Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Come To Jesus Full Disclosure

There are two types of military veterans:
The ones who have screwed up, and the ones who lie.

Anyone who says they were in the military, and never screwed up, is lying about something.
So lest anyone wonder about me, or think that any number of times I've gilded the lily with any of my recollections, let the record show that I have, in fact, screwed up.

Let the record also show that due to my phenomenal military abilities, and the Marine Corps' incredible perspicacity in noticing them, my progression up the ranks was rather abbreviated. Astonishingly so to any number of career E3 shitbirds in my unit, but I had the stripes, and they didn't, so f--- 'em.

And I was in a field artillery battery, in an MOS where regular promotions were frozen in perpetuity, and everyone was holding down a billet multiple grades above his pay.

Consequently, for my sins, I was given my very own truck and howitzer section as a lowly corporal, whereas the TO and E said I was doing a staff sergeant's job. Screw the honor, I'd druther have had the E6 pay. Fat chance.

But I wasn't given any section. It wasn't like the 19th century frontier cavalry, where the sloppiest horseman got the sharpest mount, to even things out. Oh no. I, with the threads on my NCO stripes still cooling from the air friction of my rush to the base tailor to have them installed, was given the dubious honor of an entire section of the bootiest boot raw newbs ever foisted onto one section. I had one salty short-timer lance corporal to drive the truck, and 9 PFCs and even slick-sleeved privates, virtually as rare as white tigers in the Marines. The kids I got had been three places: the recruiter's office, MCRD, and newly accomplished, to the US Army Field Artillery School at Ft. Sill OK, for the Official Approved Class on "pull string, make gun go boom". Until only moments before, we had trained our own boots, at our own division, but some pencil-pushing geek decided we might be missing something by not hearing the Approved Methodology. (The fact that we were still calculating shell plots with slide rules instead of computers, and using the Army's hand-me-down 25-year-old tech as if it were state-of-the-art was evidently not on the briefing for Col. Pencilpusher, somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon.) As to what FA School might have slipped up on, I'll leave for a bit further along, but keep your thumb in that spot.

So, with my dutifully constituted Cub Scout pack of eager young would-be Chesty Pullers, loaded up not with dip or tattoos, but with comic books and bubble gum (I swear to Buddha it's true!) we set out for one of the far-too-frequent field training trips to work out the kinks in how we did our primary job, i.e. blowing stuff up on command.

We had the M-198 155mm howitzer (predecessor to today's M777), adopted because someone figured the Marines needed an Army hand-me-down towed howitzer that was too long to maneuver, too heavy to helo-lift, too bulky for amphibious landings, and twice as manpower and ammunition intensive as the 105mm howitzers we'd had,

Compare and contrast this feisty little guy with the behemoth in the above picture.

the latter complete with rebarrel marking accomplished, by my reckoning, just after Guadalcanal, again just after the Frozen Chosin, and one last time just after Tet and Khe Sanh. Yes, looking at that breech was kind of like strapping into a F4U Corsair, or a B-17, but at least you knew the thing'd work. But instead we had the new-fangled meatgrinders, whose range was so superb that in Grenada, they'd left the damned things on the ship, because they'd fire clear across the island and into the Caribbean, and simply reorganized our gunbunnies into provisional rifle companies instead. (Incidentally, exactly as they've done in Iraq and Afghanistan to this day.)

But that was far in the future. All it meant to us was it took 10 men to fire the thing, at least 6 of whom had to be really sharp, on the ball, and experienced. In other words, the polar opposite of privates and brand new PFCs straight from school. Briefly, to fire the gun, one guy cranks on direction (deflection), another guy cranks on elevation, one guy puts the right fuze on the right projectile, and he and two other guys ram it onto the barrel breech, while another guy brings the correct powder charge, based on the directions given to the talker on the headset who wrote all this down, and the guy who helped load the shell but didn't fuze it loads a small .410 shotgun sized brass primer into place, hooks up the string, and on command, we erase a spot the size of 1 bedroom house from the face of the earth, all diligently supervised and overseen like a headless chicken on crack by your writer.

I had, even in my brief rise through the ranks, performed every job on the gun to that point, including gunner and recorder/talker, the two most challenging, as well as being a safety NCO for other batteries in the field multiple times. (Which came about at Swamp Lejeune after some unfortunate dope put on the sights was incorrectly set by some dope operating the sights, which resulted in some colonel's wife getting a tragic and gruesome 155mm haircut on the main base road while driving the family sedan that would've cut down to about her collarbone. To preclude such a thing ever happening again, enter the 11th Guy who had to check everything before anyone could fire, in perpetuity.) So it isn't like I couldn't do any of the job.

But all my experience presupposed certain basic minimums of competency, which was the one thing I didn't have with the crew from Fraggle Rock. My recorder spazzed under pressure - his whole job is under pressure. My asst. gunner, whose job is to crank the howitzer up and down rapidly, made Peewee Herman look like the Hulk, and so on around my happy band of Cub Scout cutthroats. What they lacked in proficiency they made up for in enthusiasm, in proper USMC fashion. They might have been slow, sloppy, and bumbling, but they were loud, enthusiastic, and motivated about it, and I really did admire the effort, even as I sought to bring their talents up to par with their enthusiasm.

But I didn't realize quite how tenuous a grasp they had on actually doing their jobs until during one fire mission, while trying to coax the recorder to deliver the right numbers to us without stuttering or blowing a gasket on his mangina, I was forced to listen to the crew call out the other steps, and heard all the right words, but without actually seeing every single step.

So when we got "Standby...FIRE!", Gun Number 1 issued not an earth-shattering KaBOOM, but instead, a single "Phutt!"

The primer had detonated, but not set off the powder charge. Misfire. Shit.
Which meant a) yelling "Misfire!" so as to publicly scream "Mea culpa! We're screwups!" to the rest of the battery, b) get everyone to evacuate what could be a slow-smoldering powder charge, in case it went off randomly as someone was behind the recoiling barrel, and c) get the Battery Gunnery Sgt. to come check on what the exact problem was while we waited the approved portion of time before cracking the breech to see what happened, or failed to.

So as I got my little class of kids to form up and head for the far corner of the playground for the fire drill, my Number One Man, the guy who takes the charge from the powder monkey, examines it, and loudly and enthusiastically yells out "Charge X White bag, I see red!" (because the back of the powder bag, where the ignition pad is, is a bright crimson, which notifies all and sundry that he hasn't put the charge in assbackwards). Then he closes the breech, inserts the primer, and hooks up the bang-string and waits for "Fire!"

And the little buttwipe had, most distinctly, yelled that exact phrase out before closing the breech this time, and hooking up to fire. I heard it, clear as a bell.

So now, as the other minions in my day camp trooped out from under our camo net, and the large silhouette of the fast-approaching Battery Guns is looming larger by the second, Pvt. McIlhenny* lets slip that, "uh, well, in all the excitement, I, uh, I may not have actually put the, uh, y'know, POWDER CHARGE into the gun before I closed the, uh, the breech."

Which is how Battery Guns came to find me beating Pvt. McIlhenny to death with his own kevlar helmet, cursing a blue streak in a fury of blind rage as I swung again and again.

And now, clued in to the cause of the problem, the guilty party, the powder bag in question over on the powder pallet where it wasn't supposed to be, and visions of being relieved, demoted, laughed at, and shat upon from a great height by a malevolent Fate, I was spurred to feats of speed and fraud I didn't know I possessed. It's truly amazing how clearly you can think with your own golf cleats firmly embedded in your manly bits.

"McIlhenny, I'll deal with you later. STFU about this, and fall out with the others. Got that?!?"
"Aye aye, corporal.!" Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, sir.
And he double-timed towards Guns, happy to leave me, quite literally, holding the bag.
The unfired, never-placed-into-the-breech powder bag.
Which gave me, with adrenaline and the nerves of a cat-burglar, just barely enough time to grab the forgotten bag of powder, step smartly to the breech, and shove it waaaaaay too far up inside, compared to where it ought to have been. Then quietly close the breech, just in time to re-open it as Battery Guns stepped around the truck to see me reach waaaaay up too far and pull it back out.
In violation of about five specific safety rules, and at risk of my life, IF ONLY THE G**D***** POWDER BAG HAD BEEN THERE WHERE IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

So in fact, at zero risk of any ignition, and frankly quasi-looking forward to the simple escape of being immolated had a smoldering powder bag actually been inside, I was simply covering my own ass.

"What happened?"

I couldn't lie to the Battery Gunnery Sergeant, because a) he'd kill me in 0.2 seconds, when he inevitably detected the lie, b) I'd disappoint him, which would have been a betrayal beyond the pale of even self-preservation, and c) I'm not that much of a total shit.

So I simply told the truth, but with a measure of economy.

"Charge was way too far from the primer, Gunny." Well yes. About 20 FEET too far from the primer, but I'll deal with that and Pvt. Brainfart McIlhenny later on.

"You shouldn't have opened that breech so soon, shoulda waited five minutes. Coulda back-flashed on ya."

"I know Gunny, but I had a feeling my Number One was a little sloppy in placing it correctly."
Yeah, his Death Row confession sort of made that one a no-brainer too.
"I'll see to it it won't happen again." Oh, you can damn betcha on THAT score...

"Okay, fall out to the rear, you know the drill. We'll count to 5 minutes, and refire it. Here's a fresh primer."

Left foot, right foot, breathe slo-o-o-o-o-w-l-y. Keep walking, act casual, try not to have a stroke.
And as he rounds third and heads towards the plate, the throw from centerfield is.....NOT in time!

I nodded at Pvt Brainfart, and we stepped aside while I explained the facts of life.
"Pvt. Brainfart, relax. I'm not going to kill you today, and the Plt. Cmdr. isn't going to kill me either, or relieve either of us. You won't be digging any tank traps during your free time with a spoon or an e-tool either, but you will be doing two things.
You will hold every powder charge up high until I indicate to you that I have visually verified its location and strength, and you will then insert it into the breech, and then and only then may you close the breech, give your speech, and stand by to fire.
And you will take all details of your sordid involvement in this little mishap with you TO YOUR GRAVE, without ever mentioning it to another living soul, so help you God. Or I'll kill you, and me, and then haunt you for eternity. Are we on the same page now?"

"Oh yes we are corporal. I swear it'll never happen again. Because...because it didn't happen,...did it?"

It's a Marine tradition that the scarlet red "blood stripes" of Marine NCO and officer's dress blue trousers are there to commemorate the bloody toll of battle leaders at Chapultepec. But the reality, I'm realizing in about 5 seconds after assuming the mantle, is that they resulted from countless generations, probably going back to the very first sergeant on a fledgling American frigate in 1775, experiencing a torrent of blood pouring from his ears as the men in his charge not only came up with ways to make his head explode he hadn't thought of, but came up with ways to do it he hadn't even imagined were humanly possible.

Once you allow for that, and stuff some cotton balls in your ears to staunch the blood flow, this NCO leadership supervision stuff isn't that hard.

*No, not his actual name.


Anonymous said...

I've never been around stupid people who were supposed to make something go bang and failed but I have been around stupid people who were supposed to avoid making something go bang and failed. I feel your pain.

Dave said...

Aesop, I wonder if you ever got the other end of that Swamp Lejeune story. The outcome was bad but Marines ran to the wounded.

Aesop said...


Of that I have no doubt. That's what Marines do.

Do tell, or feel free to link to a blogpost.

Dave said...

Text of the citation:

United States Marine Corps
Certificate of Commendation
takes pleasure in commending
superior performance in the execution of his duties as Systems Engineer, Tactical Warfare Simulation Evaluation and Analysis System on 6 October 1982. At 1154 responding to what sounded like an artillery shell impacting nearby and without regard for his own personal safety, he immediately rushed toward the cloud of smoke to determine if there were any casulties. While moving toward the impact area, there was a second explosion and fragments from this round struck a civilian automobile traveling on Lyman Road critically wounding the female driver. He unhesitantly assisted with emergency first aid and together with a Navy Corpsman placed the victim in a field ambulance. Mr. MUMM and the corpsman accompanied the victim during the movement to the Navy Regional Medical Center. He continued his humanitarian efforts at the hospital where he and Corporal LAMB provided words of encouragement, comfort and rendered assistance to the victim's two daughters, the youngest having been in the vehicle with her mother. Mr. MUMM's swift reaction, disregard for personal safety, compassion and obvious concern for the well-being of others reflected great credit on himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

18 February 1983
Major General, U.S. Marine Corps

Dave said...

Email from my father, addressed to Aesop:

I think your story was hugely amusing and that you have the ability to produce something readable and meaningful. However, I do have one bone to pick with the narrative:

Regarding the comment about the civilian casualty at Camp Lejeune in October 1982--I, along with dozens of others that day, were on the receiving end of those two rounds. I was the second person to the lady's car--BTW she wasn't just some "bird colonel's wife." She had a name (Theresa Slovik) and she had three daughters (one who was with her in the car that day, but who miraculously avoided injury). And she had a life--a life that wasn't supposed to end at 42. A life that wasn't intended to become a punch line in some story. And Theresa didn't get "a haircut" or even have her head blown off. Maybe that would have been more merciful. NO! She was struck in the left temple by a small piece of shrapnel. which traversed her brain--coming to rest just under the skull on the opposite side of her head. So Theresa didn't die right there. In fact, we took her as far as the Industrial Area by field ambulance. There we rendezvoused with a real ambulance that took her the rest of the way to the old hospital at Camp Lejeune. All the way there, Theresa struggled to breathe and tried to get off the stretcher. Three of us held her to the stretcher in the back of the field ambulance. Theresa didn't die then--and she didn't die on the way to the hospital. In fact, she didn't die at Camp Lejeune. She made it by helicopter to Portsmouth VA and expired late that afternoon. I don't think she has real conscious thought about what had happened or what was happening, but I know that her physical body suffered and struggled. During the course of that afternoon, I met Theresa's youngest, who had been with her mother, and another of her daughters--and her husband. That little charge error that was a punch line in this story killed Theresa, but it also blew a hole in many other lives that day.

I spent nine plus years in the Corps (BTW I made Sergeant in 25 months and SSGT when I was a month into my fifth year, so I know it's possible to move up quickly). When I got out of the Marines, I was recruited to help run a war gaming system at Camp Lejeune. At the time of this fatal accident, October 1982, I was five years into a seven-plus year stint as a civilian contractor running a war gaming system for the Marines at Lejeune. I spent EVERY HOUR OF EVERY WORKING DAY in the training area at Lejeune. In that time we were hit twice by errant artillery, (two eight inch rounds--azimuth error) and two 155 rounds--the second of which killed the civilian woman/wife/mother/teacher/and valued member of her community. Also, we once had a relatively near miss with a napalm drop (a couple of hundred yards is FAR TOO CLOSE when you're talking napalm!), we had an 81mm mortar land just down the road--not danger close, and also found a blue practice bomb in the site one day. I know that it takes training and practice and even some errors to hone the skills needed to be successful in combat--and I also have seen the awful cost that sometimes attends the slip-ups. I think the story would have been more effective had you not treated this tragedy so lightly.

Semper Fidelis

Aesop said...

I treated it far from lightly, nor as any such punchline, but rather as barely relevant.

Not having been anywhere near either Camp Lejeune or the entire Marine Corps at the time of that incident, being a happy civilian some seven or so states away, it remains so, other than to note that my impression of what happened is essentially correct.

Except to those related to the victim, or those at one end or the other of that artillery fire on the day, like your father, it is a matter best left to ancient history, which lack of detail was exactly the manner it was subsequently passed down by that same Marine Corps at the time I arrived in the vicinity.

I appreciate the further information, I regret the loss of anyone's life in a peacetime training accident, especially a civilian dependent, and applaud your father's well-commended response to same, but it has jack-all to do with anything I wrote, except to note its occurrence in passing.

It frankly means no more to me, or anyone else, than the details of any fatal accident anywhere, at any time, which is that far removed.

Best Wishes

Carolyn said...

Thank you for helping me and my family that tragic day and for honoring my mother‘s memory. This was very painful to read but I am thankful for these details. Thank you for your service, heroism, and courage. May God bless you!

- From the little girl in the car

Aesop said...

And that response ^^, gentle readers, is why we left all sides of the story up in comments in perpetuity.