Fort Story, Virginia, a lively night in the Amphibious Reconnaissance School student barracks. Everyone is packing and prepping for another pre-dawn ruck run, one that will ultimately demand a half-marathon’s distance. It will come quick. We aren’t going to get enough sleep, I think, as I watch my rack-mate pour Endurox into his camelback. As I lurch forward—making sure my obligatory sandbag is snug in the high, interior radio pouch of my Alice pack—I hear it.
It is nothing new, really. Some quip about how elite we are, with some loose additive of being a priority in the eyes of the military. And the energy isn’t unwarranted; a 20 year old who is breaking his ass off, yet again, to go perform a job considered “high risk of capture,” some ego isn’t misplaced, and damn right—I am proud too. A corpsmen, in the beginning of his own grueling pipe-line to become a SARC, perks up. I love this guy, a total animal and who had already deployed with infantry units while some of us were somewhere between smoking pot out of a Coke can, listening to Lifehouse’s “hanging by a moment”, and yelling “yes sir” in our sleep from boot camp.
“Grunts are always going to be the centerpiece, man. We are training our asses off to be another support role for them,” says Doc.
A couple years later:
From an elevated position I could make out the grunts—marching dutifully forward. . . looking about as big as ants, as I now remember it. Kids, most not old enough to legally by a beer, who, for whatever reason, ended up in one of the most grueling occupations in one of the bloodiest eras of the Iraq war. Kids who, through an indoctrination that borders on the religious, had joined immortal ranks and were no longer young Americans fond of Marines, but Marines themselves. Senior enlisted, so hard and crusty they looked to be touching 50 by their mid-30s; glued together by Motrin and a form of hate and violence that can peel the paint off a wall. And Marine Infantry Officers, men who would write enthusiastic oorah books after retiring as a full-bird, or would get out and work for the CIA—or who would die that day, in Fallujah.
Ultimately, as missions dictated, the roles of support and main effort between grunts and spec ops flip-flopped. Discriminate direct action: the spec ops game, with grunts usually in support as cordon elements and/or trailers. When we were pulling surveillance and over-watch, we were supporting the grunts; spearheading some imminent, righteous violence.
Doc that night in Ft. Story didn’t demean what we were doing—why the hell would he? After all, he was also taking a beating to advance in the community. What he did rather was explain the central mission of the infantry… and to never forget it.
I for one never did, but it’s kind of hard. . . even if one wanted to. Ask an infantryman and they will gleefully remind you of their romantic placement in the annals of warfighting. But it has to be said—equally observable, however, is how they live to stick a figurative bayonet in the eye of anyone in proximity. This goes for all other military personnel, soon-to-doomed hipsters at the bar, or the uninitiated—the distant oglers, romancing some idea they have for the fightin’ man.
I once watched three psychos march into a Lejeune PX with their arms interlocked like the Rockettes, ready to Can-Can. The freak out these guys caused, how they stormed into the place like banditos, or a pack of wild dogs. Their 0311 tattoos could be seen on their intertwined arms, pushing some artificial sexual limit to the point of PDA. Or the time I watched in stunned admiration as a grunt road-march burst through an uber-POG formation-run. The sun bleached Cammies, caked in sweat. Tattoos, middle fingers and mortar plates. . . they personified Warrior, and War.
All too often these days the laymen (AKA the consumer) sees the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan were fought efficiently and smartly by the Hollywood names. The SEALS and the other silver screen figures, contrasted against the mediocre “rest”. . . akin to the savvy detective against the backdrop of the mouth-breathing, near-useless street cop. It’s a shame it gets portrayed this way. Makes for a Primetime script, full of the subplot and hero worship that sells the tickets and renews the advertisement. But those of us who live(d) it know the truth. . .its large numbers of like-minded shooters that ultimately won the day. . . and will win the day again; existent in the grunts as much as special operations. It is the individual, hard-as-nails combatant that forms the lethal, collective body. Or simply, as Kipling wrote—the strength of the pack is the wolf.