Proving Grounds

Proving Grounds – Part 1

Private First Class Nathaniel Romero’s trigger finger trembled nervously as it rode the edge of the trigger guard of his M-27 rifle. He was cold that morning. Enveloping him was the bitter cold of a pre-dawn chill from the heart of February. He wasn’t trembling from the cold, though. He had been maneuvering for the past three weeks and knew how to deal with cold. He was cold; yes, of course he was cold, but he was also hungry, exhausted, and battered, as well. He was weary, but that also wouldn’t explain the trembling.

Nor would the fact that he was alone in those woods, lost deep in a foreign wilderness. He was, at that time, miserably alone, for he was the last one left of his four-man fire team. By then, it was only him slinking and crawling his way through some terrible forest in the hopes of reaching an extraction point that was his only hope of rescue, but still a few kilometers away. That, of course, depended on if his sensors were to be believed. They had been wrong before, but they were all he had left.

Perhaps it was the cold that made his body quiver. Perhaps it was the pain, fatigue, and the terrible suffering of going through it all by himself. Perhaps he was just reaching his limit. Probably, though, the trembling he felt had more to do with the others who shared this forest with him that made his body quiver.

Alone, truly alone, he wasn’t. Those who killed his team were still in the woods with Romero, a full platoon sized band of thirty men, hunting him like a fox in a hole. They were well-trained and well-equipped infantrymen; professional gunman. They were hunters of men. They knew these woods; it was their home after all. They knew he was somewhere within the thickets and they were scouring the forest relentlessly, with Nathaniel as their prey. Their mission was simple; to prevent him, through any means possible from escaping these woods with his cargo, a small drive containing a data packet detailing their recent maneuvers, operations, commanders, and troop strength. That drive would be a holy grail for counterinsurgency efforts once it could decrypted. That holy grail, however, had cost the rest of his team their lives in the attempt of keeping it under control. Simply, Romero’s only mission was to escape at this point. The men in the woods, were tasked with preventing that drive from escaping. They would do that by preventing Romero from making it out with their stolen data.

Nathaniel had already lasted much longer than most nineteen year olds would have in this situation. He too was a warrior, not yet a seasoned veteran, but a professional warfighter nonetheless. In a way, this forest was his proving ground. The last nine months had been little more than the constant repetition and rhythm of training, preparing for battle and events such as this. Exhausted as he was, his body was moving of its own volition. The countless hours of rote drill and reiterations had made his body a machine with the ability to continue on long after his mind would have otherwise told him to give up. Steadily, he crept his way through the forest, his feet persisting after fatigue had robbed his mind.

It was his mind, though; had he yet acquired the mind of a warrior? Would he kill if he needed to, if the opportunity presented itself? Would he be ready… in that moment of testing? It’s not a simple question of him or me. A great deal of humanity is lost, or maybe gained, by making that pivotal transition from just another person in the woods, a victim of circumstance, to a warrior able to defend his life by taking others.

As Romero continued to creep through the thick brush, he turned a corner behind a tall tree. There, standing in front of him, were the eyes of none other than one of the enemy troops staring directly back at the lonely Marine. They met one another suddenly in equal surprise. Together the two paused for a time, each as unprepared to have the other delivered quite so easily as this. The two warriors stared at one another in an eternal second. In that instant, their training sought to override their instinct to simply turn and pretend the encounter had never happened at all.

This ground was only an unassuming corner of a forest before the two made it fateful. Perhaps, had they both not chosen to be warriors, had they both not saw fit to fight, this patch of forest would be just as meaningless and innocent as it was until the two made their fateful meeting.

Had they been bakers, or dentists, priests, or businessmen, perhaps they would have met under different circumstances. Perhaps they would have had much in common and even lived fondly knowing each other. Probably, they would have never met, blissfully unaware of the other’s existence, not unlike any of the other eight billion people who would lead entire lives with no need to ever shoot at each other. These two didn’t have such luxuries that day. Unfortunately, they had already given up such pleasant lives of passivity. They had no hate for one another as individuals, but that was irrelevant, because there they stood – together, as enemies.

They each had missions that morning and both mutually exclusive to the other’s welfare. One was hunter, and the other the cornered prey. Him or me. His mission, or mine. Realizing this finally, the gunman looking at Romero began to raise his rifle to his face.

In that instant, Nathaniel no longer suffered from fatigue. He wasn’t still feeling the strain of hours in tedious motion through the forest muck. The cold was no longer a driving concern, either. He wasn’t concerned anymore about his status as the last man of the fire team. He was fully alert and reacting on his body’s hard drilled instincts, aided greatly by the chemical cocktail of adrenaline and testosterone, sharpened to a fine edge by a healthy dose of terror when he saw the enemy weapon’s trajectory graze his own.

“Contact Front!” he screamed as he ducked away and attempted to ready his own weapon.

He instinctively gave the call to arms when he saw the enemy rifleman prepare to fire upon him. It did not matter, though. There was no one left in his team to hear it. They were all dead. He alone was left to navigate the woods, with nothing but a few kilometers to his rescue and three infantry squads on the hunt for him between it.

At least, at one point they had been searching for him, until that is, the second when he and this warrior crossed paths. At that point, he was not being hunted anymore. They had found him. What began as a single shooter lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Romero attempting to stalk his way through the woods would quickly became an entire platoon of the world’s most deadly trained warfighters alive, and all with their sites, quite literally set on the lone Private First Class Romero. His only hope then was to slip away, somehow, from under the crushing weight of the small army descending upon him.

The enemy trooper let loose a burst of fire on Romero. Both scrambled as his rounds sped past the young Marine. Romero was frantically attempting to return fire, as well as scurrying to some semblance of defensible cover. As the sound of the first round cracked past his head, he collapsed back behind a tree, stringing out a barrage of internal expletives to ease his mind.

He knew the enemy’s capabilities. He knew that the enemy used equipment with the same abilities as his own. Once the on-board sensors were able to lock onto their target, being the young Romero, he would be tagged in their network monitoring system. From there his location would be uploaded and tracked, relayed to the entire formation. They would all be graced with a beautiful map right to him, able to ambush and overwhelm him from every imaginable direction at their leisure. Worse, once their on-board computers had his location, they could just call down for the unmanned observation assets, air strikes, indirect fire, and a whole host of other capabilities specifically designed to bring about his gruesome and instantaneous demise.

He had to get out of there fast before that first one locked on him. In spite of the bullets already flying his way, the enemy soldier didn’t even need to shoot him. So long as he simply looked at him long enough, Romero was surely dead.

Knowing little else to do, PFC Romero sprang out of the tree and lay down a short burst of his own. He didn’t care if his shots made contact. He just needed to create the illusion of a threat by providing his own covering fire. So long as his fire was enough to send the other soldier already perusing him to duck behind some cover and break his optic’s concentration, the young PFC would have a chance to escape into the woods before a flood of enemy troops rained down upon him.

He fired one burst after another as he bolted from behind the tree. He saw the enemy trooper dive behind another tree. Romero glided with his weapon up firing another three round burst, and another, and another. He kept his eyes on his enemy while he simultaneously transitioned from a gracefully smooth combat glide to the full on sprint of a frightened rabbit in flight. Turning around he found himself running full speed through the forest. He heard shots crack to his side, barely missing him. While maintaining his desperate sprint, he glanced behind him for only a moment to fire a haphazard burst in hopes of quieting his enemy once again.

Romero kept running regardless. He dashed another twenty yards before more fire came in from his rear, this time off wider to his right. Was there a second soldier now? Still not stopping, he raised his weapon again and fired off another random burst behind him. Three more rounds and clunk. The bolt locked to rear as he heard the loudest sound on any battlefield. Romero’s weapon was dry, he had fired the last of his ammunition in the magazine.

Cursing violently in his mind at his own stupidity, spraying and praying his way to an early death, he fumbled for the magazine pouches strapped to his chest. He’d never done a magazine exchange at a full speed sprint through a mud soaked forest. He fiddled frantically with the Velcro flap and attempted to pull out his next batch of ammunition. His hands slipped as the rest of his body leapt, bounded, and sprinted through the forest. His instincts kept him from slowing down, but he was failing to secure a second magazine.

Finally, he was able to gain a finger hold that didn’t slip from his gloved hand. He pulled the magazine from its pouch and placed it over the top of the spent magazine seated in his weapon. With his trigger finger, he pressed the magazine release for the spent mag. It released and he grabbed it over top the new rounds. Having both in hand, he pulled the old magazine from its seat and attempted to place the new mag in with one steady motion, just like he had rehearsed a thousand times before with his combat instructors. His hand fumbled over the magazine well, the top of the fresh mag sliding back and forth, clunking across the open port at the bottom of his rifle.

Running as he was when he attempted to seat the new magazine, he found it impossible to find the magazine well. He was furious with himself for letting himself run dry at a time like this. He just couldn’t place the new magazine in while running full stride, an admirable feat for even a seasoned veteran. The only way he would make the connection would be to look down and make sure that it was seated correctly. For only a second, he glanced down and guided the new magazine in. The metal on metal slid past one another with a sharp scraping sound, followed by a clack when it was fully inserted followed immediately by a rejoiceful click when magazine catch took hold of the fresh new magazine. He gave a slight tug to make certain it was in then reached around and slapped the bolt release with his non-firing, sending the bolt of his weapon forward and chambering another round. The bolt hurled through the upper receiver and landed with a clunk. The weapon was deadly again.

Then, he thought to himself about how he hadn’t heard the other shooter fire on him for some time. Perhaps he had lost him and he was in the clear.
As he looked up from his restored weapon, Nathaniel felt a sharp pain to his head. It was an agonizing suddenness. In an instant, he was dizzy and disoriented. He saw stars as his vision blurred and then faded to white. His knees gave out from under him and he fell to the ground with a violent crash. As he fell, the consciousness slipped from him, the last things his waking mind would recall was asking himself meekly,

“What happened?”

“What is this pain in my head?”

With his last fleeting thoughts he groped in the darkness for a grim realization of what had happened to him.

“Did I lose?”

“Did they get me?”

With that final thought, PFC Nathaniel Romero’s head landed hard on the ground beneath him, though he did not notice. His white vision faded to black and then he slipped away.

Proving Grounds – Part 2

In his fear and frustration to reload his empty M-27 rifle, Romero made a cardinal error in the art of the escape – watch where you are going. While he was successful in reloading the weapon, in his flash of distraction, and while moving at full stride, he crashed directly into a low hanging branch of a tree that hung uncompromisingly in his path. The force of the collision knocked the breath from his lungs and sent him reeling dizzily. For an instant, he lost consciousness and fell to the ground.

A few seconds later, he awoke. Panicked, confused, and stricken with a throbbing pain from deep within his skull, he wondered how long he had been out and what had happened to him. He fought desperately to regain his composure with the complete desire to keep moving at any cost. By then, Nathaniel’s brief duel had surely alerted the comrades of his enemy to his location. They were no doubt all coordinating there and would envelope him in minutes. If he didn’t steady himself quickly and flee with an equal sense of immediacy, he’d either be captured or worse, become just another statistical variable on some intelligence officer’s case study analysis of the encounter weeks from now.

He clumsily stumbled back to a disoriented run, not unlike the town drunk in a futilely attempted escape from arrest. Still unsteady, he was unable to differentiate his frantic thoughts of navigating the forest, with his preoccupation of the enemy to his rear, and perhaps by then, he thought, all round surrounding him. Unable to negotiate his conflicting focus, he caught a root with his toe of his boot and fell again, with a hard impact behind a patch of bushes.

There he laid for what seemed like several minutes. He was gasping for air as his heart raced. While his view of the trees and the sunlight above spun, the sensor indicators on the visor he wore danced chaotically in his vision. It was a nauseating spiral of blue tinted sun with green flashes of light, lettering, and data streams. It was like a demon in the machine was working against him, too. As thoughts of his pursuers slowly slipped from the forefront of his thoughts, he felt an almost uncontrollable sensation to vomit.

It wasn’t his physical conditioning that had failed him. Under normal conditions, he could outrun almost any of the other Marines in his platoon, especially the other non-NCO’s. His last year had made him physically fit near Olympic standards. Even exhausted as he was, it wasn’t his strength giving out that had him reeling under that bush; it was more. It was as if his body had simply given completely up on him taking even one single step more under these conditions. It revolted against the intolerable maltreatment he had forced onto it.

In spite of his body’s insurrection against itself, Nathaniel had just enough intestinal fortitude remaining to prevent himself from coating the enclosed helmet with the little remaining contents of his stomach. He rolled over and raised his visor with just enough time. As the contents of the meal-ready-to-eat he had consumed sometime around three that morning violently left his body, he felt the sense of uncontrollable vertigo leave him as well. A great deal of the mental anguish and momentary trauma he was feeling seemed to slip away in the seconds after he raised his visor. The demon in the machine no longer taunted him. He could no longer see the spinning, flashing, and blinking highlights and indicators of this informative, but nauseating heads-up display.

The spinning around him slowed. Soon he could see again at a distance. The world around him was unclouded by the virtual projections of his heads up display. In his time of absolute desolation, Romero was embraced by the natural presence of the forest itself; the ashy greens of the fir trees, grass dried to a winter pigment between hues of goldenrod and olive, and the brilliant golds and fiery reds of the last autumn leaves, unwavering in their unwillingness to fall to the onslaught of winter. Winter was here though, whether he or the leaves wanted it or not.

He could see the cloud of breath drift from his mouth as he heaved heavily for air. He was breathing in the biting chill and refreshingly crisp morning air through his helmet. It was a stark contrast to the dank, sweat soaked musk within his kevlar. The winter cold, which he once counted among his numerable enemies, had then taken pity on him to wake him with the tender kiss of frigid respite. The winter’s chill embraced him so that he might recover and carry on.

He had been sweating heavily, despite the cold. It had coated the padding in his helmet as well as drenched his olive drab skivvy shirt beneath his battle dress uniform and flak jacket. Though his core was warm enough, he began to shiver again. As his head stopped reeling and he attuned with the environment and gained control of his senses, he noticed that his fingers were again trembling. This time though, he was sure that the cold had little to do with it.

Having regained himself, he remembered fully where he was. He was still being pursued. Having been knocked nearly unconscious, twice, and overcome by technology induced nausea he had lost his situational awareness. He had no clue how long he had been stumbling around dazed and confused. It could have been a few seconds, maybe even a few minutes. In truth, he was only absent from the waking world for around twenty seconds; a forgivable laps, if he hadn’t been so deeply entwined in the furor his own personal series of unfortunate calamities. Awake again at last, he realized that he needed to be moving again quickly.

As he reached to close his visor, his restored senses noticed something in the woods that was strange. Off, very far in the distance, there was a low buzzing. It was moving to his location quickly. The steady buzz became louder as he began to recognize it. His heart sank as he realized what the buzzing. His enemy had deployed a low fly recon drone to find him. This one must have been one of the quad-copters with the cameras mounted. They would use this to hunt him in the thick of the forest. It would fly beneath the thick canopy, unable to be pierced by all but the best of the aerial observation equipment. They were perfect for soaring through the trees, high above the enemy, cutting through everything in the forest and seeing every moving thing in their sights.

This tracker knew where to look. It was coming straight for him and must have been directed by the trooper who saw him last, or at least one his comrades crawling from somewhere in this godforsaken forest. He knew that if the drone spotted him, the controller would mark the location just as surely as if he had seen Romero with his own eyes.

Should he try to outrun it? Nathaniel considered the idea briefly. He was fast, but he couldn’t fly, and he we wasn’t stupid. That thing would be on him in less than a minute. It didn’t have to worry about roots grabbing its feet, the slippery footing that moss provided, or the unexpected changes in elevation. It could weave through the trees automatically, not even burdened by the thought. The only concern of the tiny camera’s pilot was hunting in the hunt for PFC Romero.

Besides, making some heroic attempt at an escape would only provide a nice show for the camera. If he tried to outrun the drone, he would just be the only human that happened to be running around in that particular part of the forest. Such a thing isn’t something that is easy to overlook through a view screen and is exactly the sort of thing the controller behind that monstrosity would have wanted to see, PFC Romero running like a terrified chicken through the forest.

He would just have to stay still and pray that it didn’t see him anyway. The camera onboard a squad level drone was little more than a simple camera on a flying toy. Those he had trained with weren’t equipped with infrared or anything that could pierce the bush he was hiding behind. He prayed his adversaries didn’t have anything better. If he wasn’t able to be caught by the human eye watching the screen, he wouldn’t be able to be caught at all.
He ducked into the bush and cowered behind his patch of shrubbery. His face was inches from his breakfast and he was huddled into as small of a ball as he could manage. He attempted to completely merge into oneness with that tiny patch of treelings. Perhaps if he willed it hard enough, he would simply disappear into the forest.

He laid still and listened, with nothing moving but his pounding heart and his treacherously trembling hands. The low buzzing sound grew into a high-pitched roar, growing louder and louder until it was on him. In a second, the whine was over him like a swarm of wasps or a deadly beast descending on its prey. He could sense it right about him. It lurched back and forth ominously, knowingly, dreadfully. Romero knew it was all over. He knew he was caught already. He fought the desire to run as desperately as he could, holding on to the last shreds of hope he had by just staying still beneath that bush. Then, just as quickly, the drone was past him. The roar subsided as it soared on. The buzzing of propeller blades softened lower and lower, until it was little more than a distant hum echoing in the woods.

For Nathaniel though, the pursuit still wasn’t over. It seemed the drone didn’t see him. It didn’t stick around to investigate, so perhaps he was in the clear. As he lay there listening intently for the tiny reconnaissance ship to pass, he began to breathe easier, at least until he heard another sound coming from his rear. Rhythmic, beating, pounding against the dirt. It was the sound of footsteps, the sound of boots impacting the ground layered with the leaves of Fall.

His heart dropped. Had he been discovered, after all? Were they coming for him? Surely they could be after nothing else. “God. God why? Why can’t you just cut me one break today?”

The footsteps drew nearer. They were running. There were at least two of them. Perhaps there were more. Yes, there were definitely more. It sounded like so many. Three? Five? Maybe a dozen? He couldn’t tell, but he could hear that they were getting closer. He thought for a few long seconds that he was going to have to fight. Would he have any chance against them, some unknown number of the killers at his back?

Timidly, he reached his hand out slowly to retrieve his weapon, lying on a patch of grass just to his side beneath the bush. As his fingers extended for the latent rifle, terror struck him as he felt the splashing of mud on his fingertips. He froze in horror when his eyes saw the source of the dirty water, the boot of the enemy trooper then towering above him.

 

Proving Grounds – Part 3

Romero instinctively froze like a frightened rabbit, as if he were a stone that had been born to this patch of earth eons ago. The boot, and the hunter it belonged to, landed a few inches from where he lay. The soldier stood looming over Romero as three more troops came running up from behind, as well. It was an entire assault team.

The three other fighters outside of Romero’s view seemed to continue running past. The soldier standing above him didn’t come down on the trapped animal either. They all seemed to be acting as if Romero hadn’t been there at all. They must have been following the drone in hopes that it would find and intercept him. They, however, were no luckier than the tiny copter. They just kept running, never realizing the helplessness of their prey behind them, and for one of them, beneath him. As the others moved deeper into the woods, the hunter scanning the forest above Romero took off, as well. He departed to continue the chase along with the others. When his boot launched inches away from the petrified PFC, it splashed more mud in the Marine’s face. As the splashes of mire speckled across his cheeks, the young Romero expelled the desperate breath he’d held these last few agonizing seconds.

Once they were far enough, Nathaniel slowly and quietly picked up his rifle. He cautiously raised himself above the bush to watch his aggressors leaping and bounding effortlessly through the woods away from him, completely unaware of their oversight. Though he hadn’t prepared for this, he realized that he, for once, had found himself in the position of ambush. Seeing nothing but the backs of his enemy, he nervously shouldered his weapon and brought it up to his face as he steadied himself. While lying prone on the forest floor, he lined up the red dot on the center of his rifle’s optical scope on the closest one, the last of the group to pass him. When his finger began to slowly pull the trigger, he contemplated killing him, but also what it would take to kill the others. He’d have to get off at least one well aimed shot, right off the bat. If he was successful, that would take care of one, maybe he would have time to get a second.

He thumbed his rifle off safe and engaged the trigger mechanism. “Slow-steady-squeeze,” he recited. His finger tightened as he slowly continued to pull back on the trigger. He exhaled as he adjusted, following his prey. It would seem that he was now the hunter. He continued to pull back on the weapon’s trigger slowly and deliberately, just like his coaches on the range had taught him to. He had to make this first shot or nothing else would matter. A millimeter more with his finger and he could feel a clunk within the weapon. It was the faintest of measurements, only noticeable because he was intimately involved with this instant, but he felt like he could feel the weapon preparing to fire with the last tightening of some last spring before the firing pin released, sending his round to meet his target.

Romero paused as he saw that it was getting harder to aim. His forward hand holding the rifle steady was shaking again. He hesitated and he let go of the trigger. Out of breath, he took in a deep gasp of air. He had lost the target. They were moving quickly away from him and he wouldn’t get as good a chance to get the surprise attack he needed again.

What would that matter though? What was he honestly planning? Was he just going to take down all four, all alone, with no back-up and no covering fire? He might get two, before one laid down suppressive fire, pinning him down while the other flanked around for the kill. Even if by some miraculous feat he killed all four, the firefight wouldn’t be over soon and before long the rest of the platoon would be on him to take their vengeance. It was hopeless to start a fight with them. He would be dead no matter how lucky he might have been following that first shot.

He watched through his weapon sites as the four disappeared into the thick woods. They were obviously in chase of him, but had no idea that they come within a heartbeat of finding him. In truth, this was the best thing that could have happened to their target. They were searching where he wasn’t. Nathaniel gathered himself and decided it would be prudent to allow the four, simply, to continue undisturbed and ignorant of their mistake. Once they were a safe distance away, Romero slung his weapon over his shoulder, placed his hand back on the pistol grip, flipped down his visor, and attempted again to make his way to the recovery point.

Not wanting to meet with these four or their like again, he decided to make a new route instead. He bounded perpendicular to the direction his hunters were heading in hopes to put as much distance as possible between himself and those so eager, it seemed, to do him harm. If he was reckless he’d be lit up, and become just another failed statistic like his friends. He was taking the long way this time, but given his current difficulties, being slow and clever was going to be the only thing that would prevent him from being dead and stupid. As Nathaniel Romero saw the world then, he’d much rather prefer being slow than being dead.

He knew he wouldn’t last long if he didn’t stay on the move, though. He was running through the forest, still desperately in flight, weapon clasped firmly in his hands. Thinking deeper about it, he began to realize that he was barely aware if he was actually still running toward or away from the enemy soldiers, or perhaps even, to others yet undiscovered. In a moment of insecurity, he looked back to see if he could see anyone behind him. To the relief of his constant nagging sense of insecurity, he was still alone. He felt safer being reassured. Safe, though, is a relative term. He had indeed avoided the soldiers for a little while, but the forest has other dangers all its own.

Romero’s feeling of temporary relief, however, was robbed from him in the next instant, as his intended step failed him. Instead of making contact with the solid Earth below, his foot kept going onward into nothing but a void. No longer quite as concerned about the imagined soldiers behind, Nathaniel turned back and, to his horror, witnessed nothing but a pure fall from a ravine he had unwittingly failed to see while his attention was to the rear. He was then falling at the speed of terror toward the nearly dry riverbed, perhaps thirty feet below.

Fortunately for Romero, yet another tree reached out to meet him. This one plucked him from the sheer fall and threw him colliding into the mud cliff in a bone breaking collision. The Marine barely noticed his ribs crack as the air was ripped from his lungs when he was thrown to the Earth. The impact beat from him all but the last shreds of life he had remaining, but narrowly prevented what would otherwise have been his demise in full. His limp body slid down the ravine’s wall to the edge of the stream below. As he lay there with an almost broken body in the muddy water, he thought about how he had found himself in this terrible, terrible place.

He wheezed a final thought before closing his eyes and drifting away.

“That stupid girl.”

Proving Grounds – Part 4

It was all to impress a girl. In hindsight, it had all been to impress a girl.

Two years ago, Nathaniel Romero was just an average and unremarkable kid in his last year of high school; just another nobody with no plan and no real idea of what to do with his life. Closer pursuits occupied his mind.

On one unassuming day, a girl called him asking for a ride to the mall. He wanted desperately. She was a flirt, the kind of girl who smiled at everyone and especially the boys. She laughed at all their jokes and then called them for rides and the little things some girls often feel they need to get by. She was the kind who owned thirty shades of lipstick from the subtle enticement of her Nearly Nudes to the vibrancy and voluptuousness of a Fire Engine Red. Though you’d never hear her say it, she loved when the boys centered their attention only on her and she would never turn down a compliment. On that day, she was teasingly wearing a miniskirt, showcasing long, toned legs Nathaniel fought hard not to gawk at every time she wasn’t looking. He was absorbed by her grace and beauty, and hopelessly enthralled by her charms… as were so many others. When she asked for a ride to the mall, he was all too eager to answer her the request.

As the two entered the mall, they passed the wall of recruiting offices. A group of boys wearing Marine Corps tee shirts stood beside a large pull-up bar, painted red and wrapped in white tape outside one of the offices. They were rooting and cheering as the boys each tried to do their pull-ups. The recruiter, wearing a tan shirt and blue pants with a red stripe down the side, marked with dozens of other official looking military regalia watched and counted out. His voice echoed throughout the corridors as he projected far louder than was needed if the goal was only to he heard by the few boys immediately in front of him. It was hard to miss the spectacle.

“Twelve… Thirteen… Fourt-… Nope, kipping.”

“Freakin’ morons.” Romero said to the girl, laughably mocking what, to him, was a Neanderthal sort of machismo. “Like pull-ups are going to help them fight a war with guns and robots.”

The girl in the pleated skirt didn’t seem to agree. She looked over at the boys, watching their show. After she had an eyeful for herself, she dismissed Romero’s comment with a, “Humph.”

Indignantly and with a bit of surprise, “What?” Romero asked.
“I think it’s hot to see guys like that. I like big arms.” She said. The girl watched another boy, this one also about their age, mount the bar. His arm muscles flexed a little more than what seemed necessary for someone still in high school. After an admittedly impressive go at the bar, the recruiter yelled “Twenty!” The boy dropped to the floor, chest out – like he had just personally won the war on body fat. The other boys clapped, congratulated him, and cheered him on like a returning war hero.

The girl in the mini-skirt bit her lip, hinting at less than subtle thoughts.
“Did you see that? That’s so hot…” she said to Nathaniel, her excitement, only just barely contained, eroded his manhood. He was taken for a moment by her flippant callousness. Jealously, Nathaniel wondered if she even remembered he was there. She had, but in truth, she gave little more thought to him than she would give to her phone or her purse.

From across the hall, the recruiter’s focused eyes zeroed on the lingering stare of the two overlooking his potential recruits.

“Hey!” he said, calling out to Nathaniel.

Awkwardly, Nathaniel looked around, searching for someone else who the recruiter may have been talking to. He saw no one, and pointed uncertainly to himself.

“Yeah you.” Replied the recruiter. “You think you’re up to it? Want to give it a try?”

Everyone was looking at him then. He looked at the girl who gave him a look that implied, “Go on. Impress me.”

Nathaniel marched up with all the bravado he could fake. His father’s Latin blood refused to allow his pride to deny such a public challenge. That didn’t mean he was excited about it. Unfortunately, he was not the particularly imposing force to behold that his father was. He was little more than five feet eight inches and maybe one hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. He had is father’s dark Hispanic complexion and his deep cleft chin, but lacked that rugged manliness that he hoped to one day inherit. Instead, he was small framed… like his mother, and with her green eyes and red hair. The only athletic thing he had ever done in his life was running. He could run like the wind, and he could run forever. He had made All-State in cross-country, but running, all by itself, wasn’t that impressive of a feat. He was just a little guy; certainly not a warrior.

He felt surrounded by all the boys on his way to the bar. They were getting ready for the military life and he could feel their judgmental, dismissive eyes upon him. With a deep breath, he looked to the imposing, iron rod, jumped and mounted the bar. What he lacked in physical strength, he made up for in tenacity. He wouldn’t refuse a challenge, and certainly not in front of such a beautiful girl.

The recruiter explained the rules.

“Straight up. Straight down. Your chin must clear the bar. If your legs swing to help you get up, that’s a kip. There’s no kipping. Any questions?”

Nathaniel shook his head. The recruiter asked if he was ready. With a look of determination and through pursed lips, he nodded his head.

“Begin.” said the recruiter.

Nathaniel pulled with everything he had. He found the first one to be easier than he had expected. His chin touched the bar and climbed just over it. “One.” The recruiter counted aloud. Nathaniel relaxed back to the downward position, dangling by his arms. One of the other boys in the procession said something about him kipping on his way up. The recruiter waved for him to keep it to himself. Nathaniel pulled again, this time noticing a strain he hadn’t felt the first time. It was much harder on the second pull to reach the bar. He pulled until he got close enough and stretched his neck. “Two” said the recruiter again. He dropped back to the dangling position, this time so hard he thought he would lose grip of the bar. Not wanting to give away his moment of weakness, he gritted his teeth and tightened his grasp. He looked up and began to pull. He made it half way when he felt the unstoppable force of his body no longer able to perform. His mind told his arms to keep moving. They, however, denied him the privilege of obedience. With a furious fit of what last reserves of strength and determination he had, he gave a last push to try to overcome the bar and his body’s silent revolt. He inched slowly, ever slowly, as he stretched his neck and reached his chin desperately towards the bar. His teeth were bared, as the tendons in his neck were taut. As his body curled and writhed to break the precipice of this humble hurdle, he started to shake. Finally, at the end of his humiliating climb, he heard the recruiter.

“Three.”

He dropped down and fell from the bar, barely landing on his feet. He was shaking a little and his face was beet red. It was humiliating. The recruiter didn’t seem to notice, however.

“Not bad for a first try. You know, three is all you need to make it into the Marines. Ever thought about your future, son?” said the recruiter.

A confused look highlighted Nathaniel’s face. Join the Marines? Why would he do something so stupid? He didn’t want to be rude, as much for social courtesy as for the fact that he was literally surrounded by young men who had done just that. Internally, though, he scoffed at the idea. That was when he looked back to the girl in the mini-skirt, the same one who pushed him onto that bar with her seducing eyes. She did not seem interested anymore, since now she was off talking to one of the other guys standing around the bar. After all that, she didn’t even notice. A snarl grew in his eyes.

“Ah…” said the recruiter. “So that’s what you’re after.” He looked at Romero with a grin before leaning in and whispering to him. “Well, I can tell you what will keep her attention.” He pointed to a poster hanging in his office, beyond the big window with the Marine’s logo on it. It was of a Marine dressed in a dark blue coat with medals, gold buttons, red and gold markings, a big white hat, and most notably, holding a sword. He had a sword. Nathaniel found himself perplexed by the fact that he had a sword. Why would he need a sword? What would he possibly do with a sword? That made even less sense to Romero than the pull-ups. Still, it was impressive. The Marine looked focused and distant, dangerous, but dignified. “You earn one of those and any women you want will be on you like…” The recruiter caught himself and pulled back his mildly lecherous smirk. “Think of it this way, by the time you earn the title and one of those coats, three pull-ups will be like nothin’, but by that point, you won’t need to do any more pull ups to keep a woman’s attention.”

Nathaniel stared at the poster as the boys around him conversed among themselves, and of course, with the girl in the mini-skirt.

“I’ll tell you what, let me see your phone.”

Nathaniel gave the recruiter his phone. The recruiter took it and opened his own. He said to the phone, “Give contact info; keywords: Military, Marines.”

He bumped the two phones together and Nathaniel’s made a chime.

“There you go. Whenever you’ve got questions, just search your contacts for Military.”

Nathaniel looked at the new contact. S-S-G-T Brandon Nobles.

“What’s S-S-G-T mean?” he asked.

“Staff Sergeant. I’m Staff Sergeant Nobles. Don’t be shy to give me a call. I have to take these boys out for a run, but I’ll be seeing you later. Have a good day, you hear? Poolies, form up in the parking lot.”

Nathaniel watched as they all filed outside. It was a bit ridiculous to see nearly grown men act that way, but he was a bit envious that they had something that they cared about way more than he cared about anything. Dejected, he went back to the girl who honestly didn’t care anymore, at all.

“That was fun.” She said as she watched the last of the boys leave through the mall’s exit. “I got one of their numbers! He said he was going to be…” her voice faded away to Nathaniel as he wished he could just have skipped the whole event. He really didn’t want to hear any more about her fascination or about if she had some new crush. He noticed, then, that she had grown silent. Not wanting her to realize he hadn’t been listening, he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind.

“That’s awesome.” The girl was oblivious to the sarcastic cynicism in his voice.

“So, you thinking about it?” She asked him.

“Thinking about what?” he asked.

“You know, joining the Marines?”

He was surprised at the question. “I don’t think so. I don’t need all that mess. People telling you what to do all the time, getting yelled at, and those stupid haircuts.”

“High and tights.” She replied.

“What?”

“They’re called high and tights. That guy told me all Marines get high and tights once they are in boot camp. I think it’s hot.” She bit her lip again and made a coo.

He paused for a moment. She spoke again.

“You’re probably right. It’s probably best you didn’t. You really wouldn’t fit in.”

“Why not?” He exclaimed. “I could do it just as good as any of those losers.”

She said with a sympathetically dismissive tone, “Nah. You’re just a nice guy.”

“So? That doesn’t mean anything.”

“It’s not really that. You’re just…” She paused, looking for the right words. “You’re just not dangerous, you know? I don’t see you ever being able to hurt someone if you had to. You’re just too nice.”

She tried to say it as a compliment, but it wasn’t. Every word cut him at his manhood, and yet she continued relentlessly.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, you know, just being a nice guy. You’re that type guy that a girl can just call to give her a ride to the mall for no other reason than because he’s sweet. That’s it. You’re not trying to get anything else out it. You don’t know how nice it is to just have a guy friend who’s nice. You’re, you know… sweet.”

Proving Grounds – Part 5

“Sweet.”

Romero thought to himself while lying in bed that night. The word sat caustically in his mouth. The moonlight shone through his window, illuminating his room as his thoughts stirred ceaselessly. He always had a hard time sleeping and tonight his thoughts were centered on the day’s events at the mall.

As he laid there, he thought about how humiliating it had all been; to be shown up by those ogres, trying to be wooed by that goofy recruiter, and worse, being called “sweet” and “nice” by the girl he wanted, but was then obviously unavailable to. There is no single word in the English language that man wants to be called by a woman he lusts for than “sweet”. To her, he was just a free ride to the mall. Before he knew it, she would probably be calling him to drive her and her dates around so the guy could be free to cop a feel while he drove. She’d never see him like he saw her. What girl would? They wanted, what had she called it? Dangerous.

Perhaps it wasn’t dangerous they were really after, but just a real man, someone to make them feel safe or someone reliable, or maybe just someone tough. She said dangerous though. You couldn’t just be that type of person. You could be reliable and make them feel safe, and you could even be tough. But she didn’t really say any of those words… she said “dangerous”, the type of person others respected, even feared, just by looking at them. That’s what she wanted, not someone like him.

Then he thought about that poster, the one with the Marine with his sword. He held the sword right up to his hat. His medals were glinting in some light, red ones, tan ones, blue ones, and green ones. Nathaniel wondered if they were all from some big combat mission somewhere, some big war like the ones from when he was a kid. The Marine looked like he didn’t even care about that. He looked like there was something else deeply on his mind, like he was reliving one of those battles or something, or like he was getting ready for another one. He had rugged, jagged features and a thick neck, not unlike SSgt Nobles. He looked like people might fear him. He looked dangerous. Yeah, that guy was dangerous enough, but he was clean; clean shaven, clean haircut, all his medals and ribbons perfectly in rows while he stood like a statue. Nathaniel had always viewed guys who joined the military as just a bunch of guys who wanted to kill people, a bunch of stupid apes, and like a bunch of murderous fiends wanting to get away with murder. That guy in the poster though, he didn’t look like that either. He looked under control. He looked like you could trust him, no matter what he might have had to do. He didn’t look some barbarian, but like he would take care of his friends. He looked like someone who others would respect.

Nathaniel Romero was none of those things. No one respected him. No one feared him. There was nothing dignified or heroic about him. He could run. Who fears someone for running? More than that, he was scrawny, and still looked like a little kid. He didn’t have a rugged chin or chiseled features. He had no muscles and he could barely do three pull-ups. There was nothing to be feared here. He was that guy who drove girls to places hoping to friend them so hard they would want him back. Seeing the way his perpetual never-more-than-friend talked to him today, he realized his uber-friend approach would never get anything done with girls all the guys want. He needed to be a man. He wanted to be feared and respected like that guy in the poster. For a moment, at least, he wanted to be that guy in the poster at the recruiter’s office.

A few day later, Nathaniel walked into the recruiter’s office.

“Hello again.”  said SSgt Nobles. “Glad to see you back.”

After a few minutes of awkward pleasantries, Nobles asked the question.

“So how can I help you today, son?”

Nathaniel looked again at the poster of the Marine and sat down at the chair across from the recruiter’s desk. He just stared at the posters hanging around the office, and the pictures of other recruits who had already joined pinned to the wall. He looked on all of it with envy. As he sat there attempting to answer the recruiter’s question, a desire manifested itself which suddenly spilled out in reply.

“I want to be a badass,” Nathanial blurted out.

Nathanial immediately felt ashamed. He felt childish, stupid, and humiliated. The next instant when he heard himself, he imagined his Abuela sitting in church, staring down on him with bitter disapproval. As soon as the thought left his mouth, he looked at the recruiter embarrassed, only to find SSgt Noble’s staring back at him, squarely in the eyes. Nathanial couldn’t return his stare, but instead, tucked his chin shyly and watched his hands. It was how he felt though. He felt weak. He didn’t want to feel that way anymore.

There was a long pause after that. Nathaniel didn’t know if the recruiter thought he sounded like an idiot or if he was about to be laughed him out of his office. SSgt Nobles placed his hands together in a loose fist on his desk, raised them to his face and leaned on them before returning an unflinching stare. He didn’t laugh. In truth, he didn’t take Nathaniel’s request as anything less than the most serious plea for help ever made.

“Well, son… actually, what’s your name?”

“Nathaniel.” He answered.

“Last name, Nathaniel.” Replied the Staff Sergeant.

“Romero.” Nathaniel answered again.

“Well Mr. Romero, I can honestly tell you, you’ve come to the right place. Ever thought about what you want to do, like for a career?” He asked.

“I want to be dangerous. I want to be dangerous and respected.”

There was another pause. SSgt Nobles sat back in his chair and looked over Nathaniel Romero, sizing up the young man.

“I see.” said the recruiter, followed by yet another thoughtful pause.

After a time of looking over this person who sat in front of him, Nobles asked Romero,

“Mr. Romero, do you have any idea what an ‘o’-three-eleven is?”

Romero raised his eyebrow with a perplexed look on his face.

“No.” he answered.

SSgt Nobles smiled, “0311s, Mr. Romero, are some of the most feared and admired warriors on the planet. If you want to be those things – feared, admired, respected, I guarantee you no one else is going to get you there faster than the o-threes.”

His interest peaked, Romero asked, “So what is an o-three-eleven?”

Nobles moved his hand to the sleeve of his pressed khaki shirt. He pushed the tightly fitted short sleeve of his left arm up to reveal a tattoo of a zero and a three. He turned and looked at Nathaniel again.

“0311s, Mr. Romero, are the Marine Corps Infantry.”

Proving Grounds – Part 6

A few months after that first meeting with SSgt Nobles, Nathaniel Romero found himself sitting in the USO of the San Diego International Airport. He was one of perhaps another hundred other young men. Each one was around eighteen, and most fresh high school graduates. Each had flown in over the last day from across all the United States west of the Mississippi River.

They were nervous. Each looked around to one another, asking questions to pass the afternoon, “Where are you from?”, “What is your MOS going to be?”, “How long were you in the DEP pool?”, “Have you ever had an MRE?” It was all just meaningless small talk to ease the tension mounting as the afternoon gave way to evening.

Then the evening came and the sun began to set. As day faded to dark, a series of buses pulled around to the back door of the USO. Many didn’t notice at first, but a door opened to the outside and from it, a man slowly walked in. A hush passed throughout the crowd of young men as none missed his entrance. He was dressed in the khaki shirt and dark green pants of a Marine, with the rank insignia and campaign ribbons to show he was a seasoned warrior. What set him apart from the other Marines the boys had so far seen… was the headgear; a distinctive covering one would expect to see on park rangers. The “Smokey Bear” was the distinctive adornment of Drill Instructors, the troop leaders who would be overseeing all of their training over the next three months aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

The Drill Instructor marched to the center of the USO. When made his way in, for some reason, all the recruits knew that any time to turn back was over. Boot camp had just begun. There was utter silence as the hundred sets of eyes ceased whatever else they were doing and anxiously watched his every move. He stood near the desk of the USO and in a deep, raspy voice projected out to the entire USO,

“Everyone here to begin Marine Corps recruit training grab whatever gear you brought with you and get on my bus right now!”

The room was in an instant a flurry of action as every one of the recruits grabbed whatever they had brought with them and filed through the glass double doors as fast as possible in such confining spaces. Once outside, more Drill Instructors were barking instruction, herding the mob into single files onto the buses, where they were to place their heads between their knees and not to raise their heads until ordered to do so. From there, they sat in silence, waiting for whatever was supposed to come next.

The buses drove from the airport for what seemed a remarkable span of time and with a surprising number of turns, considering that the recruit depot literally shared a fence with the main landing strip of San Diego International. The boys cheered a few hours ago as they looked upon its grounds when the plane touched down. When they were on the bus, however, they just sat in silence, anxiously awaiting their arrival on the depot and a new life. Finally, the buses came to a stop. None of the young men moved. They simply did nothing. They only waited, sitting still and in complete silence, but listening to every sound beyond the steady engine hum.

Romero, then overflowing with anxiety over what he knew was about to happen, heard a set of footsteps moving back and forth. Minutes ago, he wanted something, anything to happen to break the tension. That something made itself known with the very deliberate sound of an assertive foot stomping on the first few steps of the bus. A man’s voice shattered the silence with another raspy roar like the Drill Instructor in the USO.

“All right, everyone put your eyeballs on me! Aye-Aye, Sir!” he roared.

The recruits synchronously looked up and repeated back, “Aye-Aye, Sir.”
He screamed out with a terrible, biting, bellowing shriek, “Open your freaking mouths! Aye-Aye, Sir!” The veins in his neck and temples pulsed as he reddened from intensity.

This time they all roared together and with fear-induced vigor, “Aye-Aye, Sir!”

Again, he repeated the command to speak louder, “No! Aye-Aye, Sir!”

Again, they repeated back, this time a little louder, a little crisper, and with more intensity of their own, “Aye-Aye, Sir!”

“Right now you are aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Receiving Company! From here on out, the only words out of your mouths will be ‘Yes’ or ‘No, Sir’ when asked a question or ‘Aye-Aye, Sir’ when given a command! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“When I tell you to, and only when I tell you to, you’re going to stand up, you’re going to grab all your belongings and you’re going to exit my bus! When exiting my bus you will  power walk. Power walk is one step slower than a run, and one step faster than a walk. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Ok! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Romero was surprised that, of all things, he was being taught how to walk as soon as he reached Marine Corps boot camp. He thought that the idea of rebuilding a recruit from the bottom up was really only a joke, but the Drill Instructor gave no time to contemplate the reality. His speech continued uninterrupted, and Romero was too terrified of missing an instruction to worry about his own unimportant queries on Marine Corps walking protocols.

“When you exit my bus you will file off onto my yellow footprints from front to back, then left to right! You will take all your belongings and put them on the ground in front of you! Nothing will come out of your pockets. I repeat. Nothing will come out of your pockets. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Ok! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Ok! Get louder! Do you understand?”

They didn’t understand. In truth, they understood so very little of what was happening up to that point. The vast majority of what was said on the bus would be lost to them, as would most the rest of the night. All that would remain for most of them would be the deep memory of being completely lost.

“All right, Get off my bus!”

“Aye-Aye, Sir!”

What followed was absolute chaos. Little did Nathaniel Romero nor any of the other ninety young recruits that night know that it was actually a meticulously choreographed chaos, but for them it was pandemonium like nothing they had ever known before. From the moment Romero’s foot hit the pavement on MCRD San Diego, all he was cognizant of was the constant presence of men screaming as he ran as fast as he could to reach the yellow footprints. The painted stencil markings of more than a hundred golden foot soles were organized in formations, perfectly aligned rows and columns, each identically touching at the heels and flared, guiding the new recruit to his first position of attention.

Romero and the others were still lost, but screamed into their locations by a constant barrage of the instructors’ grotesquely willful directions. All ninety of the recruits that had just arrived were filed into formation on the yellow footprints, a feat which took all of fifteen seconds and which would have been impossible only two weeks ago when they were just high schoolers. Each of them stood silently gripping whatever belongings they had brought with them to their chest. Like statues, they all attempted to be the least noticeable human in the formation, hoping not to be like those others who had already attracted the terrifying attention of the bellowing, tyrannical instructors.

Another Drill Instructor purposefully marched to a small podium directly in front of the formation as it stood. From the podium, he addressed the formation. This Drill Instructor gave a speech where Nathaniel and the other recruits were told how to stand, how to walk, how to move, how to scream, and mostly… that everything done over these next three months would be done with speed and intensity. By the way this man spoke to him then, he saw such intensity demonstrated flawlessly. He cried out in a scream like nothing Romero had ever heard, as if someone had endured a lifetime of rage and bottled its potent essence into this one moment in time to be delivered by this one man. It was as if he speaking to each and every recruit individually in a roar that was crisp; not savage, but focused, shrill, and with lethal precision. Every word was perfectly enunciated, but by no means anything less than the cry of a terrible beast perhaps waiting to attack.

The whole time that the Drill Instructor on the podium gave this speech, there were more drill instructors pacing, like rabid and starving hyenas at the end of a chain, around the formation. They ensured that every recruit was focused intently on nothing else but the man in front and his every word. Whenever a single set of eyes strayed, they pounced on their prey with merciless disregard to personal space or individual human dignity. Regardless of whatever the Marine in front had to say, they were the focus, as every recruit did whatever they could to disappear altogether and avoid the very personal attention the men around were eagerly dishing out to their peers.

The Drill Instructor in front continued his speech without flinching and undaunted by the vicious cries of other instructions. At his command, the formation quickly shifted to another set of footprints, this time facing a large red sign with gold lettering. The boys were commanded to take a knee so that each and every one of them could clearly see the sign as the man on the podium began to read it aloud.

The Drill Instructor’s speech continued on to include a reading of what amounted to the recruits’ Miranda Rights as per the articles under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This, like so many other things, was lost to Romero. He understood very little of the instructions being given or of the commands he was told. He was still almost completely embraced in an artificially engineered state of shock. He was in a state of confusion and fear, just trying to keep from being noticed, as was every other recruit there. The message he took from this thirty seconds was that he had some rights to something, but more importantly, that there was a very clear list of all the offenses recruits commit that could get thrown in jail, should they failed to live up to expectations as a Marine Corps recruit aboard the depot.

Romero’s only survival tactic that first night was moving with as much of the speed and intensity demanded of him as he could, in hopes that he would never be singled out by the voracious circling wolves for any reason. He would remain in this state of mental alertness, at times bordering on panic, for the rest of the night and, in truth, much longer after he had stood on the yellow footprints.

Forever etched in his memory were those first five minutes in the Marine Corps, ending only after he and the other recruits were filed into a large building each passing underneath a sign which read;

“Through this portal walks the future of the United States Marine Corps.”

Proving Grounds – Part 7

From the yellow footprints, Romero and the other recruits filed into another room, where they would each be checked for contraband. Their pockets were emptied and if they had anything to declare, they had one final chance to make it known. From there, the endless line of young men progressed through a long series of darkly lit hallways. They stopped every few rooms to receive some aspect of the first night’s treatment: the unceremoniously ceremony of losing all their hair, being issued their gear, and speaking to a small army of admin staff as they began the process of becoming “in the system” of the United States Marine Corps. This whole while, Receiving Company Drill Instructors barked at and berated the fresh recruits for every time they looked in the wrong direction or made even the slightest of false moves. Little did they realize that this process of standing in endless lines, filing endless paperwork, and being physically transformed into as uniform an individual as the Marine Corps could create, would continue for three more days. Those four days Romero and the other recruits would see little food and enjoy little sleep, but would be moving almost nonstop until the end of the receiving phase prior to the actual start of recruit training.

In those first few days of boot camp, fatigued and exhausted as the recruits were, their minds slowly began to embrace the subtle suggestions hidden among thundering cries of the Drill Instructors aboard the depot. “You are inferior,” bemoaned the overarching theme over and over, again. It was a simple suggestion, but in their weakened state, it sat, permeated, and it stewed. In the long hours of standing in lines while fighting sleep, and while waiting to be issued whatever piece of equipment they would be using over the next few months, their minds were free to wonder. In those long hours of silence broken only by the DIs’ pouncing on a recruit guilty of some incalculable slight, that suggestion of inferiority sank in. Eventually, though none realized it, each began to start believing the ideas delivered to them were true. They began to accept that there was a weakness in them and that they were less than the Marines who had come before, those who had already “earned the title”. On some subconscious level for all of them, they embraced the idea that they must change to live up to the obligation they had taken up. The recruits had to accept the inferiority inherent within them before they were truly ready to begin training.

As that first week wore on, Romero too passed that point. Throughout it all, he kept thinking about the fact that the real training hadn’t even begun. At the end of receiving, they would enter their first real day of training, T-Day 1 – Black Friday. That would be the day recruits meet their real Drill Instructors, not those simply overseeing them throughout receiving. These Marines would govern their every movement, as well as their every waking and unwaking second, for the next three months. Their only purpose, Romero kept telling himself, was to make each of them warriors. On the last night before training, Romero enjoyed little sleep – an unfortunate mix of anticipation and anxiety towards what the next day would bring.

On June 4th, 2025, that day finally came, Training Day 1. After nearly a week together since the airport and the yellow footprints, Nathaniel and eighty other recruits were told to quickly gather their gear and belongings, all packed into large green sea-bags, and form up outside the squad bay. From there, they were marched to a new set of barracks, far across the base. This one overlooked the massive parade deck. Romero had never seen anything like it. It seemed like it had to be the single largest slab of asphalt anyone had ever lain, nothing but half a mile of pristine slate grey real estate. Distantly, he could see another platoon marching through the corner of his eye. They movements were so crisp and polished, with such unison. They’d obviously been on the depot for months, almost real Marines by now. As for Romero and the other eighty recruits of his platoon, their training was only about to begin.

Once inside the barracks building, they were led to a large squad bay. Here the platoon would share a singular fate and become more intimately intertwined with one another than any of them would ever have believed before. Romero’s eyes first saw perhaps a hundred bunks lined along two aisles along the windows, with one centered between near a large opening in the front of the room. With only a few minutes, the platoon was directed to stow their gear in their assigned bunks, their “racks”, and then stand at attention when finished. Following this, they quickly filed into that large opening of the room and told to sit in a tight formation, legs crossed, facing forward towards a wall with a single door and one man standing by it.

As they sat waiting for whatever was about to happen next, in the distance, they could hear other platoons crying out in unison the “Yes, Sir!” and “Aye-Aye, Sir!” that they had so far heard many times before. The shouting didn’t stop as it seemed to go on forever. Silently to himself, Romero asked, “What were they doing?” as were all the other young men in the formation.

The Marine at the front began to speak. He was oddly soft spoken, Romero thought. They had already learned not to look directly at anyone, but with a quick glance, he noticed a shine from this Marine’s collar. He must have been an officer. He introduced himself as their Series Commander and welcomed the recruits, or at least gave what passed for a welcome. It seemed like one of other well-rehearsed speeches, only differing from the others by the relaxed poise compared to the Drill Instructors, with which he delivered it. Towards the end, he said the words Romero and the rest of the recruits had been paradoxically been waiting for and terrified of.

“You are now members of platoon 2094, Lead Series, Company ‘F’, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion. I will now introduce you to your Drill Instructors who are responsible to me for your training.”  From the room at the front came three Marines wearing the grim faces and attire of the Drill Instructor. The figures stood at the front of the room in stiff, imposing, and erect in military stances. They stood this way as his speech continued on. Together the four Marines raised their hands as the Series Commander led the Drill Instructors in a creed meant to constitute their responsibilities to the platoon. They were to train them, discipline them, indoctrinate in them a love of both Corps and Country, and to demonstrate to them by example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill. This oath they swore before every member of the platoon they would be leading. Following the Drill Instructor’s Creed, the officer handed over command of the recruits to their Senior Drill Instructor.

“Senior Drill Instructor, take these men and make them Marines.”

The Marine saluted with a forceful “Aye-Aye, Sir.”

As the commander walked away, the Senior Drill Instructor, Staff Sergeant Clifton, screamed out for all the Marines to place their eyeballs on him.
Gone was the soft-spoken poise of the polished officer. Staff Sergeant Clifton roared with yet another deliberate show of hostile force and aggression that Romero was growing to expect of all Marines. What followed was yet another well-rehearsed speech where he demanded absolute effort and show the highest of military virtues, most notably discipline and spirit, and respect. Clifton’s speech was delivered with such an impossible force and intensity, that the recruits had no choice, but to be motivated, while also fearfully in awe of the man who stood before them. Then the speech ended.

What followed the Senior Drill Instructor’s welcome was nothing less than a torrent of hate and terror the recruits could have never imagined. The recruits were ordered across the squad bay as the Drill Instructors screamed with the pent up fires of a thousand angry suns. They dumped the recruit’s sea bags if they didn’t move fast enough, spewing all the belongings they owned out into massive mounds on the floor of the squad bay. They tossed the recruits bunks they would sleep on across the room. Bottles of soap, toothpaste and shaving gel broke and shattered, leaving the piles of personal belongings and issued gear trashed all over the floor. Then the recruits were marched around and around, back and forth, following every command of the Drill Instructors, though never fast enough, never loud enough, and never with enough of the ever loving intensity demanded of them. All the while the parade of pandemonium continued, recruits were kicking each other’s gear around in chaotic piles across the squad bay. Amidst the bedlam, they were again filed as fast as their collective feet would carry them to a pit of sand outside the barracks. The entire platoon was commanded to push up, flutter-kick, side-straddle-hop, and run in place until they gave out, basking in the precious moments when their sweat covered faces rested against the sand.

Finally, covered in sand and sweat, they filed back to the barracks and pulled out their canteens. They drank, and drank, and drank, drinking until they had proved they had finished every last drop, then they would refill their canteens, and drink some more. This cycle of what seemed to be mindless torment wouldn’t end until many hours later. They still had to return their home back to some semblance of normalcy after having been reduced to what could best be described, metaphorically, as a warzone. As the new recruits paraded around the room, being screamed at by terrifying men, Romero wondered what he had gotten himself into. Regardless of what he thought at that moment, they were still a long way from the end of T-Day 1. At least by that point he understood why it was a day known throughout the Corps as Black Friday.

The Next Warrior: Proving Grounds – Part 8

The suffering of Nathaniel Romero and the recruits of platoon 2094 was not a unique experience among Marines. The scene was, in fact, common to all entering the depot. There is an art to the making of warriors, the Marines believed, and the United States Marine Corps considered themselves the foremost masters of the arts warriorcraft. They believed their methods, extreme as they may have been, were necessary in the making of Marines, undiluted and unfettered by the passage of time. Every action recruits endured was, itself, one of countless time honored rites and rituals, performed in a timelessly identical progression for every Marine entering the Corps. The pain, stress, fear, fatigue, and even the humiliation all had their place in the time-tested series of conditioning and mental training exercises in the creation of warriors. They bound each Marine to a history and a culture of lethality. Regardless of the technological advancement changing the world, of even that fielded in the battlefields of that day, the warriors of tomorrow undertook the same training, as had all Marines before them for over sixty years. Those who fired rifles in Khe San, cleared rooms in Fallujah, or were the forward observers for unmanned air strikes in Odessa, these same rituals were a constant for all Marines during their inaugural days of their Marine Corps career. Romero would experience these rites, one-by-one, eventually becoming indoctrinated into the most potently efficient culture of violence yet created in the history of the United States and among the most lethal the world had ever known.

In his progression from a boy to a warfighter, he would discover very early on that every action had a purpose. In spite of their seemingly mundane nature, each order was performed with intricate precision thousands of times over the next three months. Every attempt was part of the endless endeavor to meet the wildly impossible expectations of crazed lunatics the Drill Instructors 2094. Countless actions echoed in their daily activities, from the way his Drill Instructor’s pointed at them with their whole arm, fingers together rigid and extended, which was identical to the knife hand recruits formed when they trained in hand-to-hand combat, which was also the same as the salute they rendered. From the way recruits stood, the way they walked, the way they ate, to how they folded their sheets; every movement had some hidden significance to it and a goal, which had to be repeated and perfected.

Their training never stopped. It never even let up. Romero would march countless miles on the parade deck, enduring the bellowing shouts of Drill Instructors. On rifle ranges named after historic warriors, he would fire for days on end to make him lethal. He was pushed into a pool with full gear, fully believing he was going to die. He nearly broke his ankle on one of the hikes. Lessons were learned as he and the rest of platoon 2094 endured countless hours of his Drill Instructors’ perfectly rehearsed torture sessions. This, as well as hours spent on the Quarterdeck, facing a calisthenic barrage that shed any caloric and disciplinary excess they may have brought with them. Via gallons of lost sweat in the ritualized self-torment that was Marine Corps physical training, the troops every failing was exercised as well as having instilled a newfound respect DIs. Though they would not realize it, there was just so much to learn, so much that three months of round the clock routine hardly seemed time enough to prepare them to, perhaps, one day survive the combat situation.

Combat. “Would he be ready?” he wondered in the few quiet moments. Would he survive if put in that position? Would he ever need any of this at all? The Marines had a way of invading all of his thoughts with few, but those centered on warfare. If they had, he would have asked himself, more often in those early days, had he really just subjugated himself to this idea of becoming a person who was dangerous and something to be feared, putting himself through all this insanity just because of a stupid a girl? Of course, these stirrings often drifted to those of his and future, what little of it he knew, and to those of softer things. Sleep was rarely difficult the rigor of training, but in those few nights where sleep came less easily, he would imagine those glorious love fests and fantastical fits of passion due him upon his return home as a full-fledged Marine.

He was lucky that he didn’t have the time to waste like this often, as much as one would want to. Most other things were far removed from his mind, itself usually too occupied with the rhythm and demands of boot camp. He had history to learn, first aid to practice, weapons to clean, and endless shirts to iron, fold, and iron again.

There were moments Nathaniel found himself lost in his thoughts, those long nights serving fire watch. Throughout their training, recruits would stand or patrol hour-long roving stints around the base, challenging any possible guests that might grace the premises. The fact that the entire base was probably the most secure location in San Diego meant nothing. Security, let alone fires, had little to do with fire watch. This too was training. Regardless, on certain nights in the summer, he would look forward to getting the first watch. If he was looking in the right direction and at the right time, he could see fireworks exploding above a theme park a few miles away. It happened all throughout the month of July. It wasn’t much of a show from his window in the squad bay so very far from such a place. He could barely even hear the bombs bursting if he tried, but for some reason, when he saw the lights burst in the distance, it reminded him that there was still a civilization out there beyond the walls, the parade deck, and the angry men. On those lonely nights, he enjoyed thinking about how there were still happy people out there taking advantage of everything that civilization had to give. Caught in moments of idealism, it made him proud in a way. For the first time, he felt responsible, as if he, a Marine Corps recruit, lowliest of God’s creatures, were somehow part of providing that happiness for all those peaceful people.

Eventually, he acclimatized to the pace of his training, as did the rest of his platoon, finally coming together to adjust to the rhythm of warrior training by embracing the simplicity of life at the depot. As demanding as it might have been, all any of them really had to do was what they were told. As time went by, Romero found he focused less and less on if it was worth it and on the world outside. He just focused on the day-to-day tasks of training. He tuned out the noise of Drill Instructor barking, and just began to absorb the life. He became leaner and sharper. He learned to channel aggression he wasn’t aware he had. He learned how to shoot and how to move in a manner that seemed to be how warriors moved. He learned the history of the Marines, and whether he realized it or not, how to become one.

It was only then he would start to feel peace in the everyday, such as when the platoon practiced drill by marching on the parade deck. They marched for long hours in the summer sun, but from time to time, cool Santa Ana breezes carried in the scent of salty sea air from San Diego Harbor. On days like that, sometimes the Drill Instructors broke with their regular marching cadence to what was known as singsong. It was such a break from their normal barking, frogish tone that it came off as almost calming and melodic, a sensation that would prove fleeting only moments later when the platoon would change direction or be forced back to repeat a movement. In those few dozen steps it lasted, though, the change of cadence was an escape from the frenzied, yet monotonous grind of boot camp life aboard the depot. In those seconds he lost himself, he was at calm. Though surrounded by other warriors in training, it was as he was finally alone. In his little universe, there was nothing but himself, the rhythmic pace of the Drill Instructor’s cadence, and the sound of eighty footsteps marching in unison.

The only other times Recruit Romero was free to his thoughts, were during the long hikes of his third and final phase of recruit training. For that, the recruits made their way to a base north of San Diego, in the wide openness of a former cattle ranch turned the most densely populated Marine Corps base on the planet, Camp Pendleton. The high rolling hills, deep valleys and open desert scrub of the base made it the perfect area to lay down hundreds of firing ranges and areas for recruits and Marines to practice the arts of war. There the recruits learned to fire, survive, and how to move and fight like Marines. This felt like the real warrior training he had wanted all along. There was little of the classrooms or the uniform and ceremony in Pendleton. There was less running scared of being fodder for some disgruntled DI who happened to look their way. This place was about transitioning from learning the culture of the Marines to being a true warrior. When he fired his rifle, stabbed some dummy with his bayonet or crested the precipice of some desert mountainscape, this was when he felt like a warrior, like a dangerous person. He was more than that though. He didn’t imagine himself as something to be feared. He was proud. He was proud of what he was becoming, what he had done and what he now represented. This place truly was about becoming a warrior.

His final moment of self-contemplation came during the Crucible, the fifty-four mile, three-day hike where all Marines endure the most intense physical tests imaginable. He would suffer through massive obstacle courses, pugil stick battles with the other recruits, night maneuvers, dehydration, the scorching sun. They would do all this carrying full gear and seventy pounds more in their packs and all on two stripped down meal packets and four hours of sleep. On the last day, they endured one final test, the Reaper. The Reaper was a ten-mile forced march up what amounted to a small mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range running through the base of Camp Pendleton. Setting out before dawn, they made their way to the precipice by ten in the morning. So long as he stayed at pace with the rest of the formation, he wasn’t bothered and his mind was free to wonder and just let his feet do the walking. It was at the peak of that mountain where he and all the others who had endured the rituals of violence and the rigor of recruit training would no longer be considered recruits. As they crossed the peak of the mountain with the rest of his platoon, he thought back to when he joined and the person he was three months ago. Yes, he felt dangerous now, but he felt like more than that. He felt like the Marine in the poster – someone with power and pride. Seeing the Pacific Ocean far off beyond the peak of the Reaper, this, he thought, was what it must have felt like to be a real Marine.

Proving Grounds – Part 9

After cresting the summit of the mountain, and as Fox Company descended from the peak, Private Romero felt within his core – a transformation. Upon reaching the base of the mountain, he and the other new Marines would receive their Eagle, Globe, and Anchors, a small and innocuous trinket of no significant monetary value, but signifying the culmination of recruit training and the creation of a new Marine warrior. It was the mark of brotherhood to a militant cult, and fraternity of arms. After earning his EGA, and a well-deserved warrior’s breakfast, complete with all the waffles, eggs, fruit and juice he could stomach, the company was given a few minutes of personal time. They were to hygiene themselves and recuperate before preparations began for their graduation and the trip back to San Diego.

Romero took this opportunity to cleanse himself of the days of trekking through the sand and expeditions through the mud. He enjoyed a long, hot, soothing shower, the longest he had been given in his time aboard the depot. As the water flowed down his face, it carried with it the caked on dirt and mud as it eased the strain on weary muscles.

Leaving the shower, clothed in a small towel and with his shaving kit in hand, he had the chance to look himself in the mirror. It was the first time he had really examined himself in months. He was surprised to see that he had gained ten pounds; not of fat, obviously, but of lean muscle. His chin and jawline had grown defined and his leg muscles had become broad, as had his shoulders. His body, though exhausted, had become hard and he no longer held doubts over his martial capabilities or measurements of himself against other men. He finally looked like a man himself, one he didn’t quite recognize yet, but which pleased him nonetheless. He had pride from a new sense of self-respect he had never known before. This image before him in the mirror had become what he had set out to be three months ago; something others would respect. This was true, if for no one else, than at least within his own mind.

The final days of boot camp were mostly spent preparing uniforms for final inspection and in drill rehearsal for graduation. Graduation day was filled with all the pomp and ceremony only known to those who have marched in a military parade. The band was adorned in highest regalia, grand songs were played, salutes were rendered, and six hundred Marines, young and old, marched across the Parade Deck on display for excited family and onlookers from around the country. Nathaniel’s family, along with the families of hundreds of others, greeted their new Marines before finally departing from the depot. He was finally free to return home. Free of the constant presence of Drill Instructors, Romero would enjoy a much needed ten day leave, before setting off again, this time for the School of Infantry.

He arrived home the next day. After a sleep of the kind he had not experienced in three months, first on his mind was the girl who was with him on the day that he began this fateful journey. The lovely girl in the short pleated skirt was starting college only a short few hours’ drive away in Albuquerque. After his mother and grandmother had their turns showcasing their son to the entire town, Nathaniel left to see her. The young warrior set his sights to a personal mission, one he’d rehearsed in his mind many times already. As he made his way across the desert, he imagined the warm welcome he assured himself he was destined to receive.

Nathaniel would need that pride very soon. As it turned out, all that training to make him into a warrior of the modern age did little to grant him the necessary abilities of seduction needed to conquer any would-be lover. At his heart, he was still just a shy young man and not yet the fighting Casanova he believed himself to have magically become.

Nathaniel arrived at her apartment late in the evening. When she opened the door, his heart quivered when he saw her for the first time in months. Standing in the door with her short shorts, tight fitting crop top tee-shirt, and seductively adorned in a voluptuous shade of red lipstick, she still just as enticing and beautiful as ever and still rightfully the vision of his nightly imagination.

When he set foot in the apartment, what he didn’t expect to see, the last thing he expected to see, was the presence of a third someone else. He had imagined something private, quiet, and intimate. What he hadn’t expect to see was a man already present. She introduced him and he introduced himself as her boyfriend. He was a soft and unshaven mass of humanity, oozing from the edge of the couch opposite the chair where Nathaniel sat. With holes in his clothing dangling in shreds from his gangling and emaciated arms, and not looking as if he had bathed in at least a few days, Romero wondered how such a person could sit there with such a cocky, assuming look on his face. Oh, he was in a band? How… interesting. He’s a Philosophy Major? Stunning.

The two sat across from one another in the living room. After the rock star spent an uncomfortable amount of time eyeing Nathaniel’s high-and-tight haircut, he asked, “So you like to kill people and stuff?”

What kind of question was that? What type of idiot would ask a person such a thing? The mordant little comment left Nathaniel internally infuriated. Nathaniel didn’t need to find out that this swine was the girl’s current boyfriend to hate him with a fervent sincerity. Ironically, Romero was wondering then if a chop to the boorish oaf’s Adam’s Apple would, in fact, kill him or just keep him silent on the floor for a while.

“You know that all of you really just work for the energy companies, right? I mean, you should know that it’s your job to murder millions of people all to make the rich richer. There’s a book about it, ‘The war racket’ or somethin’ like that. Some old General wrote it. It would blow your mind. You should read it if you’re gonna fight their wars and all.”

“Have you read it?” Romero asked with glaring eyes at the pustule.
The other man paused with his jaw dangling stupidly. It seemed he hadn’t considered being challenged on the need to have a working knowledge on what he proselytized. Gathering himself, he regained back his snarky grin and said, “Nah, I already know that war is stupid, I mean, no offense. You just didn’t know any better before they got you in the system. It’s all just about neo-colonialism and taking over the world, anyway. I just hope you don’t get yourself killed for some rich man’s war or come back with a brain disorder after blowing up a village or something.” He laughed, “Hey. You should get with your bosses and try to tell them to talk about things instead of just having some drone bomb a school or something to bits.”

Nathaniel was seething. Caustically he sneered, “Thanks for enlightening me. I’ll bring it up at the next meeting.”

The boy was a charlatan, speaking on subjects he knew nothing about with some deluded voice of authority. Whatever truth he may have stumbled upon between his little band’s performances in the basement of whatever friends’ he had, were overshadowed by the volumes of politically bent misinformation in the deeper chasms of the internet. He was really just another twenty-two year-old stoner, living off his parents while couch-surfing from one friend’s house to another. His type were little more than arm-chair philosophers and self-appointed experts on all matters they took no actual part in, regurgitating it to others any chance they got. Romero was revolted that people like this were allowed to have influence. How, he wondered, could any girl be attracted to it? He was disgusting. Especially girls like her! He had enough grease in his hair that Romero could keep his weapon moving smoothly for weeks. She was supposed to have liked strong guys, manly guys… dudes with big arms. What happened to dangerous guys? The only thing that made this idiot dangerous was the risk of catching head lice.

The awkward and very unromantic visit lasted another hour or so, mostly spent ignoring the opining of the philosopher-poet and his inept peace propaganda. Still fully dressed and uncomfortably chaperoned, Nathaniel began to become aware that there was no point to him being here. He had overstaying a welcome. The girl had never intended for him to stay long and his spot was taken, anyway. Added to the sexual ambivalence of the girl whose attraction had occupied the nightly dreams of his entire last summer, were the glares sent his way by the soft and unshaven worm across the room. He gave none-to-subtle hints to move along between opportunities to belittle the militant. The guitarist Philosophy major made no attempt to hide his hands all over her, marking his territory like toy terrier pissing on all the furniture.

Romero had enough. Realizing that nothing was going to happen, not to mention feeling completely foolish for having believed it would, he left. He took with him little more than a friendly and deeply platonic hug, and a new and profound loathing for guitarists, Philosophy majors, and the unshaven.

Giving up his venture, he left to make the long drive home in painful silence. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to happen. Perhaps she was supposed to leap into his arms and then they would magically arrive in her bed. How had that worked so many times in his imagination before? Why did that even make sense?

This was what disillusionment felt like. This would be the first of many times he would see the reality of the choices he had made. As he sat down in the driver’s seat of the car, a new question began to brew.

What was he supposed to do now?

Proving Grounds – Part 10

The emotional high of self-satisfaction was over. He drove around the city of Albuquerque for a few hours to gather his thoughts and occupy his mind. He considered that it would be a good thing if he were to wash his sorrows away with something to drink. Being only eighteen, however, he was still in the limbo of being able to fight and die for a country that didn’t really consider him a legal adult. He knew he needed something to wash away the malice building in him towards that smug charlatan boyfriend of that girl and the stupidity of Romero’s own motivations leading to tonight. He probably wasn’t going to get much sleep, that much he was sure of.

Late that night, reaching into the early hours of morning, he pulled into the parking lot of a gas and power station. It should be known that among Marines, whether in the field or in garrison, nothing can happen to a man found alone after midnight.

Romero drifted off, pondering how to spend the rest of this devastated night. Violence was first on his mind, violence towards the pesky moron now probably embracing the girl Nathaniel once thought his. A sinister smirk crept to his face, cracking the malevolent demeanor which had solidified there. Sadly, this option wasn’t available to him. Most options he wanted weren’t available to him. Since he was still as sober as a Baptist church mouse, he could see that almost every desire he might like to satiate would likely end his night nowhere else than the cell of the Albuquerque municipal jail. Perhaps much worse than this, a week later he would be reporting the flawed decision-making when he stood in the office of his new Sergeant Major, once he reported into the School of Infantry.

Romero would have none of that. He had survived boot camp by being the Marine no one noticed, quietly doing his job and never earning more attention than was obligatory for the Drill Instructors. He had no mind to change that now.

Instead, from the console of his car, Nathaniel pulled out a pair of glasses. They functioned as a holographic display. He also pulled out a tiny black cap, one like a rubber thimble, which he placed over the tip of his index finger. He laid back in his seat and turned on the glasses. As he sat in the darkness, holographic tiles began to load and place themselves on the ceiling of his car. Each tile was an application synced to his phone, still in his pocket. He rubbed his index finger with the cap on it against his thumb. When he did this, a curser floated across his vision, hovering over his apps. Gently rubbing his fingers maneuvered the cursor, while pressing them together opened the applications.

Not knowing what else to do, he opened a few games to pass the time while he waited for inspiration and the motivation to move again. His default program before he went to boot camp was a flying simulation. In the glasses, when you rose high into the sky, you really felt like you could reach out and touch the clouds. A gentle tilt of his head backward, up or down, or to the right and left, and he could soar in any direction he liked. When wearing the glasses it was easy for Romero to lose himself in other worlds. To players, everything felt so real.

Though he was still lying in the car, the game gave such an immersive sense of being there that if you jumped off a cliff, you could almost feel like you were really falling. Yes, perhaps he could jump off one of the cliffs.

No, that wouldn’t do either. While debate existed for years before Romero was born about whether video games on a small screen, with so limited a field of vision and so narrow a spectrum of choices, could bring about violence in children, when immersive holographic gaming became common those fears were manifest. There’s nothing like feeling like you are really there to warp a gamer’s perception of reality. Strict enforcement on simulated killing sprees and virtual suicide stemmed the tide of those susceptible to it. Fortunately for Romero then, his thoughts wouldn’t be on offing himself all night.

He liked the flying game, though. Tonight, he felt like losing himself to another place, just free to fall in the dreamscape.

He didn’t feel like progressing the plot or fighting any enemies right now, that is, besides those few poor digital souls who served as proxy for the arrogant and self-assured boyfriend. Once he’d dispatched and massacred enough of them to achieve a mild form of catharsis, he just played the free flight, soaring through a fantastical world uninterrupted by the disappointments of the evening.

As Nathaniel rode the winds, he thought about the last time he played this game, or any others for that matter. It had been months ago. He’d had nothing like this at boot camp. The spartan accommodations left him completely isolated from the rest of the world. There were no phones, no internet, certainly no holonet glasses or gaming rigs. If the Marines didn’t need it sixty years ago in the time of pencil and paper, they didn’t need it at boot camp. He never was able to talk to any of his friends or family during that time either. All he ever had were a few printed out emails his family would send, from time to time to check on his progress and well-being. He had to reply back by writing to them, as in, by physically writing. He hadn’t written anything since grade school. He barely knew how to by the time he reached San Diego, but he adjusted. It wasn’t that the Marines didn’t have better forms of communication available. They were told they just didn’t need the distractions when what they had to learn was literally matters of life and death.

Suddenly getting his technology back, at times it seemed overwhelming. He’d spent a few days already doing little but surfing his social accounts and getting updated on his friends. Sadly, he found that in his three-month purgatory, some of his friends no longer came online. Some had simply moved on in his absence. Seeing where they were then, college, work, or partying, in the good life of being young with no ties or rules to follow, he no longer felt connected to anyone from home. It was a strange and disappointing discovery to see how fast relationships built over a lifetime could simply fade away in the span of a summer. Tonight made this painfully clear. In a way, sitting in that car beneath the energystation’s streetlight in the lonely dust bowl that was the city of Albuquerque, he felt more isolated and alone than he ever had in the many nights away from all of his old friends at boot camp.

So he flew. He made himself lost by floating in the serenity of a sea setting sunbeams over clouds cascading about the skyscape. He grew to embrace the peaceful loneliness as his thoughts drifted farther and farther from the evening in the real world.

He was jarred from his virtual dream when a text message came in through the glasses, overlaying the simulation and pausing the game.

Joshua Kruger: Hey, is this Romero?”

Nathaniel was surprised by the sudden message. At first he didn’t recognize the name, and wondered how whoever this was knew his. Then he remembered … Kruger. He clicked the texted message, and clicked another button for dictation.

“Yeah. Who is this?”

Nathaniel watched his words scroll in text across the window as he waited for a reply.

Joshua Kruger: Hey dude, this is Kruger, from 2094!”

Nathaniel had suspected it, but he wasn’t sure. Kruger was his rack mate for the whole three months, but in that entire time, none of them learned each other’s first names. As close as many of them were, the exchange of first names was remarkably superfluous, and never something that anyone actually even needed. Such pleasantries weren’t ever shared until after graduation when they traded social account information, making this very call possible. For some reason, he had never expected to hear from another one of the recruits so soon after they had left boot camp. It didn’t matter, though. He had also expected to be spending this time with people he grew up with, so who cared what he expected? When he realized who it was, it felt good to have someone to talk to. He felt like he had more in common now with Kruger than anyone else in the world.

“Hey man! How you doin’?”

“It sucks. My girlfriend’s dating some other dude and everybody’s done moved off to the city. I’ve just been playin’ Madden ’25 for like, a day now.”

Nathaniel felt disturbingly sympathetic.

“I know the feeling, bro. What’s going on right now?”

“A whole lot of nothing. Won the season already, Minnesota Vikings baby, Oorah! Anyway, got bored and jumped on the holonet. Said you just got on.”

“Yeah, I’m not really having the best night either. Remember that girl I talked about? I went to see her… didn’t go that well. Know what I mean?”

“Ha! I know what you mean dude. So you playin’ somethin’?”

Talking with his boot camp comrade made him forget his game was still paused.

“Oh yeah, Knightwing Chronicles.”

“That the one where you fly around and slash demons and stuff?”

“Yeah, pretty much. I was just sort of flying around before you buzzed in.”

“Cool. Hey, you played that new one they put out before we went to boot, Skyfury Squadron? You get to play a UAV pilot. You can either fight from the drone’s view or control everything from the remote pilot’s chair. It seems that seein’ as how you like flyin’ and all, and since I heard you were into military stuff, you might like it.”

Romero chuckled. Of course Kruger knew he was into military stuff. They had lived together at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot for three months. The two talked for another hour about video games. All the ones they played growing up, the ones they missed out on over the summer, as well as exchanging news and rumors they had heard of upcoming titles. Romero had completely lost track of the time when he heard a knock on his door. He jumped in sudden shock after forgetting that he was alone in the middle of a parking lot in the desert. He minimized the screens and set the glasses to clear mode as he sat the seat up. Outside he could see a police officer, large built and burly, holding his lights to Romero.

“Could you roll down the window.” The officer said sternly. It wasn’t really a request. “I’ll also need your license and insurance information.”

Romero complied and pulled his insurance and license information for the officer to scan.

“What are you doing out here, son?” the officer asked menacingly.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I just pulled over for a sec and got started talking to someone. Then I just lost track of the time.”

There was a pause as the officer debated the validity of what Romero said. This was exactly the sort of thing Nathaniel didn’t want, any interaction with a cop during his boot leave. He just knew he was going to be standing in front of the Sergeant Major for doing absolutely nothing at all.

“All right, well you can’t just hang out here all night, so I’m going to need…” the officer stopped as he looked at the picture of Nathaniel’s license. In it, he was sixteen and had all his hair and the early buddings of post-pubescent manfuzz growing on his chin. The clean-shaven young man with the military high and tight looked little like the picture, but enough like him for the police officer to realize what would explain the transformation.

“You a Marine?” the officer asked.

Romero was surprised to get that sort of question then. He wasn’t very sure of what he was supposed to say.

“Yes Sir,” he replied hesitantly. “I graduated boot camp a few days ago.”

“Did you now?” he paused again and looked more closely at the picture, then back at Nathaniel. “Yeah, you can always recognize a Marine.” He handed Romero back his phone with his ID and insurance displayed on it. “Listen, the only people hanging around places like this at 0230 are drug dealers and illegals. You don’t want to be around here in the middle of the night with no situational awareness, especially if one of them shows up. Nothin’ good happens in the desert after midnight. You hear what I’m sayin’?”

“Yes, Sir.” Romero replied.

“I’m gonna level with you, I came over here because I thought you might be one of those people up to no good, but seeing as how you’re just a knucklehead with no common sense, I’m letting you off with a warning so long as you head home. You get me?”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you. Sir.”

“Ha. You don’t have to call me Sir, son. I was in your shoes back in ’04. I did two tours with 1/8 in Iraq back then.”

The police officer was an old Marine. Romero never considered it, but he could see the high and tight just like his, which was shorter hair than one would normally see on a cop.

“Listen Devildog. Head home and stay out of trouble. The last thing you need is to get a ticket for being stupid on boot leave and spend the first day back in the Sergeant Major’s office.”

“Aye-aye, Sir.” Romero said it instinctively. “Aye-aye” was the reply when given an order in the Marines and was completely not appropriate in the civilian world. Being that it was muscle memory from the thousands of times he said it over several months of following directions from strict authority figures – a practice which ended only a few days ago, he hadn’t become used to the way normal people spoke to one another yet. The officer turned around with a grin.

“So we say ‘Aye-Aye, Sir’ to civilians now, do we?” He said with a mocking chuckle. Embarrassed, Romero replied back, “No, Sir.”

The officer said to Romero, “Go ahead and head home, son. Stay out of trouble. Remember that you’re part of a brotherhood now and you represent all of us… so don’t be stupid.”

“Yes, Sir.” Nathaniel replied back.

The officer gave a wave and tipped his hat as he got back into his cruiser.

“Semper Fi, Knucklehead.” With that the officer started his car and drove off down the lonely stretch of desert highway.

Romero started to feel how late it was. He was going to take the officer’s advice, but he was too tired to drive. He set the car to auto so that it would take him on its own. After the car was on its way, he laid the seat back again. As he did, he noticed a new incoming message. It was Kruger.

So, like, you weren’t even aware that your chat was open the whole time were you?”

“What?” he asked before realizing that he never took off the glasses, and the entire conversation had been dictated to his friend in Minnesota. “Oh man. You heard all that?”

“Every word, dude. You said ‘Aye-Aye Sir’ to a cop? You’re, like, the biggest nerd ever! Seriously, when we get back to Pendleton, I’m tellin’ everyone at SOI that I was there when you became the biggest nerd ever to join the Marines. Did I mention you’re a nerd?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah… Anyway,” he was trying to change the subject. “You still want to download that Skyfury Squadron game? Seems I’ve been paid for the last three months, have nobody to spend it on, and a drive with three hours to kill.”

“Sure dude, but don’t think this changes anything. You’re still the biggest nerd ever.”

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 far more real a departure than boot camp, but no one besides 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 become 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. Mid-morning 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 could 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 the 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.

Proving Grounds – Part 12

As the weeks of training continued, he and his platoon felt more and more accustomed to what they believed to be the warrior way of life, the reality dawned on each of them in time that SOI would soon end. Like basic training, one could acclimate, in time, to the rhythm and regularity of the training environment. Training for what, though? Soon they would be getting their orders and be sent to the fleet. Perhaps they would even put their training to use. Some longed for getting their orders and an escape from the endless tedium of training for war to actually get a chance to use it. Those few seemed only to yearn for the real thing. Romero wasn’t quite that gung-ho. He didn’t lust for violence like some of them did. He was more worried about what the future might have in store for him, if he would get into a good unit. He wasn’t alone in this. For others there came with the realization of their looming graduation day the fear of the uncertainty. No one really knew where they would be a year from then and that was unsettling. Romero wasn’t sure how he felt. He just waited and continued his training, putting the worries away, since the Marine Corps didn’t care about his opinion anyway.

Near the end of SOI, one of the instructors, a Sergeant, came into the squad bay and called the men into a school circle. He had a box with folders.

“Gents,” the Sergeant said, “You remember these? These here are the Service Record Books you turned in when you all got here, your SRB’s. Along with them, you’ll also find a copy of your new orders. After graduation, you all will be directed to meet up with others heading out to your same duty stations.”

He took out the box with manila envelopes and directed for the platoon’s squad leaders to hand them out. At that moment, the Sergeant pulled out his phone and pressed a few commands. Inside the lockers across the squad bay, phones could be heard chiming and buzzing.

“I’ve just given you all the itinerary information you’ll need to get to your next duty station. Those of you who won’t be staying on with us for follow-on occupational training will be reporting directly to your units.  These units will be your life for the next few years. They will be your family. Everything you learned here over the last two months will be used as the base of your training once you reach the fleet. Remember that these grounds have produced generations of the greatest warriors in history. You inherit that legacy and you represent the School of Infantry. Do not fail.”

The platoon gave out a hearty, “Aye-Aye, Sergeant!” as they each waited their name to be called and the chance to see what their orders said.

Romero was lucky enough to end up in the same platoon as Kruger again. His friend came over to his locker and they waited together. Kruger started the conversation by stating the one thing already on everyone’s mind.

“Dude, I just hope my unit doesn’t suck. You get in with a crap unit and your life is screwed for the next three years.”

Romero parsed his lips and nodded in agreement. The platoon squad leaders were handing out the packets from the boxes, calling out names one by one.

Deroest, Darden, Compton…”

Kruger continued.

“It ain’t even like you can do a thing about it, you know? You follow what’s in the orders, right? Not a lot left to say after that.”

Anders, Petrizzo, Kruger…

“Ah, here we go. Wish me luck, dude.”

Romero watched his friend walk off to collect his orders. Part of him was fatalistic about it. What he got was what he got. Part of him, though, was getting nervous.

Sheehan, Rangell, Sweeting…”

The pressure was mounting in his chest. He didn’t think it would matter to him this much. Whether it was just butterflies or true to life nausea he didn’t know, but a pit was forming in his stomach.”

“1/1.” Kruger said. “They’re pretty good right? Ha, I ain’t even leavin’ Pendleton.”

Romero.” Said one of the squad leaders finally.

“Good luck, dude.”, chimed Kruger as Romero stood up to take his orders. Taking them from the other Marine, he walked back to his rack and wall locker, thumbing the metal clasps on the envelope. Frustrated, he thought “It’s 2025. You’d think the Marine Corps wouldn’t be the last organization on the planet still using paper and manila envelopes.”  He was stalling. Standing in front of his wall locker, Romero swallowed his anxiety and opened the folder.

“What’d ya’ get?” insisted his friend.

Fox Company, 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines, the “Warlords” of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The Sergeant walked over to Romero, “2/2, huh?” He asked as he spit a mouthful of chew into his cup.” Romero was mildly repulsed. “That’s a damn fine unit. They’ll make you into a good Marine.”

His words brought a hint of relief. Then, his lip still bulging with the tobacco that remained, he continued.

“You’re hella lucky, too. They’ll be deploying soon with the Second Marine Expeditionary Force. You never know, by this time next year there might just be a war going on and you’ll be one of the first ones to get to do anything about it. Know what I mean? You might very well be the first one of this platoon to see real combat. What you think about that, PFC?”

Proving Grounds – Part 13

Lying unconscious in the mud of some creek in a forest far from any home he’d ever known, PFC Romero was broken, battered, exhausted, starving, and surrounded by men and machines tasked with finding and killing him. Thinking back to his combat instructor’s enthusiastic prophecy, Romero thought very little of the romantic allure of real combat at the moment. Fighting and warfare weren’t as glamorous as he had once imagined. There was more to being a warrior than fancy suits, medals, and sword posing for cameras. There was fear, and hunger, fatigue, and waiting. There was endless waiting; waiting for the opportunity to move, waiting for word, hurry-up and wait, waiting for orders, waiting for help, and finally, waiting to regain consciousness, or perhaps, waiting to die. He never imagined himself on the losing side of a conflict like this. He was the living epitome of war – lost and lying in the mud of some river bed, his helmet began filling with the muddy water on a cold morning while be hunted down like a fox or mangy dog.

In all, he had only a few minutes of rest. Before he passed out, he was haunted by visions of the last year, a year spent in training for a war that hadn’t even begun when he enlisted. He joined for all the wrong reasons, but thought at least that he enjoyed the life of meaning that military service was supposed to provide. He woke the instant the chilled water from the shallow flow filled his helmet and bit his cheek with its stinging cold.

When he woke up, he remembered where he was.  His team was lost to him. He was being hunted like an animal. His body was numb, all except those parts enshrouded in pain.

That feeling quickly melted away, however, when he realized he couldn’t feel his weapon. A Marine in war never goes anywhere without his weapon. He slept with it in arm’s reach always. Now his was gone.

Where had it fallen? Was it far? Where could it be?

He lurched to his knees, seeking to find the wayward rifle. He couldn’t see any sign of it anywhere in the mud around him. Looking to the bank, he could see where he had landed, and the trail his limp body had made sliding down the ravine, but his weapon wasn’t in any of those places.

With his heart quickening, and while searching frantically, Nathaniel took a breath. A sudden pain spiked in his chest. Had he cracked his ribs? How had he done that? Then he remembered the tree. He had been struck by a tree branch, which caught him and threw him against the slope. He looked up at the tree again, still holding his chest underneath his heavy bulletproof jacket. There it was, his weapon, caught hanging in the branches above. He would have to climb to get it back.

Just getting to his feet was a task of agony as his body reprogrammed itself into working as it should. He took one faltering step forward, with just that simple motion pain coursed throughout his entire body. Climbing that tree to get his weapon would be his own personal Kilimanjaro. He slogged through the mud, limping and wincing from the pain in his chest. Finally reaching it, he looked up to see his weapon, just staring at him from maybe fifteen feet up. How was it possible that it could have gotten so high? He hadn’t considered that as it was, it was still a good ten feet lower than the cliff.

With his strong arm, Romero grabbed for the first branch nearest the ground and attempted to find a footing to climb further. With his second thrust he reached high with his left hand and felt the sharp pain in his ribs stab him mercilessly. Something was definitely wrong with his chest. He dropped back down to think of another plan. Perhaps he could jar it down with a stick or a branch?

As he concocted some sort of plan, the placid sound of a still forest and babbling water was disrupted by an ominous buzzing sound. Instinctively, he froze. It was the drone spotters. They were still searching for him.

The buzz was still very distant and it was moving away. They hadn’t found him. That fact alone restored him with a new impetus. Romero now fully understood the need to get on the move as fast as possible. Knowing well what his choices were, he gritted his teeth and went for the tree again.

The climb was excruciating, but there really was no choice in the matter. The injury to his ribcage cried out every time he tried to reach out with his left arm. After twelve feet, he was gasping for air, and shaking violently on the precarious branches. He reached out and grasped desperately to get a finger hold on the weapon. He reached again and failed, then a third time. As he began to consider jumping as a viable alternative, he heard the buzzing , this time, nearer than before. With one last desperate stretch, he reached out his hands and grasped the sling of the weapon. His moment of victory was cut short when his footing gave way and he once again went tumbling down the tree. He hit what he believed to be every branch on his way down, finally snagging one strong enough to slow his momentum. It mercifully righted him just enough to land on his feet with a thud before rolling to the ground.

He laid in the mud, yet again, trembling with frustration and pain. He looked to his left. The weapon he had flailed so desperately trying to secure was perched daintily beside him on the only dry rock amid all the muck and grime everywhere else. He reached toward it with the last outpour of stamina his body would allow itself to muster. In his last moment’s exertion, his outstretched arm fell limp with a splash. He felt he could go no further.

Why was he being cursed with such potent and unmitigated scorn? He contemplated just lying there, giving up and dying. Perhaps it was just simply too hopeless. Perhaps God was telling him, in a manner of absolute certainty that Nathaniel Romero was simply not fit for the warfighter’s life of trial and tribulation. Yes, that was it, he wasn’t meant to be a warrior. As he laid there, cold and in the mud, he faced the urge to curl up into a fetal ball, reject his mission, and resign himself to what seemed his destined fate. He was meant to die as something other than a real warrior. He was just chasing dreams of glory and women, pretending to be something he was not. He was just another stupid kid playing war hero.

He looked at his weapon again. It seemed so peaceful there, sitting quite comfortably on its dry rock. It was like it didn’t even care about what Romero was going through. It seemed unharmed by the entire calamity that had befallen its master. It wasn’t broken and battered as Nathaniel felt at that moment. The rifle wasn’t covered in mud, filth, and now blood. It seemed so impervious. It seemed… smug. As it sat there, undaunted by the tumult around them, it mocked the young PFC with its invulnerability.

“What are looking at?” Romero said, sneering at the unfettered rifle, punctuated with a string of colorful expletives.  The rifle said nothing.

“You think you’re so smart? You get us out of here.”

The rifle just stared silently into the distance.

“What?” Nathaniel exclaimed. “I’ve done everything. You know that?” His speech was slurred, as if drunken with misery or exhaustion. “I got us out when Corporal Williams, Su, and Kaiser bit it. I got us through the woods. I got us away from those guys shooting at us. I kept us from getting caught by the drone. I got you out of that damned tree. What have you done? Nothing! You just sit there, dangling from my shoulder… making me do all the work.”

The rifle was unmoved.

Romero lay there for a moment longer, gritting his teeth in anger.

“I could kill you right now if I wanted to. I could grab you by the muzzle and smash you against that very tree into a million pieces. I could…”

“Then do it.” Said the rifle.

Romero wasn’t prepared for that. Part of him knew he was dreaming, or perhaps… at least hallucinating. He knew that the weapon couldn’t really be looking at him in that manner, but hadn’t honestly expected the thing to reply. Perhaps he was losing his mind.

“Perhaps you are losing your mind, but that doesn’t change anything. You said you could smash me. Can you?”

Romero suddenly lost his sense of confusion to one of anger at the implication.
“I’ll do it.” Romero said. “You know I will.”

“I think you could. That doesn’t mean that you will. Pull yourself up and out of the mud and do it. Otherwise just lay there until you die of being so pathetic.”

Romero couldn’t believe his weapon’s brazen arrogance; it’s pure and utter stupidity, to insult him like it had. Enraged, Romero took a deep inhaling breath. The pain was gone from him in that moment and he threw himself to his feet. He slogged through the mud, stomping furiously toward the belligerent weapon. As he had promised, he grabbed it by the muzzle and marched over to the tree, which already had nearly killed him twice. He raised the weapon up and took the stance of a professional baseball player, up to level a ball out into the nose-bleed section. Perhaps he would get revenge on both of them.

“See? You could do it.” The rifle chirped in the moment before its demise.
Nathaniel paused. He looked at the weapon in his hands. What was he doing? Was he really about to punish his rifle for some ill-conceived plight he had put himself into? Was his rifle really just talking to him? Had he hallucinated the whole thing or had he really just lost his mind?

“Stay positive.”

He heard another voice. No, not just a voice. This was a memory. It was the sound of Gunnery Sergeant Yafante’s voice. “Stay positive.” It was the first class he gave for the unit in preparation for their pre-deployment Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training. “Stay positive” was the mantra they were supposed to repeat when in situations just like this; keep control of your breathing, focus on the task at hand – stay positive.

The buzzing returned. The seeker was going to be close this time. Romero slung his weapon quickly and bolted for the trees at the edge of the ravine. He had to climb up a particularly rocky ledge, one which gave his feet just enough traction to move while using roots dangling from the side of the river’s wall to pull himself up. Once at the top, he dove behind some bushes and waited for the drone’s passing.

Romero could see the copter this time. It was following the river’s path and moving much slower than before. Its masters were searching much more carefully this time. They must have lost him completely and were making methodical sweeps to regain his trail. The drone drifted towards the point where he had fallen from the tree before. It listed purposefully over the tree, then the mud hole he had lain in, and the loosened dirt where he had slid down the small cliff’s face. Perhaps it sensed it was on to something. The drone drifted slowly. Then it stopped. It tilted downward, its camera faced toward the deck and the evidence of his near death experience. It lowered down and investigated the mud below where he was. It panned around, first looking at the mangled tree, then the broken earth along the cliff where Romero had fallen, then at the muddy ground where he had lain, disturbed unnaturally by his crawling and flaying about. Through the optical lens, the pilot of the drone must have seen Romero’s telltale footprints. They led right from the tree to right where he was.

“Dammit!” Romero thought, crouching low behind the tree near him, just barely able to see the tiny quadcopter through the bushes. He crouched down as low as he could behind the bushes.

The little drone appeared excited with its discovery. As the devil hovered, it tilted and pitched to point its camera along the foot track’s path and leered over until it pointed straight at the PFC. It rose suddenly into the air then screamed into forward action following the direction of the tracks. It was looking down directly on Nathaniel’s position. Romero froze again as the deceptively deadly drone flew at him.

Romero’s focus shifted to the rifle in his hands. In seconds, he would have to shoot down the drone if it found him. They would already know where he was, but at least taking out the seeker would let him move momentarily without its vigilant gaze. Surely, more would be along behind it, but he would buy himself at least a few more minutes. He gripped his weapon, thumbing the safety as the little copter drew piercingly nearer.

His eyes locked on his weapon. In the last second, as Romero’s body tightened instinctively before he would have taken aim and dispatch the flying nemesis, the copter’s flight carried it directly past him. It went right over him and on as if he weren’t even there.

The pilot of the tiny drone must have followed the path of the footprints, ending at the tree line. He must have assumed that the prey had already escaped into the forest and moved on some time before. He was completely unaware that Romero was right beside the riverbank at that very moment. PFC Romero had avoided the drone’s eyes, yet again. It soared with enthusiastic ignorance as to just how close it had come to finding him.

As it flew on, Romero’s jaw hung with shock and amazement.

“Stay positive, huh?” he said through a nervous chuckle, “Well… that’s something good at least.”

He could see the direction the drone was moving in. It was going along a path back towards where he had come from. The young PFC certainly couldn’t go that way. He’d have to find another route to the objective. Also, they had a much more recent grid location on where he had been. They would be gathering soon at the tree beside the creek, and would be on him soon if he stayed. He’d have to start moving again.
Romero again oriented himself to the destination he was directed to find. It was not far away by then, but he couldn’t go directly to it, not anymore. The troops who tried to catch him before would likely be covering everything between where he was then and where he needed to go. He decided it would be best if took a wide arc, and attempt to come around the side. It would take more time, but so what if it did? All he cared about then was surviving to see the end of this mission.

He began to move at a stiff pace. Invigorated by what appeared to be good luck in another capture evaded, his pain seemed to subside and he was propelled by a strong second wind, or perhaps it was by then his third or fourth. As he ran, Nathaniel thought about the “conversation” he had with his rifle and how he had pushed himself to the brink of insanity to get up. Had he not, that drone would have found him. For a moment, he was very thankful for his brief hallucination. Best, he thought, to keep that story to himself.

As he bounded through the forest, he said with the first smile he worn in hours, “Okay Rifle, that was embarrassing for the both of us. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

The rifle quietly smiled to itself, and acknowledged him with its continued silence.

Proving Grounds – Part 14

PFC Romero was still running at a full gallop when heads up display started showing that he had reached the final leg of his personal crucible. It was well into the morning and warm enough that the cold long ago stopped being among his primary concerns. He wasn’t far away from the extraction point for which he and his team had set out to find hours ago. His vision tunneled toward this singular objective at the end of the forest. His display’s indicator finally showed the distance to the point where he would exfiltrate. That meant, thankfully, that he had under a quarter mile to go.

He knew, however, that the exfil site would be crawling with enemy troops. They were as anxious to prevent his escape as he was to get out of the forest. Having failed to secure their prey in the woods, the hunter teams would be moving to converge somewhere near areas a rescue could be mounted. Their only task from now would be in preventing him from reaching that point.

From that point on, he walked; he walked, and he listened.

The last few hundred yards were uneventful, pleasantly and surprisingly so, especially when one measures it against the rest of Romero’s night. For over an hour, Romero crept through that last stretch of forest. He could easily slink through these woods, moving almost silently over the wet leaves and moss covered earth. Hopefully that would grant him the evasiveness to avoid detection and prevent his capture. Hoping aside, what he needed was just a few more minutes of the Devil’s luck, because it was doubtful they still had aims of only capturing him anyway.

Romero had learned the sound of oncoming drones searching for his trail. He’d figured how to hide when he heard the buzzing of the tiny copters. His previous experiences reduced them to little more than a regular nuisance to him. There apparently were no infrared capabilities in the robotic beasts, so as long as he froze beneath some nearby bush for concealment, he wouldn’t be spotted. As fast and sturdy as the little killer machines were, they were easily detected and just as easily outmaneuvered by any vigilant enough prey. A camouflaged Marine was hard enough to find in woods like that, much less one hidden in the bush from a small camera flying overhead. The small screens, which their pilot viewed, gave little aid. By that point, they did little more than slow his progress further.

It was when they were gone, however, that Romero felt the most unease. The quiet of the woods was unnerving. Silence in this place did nothing to provide the comfort of peaceful solitude. Here, it failed to dispel the suspicion of never being truly alone. The enemy knew these fields. They also held a mastery of stealth. Romero’s team wasn’t the first to die in these woods because of them. No matter how much faith he had in his own new abilities at avoiding detection, he knew his hunters were far better. They were master hunters, dogged in their pursuit. They were far better at hunting than he would ever be as the hunted. He could only pray those skills would fail them, to his most timely fortune.

Nevertheless, he continued onward toward the blinking beacon on his HUD. Closer and closer he crept, until he finally reached a thinning of trees. He knew he was close. He hoped with everything he had left, that beyond this clearing, he would find his beacon and with it, the ticket out. He crept to the edge of the wooded brush, daring to look out into the open. There was a meadow overlooked by a wooded hill. It was one a dreamy landscape; one which might have been a pretty site in the spring, covered in vibrant growth, flowers and the presence of peace – the type you’d bring a girl to, he thought fleetingly.

In the mid-morning of February, though, it was a dull earthy grey. The last of the morning dew still coated the grass and the first glimpse of sunlight pierced the overcast sky and the frozen cold. The merging of optimistic sunbeams and the winter morning’s dying chill left the meadow hanging in a still and quiet fog.

Looking out into the meadow, he saw the beacon shining. There was a green spot far off on the other end of the field. It was a holographic projection on his screen, illuminated to show where the rescue helicopter was programmed to intercept him. He finally reached the end of this wretched exercise in misery.

His fears released from him. He would make it home, he thought. All he had to do was call for the rescue. Carefully and with deathly softness, he pulled the PRC-197 from it’s Velcro pouch on his chest. The Velcro seemed to roar as the fibers ripped, one by one, from their comfortable housing. Finally, he had the pocket radio in hand and fingered through the touchscreen menus. It seemed damaged from one of his numerous falls, but not unserviceable. What horror if he couldn’t. He had no signal in, as was to be expected in his situation, but he could transmit. He could send out a message, a nine-line evac order to his location, and be picked up by the nearest bird. He set the order and broadcast the beacon of his own.

“It’s over.” He thought. “All I have to do now is wait. They’ll get me out of here. It will all be over.”

Proving Grounds – Part 15

Nathaniel found a small overhang of rocks and scrub to hide in until help arrived. Minutes passed as he waited. In the calm and quiet, and with nothing to do but wait, Romero could not resist the sensation of peace about him. It was perhaps the first he’d experienced since this operation began. In the lull, he began to feel the weight of the night and the morning bear down upon him. He felt his head grow heavy. His eyes began to close as he drifted from conscience thought, to another place beyond the battlefield’s meadow.

Nathaniel was caught in a waking dream; his training and instincts fought desperately to keep him half-awake, while his body drove him to hallucinations of his subconscious mind. He saw the girl from before he joined standing on the far side of the distant meadow. Her hair and her pleated skirt flowed in a warm and gentle summer wind. The meadow was peaceful then.

Then a noise suddenly pulled him from her. He looked to his right and there were the cheering boys with the recruiter, urging him to come over. He took a step towards them and a hand grabbed his shoulder whipping him around. A screaming, angry Drill Instructor roared at him incoherently, speaking in nightmare gibberish. Frantically, he panicked, not knowing what to do to appease the tyrant. Attempting everything he knew, he dove to the sandy dirt beneath him, and to his feet, and to the dirt again; crunches, flutter kicks, side straddle hops, before the Drill Instructor shouted something else and ordered him to march.

He marched until he found himself in the back of a plane. Its back end was open and all his team was there, ready to jump, Corporal Williams, and Lance Corporals Kaiser and Fannon, who they called Suicide. Williams grabbed him and threw him out the back of the plane, still in flight, with Suicide throwing out Romero’s weapon, and Kaiser laughing manically. He flew backwards, with the sensation of freefall. It was terrible, until he embraced the feeling of floating through the air.

From behind him, he heard a buzzing sound. He turned around to see a drone spotter flying towards him. He dodged as the tiny copter flew past, turning for a moment to inspect him, then turning again to fly back to the plane. He watched the robot as it began darting at the plane, buzzing it and clipping at it with its propellers. Romero reached out his arm to help when he heard yet more buzzing. From all around him, a swarm of thousands of tiny flyers rose out from the trees and to the plane. They threw themselves at the plane, tearing it apart with their millions of tiny attacks. The monstrous horde disintegrated the plane and his team vanished with a gust of wind. As the dust of the plane and his team members evaporated away, the swarm’s attention shifted. They had all turned towards the helpless boy suspended in air.

He was terrified until he heard a loud crack next to him. His rifle began firing, engaging the targets he was too afraid to on his own. It was trying desperately to save Romero. One by one, the drones fell from the swarm, but there was no hope. As one fell, a thousand more rose up to descend upon them. As he floated on in a transcendental fall, he thought to himself, “Wait. This isn’t how they died.”

When he thought these words, Nathaniel turned in midair to see the meadow, now very far beneath him. He was still falling. Seconds drew by as treetop canopy branches rose up around him. He continued to fall as the leaves and needles of the pine scratched his face. Watching the ground reach up to devour him, he whispered aloud, “I’m going to die.” And again, “I’m going to die, again.”

Then the falling stopped as he hit the ground. He felt soreness throughout his body, from his twisted ankles, his battered knees, bruised back and damaged ribs, to a headache like he’d never known before.

“I’m not dead, yet.” He thought. “How?”

Romero rose to examine himself. Was he still truly alive?

He lifted himself up and looked around. Through the fog, he saw that he had landed in the muddy creek, just below the lonely tree. He peered into the woods and saw something move. What was this? His gaze focused closer and in the forested darkness he saw the glint of blackened gunmetal. There was a man in the woods staring back at him. The man was holding a weapon, raised it to his eyes and readied it to fire. There was a sudden muzzle flash. Nathaniel saw the round impact the dirt at his feet. It was odd, he thought, that he couldn’t hear any sound.

Romero looked around confused. He could see the movement of others in the trees. They were firing on him now, as well. He looked around to fire back. His weapon was missing. With that, he felt panic. Frantically, Nathaniel looked around for his wayward weapon, only to see it high above, a strange piece of fruit dangling from the lonely tree.

As bullets flew passed him, impacting the muddy earth and the tree, and cutting the air all around, he reached for his weapon. When the Marine reached for it, the weapon moved away. The farther he reached, the more distant the weapon became. Looking up, Romero realized that it was hopeless. The hunters, vicious, snarling and in relentless pursuit after him beyond the tree shadows would be here to devour him soon. Terror took him over.

It was then, that he heard the sound of chopper blades. A helicopter hummed in the distance growing closer and closer. The leaves above the lonely tree danced as a powerful wind brewed in the forest.

“It’s a helicopter…” said Romero, still lost in his slumber. “It really made it…”
Then Romero suddenly became cognizant of the sound. It wasn’t part of any dream. His eyes burst open as he was jolted awake with the realization that he was dreaming up to this point, but that the sound of helicopter blades… they were real. His rescue had arrived.

“It’s the helicopter!” He said. “It’s finally here. It’s finally here. I’m getting out of here!”

Proving Grounds – Part 16

The sound of chopper blades slicing the wind shook Romero from his ill-timed, exhaustion-induced slumber. The indicator on his heads-up display showed an incoming V-280 Valor. It wasn’t a helicopter, but something better. It was the Marines’ new tilt-rotor insertion aircraft, a smaller version of the old Ospreys. Inside would be enough men and muscle to level the forest, a team of Marines ready to lay waste to the enemy in pursuit of him. They could burn the wilderness to the ground along with everything it. He had lost all concern for what happened to the forest. All he cared about was that getting to that bird meant his operation was over.
The Valor finally appeared over the trees. It was coming in fast. The plane’s wings began tilting as the large propellers shifted, transitioning its forward momentum slowly into a hover over a clear patch of grass before it began its final descent into the meadow. The plane was on the far side of the glade, about one hundred yards from him then. It was just beyond his reach.
As the plane began to descend, Romero abandoned his makeshift shelter. With his weapon in arms, he began a desperate sprint to the landing point. The PFC was ecstatic at the sight of this marvelous machine, as if a metal angel descended from on high to deliver him from tribulation. He just knew that in a matter of moments he would be done, secure and on his way to some de-briefing, having successfully completed his mission. He looked up to see the pilot’s cockpit. From there Romero saw what he imagined to be the pilot inside, looking back down at him. It seemed like he was watching Nathaniel run, greeting him with the warm embrace of security he had not known for such a long time then. “It was over,” the young Marine thought.
As the soles of his boots pounded the ground in an Olympian’s gallop, Nathaniel was suddenly stopped, when, to his horror, his greatest fears became realized. He was distressed to see the plane lurch upward, as if pulling its hand away from the discovery of a venomous snake, poised to deliver a fatal strike. Aghast by the threat of unseen terrors snuffing out his own life, he continued running in pursuit of the fleeing airlift. It was then he saw a faint movement from the peripherals of his vision. It was on his far right amidst the bush. In the forest, beyond the veil of the trees, a soldier, the snake, readied a weapon, directed not toward Romero, but towards the Valor aircraft.
Still sprinting, Romero saw a mote of grey streak across the meadow and burst suddenly beside the midair beast. The thunderclap roared throughout the forest and throughout the young Marine standing below. It was only a moment, one desperate and chaotic second; a trail of smoke, and the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade’s frightful cry as it burst next to the Valor’s engine. Romero stopped dead in the middle of the clearing, unsure of what he had seen, but instinctively aware that something terrible had happened. He was desperately trying then to fathom what had befallen him. Seeing the debris flying, as the plane reeled in air, Nathaniel was overwhelmed with shock and disbelief.
At first, the plane seemed to be rocked by the explosion, and being thrown from the sky seemed a real danger. Then it began to steady, and listed shakily to a hover and then to a controlled ascent. The explosion damaged the V-280, but it would recover. The plane, however, had no chance of landing here. Romero would receive no deliverance from this bird with its broken wing today. Fleeing to put itself out of enemy weapon’s range, it started to rise again into the sky.
“No! No! No!” Romero whimpered out in a forlorn cry. “You can’t leave me here! Take me with you! You have to take me with you!”
The plane was gaining altitude again as it recovered from the attack. It was indeed going to leave Romero behind. Regrettably, no pilot would deny the morbid calculus that there was no justifiable reason in risking the lives of an entire flight crew and rescue team for one doomed Marine. The plane began to move away, taking with it what one would believe to be Romero’s last hopes.
Staring in shattered disbelief, Romero’s heart sank as he stood alone in the field. It was at that last desperate moment, when all he could do was stare at his failed rescue, flying higher and higher, that a second stream of smoke tore through the sky. A second explosion, one borne from a second round and yet another hidden soldier, ripped across the sky over the meadow, utterly destroying the engine closest to Nathaniel.

Proving Grounds – Part 17

The young Nathaniel Romero stood in horror and watched the petrifying spectacle of the dying bird. As the engine of the V-280 Valor erupted into flames, molten shards of burning metal mercilessly rained from the wing and onto the once serene forest meadow below. This plane was supposed to be the vehicle to serve as his exodus from a battle he had no chance of surviving. That exodus was now falling, desperately fighting to maintain control. The right propeller stopped spinning after another internal explosion violently hurled chunks of itself off as shrapnel in every direction. Out of control, the dead wing fell. It pulled the plane down as the V-280 sank in the wing’s direction. As it did, the opposing wing, with its still functioning engine roaring at full capacity, continued to lift the opposite side. The result was an aircraft, caught in a death tumble, spiraling side over side to the ground, all the while still loaded down with a full complement of a squad of Marines and its doomed crew.
Trapped in his own spiral of disbelief, Romero watched the condemned flight helplessly. Watching it fall, he had not yet realized that the plane was falling towards him. Seeing the hopeless vehicle crashing down upon him, Nathaniel became aware enough to flee from the out of control aircraft. What once was his salvation was now the bearer of his destruction. In his own flight of desperation, he dove behind a large rock formation. From beyond the granite cover, the plane crashed, filling his helmet with a wretched warrior’s death song – the tumultuous ballad formed from the roar of impact and twisted metal screaming.
When the sound died and it seemed the chaos was over, he gathered the fortitude to open his eyes and observe the gravitas of his position. What Nathaniel bore witness to was his once peaceful meadow with its calm green grass and grey haze, then overcome by the vibrant reds and bloodstained crimson emanating from the ignited fuel of the downed Marine Corps transport.
Nathaniel was trembling. The shaking of his hands had become a full body quake when he saw the mangled wreckage. In a moment of forsaken lamentation, tears began to form in his eyes, blurring the woeful spectacle. The tears, though… he wasn’t sure exactly what the cause of them had been. They may have been falling for the Marines inside the plane, all surely dead; or, more likely for himself, now staring bleakly at the reality of his own imminent demise. Perhaps he had simply endured too much, and there was no deeper reason than that.
Before giving himself over to the call to abandon all hope and sensibilities, he heard a crack and saw a patch of dirt fly beside him. On the verge of hysteria, he looked down at this curiosity amidst the chaos. He looked at the upturned dirt patch, a narrow scar on the surface cutting the grass. It was hard to see with tears still streaming from his eyes and obscuring his vision and the readouts on his view screen. While still at a loss, he stared at the little patch of earth immersed in dancing seas of red. Then another patch flipped up beside him. This one was closer, followed by another and another.
Softly he whimpered to himself, “They’re shooting at me.
He was becoming overwhelmed with the sensation of disbelief. He had endured so much by this point. How could his misery not yet be enough? Why did they long to hurt him so much? Why would any human seek with such a fervent, evil desire to make him suffer such desolation and pain?
Romero was immersed in the supreme human fear.
It is that fear that all humans truly fear most. The greatest human fear is greater than the fear of pain, greater than starvation or discomfort, even for most, greater than death. The supreme human fear is that of being ultimately rejected by one of your own kind. It is the fear that pushes one to hide rather than face the scorn of others, to run from conflict, and to hide from those times when other men may judge you among the lesser. Humanity seeks kinship among their own. They seek acceptance, and they seek love from others. It is the horror of a social species such as man to be unwanted, unloved, hated. The denial of humanity is to hate – to wish pain upon others unmercifully. Hate is to take pleasure from the pain in others; to see men die and take joy from it.
They’re shooting at me.” He whispered solemnly.
Why would they want to shoot at me? How could he be hated so deeply? What had he truly done to invoke such wrath? Why would they work so hard, fight so hard, just to see him die? No, not just to die; why did they want him to suffer before they took from him his very life?
He had completely lost the understanding that he was in a battle, and that in this place, on their land, he was the enemy. He was no longer a person to them, just a faceless, motherless enemy. To be an enemy meant that no amount of suffering could not be imagined, because being an enemy meant being less than human. No greater suffering has man inflicted on others who he believed were less than human, and for this reason the fear of one’s value as a fellow human being rejected, for any reason, is why it is the supreme human fear.
Romero’s hands began to shake again around the pistol grip and the forward grip of the weapon. He hunkered down behind his rock, giving in to the call to die.
It was then that he saw something in the trees. It was a man shaped object darting behind a bush. Piercing the veil with eyes focused through the haze of smoke and tears, he could see a man, a soldier, preparing to fire on him.
A fire began to form in Nathaniel Romero. His time suffering was through. Mentally, he gave in to the morbid curiosity of why anyone would want him to die so much. They hated him. There was nothing else he needed to know. They blamed him for whatever travails they had endured and now he was the proxy for their wrath. They hated him. It didn’t need to make sense anymore. This is the nature of hate. It is the desire to gain catharsis for suffering through vengeance in the realization of the pain of others. This was how young boys became killers – they learn to hate for no other reason than that others have told him, “There, that man is your enemy.” This is how killers were born; absent morality, absent reason, and in the absence of seeing value in other people. Though only instinctively, only on the animal level, Romero understood this, and he understood them, because Nathaniel Romero hated them too.
With rage in his eyes, he leapt from his cover and raised his weapon to his head. He fired with the full graceful violence that had been conditioned in him for many months of warrior training. He fired with accuracy and lethal precision. This was violence of action, an overwhelming ferocity, which forced the young soldier behind a tree to cover of his own. When Romero no longer saw his face, he dashed towards the man. If no other means were available to him, he would simply bash this villain’s skull into the dirt, into a bloody remnant of human mass. This was no longer a person to Romero. That thing was just a means for vengeance, the last available to him.
Still firing viciously, the enemy soldier attempted to lay down return fire to cover him while he frantically attempted to flee his inadequate hovel. He wanted to send Romero to cover of his own, pinning him in so that others might overtake the young Marine while this soldier held him down. Romero recklessly ignored these attempts, unheeded as the sound of rifle rounds cracked past and beyond him. Like a madman, Romero just charged through the sporadic bursts, unloading his own unrelenting barrage. Once the enemy soldier realized that little was going to stop the Marine, he dove to find a better place with which to carry out this duel. As the soldier fell for cover, one of Romero’s rounds clipped the soldier in the arm and he fell back, now stumbling in the open.
In seconds, Romero was on him. Neither of them were still firing. The soldier helplessly looked up at Romero as the Marine looked down on this enemy with a vengeful murderous intent. PFC Nathaniel Romero raised his rifle far above his head, aiming the buttstock at the soldier, ready to give the killing blow. For a moment, Romero relished in the terrified plea emanating from the young soldier’s eyes.
“Please don’t kill me.” they begged. Romero recognized the look of those eyes. They were his own only moments ago. This was what vengeance would feel like, he thought, to see that look on someone else. There was more though, he knew those eyes, those in particular. They belonged to the soldier from the woods hours before. He was the one Romero had stumbled upon and whom he had exchanged fire with. Perhaps it would have been a better world if this man had shot Romero there in the forest. Oh, but what a beautiful world it would have been had the two met in a place where violence did not exist. In that other world, the two may have been friends. That blissful fantasy, however, was not the case. They were warriors and this was a war. One of them had to die.
Romero looked down at the man in his terror and raised his weapon to deliver the final blow. He was now a killer. He was willing to kill, where before he couldn’t know. More so, he wanted to kill. He wanted to end this enemy, his hunter, and the killer of his friends. He no longer wanted to be that timid boy, so terrified of the rejection of other humans that he was afraid of simple girls. He would kill. He wanted to kill this person. This forest, this patch of earth doused in flame, this was his proving grounds.
As the hammer began to fall and the boy named Nathaniel transitioned into something else, something more violent, more cruel and… dangerous, another thing happened. Romero felt a sudden shock in his back; a sharp jolt of pain, that gave him pause. That initial bite was followed by another in his side, and then another in his arm. His arm stopped obeying his commands; he could no longer wield his mighty axe. The weapon just hung in the sky above him as his arms went dead and then fell to the ground. Romero followed behind it, collapsing to his knees. The other soldier grabbed his own rifle and ran away to the forest as Romero fell in shock. Pain surged throughout his body, gripping him tighter, and tighter, and tighter. He was overcome by the pain, as well as confusion, wondering what had happened to him.
Alone again in the forest, the only sound Romero could recognize was the crack, crack, crack of rifle fire and the pinging of errant ricochets on the trees, rocks, and earth around him. The noise faded away into the roar of jet fuel fire and the crackling ammunition cooking off inside the carcass of the downed fuselage. As he looked away from the wreckage, it too faded away into nothing but the sounds of the forest all around. In the silence, he saw the sea of vibrant reds and greens fade, first melding into browns and greys before giving way to a formless nothing.
As his head struck the earth, Nathaniel said to himself in one last lament.
“They killed me… I’m dead.”

Proving Grounds – Part 18

Romero woke to the sensation of daggers piercing his nasal cavity. The sudden chemical jolt was of such a shock to his subconscious that he was propelled back to the realm of the living.
As his vision returned, Nathaniel could see sunlight shining high above him. The light was darkened as silhouettes of men loomed above and all around his limp frame. Terrified, and confused, he began to flail about wildly, punching and kicking at the air and towards the dark figures that surrounded him. He desperately groped around for his weapon, but it wasn’t there.
The shadowy figures descended upon him and held him down at the shoulders while another held down his legs.
“Easy there, Devildog. We gotcha’. The exercise is over, so let’s just tone down the bravado there. Good to go?” It was a familiar voice, but he was completely unprepared to be hearing it here. He was unprepared to hear anything at all. He was sure that he was dead.
“Romero, chill the hell out. It’s over. It’s over.” He knew this voice, too. He knew it well. It was Corporal Williams, his fire team leader.
He looked around and saw everyone from his fire team. His fire team leader had his legs, while the other two members of his team, Suicide and Kaiser were holding down his shoulders and arms. Doc Schubert was leaning over him holding the ammonia pack and a bottle of water in the other hand. The doc looked at Romero as he began to calm.
With a disconcerting grin, “Yeah, there you go. Now you’re coming back to us.”
Nathaniel scanned his surroundings, still overcome with bewilderment. The wrecked plane was gone. The debris was gone and the fires were gone. All the enemy soldiers were gone. No, that wasn’t true. Someone in one of their uniforms, a blonde haired man with a military high regulation haircut and about the same age as Romero was screaming at another Marine. The soldier was upset, but didn’t look like what Romero ever thought a prisoner of war was supposed to look like. Romero wanted to know where his handcuffs were, why he was standing and why wasn’t anyone detaining him? Romero realized the soldier still had his weapon. Why did he still have his weapon? Nathaniel began to get excited again when he realized this. Doc Shubert again interrupted his thoughts.
“Oh yeah, that guy’s pissed.” said Doc unconcerned. “You gave those FOF-TICK boys a real scare, especially your little friend over there. You can shoot holographic simrounds at projected images all day and everybody gets back up no problem like, ‘Hey Honey. Tough day at work. What’s for dinner?’ but if you had butt stroked that dude in the face like you almost did, he’d a been done for, for real.”
Romero just stared, dazed and confused.
The Doc saw the distant, still trembling look in his eyes. “Right…” he said. He wasn’t quite satisfied of the cognitive state of his patient. “Look PFC, I need you to take off your flak. I need to check to make sure that your impactor simulator vest isn’t going to deliver any more of those shocks you seem to love so much. I also need to check a few other things. Make sure you aren’t going to die or crack up on me.” He paused, unsure of the shaken warrior’s mental faculties. “You understand what I’m saying? You got me?”
Romero said nothing. He just stared around with a flighty, distant look in his eyes, frantically darting from person to person all around him. Little did they know, he was still in search of the downed plane that wasn’t there, which was never there, and all the Marines aboard.
“Ok. We’re going to take that flak off, you understand?”
As the Navy Corpsman’s hands drifted toward the clips on Romero’s flak jacket, panic suddenly overcame the young Marine again. He began breathing heavily, then gasped to the point of hyperventilation. He started kicking and punching again, restrained only by the aid of his fire team. All of the mental barriers holding back his animal strengths and impulses had been unbound. He was just a feral beast, cornered and panicking. Rabid. The four of them, his fire team and the corpsman, had fought with all of their collective wills, just to repress him and prevent him from doing further harm to himself or to one of them.
Just as he had freed one of his hands and was about to swing, another voice broke into the fray, roaring out and capturing the attention of every soul in the meadow.
“Devildog! Pull yourself together!”
PFC Romero and the other Marines froze in position. Fists halted mid-swing as everyone stared at this ominous form making its way over to the cornered Marine. It was Gunnery Sergeant Yafante. He had joined the unit not long before SERE II training and in that short time he had implanted himself deep within their souls and subconscious as the lone source of fear, pain, discomfort and every human indignity imaginable.
“Stand up Marine! Position of attention, right now!” Yafante bellowed like a possessed demon, or perhaps, something more reminiscent of Romero’s Drill Instructors from months before.
With an automatic impulse to the command, Romero’s body followed instructions without thought. Almost instantly, he was standing, heels together, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. He might have just as easily been in formation moments before a parade, rather than being the one covered in the mud and muck of some Carolinian bog serving as a mock battlefield. Nathaniel was surprised his body would do that at just the simple command. Perhaps it only required the right person. His confusion at the involuntary control this man had over his body quickly transitioned back to fear of the individual currently marching towards him.
“Show some bearing devil! You’re acting like some boot straight out of the School of Infantry! Oh, that’s right. You are a boot straight out of the School of Infantry! I guess that explains why you went all Call of Duty on my training course and got a whole Marine Quick Reaction Rescue Squad killed in the process!”
Romero looked around confused. At first, he did not know what to think, then he remembered the downed plane. He looked over to see where it had crashed. The meadow was clear. There was no evidence of anything happening there, at all. Still lost in confusion, panic was starting to form again in his eyes. Yafante saw this.
“Romero”, Yafante broke in, grabbing Nathaniel’s chin and focusing it back on him. “Wake up! It was simulation! Holographics. It was all just a visualization on your visor. Blips on a screen. You think anybody’d give you a real Marine infantry squad to get killed? You think we’d give a whelp like you real rounds to fire at people? You think you could be shot three times and just stand here looking at me like some sort of moron?”
In that instant, Nathaniel remembered when he had been shot. He looked down to observe the wounds he had received from some unknown enemy in the forest. His hands groped around where he felt the bullet’s impact still, but there was no wound.
“Not real! Not real! Not real! It wasn’t real. You were never shot. It was just your electroshock training vest. You’re fine PFC. Position of attention right now!”
Romero snapped back into position. Suddenly, it began to dawn on him, it really was all just a simulation. He didn’t know when he forgot that fact or why. Perhaps it was the exhaustion, the simulated feeling of being someone else’s prey, or nearly being beaten to death with a tree. He wasn’t aware of it, but it had happened sometime after that. He stopped thinking about the fact that this was all training sometime after the creek, during the long slow march over the last few hundred yards, perhaps. His thoughts were held ransom by his focus on the force-on-force trainers, his enemy, and avoiding interception by the drones. Fatigued as he was, he drifted into a dream state then, more of a walking sleep; automation focused on his survival. When he finally reached the meadow, it was not just the end of an exercise; he really thought he was safe, having forgotten that he was never in any real danger at all. No longer riding a high of adrenaline, he passed out from exhaustion. He was only woken by the sound of the Valor playing in his headset on the speakers of his radio. It wasn’t just a virtual projection of a plane playing on his heads up display; it was his escape from a combat zone. When the plane crashed in front of him, it wasn’t just a projection of holographic pixels representing a failed objective; it was the grave of eleven real people, Marines, who he would never meet, not because they didn’t exist, but because they were dead. It wasn’t a training simulation. Once he reached that point, it was a real battle.

The Force on Force Tactical Training Command, FOF-TTC, calls Romero’s experience “going there”, and it isn’t an extremely uncommon event. When a trainee “goes there”, they endure the stress and the advanced simulation training aids to the point of becoming completely unaware that they are involved in a simulated exercise. Romero wasn’t the first to “go there” during Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape level B training, known throughout Marine infantry units preparing for global deployment as SERE II. He also wouldn’t be the last. Far from it. In fact, his example would be studied rigorously and the FOF-TTC Marine trainers and operations staff would attempt to replicate his experiences for future students of the program. They designed their training to push Marines to the rational boundaries of what could be forced upon infantrymen in the months prior to real life deployments. “Going there” was the ultimate achievement for a training battalion like the boys of FOF-TTC. It forced such a deep level of realism that, in theory, troops like Romero and the rest of his battalion were more ready for battle than any other unblooded units in history. Of course, actual force-on-force trainers like the Nebraska born Corporal Hicks were none too pleased when they faced the prospect of eating the butt stock of an M-27 rifle for a job that was designated strictly as “non-combat operations”.

 

Proving Grounds – Part 19

Gunnery Sergeant Yafante’s shouting continued. “It’s good, this was all just a simulation, wasn’t it Romero?” He paused, waiting for a response from the young Marine.

“Well?” he roared.

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” replied back the PFC instinctively.

Yafante’s posture took on a distinctly forceful stance as he growled caustically.

“And why is it good PFC?”

“Because I died, Gunnery Sergeant,” the young Marine responded meekly.

“No!” retorted the aged warrior condescendingly. Yafante’s arm shot out, outstretched with his hand and fingers elongated and pressed tight to one another, forming a knife hand solid enough to cut steel. He pointed with his whole arm straight at Nathaniel’s face, unignorably inches away from his eyes.“Everyone’s dead, PFC. What makes you so special?”

“Aye, Aye, Gunnery Sergeant.” Romero said.

“Aye, Aye? What, did I give you an order? I said, ‘What makes you so special?’”He looked deeply, piercingly into Romero. His presence was like nothing any of them had ever seen before. Normally, he was a calm and collected force that lumbered around the bay or in the Non-Commissioned Officers’ offices. He rarely said anything louder than normal conversation. He could be relentlessly dogged in his training, some might go as far to say ruthless or even sadistic, but never raised his voice or broke a sweat about it. The Gunny was a true stoic warrior when he wanted to be. This man was nothing like that, though. They’d seen him get into the training before, but never break his detached stare as he led it. This Yafante, the one beating down Romero with every word, was like a beast on the end of a chain, barely restrained by some force none of them could see. The rest of the Marines there on the training grounds found themselves staring silently, intimidated by this new side of the veteran warrior they had never truly known before.

Nervously, Romero looked at the Gunnery Sergeant and shakily answered the Gunnery Sergeant’s question of what made him special?

“I’m not.”

“That’s right PFC. You’re not special.” The Gunny was snarling as the words seethed through his clenched teeth. “You’re no more special than all those other Marines in the plane you crashed. You’re no more special than the pilot, or the eight grunts either. You’re also no more special than the rest of your little fire team. Wonder how they turned out?”

This time Romero said nothing. He just stood silently and stared past the Gunnery Sergeant, far off into the distance at the empty field where the imaginary plane and its imaginary crew had crashed not long ago.

Yafante’s tone shifted. His stance softened and he began to pace around Romero and among the other Marines. He wasn’t the raging beast anymore. Now, he was venomous.“But that’s not your fault, is it PFC?” For a moment, Romero puzzled over the question. Romero’s team, then standing silently watching from a few feet away, didn’t miss the Gunny’s implication. They knew well what was coming, as they had already endured hours of it before this. “Williams!” barked the belligerent platoon SNCOIC.

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” shouted Corporal Williams in response.

“So, it seems that the first thing you do when we give you a fire team is get them all killed? Is that what happened?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.” Romero’s fire team leader replied.

“Oh? That’s what seems to have happened to all of us watching the massacre. Still anyone left in the woods you’d like us to know about? Is there still some mystery Marine on your fire team I have forgotten? Did one of your Marines make it through and I simply didn’t notice it?”

The Corporal responded, “No, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“So then… your whole team is now officially dead?”

Accepting defeat, Williams relented, “Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“And not only that, your PFC was so ill-trained, he didn’t even think about the fact that sending out a low-frequency ping would alert everyone within twenty miles to his exact location… including the enemy.”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” Williams again replied.

“I’m just curious if he even knew how to fix his screwed up radio after that tree, much less call in the 9-line through the secure channels. Who on your team can do that, Williams?”

“LCpl Fannon and myself are trained to troubleshoot the PRC-197s and we both know how to call in secure frequency 9-lines.”

“Oh, just the two of you? Then don’t you think it would have been wise if either of the two of you had lived rather than the boot fresh out of the schoolhouse with only the basic knowledge of the radio systems?”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” William replied.

“Why, might I ask, weren’t your other two members trained up if only the two of you knew how to do it? Do you think that all there is to running a fire team is PT and gear inspections?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.” Said the team leader ashamedly, still trying to maintain some sense of composure.

“You do realize that for that very reason, Romero was a dead man from the moment you two fell, right?” He asked again.

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” The fact had been made painfully obvious during that long night, where they had done dozens of remedial drills until Romero finally came to his unfortunate end. Every few hours, they received updates on his progress, realizing the entire time that, unless some miracle were to occur, he wouldn’t stand a chance, given his knowledge and experience, or rather, his lack thereof. The failures had eaten away at the young team lead, who by the dawn, grew to wish Romero would just get himself waxed so the night could finally end. After it had finally happened though, and they saw Romero quivering and flailing about after enduring a death march like none other, Williams felt nothing but regret in wishing for the death, virtual or not, of one of the members of the team. Seeing him fall was a bitter pill to take. The sense of failure and betrayal like the eating of poisoned daggers. Seeing the rest of the team wasted, and having it all perfectly spelled out for the platoon’s most junior Non-Commissioned Officer, the echo of the wish to see another Marine fail was almost too much for the team leader, barely even twenty years old by then.

“And would you like to tell the congregation why you elected not to teach everyone in your fire team how to properly use the PRC-197, especially considering half of you already knew how?” The Gunny hissed. There hadn’t been a conscious thought to ignore the lesson. Everyone else around knew this. It was just one of the thousands of lessons required to face nights like tonight; one that, unfortunately, the team just simply had not yet made it to. There will always be far more to learn than can ever be taught. As a team leader, though, Williams had been told countless times over, “It isn’t what you know that will get you killed. It’s what you don’t.” Regardless, here the team was, beaten and obliterated, all made painfully aware of the costs of even a moment’s complacency.

“No excuse, Gunnery Sergeant.” Said the Corporal again.

“No excuse, Gunny. Roger that. No excuse. And not only that…” Yafante jeered,“but your whole team seems to believe that this is some sort of video game. They think because it isn’t real here that they can just run out like they’ll get a second chance in the real world.”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.” Williams still had a stubbornness even after the beating already endured.

“Oh?” The Gunnery Sergeant’s voice was yet more venomous and caustic upon hearing his young Corporal’s reply. His words were about to bite the junior Marine very deeply. “Your senior non-NCO, Lance Corporal Fannon, your machine gunner and the only other one, besides you, who seems to have a clue what is going on in this fire team, bites it first because your team doesn’t observe proper light discipline over the two boots. Thirty-two seconds later, with you still flailing about, not knowing what to do, Kaiser goes down making a suicidal glory charge on some enemy he can’t even see. Next thing you know, you and Romero are running through the forest before you try to make some last stand for him to get away. Tell me, was you getting yourself killed the smart thing to do? Was it supposed to be heroic or something?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“No, it wasn’t smart, but it was heroic. You all want to be heroes. They might make a movie about what heroes you all were today. You know what happens to heroes in the real world, Williams? They get their teams killed. Tell me, would Romero have been better off alone, or with his fire team leader there?”

“With me, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“Yes, especially considering that he’s still so boot that he nearly got himself killed three times on some five hour death march against people who can’t even fire real bullets. To top that off, he even miraculously managed to figure out how to take out another eleven Marines and a one hundred and five million dollar aircraft, before buying the farm himself, which is to say the least about losing the package, I guess, just to prove how complete a mission failure one could achieve in a single night. Isn’t that right, Corporal?”

Proving Grounds – Part 20

There was a long pause. The sound of wind through the Carolina forest echoed through the leaves.  That sound would resonate through the team’s mind as the sound of deep disappointment and shame, though not all in the same measure. Romero was sickened by the casualties he caused, virtual or not, as well as his ignorance in operating the gear, making him, in his own mind, a complete failure as a warrior. Williams was torn by the fire team’s utter devastation and failure as a unit, a fault lying solely on no one else’s shoulders.
The Gunnery Sergeant’s voice softened again. He no longer had the same sardonic tone, tearing his troops to pieces with his caustic little jabs. He was then the stoic Gunny they had come to know, the distant warrior of many battles.
“Do any of you know why we do Capture the Flag drills as part of SERE training?” he asked.
There was a silence. Yafante wasn’t sure if they really didn’t realize it, or if they were just too afraid of breaking the silence and being the one sacrificial lamb.
“We do Force on Force simulated fire exercises like this as part of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Level B to train small teams, like yours, that the lone gunman heroism will just get you and everyone else killed. You do this training to discover that the team is all that matters when you are 0n hostile ground. The Marine Corps has forced more and more lethality and responsibility onto the lowest echelons of their force. That’s you. The four of you command more devastating strength and killing power than a whole company of Marines eighty years ago. The Marine fire team is a specialized fighting unit, made exponentially more powerful by each one of you working in unison to survive and complete your objectives.”
There was a continued silence.
“Suicide, the Gunny called out to the fire team’s machine gunner, Lance Corporal Fannon, “What is the mission of the Marine rifle squad?”
Fannon replied with stolidity, “To locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy assault by fire and close combat, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“That’s right Su,” said the Gunny. “Fire and maneuver.” Yafante repeated. “Maneuver is just as important as the weapons we fire. It is the ability to overwhelm the enemy, not with superior force, but by being everywhere at once. To apply force, not like an axe, but like a scalpel and being exactly where your strength can do the most harm with the least risk to the team. Anyone can outgun someone, but eventually someone you don’t see will have a bullet or piece of ordnance with your name on it. Marines master maneuver warfare. We practice getting around them, and putting fire where they are weakest, or to escape needing to fire, at all. That’s how we win time, after time, after time. That’s how you win the ten-thousand little battles necessary to win the war. Sometimes, you won’t be in the advantage.”
The Marines stood in silence listening to the seasoned veteran, not only those of the William’s fire team, but all those in witness of it.
“Sometimes you will be the prey, the hunted, as all of you were tonight. Remember your history. In every war the Marines ever engage in, they go in numerically at the disadvantage, but in the way we trained for tonight, this is how we survive. You survive and there is no limit to the good you can do tomorrow. You die, and all that ever mattered about you is in the history books. Our way of fighting demands that you live. That’s how we ensure that everyone else loses. That’s why the Corps wants you to know maneuver warfare on the squad and fire team level to survive. That’s why they want you to know how to avoid being killed, or worse, captured; fodder for some insurgent agenda and propaganda machine, being beaten and mutilated in front of a camera, waiting to die in a basement of some country you’ve never heard of.”
That sobering thought lingered as Yafante continued.
“You have to work together in everything you do to keep each other alive. That’s all that Capture the Flag is about. You aren’t supposed to fight. You’re supposed to live. You didn’t fail today just because you didn’t get a packet to some LZ safely, you failed from the moment the first shot was fired. You failed from that moment when you let Romero go off alone. The first person shooter video game heroic, the lone wolf antics, couch combat and Iraq war movie myths you all grew up with is nonsense. It’s complete and utter garbage and the Marine Corps has no room for warriors who think that they are here to be heroes. That’s not how war works. That’s what makes money for charlatans and petty entertainers. They couldn’t care less about how war really works. You copy that nonsense in the real world and you’re all dead. Say it with me Marines, ‘XBox got it wrong.’”
It was a little absurd, some of them thought. The comedic nature of them making fun of an old gaming system in the middle of a series of hard-core war games had an odd way of breaking the tension that had been building in the air over the last several minutes. The Marines did as instructed. They chanted back his saying, with more than a little apprehension, “XBox got it wrong.”
“Again!”
“XBox got it wrong, Gunnery Sergeant!” they recited, this time crisper and with more vigor. For some reason, it was so ludicrous to hear the Gunny say it, and to then repeat it back, that the team felt uplifted, if ever so slightly.
“You all got to remember… you stay alive. That is your purpose throughout this whole training – throughout your whole lives in the infantry. You stay alive and you keep each other alive. Each time one of you falls, life becomes exponentially harder for the rest to succeed, until you reach that last man and your chances of winning are practically zero. You can’t die. Not a single one of you can die. You can’t let each other die. You have to survive. You understand me? Each and every one of you never quits, never leaves the team, and none of you ever lets anyone else on your team die. That’s what SERE training is all about… Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Sometimes, you aren’t supposed to fight. Sometimes, you just got to live. You get me?”
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” The team shouted in unison. That is, they all spoke in unison, but one was much weaker in his response. Romero was still visibly shaken. He was standing as if in emulation of the walking dead. He was no longer in a state of shock, but he was done. Yafante could tell, whether the young PFC wanted to be or not, whether he would have admitted it or not, his body and mind were done with all of it.
After a moment in the silence, Yafante addressed Corporal Williams.
“Williams. Your team doesn’t move on until they complete the exercise. I’d like to see all of you stay until you can manage to get through these woods alive. As it stands though, I’m relatively certain if Romero takes another step, he is likely to die of exhaustion or become a psych-drop for getting all of you killed over and over again, not that any of the rest of you did any better or helped him with that. Last night was a wash.”
The team was sullen, but Yafante quickly interrupted the mood of the battered team. It was important to end their downward cascade before it bottomed out into a valley of self-loathing and blame. That sort of mentality, if left too long poisons the team, leaving only doubt in one’s own abilities and the abilities of those around you. It is the kind of mental state that erodes the collective psyche and the very unit cohesion that exercises like SERE II were meant to instill. The Gunny knew they needed to lick their wounds and move on from this night.
“Corporal, you’re to take your team and prepare for your next shot tonight. Get some chow and rack time. From you, I want an after-action report prepared and ready for the debriefing you will all have with the rest of the platoon at 2000. There, we will go over all of the numerous ways your team screwed up during last night’s debacle and how I expect you to succeed next time. There won’t be any of this super-warrior nonsense like we had already. I expect all of your team fed, rested, and hygiened before the 2000 formation. Oh, and Corporal, I want Romero to finish his physical with Doc Schubert. Make it happen.”
“Aye, Aye, Gunnery Sergeant.” Williams replied. Immediately, the fire team leader set to the new tasks at hand, eager to redeem the young team and wash away this complete failure. More so, the Corporal was as anxious to finally see the end of this day as anyone, besides perhaps PFC Nathaniel Romero. It’s amazing what a little bit of chow and the promise of a few hours of sleep can do for the mind.

Proving Grounds – Part 21

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.
“Yes, Gunny?”
“Everybody fails the first night.”

Proving Grounds – Part 22

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,
“Oorah, Devildogs!”
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.

***Thanks for reading! Make sure to like and share! New chapters every week. Help make the project great by visiting my patreon campaign page to find out how you can help support the book’s creation, as well as get special bonus material exclusive to patrons and early releases: Support Jon Davis and the Next Warrior

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