The highlight of basic training was the dreaded twenty-mile road march. We would leave the barracks as trainees, but would return as soldiers. For six weeks we heard about the dreaded march of tears. Only the best could survive, we were told. Of course I knew this was just hype. By the end of basic training, anyone should be able to walk twenty miles. Sometimes we ran more than five miles. Regardless, it marked the end of basic training, and that was a delightful prospect.
They dropped hints at the threats that awaited us. An enemy was out there waiting to gas us and threaten our very existence. We knew what that meant. We were going to be CS gassed at some point during the hike.
One of the rules for marching and combat related movements is that every soldier must remain five meters away from any other soldier. That way if someone tossed a grenade on us, casualties would be limited. When we stopped for lunch, several guys naturally gathered in a circle and began to eat. The drill sergeant casually walked by and laid a flash-bang grenade in the circle and walked off. No one understood what he had done, but I happened to be walking by as he did this. I thought it odd that he strolled in their midst and then walked away without saying anything. I stood and watched, trying to figure out what he laid down.
A few seconds later, it became very clear what he had deposited. A bright flash and an earth-shattering bang concussed against our ears. Food flew everywhere and guys fled in a panic. The drill ran back screaming, “You’re all dead! That was a grenade and you weren’t five meters apart.”
Maybe I won’t join the dinner party after all.
We began marching again and were warned to be on the lookout for enemy attackers spotted in the woods. Ah. The gassers have arrived. At each sign of commotion, trainees grappled for their masks. Just as we fell back into a routine, a smoke grenade appeared, “Gas, gas, gas,” someone shouted, and all the masks went on. False alarm. It was just smoke. This happened a few times during the day.
About seventeen miles into the march, several smoke grenades landed. We donned our masks, but quickly realized it was just plain smoke again. Just as we removed our masks, the drill instructor ran through the smoke with a CS canister tied to a stick. He sprayed the noxious fumes directly at us through the haze of smoke. Before we realized what was going on, the CS was upon us. He had stuck the canister an inch from my face and I got a dose of the smoke in my eyes. I pulled my mask on as I turned from the smoke. The straps on my mask broke when I pulled it tight. Great.
I dropped everything, took two steps away and knelt down below the smoke while holding my mask on with one hand, and trying to rethread the elastic strap with the other. It was broken, so I resigned to just hold it on.
My eyes were on fire, but I fought to open them when I realized the mass of chaos going on among the troops. Panic had broken out. Everyone dropped their weapons and fled toward the woods. Realizing this, I turned to grab mine. There stood Ron, mask in place, holding my rifle. He handed it to me and I returned my gaze to the mass of confusion.
There was a gentle breeze in the air. Unfortunately, the breeze was going in the same direction as the fleeing troops. I watched one guy running and flailing. Staggering and flailing. Flailing. And then dropping into the leaves with great heaving. I know this might sound cruel, but I laughed. I laughed hard. I returned to my knees and laughed so hard I thought I would fall down with them. Everyone was running at the same pace as the wind, so they stayed in the gas while everything behind them was clear. All they had to do was stop.
Weapons were tossed haphazardly around the road, and bodies of gasping men were strolled across the woods. I looked back at the drill instructors. They had a look that said, “Six weeks of training for nothing!” One of the drills blasted us for the next three miles. We weren’t soldiers, we were sissies. True, but man-handling adversity wouldn’t have been funny.
After the march, we had the ceremony of passing from trainee status to soldierhood. For some reason, the drill sergeant gritted his teeth a lot each time he mentioned the words, “You are soldiers now.” It was a moment of true pride.
Eddie Snipes 2013
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