Some people avoid the hard stuff. At any cost. I’m too dumb or too smart to do that. Depending how you look at it.
He’s a big black guy. Mid 30’s. Out of shape. From somewhere in deep Georgia. Thick drawl and a belly that’s soft and round from too much fried food. This guy is scared. He tells me so. We’re on the line practicing rushing. It’s this game of life and death where you simulate attacking an enemy position under machine gun and RPG fire. There are observer controllers throwing little sticks of dynamite at you. Firing on you with real machine guns loaded with blanks. Screaming at you. You get the idea.
Under a hot sun in the middle of a place far from everything you’re comfortable with you prepare yourself mentally and physically for war. And this guy wasn’t having any of it. I don’t remember his name. But I remember how scared he was. He didn’t want to go over there. He wasn’t going to die over there. I imagine him humping a pack through the desert. And dropping from a heart attack. He’s carrying a lot of extra weight already. Without the body armor. Without the combat load. He’d be struggling to run these simulated assaults even if he was butt naked.
We’re on the line. Reset. Do it again. Charge. Assault the bunkers. Get screamed at. Hear how pathetic we are. How part-timers like us are going to die. Because we’re out of shape. We don’t take it seriously. We can’t hack it. For some of us it’s the truth. We’re a bunch of middle-aged weekend warriors from all over. Called up to supplement the serious soldiers. The ones who do it full-time. A lot of us are sucking serious wind. This is the National Guard. We aren’t big Army.
This guy next to me isn’t having any of it. He’s dripping sweat and muttering to himself. I can see him coming up with a plan.
I focus on my work for a bit. We rush in a line a couple more times. We’re being evaluated. From the privates on up to the company commanders. Under the microscope. This place they sent us is a proving ground to weed out the weak ones. Yesterday a company commander was relieved of duty for screaming at the observer controllers. Those guys love their games. They’d been sneaking up on our tents in the middle of the night and throwing artillery simulators inside. Scaring the shit out of out of shape, exhausted middle-aged men. And perspective makes all the difference. The company commander took offense to having small sticks of dynamite thrown into the middle of his men while they slept. He lost his shit and screamed about it for a while. Now he’s gone. Someone else is in charge.
And this guy next to me. I’m watching him sort through his options. He tells me about his family a little. He’s got kids. Doesn’t want to leave them for 15 months or longer. Doesn’t want to get blown up in the middle of some desert far from home. We rush again. Some of us screaming with all our energy. This guy is using all his energy just to make it up the little hill to the bunkers we’re assaulting. He’s about wiped. He doesn’t scream. He mutters. And plots.
Last rush of the morning. Almost time for lunch. I watch him as we run. I see the moment he pulls the trigger inside his head and wonder what he’s going to do. We’re running across the flat open ground firing our own blanks and avoiding the artillery simulators. Ducking low and honing in on our target. Bunkers at the top of the little manmade rise. I see him dripping sweat to my left. He’s not quite keeping up with me but he’s charging for all he’s worth. We’re running up the rise. He puts on a burst of speed suddenly. Passing me for a second.
I watch him throw his rifle down in front of him and then tangle his right leg up in it. Intentionally. I hear a snapping, popping noise as he breaks his own right leg against the rifle on the side of the hill. He goes down screaming.
Later, in the medical facility, he’s content. I had to help carry him there because I was the guy next to him when he went down. He gets to go back home now. To his people. I’ll end up going in the other direction within two weeks. A long plane ride to the other side of the world. I sometimes wonder what it feels like to break your own leg.
I’ve never been wired that way. I never will be. But I wonder what might be different if I was. A lot of things changed in the sandbox. I still wake up from dreams of snapping my own bones.
Also published on Medium.