JP's Opinion: Agony, Misery, and Heartbreak
*The opinions and views articulated in these opinion pieces may not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of gunsgold.com and its entire staff.*
Written by JP, staff Gunsgold.com
I'll never forget the day, as a young, 19 year old man, I defeated Agony, Misery, and Heartbreak, all in a single morning, while walking 12 miles in the rain with my buddies.
It was admittedly, a very rough day. A wet day. And a painful day. but the type of day that one looks upon in the memory bank with fondness and pride. A day that others might wonder about with a sense of curiosity and perhaps, reverence.
Agony, Misery and Heartbreak are hills of legend in the United States military. Hundreds of thousands of American service members, from Marines, to Army Scouts, Infantry soldiers, and Tankers, have climbed these ankle breaking, and soul testing monuments of nature at Fort Knox, Kentucky, since the 1940s. I was one of them and I am forever proud that I am apart of this brotherhood that has spanned generations.
To describe these land monuments to the normal lay person; Imagine hills so steep, that as you climb it with your hundred pounds of gear and your rifle slung to you, fighting your heaving lungs, your howling feet, and exhaustion; you reach out with your arm horizontally in front of you, and touch the gravel road with your fingertips. These hills have broken many men, I have been told. But they could not defeat me.
I remember the cold March morning as if I am living it now. The day had been hyped up to us as a right of passage. One of the final checkboxes of graduating army OSUT training, is the successful completion of a 26k (12m) ruck march. We were also explained, that if we were to complete this march, we would be pinned by the drill Sgts. The pinning of your MOS pin on your uniform is by and large, the moment when a young warrior going through training, becomes a full fledged United States Soldier. This is when your Drill Sgts stop looking at you like a maggot, and more like a man. All we hoped to attain, was within grasp.
However; this is no normal 26k hike in the peaceful woods. My generation of soldier; was required to wear "Full battle rattle" or body armor with bullet proof plates, sleeping bag, and a gear list that makes up nearly 100lbs for the average American fighting man during the global war on terror. All stuffed in a large "rucksack" that is strapped to your shoulders and hips and feels like at times, you have a mini fridge attached to your back.
While wearing this, the expectation is to complete a 26k movement on foot (or about 12 miles) in around 3 hours. This is the the United States Governments expectation for the les Miserables (the wretched fighting man) like us. When we need to attack the enemies of freedom with boots on the ground, our asses get there in 3 hours or LESS. That is the expectation. If that's what uncle Sam wants, then that is what I was going to give him.
Little did I know, that these expectations are for ground conditions like you would see in Kansas. Flat ground. But here, in the land of voluntary punishment and the crafting of warriors, your 3 hours is to be served in the crucible of the steepest hills in the local Kentucky area. We were warrior ingots, about to be smelted.
The day started off from the top of one of these hills (Heart break) where the day prior, we had established a forward operating base. That previous night, we were "attacked" multiple times throughout the night. Sirens, explosions, the sounds of blanks firing staccato bursts into the darkness. Nobody slept that night because you were either on guard duty stopping the notional assaulters, or listening to the attacks happening mere feet away from a cot in a tent, trying to rest. The Drill Sgts took morbid enjoyment out of randomly rolling flash grenades into tents as 1 or 2 of the lucky folks, not on guard duty, immediately became the unlucky folks.
I've never seen a man smile with such psychopathic glee as these Drills do when they are causing mayhem for their trainees to deal with. If I am ever feeling down, I think of a Drill Sgt Charney, who I caught eyes with as he quietly opened our tent, primed a grenade, smiled at me, flipped the spoon off and then gently rolled a flashbang grenade down the single plywood board in our tent and then stuck a single finger to his mouth with a "Shhhh" motion.
I remember an involuntary smile coming out of my mouth,. "This fucking guy" I thought. The explosion rocked my ears and sent a burning hot, spinning metal cannister shooting around the tent. I remember watching it smoke and thinking that getting to sleep with ringing ears and a body full of adrenaline was next to impossible. I was correct, sleep did not come.
The following morning came quickly. At 0300 we were lined up and given the next days orders. 26k or 12 miles back to home, Disneyland barracks complex. Named in memory of Major General Paul Disney, former Training Center Commander, was our home at Fort Knox. The place was 40 years past renovations and my class was the LAST OSUT class to be trained at Fort Knox, for a future at Fort Benning. You can imagine the shithole this place was, but marching back to it, sounded like a ticket to heaven.
And then, right before we execute, like god hit a switch, it started to rain. To quote Forest Gump; we saw all sorts of rain that day. Stingin' rain. Sideways rain'. Even big fat droplet rain. Rain that even felt like it was coming up at you. It was the type of deluge that immediately makes you lament "fuck me", as you accept your dismal fate. What else can one do?
We lined up on the main road, 2 single file lines, one on each side of the road, with drill sgts in the middle spread out for miles. This line of men had to be staggered. one by one, the men in the lines would be pointed at, and told "STEP OFF, KEEP YOUR SPACING!". Before long, the man in front of me was stepping off, and my heart began to race as I anticipated my moment. The man crossed the proper spacing distance and I was told "STEP OFF!" and so, in that moment my march began. It wasn't more than 12 feet before I stubbed my toe and nearly tripped DOWN the first hill. I caught myself, had I not, I probably would have bowling balled 4 men in a messy little E-1 avalanche that's probably happened 1,000 times before in the storied history of these paths.
At first, I had decided that my poncho liner- a waterproof type jacket that is given to soldiers that drapes over you like a cape - was the proper attire for our monsoon walk. So did most of my buddies. After a few miles of the constant rain, the physical excursion, the poncho liner starts to act like a thermal blanket, trapping moisture, your sweat and most importantly; heat next to you. This causes you to feel like you're trapped in a plastic bag in the middle of summer. Comfort begins to leave you with simply the faint memories of what it once was. Your mind begins a hopeless angry search for what it once had.
You begin to notice every uncomfortable feeling on a forced march. Especially your feet. Basic training soldiers are not issued Gore-Tex boots or... anything comfortable, or waterproof. They are issued the cheapest, desert boots that have a literal "vent hole" above the sole of the boot that does pretty awful at venting, but pretty awesome at being an entrance for water. When wearing these cursed boots, you began to look at every puddle like it was made of mercury or lava. 1" too deep, and you're walking around with sloppy socks all day. I am not too prideful to say I hopscotched around puddles wearing those things like a 7 year old girl at the playground. But here, one could not stray too far from the expected position in the march, I had to eat the puddles feet first.
Before long, I could feel a raw spot on the back of my ankle every time my boots came down with a sloppy squishy sound. A raw, sandpaper like feeling of the wet boot material slowly rubbing away white, water logged skin. My socks on both feet, began to fill with blood as small blisters formed on my toes. The weight of my body constantly coming down on my feet served to remind me that I had volunteered for this. This was my doing. I bit my lip, and continued on.
As you donkey on in a single file line, for hours on end in a torrential downpour; sometimes, guys like me zone out. I remember being snapped back to reality intermittently during this journey with "TAKE A KNEE!" The entire element would collapse into 2 man buddy teams on the side of the road and each would take 180 degrees of fire.
You would think the breaks would be great. Not so much. One was required to take a single knee, and keep their weapon oriented in a defensive posture at the high ready. The 100lbs in the rucksack made taking a knee an awkward experience. I spent the majority of these breaks, trying not to go ass-over-tea-kettle. But really, I was simply hoping that a Drill SGT wasn't going to come over, grab the drag handle on the back of my vest, and topple me over, as I had watched them do with childlike glee to several others rendering my buddies writhing around like helpless little turtles.
I looked around for comfort. I wanted to see somebody suffering. Like me. somebody sucking air harder than me, somebody about to quit, its when I realized something that has never left me to this day; I was among some of the greatest men of my generation. I wanted a respite in knowing somebody is hating this more than me. Maybe I could feed off of that weakness; but what I saw instead was a bunch of dog faced men, eating a shit sandwich, and not even caring to chew.
Nobody was falling out, and I was going to die before I suffered them the dishonor, of serving with some no good, considering falling out pussy. I was ashamed. I had sullied their good honor in even looking in their direction with that intent. A small puff of energy in my inner furnace, not much, but it was something. Was it going to be enough?
"ON YOUR FEET!" Easier said than done, but I mounted the heel-toe express once more, and I punched the throttle. The throttle was light-- like a Vespa running on 2:1 Sprite and Vodka mix but within a few more minutes, I had drifted off into a daydream psychosis of dancing boots and raindrops and firm teen breasts. Whatever 19 year old, wannabe assassin kids like me occupied our minds with to pass a torturous time.
I can't tell you where the time went... but up and down the hills our bodies did go in the Kentucky backwoods. The line of men, trundled along in a sloppy, tired, mass.
Before long, the roads became more familiar. I started to recognize the skyline, and the general area. We were getting close to home. I remembered the area from a bus trip to a range off post. Only a few miles more to go on this road, I thought, but wasn't really sure.
Hours did not seem like they had passed. Perhaps it was the pain, or perhaps it was simply that I turned my mind off from my surroundings. Whatever it was, I remember the march entering the main post of Fort Knox and before a few more miles, we were neared our designated barracks area.
The faint sound of music floated to our ears. A strange music. "What the fuck is that"? I remember thinking to myself. I was born in 1990, and the song playing-- it was vaguely familiar as a classic, but I couldn't place it yet.
The opening lyrics to a song, that is now forever burned into my soul. I admit, sounds like a cat being sexually assaulted. The sounds of chants--- "Awaaaahhhhaaahhhhh Awahhhhahhhhhahhhhh!"
I was not super familiar with this song, and I am glad for that. Because that song now forever represents this moment for me. This song now belongs to me, and those men who sacrificed to own that moment with me forever. This is now OUR moment.
OH shit? Is that what I think it is? I wondered.
The vague opening lyrics still sounded distant but the march quickened to a pace, I did not think any single one of us had energy reserves for. However; our legs were filled with a fuel that can only come from a lifted spirit. That's when we heard it for sure.
"I WAS CAUGHT, IN THE MIDDLE OF A RAILROAD TRACK! THUNDER!!!"
It hit me. They were actually playing us into AC/DC Thunderstruck into the parade ground on massive speakers. The Holy shit batman my heart is soaring moment I didn't know I wanted, but absolutely needed.
I looked around to get a "Are you feeling this shit?!" vibe from my battle buddies. The man to my front was hair jamming and pretending to play an air guitar that was his M4 carbine. He spun around and moon walked as our eyes locked. I beamed a smile, as my heart exploded and we owned a piece of cosmic energy that few, too few people get to experience as men conquer a shared tribulation.
Before long, the entire march was singing what lyrics we knew. In my case, very few but what I mouthed, I mouthed with a pride, and righteous joy that, too this day, there are few songs that can instantly invoke inside me a visceral feeling, like this does.
We lined up, by platoons, in front of a stage. Lungs heaving, backs sore, but nobody broke formation. Nobody sat down.
By platoon, we were called forth, up the stage to be presented with our just reward. We walked up the stairs to the stage, did a formal right face and saluted our squadron commander who returned the salute of each man crisply as he looked deeply into the eyes of the man in front of him. The Drill sgts came 2 at a time to the man. One, would take his patrol cap, and into it, he would punch the rank of the soldier, and the other, would pin a golden US lapel to our ACU uniform.
Finally 3rd platoon; my turn. I made my way to the stage. My senior drill, Drill Sgt Deloach took a moment to look me in the eyes, and outstretch his hand to me. I remember being at a loss for a moment. This larger than life monster who had just a few months earlier, broken me down into my most basic elements, was now, seemingly seeing me for the first time as a man. An actual human being. I grabbed his hand, and shook it. It might as well have been the first handshake I ever felt; it was surely the greatest. "Welcome to the brotherhood." He said. "I'm proud of you Woody".
I was known as "Woody" in the Platoon because for, whatever reason, a Drill Sgt in the reception battalion took one look at me in a morning formation and went "HOLY SHIT, DON'T THIS GUY LOOK LIKE WOODY FROM TOY STORY?" to a raucous and hilarious laughter of all the trainees. My face beat a crimson red and from that moment-- I was Woody.
Woody did all he could do to execute proper drill and ceremony and get off that stage without looking like a goof. I just made it, before I started to weep. A disgusting, swine like man cry that I am embarrassed to admit. I found my way back to my brothers in my platoon, and we shared moments of deep, needy embraces. I buried my face into my brothers shoulders- and we sobbed, together in a moment of singular beauty.
Today, my country is obsessed with being a victim. I am revolted from this mindset.
From this day came the greatest lesson I ever did learn; Nothing worth attaining in life is easy to get. If it's worth having, it's worth bleeding for. Victims don't finish the march.
Get out there and bleed.
We few, we happy few