice, calling out a Marine on the verge of being a psychiatric casualty, I mean. I’m not saying that it didn’t seem to work, but I would like to know why you thought to do it.”
“Because he was about to be a psychiatric casualty, Sir.” The Gunnery Sergeant replied, his emotionless tone masking some sense of resentment to the question. He didn’t like being questioned by Lieutenants. This Lieutenant, though, wasn’t the type to endure being brushed away by anyone. Grabowski didn’t have much patience for insubordination, no matter how thinly veiled and most of all, from his staff NCOs. Also feigning composure, he spoke more bluntly to the enlisted Yafante.
“Gunnery Sergeant, you know I’ve been over your history at length. I know that you resent leaving the Raiders, but you know as well as I do, that the last decade has seen virtually all of the major operations go to special forces. The core infantry units are sorely in need of experienced warfighters. Simulation training like this simply won’t cut it whenever some new major conflict breaks out. For the good of the Corps, people like you are needed more here as instructors than on the field as front line operators.”
There was a second protracted pause where the two men sat for a few uncomfortable moments in silence.
“All the battalion officers know well about what you did in the Ukraine, Libya, and Burma. We know we are fortunate to have your experience. That’s why when I ask you why you do things, especially things like this, you shouldn’t treat this like some officer thinking he knows better than you, but as the commander of a unit which is looking for the knowledge you have.”
There was another pause. Grabowski broke the silence once again.
“And Gunny, so that we’re clear, you’ll remember that I was once an enlisted 03, an infantryman just like you before my time in the Naval Academy, so there won’t be any of this ‘butterbar’ and ‘climb my hashmarks’ business. I am not going to earn your cooperation any more than I already have. Your role until we deploy this Summer is to serve as my advisor in getting the platoon ready for anything we might face on the MEU. That means sharing whatever you’ve got, and frankly, Gunny, I’m not going to work this hard asking you each and every time. Now, why did you come down so much harder on William’s fire team, and that PFC especially, than you did anyone else in the platoon?”
Yafante sighed for long, reflective few seconds.
“It was Romero, Sir. The PFC.” He relented at last. “He was about to psyche drop. I’ve seen it before.”
He paused again, but this time Grabowski didn’t break the silence.
“The training can get real intense and what he put himself through was enough to push over any young boot. Fortunately, all he knows right now is training. For the last year, all he’s done is get yelled at by drill instructors, combat instructors, his Corporals, his Sergeants, and us. Being yelled at for doing stupid stuff in training is all he knows. It’s what he’s used to. In a way, he’s comfortable with being yelled at. It lets him know that it is all just training, and that someone is in charge. There’s a great sense of security for a young Marine in knowing that someone else is in charge.”
Though Grabowski’s eyes were still on his screen, they had long ago stopped focusing on it. He just listened intently.
“When his fire team died, he was all alone. So far, he hasn’t been all alone in an exercise, not before that. Few of them have, even some of the NCO’s. He was in charge and he wasn’t in control. Sure, he thought he could deal with it. They all think they are invincible and can handle anything. Just power through like a good Marine, and all that moto crap we tell them, but when the real test presented itself, he just didn’t have the experience yet to win, whether he had the willpower or not. Then, when he went on and on and on like he did, he forgot what was really going on. When that bird crashed down, his little world shattered with it. Like I said, it’s fortunate that he was young. All you really have to do in that case is yell at him and he’ll snap out of it. I’ve seen others who weren’t as lucky.”
“I see.” Said Grabowski, taking time to let the lesson sink in. “And the others?”
“Williams deserved it. New fire team leaders always want to show off with unnecessary heroics. That mentality comes from a good place, I guess, but it gets fire teams killed. That team had no situational awareness when this op began. Kaiser and Romero, moving like they had no sense at all, got Suicide killed. Kaiser, I have no clue what he thought he was doing. Moron probably just thought because it was all simulation rounds, he might get lucky and make a name for himself charging some enemy position. Getting lit up and feeling every one of those rounds with the sim-suit will teach him a lesson for next time. It’s a rare feat of stupidity to max out the suit by getting shot so many times that fast. Idiot’s going to get himself or everyone else on that fire team killed.”
Grabowski was concerned. He looked out of the window to the training area where his platoon was still engaged, spread throughout miles of the 76 Area FOF-TTC training grounds. He looked back down to his pad. “It sounds like you’re saying Williams doesn’t have control of the team. Should we give it to someone else?”
“No,” Gunny Yafante replied, “Williams is a solid Marine and a good fighter, but a young leader. There hasn’t been enough time to consolidate and line out the fire team, but I have faith it will happen. Fannon, he’ll make a good leader when his time comes. For now, they are all just young in their roles and young as a team. They’ll get there though, Sir. Nights like tonight will just help them get there faster.”
The Lieutenant nodded in acknowledgment. “Very well.” He took his eyes from his tablet and looked at Yafante. “And what about Romero? Do you think he’ll be OK?”
Yafante thought about what the question implied, as well as the possible ramifications of getting it wrong. It wasn’t asking if a Marine was going to be tired, or if he was just hungry, or even injured, where a simple few days of light duty would solve the problem. Grabowski wanted to know if they had broken the young man. He wanted to know if the young Romero was still fit to be a Marine, or if he had become one of the casualties of an era when the training for war itself was enough to leave one a hollow shell.
“I won’t lie, Sir,” Yafante finally said. “He grew up a lot last night. I’ve never seen anybody go through SERE II with that level of self-inflicted abuse. It hasn’t been that long since they reformed the SERE training to include a Force on Force survival exercise for deploying infantry, but in that time, few have survived the whole of the first night like that. There were times I wanted to laugh, and they’ll have a good time with it in the platoon, but honestly, he came close, Sir. There were points I thought we should have ended the training. Still, he kept getting up when most people wouldn’t have. Maybe he was just too stupid to remember that he was in a drill, or maybe he just wouldn’t give up, or maybe it was something else. He still makes all the dumb mistakes that young Marines make, but he’s got heart. You can train away the mistakes. You can’t train a person to just keep getting up like that.”
Lieutenant Grabowski chuckled, “Yeah, there were more than a few times I thought I was going to call the training, but he just kept getting up. He’s got endurance. He’s a damned fool, but he didn’t quit. I’ll give him that.”
In all seriousness, Yafante interjected something more. “It’s more than that, Sir. He has instincts. He knows how to survive. There were a lot of times he could have taken the shot, but he didn’t. He dropped low instead and survived. He even figured out how to avoid the drones all by himself. Probably he was just lucky the first couple of times, but I have seen this training done on a lot of good Marines. I’ve never seen a boot PFC figure out how to survive SERE Level B Capture the Flag training evolution for over eight hours on their first try.”
“It was a long time.” Replied Grabowski in agreement.
“No. Sir, I mean I’ve never seen that for a first timer.” He stressed the “never” so that the Lieutenant could really come to understand that what Romero had endured was, in fact, something extraordinary. “Look at the rest of the platoon. All the other fire teams have failed twice, even three times already tonight. Williams and the rest of them had just been doing remedial training at the MOUT site for the last seven hours waiting for Romero to finally buy the farm. They didn’t even have time for a second run.” He scoffed, “Ha. The exercise should have secured two hours ago. If we don’t get them some rack time soon after a day like that, you’d probably lose your commission.”
Half-joking, Grabowski laughed and replied, “So would you have me give him a commendation for it? He completely failed the trial and got ten Marines killed. Simulated Marines, but still.”
Yafante laughed with the Lieutenant.
“No, he doesn’t rate a Circom. We can’t reward failure, especially a failure as epic as his. I’m just saying he’s got potential. We need to watch him, though. He’s shaky right now. Good training will forge him into a good warrior is my guess, but strike too soon, too hard, too often while the steel isn’t yet tempered and when the metal is still too hot, it will break when it cools. I’m just sayin’ we need to watch him. Make sure he stays OK.”
The two men stared off in the forest and the winding path beyond the dash of the vehicle as it drove along on its predetermined route. After a few minutes of pensive silence, Yafante spoke again.
“Sir… There is something to remember.” He paused as he looked to the platoon commander, waiting for a response.
Lieutenant Grabowski looked up from his pad and to his Staff Noncom.
“Everybody fails the first night.”
No, just like any other organization, the military requires people to learn how to build a team together. This chapter demonstrates that important element between the senior members of the platoon, the old warhorse Gunny Yafante and the new Lieutenant swimming up to his ears in paperwork.