by Jonathan LaForce
No man is ever born a Marine. He’s made into one. First at a recruit depot, by Drill Instructors, and once he arrives in the Fleet, it is the Non-Commissioned Officer who molds him into a shape that will bear the burdens of this nation. This is respectfully dedicated to Staff Sergeant Potting and Sergeant Huerta. You inspired me, taught me, screamed at me and kicked my ass repeatedly till I became an NCO in my own right. Thank you. To the men of Charlie Battery, 1/12: you will always be my brothers.
You never forget that first time.
You're never quite sure when it will happen. But that singular moment never, ever leaves your mind. And you can't go back to what you once were. The innocence flees, leaving behind a starkly changed man.
The heat was always there. At night, it cooled down . . . to ninety degrees. I kept sweating long after twilight, continuously guzzling water in a way elephants might find impressive.
Entertainment was a grab-bag. Did Bizzle and McCallister find a massive pair of camel-spiders under a seven-ton truck? We grabbed an ammo can, our Marlboros and our Copenhagen, it was time for the gladiator matches to begin. Like inamtes at a prison, tobacco products were our currency of choice. Inmates also wear uniforms. The irony is not lost on us.
During the daylight hours, I ran laps in my body armor, shedding weight beneath that Helmand sun. Dumb bells, barbells, pull-up bars and weight benches got used like the only whores in a major port—with roughly the same wear and tear. My body became lean and burnt beneath the sun, trying to work out my frustration.
And we all threw ourselves into practicing rapid emplacement, muscling five tons of scorching steel-and-titanium howitzer into position, applying brute force with the precision of a neurosurgeon slicing through a cerebral cortex.
Why did we do it? To become better at our craft, of course: somewhere, there were squads of grunts moving on patrol. Their sole purpose was to locate, close with, and engage the enemy. But when they hit an enemy position that they couldn't overcome, they turned to us artillerymen.
And for one singular moment, we had a chance to prove ourselves capable, needed, and wanted. Everything we'd ever sweated, bled, and trained for came down to a twenty-second race against the clock—could we put 110-pound bullets down range, timely, accurately, and effectively?
If the answer was yes, then the masochist's paradise we'd passed through became justified.
If we were found lacking, then it had been in vain. And amongst the combat-arms branches of the USMC, you won't find the shirkers, the cowards, or the non-aggressive peaceniks. None of us enjoyed losing—such an idea is anathema to our creed.
Five months of boredom and nothing to show for it. Not because we lacked ability or were found unreliable. Simply no need for us to fill.
We ate our lukewarm Alpo T-rats covered in gallons of Tabasco and Texas Pete, twice a day. We looked at wild camels and wondered—what exactly did smoked camel taste like?
We collected our shit and piss in metal drums, then burned it all with JP-8 diesel, the blaze adding a strange aroma to the air. I could taste it even in my fang paste when I did morning hygiene. Burning shit, Axe body spray, musty feet that spent twenty-two hours in the same pair of socks and combat boots I wore the day before. And there are seventy-six more men inside that 300-meter-wide triangle-shaped patrol base, just like me. After a while, even the camel spiders stopped coming near us. Donkeys stayed away for fear of smelling so bad. We forgot what women smelled like—they became a creature as mythical as the unicorn.
There was no Internet available. PFC Schmuckatelli couldn't call home to tell Mommy and Suzy Rottencrotch about how bad things were. We wrote letters by hand and prayed the mail convoy didn't get blown up along the way.
The care packages we received became a life support so necessary we'd crawl naked across that hot white sand all day if it meant getting those twelve inch by twelve inch by six inch packages intact. A month after they left Mainland USA, they arrived at our patrol base. Anything which might melt, had. Gummy bears, known for their individuality, were eternally joined together in a 1 pound gelatinous brick. Enough sugar to put a hummingbird in a diabetic coma, and we consumed it rabidly—to us, it was manna from Heaven.
We needed more though, and in the black expanse of the cosmos, Saint Chesty Puller had heard the pleas of his sons.
Change came, in the form of a Sea Stallion Helicopter spurting black smoke and leaking fluids everywhere; that ugly, scary, gorgeous bitch of a monstrosity carried twenty-three of us off to Kajaki Dam. We were needed to support Echo Battery, by taking over their three howitzer tubes, plus the mortars, while they pushed out into the valley below and went hunting.
Fire missions every day? At odd hours of the night? Living in a concrete Afghani-style crack house? We looked at that with all the fervor and joy of a Pentecostal preacher at a tent revival, "Hallelujah!" choruses reverberating off the trucks, lizards hiding their faces in annoyance at the ruckus.
Then the offensive started. And all hell broke loose. As the Christmas carol states, "It came upon a midnight clear . . ."
The October night was still warm, and we had bedded down in the mortar pits near 2100. Sleep came easy.
That was when the field phone screeched awake, inches from my face. "FIRE MISSION!"
A recorder's purpose is to alert the gun crew, then write down the mission data and repeat it back to the FDC so they knew you heard it correctly. Precision is a must. Arty men do it by mils, of which there are 6400 in a circle, 17.7 mils per degree. The room for error does not exist. I rapid-fired back answers over the hooks at the top of my lungs, while I wrote by the light of a green glow stick cracked and duct taped into place just before sun down.
"Battery adjust! One round! Special instructions: at my command!" they told us.
I repeated the command to FDC, then yelled to the adjusting tube, "AT MY COMMAND, MOTHERFUCKERS!"
Even as I barked that out, the wheel clicked into place, the gunner's shoulder went up into the barrel and he was spinning the whole piece around on his body to align the sights on the aiming stakes. It came back down, he rapidly checked the sights once more, and called back ready.
"Ready One!" I barked over the radio.
"One ready," FDC responded.
The whole process had taken less than 20 seconds. My armor was half-buckled and my helmet wasn't even close to my head. Personal safety didn't matter compared to getting those rounds downrange.
The phone crackled again, loud in the starlit darkness.
"Standby! . . . FIRE!"
The gunner dropped the round down the tube, then tebowed to the deck. And a massive FWOOMP filled the air.
"Mortars, this is FDC. Be advised, the patrol was getting shot at by a machine gunner in a house in the black zone."
Then, "Mortars this is FDC, the observer was off by fifty meters. Get ready for a second adjustment."
"Solid copy, FDC."
I was growling by then, making sounds more fit for a raging Sith Lord. But I was totally and completely calm. No sweating, no shakes, no hesitation. Simply the mind of a man drilled in his craft. This is what sergeants and corporals have built with throughout the centuries: mortal men, the greatest and most challenging of all materials. From it they craft professional soldiers fit to wear the cloth of a nation, to bear arms in her name across the sands of foreign lands known colloquially—and collectively—as "Hell."
A second shot was necessary, and after it left the tube, we waited. Tense.
"End of mission! Mortars, you put that round through the roof and dropped the house on him!"
The feeling of elation when we shut down and went back to bed brought a strange satisfaction to my mind. Not that I enjoyed killing people, like the psychopathic murderers portrayed in Hollywood films, but that I did it right. Like a professional.
That night had been the first, and as God is our witness, not the last.
By the time we were done, the Taliban refused to go near Kajaki Valley. It was a meat-grinder, turning them into pasty red smears across the sand.
We all changed with it too; we finally knew how good we were. Nothing left to prove to any man alive. And capable of violence in a way that is horrifying and respectable all at once.
The first time we entered a real chow hall after six months of rations, a marine tried barring entry to us. We looked him up and down—we in our torn, dirty, patched-up fatigues, dirt-caked bodies and well-worn weapons; he in his clean, pressed camouflage uniform and starched cover. He seemed soft and yielding, more like the costume a stripper wears than the iron and canvas used to make the parade-slung rifle on his shoulder. A mewling lap dog pup would've had more success against a Siberian tiger than he found that night.
Tonight, I sit down in my bed and quietly read a book. My wife is asleep beside me. She doesn’t know all that I've done. And I will never tell her. Some things, as Kipling determined a century ago, are best kept from an innocent bride.
I place my left hand gently on my wife’s stomach, where a baby grows. For some reason, the baby is calm when I do this, and grouchy towards my wife when I am not around.
Strange it is that hands so stained should bring peace to my tiny family. Perhaps it's because those who have destroyed and shattered can best understand what peace is. Even if we'll never again find it within ourselves.
Copyright © 2014 by Jonathan LaForce
Jonathan LaForce is a Utah Army National Guardsman and former USMC Field Artilleryman. He prefers 1911s, listening to Elvis, playing Blood Angels in Warhammer 40K, and reading Rudyard Kipling to his infant son for bedtime stories. His wife says he needs more therapy; he says he needs more Dr Pepper and .45 ammo. They have yet to agree. He is currently completeing his eduaction at Utah State university.