Friday, November 23, 2007

Service Lessons

About a week ago a friend I know from the Hill nonchalantly said that he'd wished he'd joined the service when he was younger because, as he said, "These military guys seem to have their act together." I thought, yeah, don't they?

I spent the summer of 1989 at Ft. Benning, Georgia, Home of the Infantry, in BCT, or Basic Combat Training. I was one of 40 in a platoon of guys in fatigues -- 4th Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 37th Infantry Regiment. BCT was followed by 14 years in the Army Reserve and the Army Guard as an enlisted man, where I performed routine duty interrupted by occasional bursts of brilliance doing KP, driving Humvees to pick up stranded seniors in snowstorms, and pulling guard duty at midnight on vast, remote bases all over the United States.

The amazing thing about the Army – the military in general -- that most who have never served don't ever realize, is the ability to take raw young men, utterly diverse in backgrounds and skills and behaviors, and teach them to become proficient at complex, detailed endeavors under extreme circumstances. I once heard a general say that a 19-year-old on patrol makes more far reaching national security decisions in 10 minutes than an academic egghead desk jockey in Washington makes in a lifetime.

Just imagine taking 120 people off the street: Here’s an M-16 rifle. In several days, you will be required to learn it as well as the people who built it, break it down into pieces as small as a pin, meticulously clean every part, assemble it back together and fire and hit targets 300 meters away – at dusk as the wind is blowing up dust from the firing range.

It starts with the M-16 – and it never ends. M-60 machine guns, M-240 grenade launchers, 60 mm mortars, TOWs – and that’s just some the equipment the grunt masters. Think about what it takes to drive a tank, fire an artillery piece, fly a helicopter.

Then there are the other endless realms of the infantryman -- read grid coordinates on a map and mark positions within feet; operate a radio on endlessly shifting frequencies; walk miles of terrain with a compass; treat wounds; recognize a minefield or an IED; handle explosives. The expectations are always high because the drill sergeants will ride you until you get it.

One day, 4th platoon was randomly chosen to be a test unit for the-then prototype AT-4 antitank weapon. All 40 of us were marched to a huge gunnery area, instructed in the use of the tube’s aiming and firing mechanisms, watched over by a cadre of clipboard-holding civilians, and told to fire away at targets hundreds of meters down range, where every round was tracked and noted. We'd been in Basic for four weeks.

As hackneyed as it sounds, every platoon is out of Hollywood central casting. The suburban white guy, the brother from the 'hood, the earnest geek, a quiet, methodical Hispanic, the country boy, the joker. You are all thrown together in true man’s environment. The conditions are simple and harsh. Yeah, there's some groaning, but it's not sustained. Remember, these guys are volunteers – these are guys who follow directions, like the rough and tumble, yearn for the camaraderie. Throughout it all are the indomitable drill sergeants, yelling and screaming at us all.

Looking back nearly 20 years, I recall the countless lessons, realized and unrealized then – mastering tough tasks, being in put in charge of your fellows, making mistakes, the physical punishment --- at the root of military training. Here’s a harmless example: An entire battalion worth of two-man tents spread across a field with the starting point being a 2-foot post hammered into the Georgia clay by an NCO. From this post, in precise form, all the tents were laid out exactly three feet apart on all sides, in a huge grid. After two hours of everyone staking out their tents, rope lines, digging small drainage trenches around the tents, every tent was in a perfect line from the starting point of that one stake.

The drill sergeant then called us into formation in view of the stake, yanked it out of the ground, moved it one foot over, pounded it into the ground, and said he’d made a mistake and that all the tents would have to correspond to the new marking. It was in indescribable shock that we all looked at that stake. Every tent, the ropes and ditches had to be moved a foot over, which meant the whole field of 400 tents had to be taken down and put up in perfect lines again. My mind reeled at the thought of the whole process -- it was already night, we had to eat, break down weapons, set guards, and get up at 4 a.m. the next day, and it was already raining. Only later did I realize there were a lot of lessons to be drawn from this -- perseverance, adaptation, teamwork.

I recall dozens of these kinds of unyielding exercises in the training I received: the air assault course where the rock hard NCOs got us to the top of a 120-foot repelling structure and drawled, "If you don't wanna go off my tower, go back down the ladder and there's a truck there that'll take you home to mama." There was the two week "school" with Special Forces and Rangers in Martinique (I was deadweight for the SF and Rangers but the training was centered around water courses and I made the cut because I was a good swimmer) where we scoured the island at night, lived in the field, and blew off enough smoke grenades to obscure Miami.

Throughout all this, and as large as an institution as the military is, I was always impressed with my fellow soldiers, virtually every one of them. And this was just the reserves; my respect for active duty guys was and is boundless.

Now, as I talked with my Hill friend about the service, I told him to go read the Washington Post obituary of a soldier killed in Iraq, Army 2nd Lieutenant Christopher Loudon of Brockport, PA, of the 4th Infantry Division. To paraphrase the words of someone who knew him, Loudon was always able to confront a miserable situation with calm and find a way to lead everyone out of it.

It was a keen observation of what the service produces and instills. A mixture of courage and savvy, talent and foresight, leadership and decisiveness. It would be inaccurate to say it's in every soldier -- I'm not sure those qualities are in me. But it's the ideal, and along with military service, few other institutions in American life -- law enforcement, fire and rescue, medicine -- prepare an individual to confront an awful, seemingly hopeless scene and immediately gather the resolve to drive on and inspire those around him.

Most important, it's that ethos we have going on every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kosovo and Korea and every other place where you find a platoon of guys in fatigues.