Here’s one that’s bound to bring a nervous smile to almost any soldier’s face, and that’s the memory of a hot, expended casing from almost any weapon and their bare skin. How many of you can recall that inrush of air as the pain hit as the metal seared your skin? Some of us cursed. Others tried to cringe out of the way.
For me, I got to feel that during AIT. We were practicing doing patrols and we had the old jeep with an M-60 machine gun mounted on a stand. We were practicing getting out of an ambush zone. We call this a kill zone, and and that’s exactly what the idea is. The attackers stop you in it, and then they kill you.
The drill for us wasn’t to stand and fight, but get clear. Anyone not in already in the kill zone would stop, pull back, and not go in. If you’re in it, you get out, get clear, then you could decide what to do next.
Of course, when you’re under attack, there’s nothing that says you can’t send a little back. In fact, it’s expected.
Now granted, we were using blanks, but that didn’t stop the casings from being red hot. I was in the TC seat of the jeep when the shooting started from the woods. My gunner swiveled around and pulled the trigger on the 60. Thunder echoed through the night and a river of hot metal flowed from the gun, and down the back of my BDU top and between it and my T-Shirt.
Trust me, there is such a thing as karma. I was getting it back in spades for helping brand calves on my dad’s ranch. It felt like some one had poured a bucket of Ben-Gay down my back and then was nice enough to try to cool it down with a blow-torch (slight exaggeration, but not by much). It gave me a taste of what those animals went through.
I still recall where some of the burns were from the expended casings on my hands and arms. If I look real close, I might even notice the skin in the area is a slightly different pigment, evidence of the burns left on my body.
But this story is about another time.
We were practicing urban assaults.
Ft. McClellan was a great place to practice those. Not too many years before, it had been a bustling base and not just a OSUT site. What’s an OUST post? That where we went through Basic and AIT and stayed in the same unit. It’s a pretty cool idea.
One thing the site had going for it was tons of old warehouses. Everyone of them was empty except for rats and the occasional snake. They were perfect for what we were doing.
Until recently (last twenty years), Urban Assault training was almost a lost art. During Big Mistake Number 2 Allied troops in Germany and Italy got plenty of practice clearing buildings. Nam didn’t see a lot of those. The military has an annoying tendency to train for the last war. Despite the ever present threat of Soviet aggression into Europe, we didn’t get a lot of urban warfare training. I’m sure that counted against us for a while when it came to fighting in Iraq.
Today, that has been fixed and soldiers practice Urban Warfare like we use to practice knocking out tanks. The tactics have been refined and are better than ever.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today, we were practicing a squad level assault on a building.
Now picture this. You’ve two warehouses that probably dated back to WW II across from each other. They’re separated by about twenty yards of bare ground with rusted railroad tracks running between them. It was easy to imagine train cars sitting there being loaded with food and munitions bound for some battlefield someplace.
But today, there was nothing. In a few years, the warehouses would be torn down, and all they were good for now was for training.
Here’s the scenario. We’ve an enemy element in there. We need to clear them out.
So we’ve this large rollup door directly opposite another door. The idea here is we have two soldiers, one on each side of the door. Using their M-16s, they lay down a wall of fire between the two buildings. The idea is to keep anyone from going to the door and shooting back.
An assault team moves up the middle, get’s to the objective, crouches down, and tosses in a couple of hand grenades. Grenades go off, we lift fire and a couple of troops roll in spraying and praying with their weapons.
In the real world, it’s a great place for a lot to go wrong quickly. For openers, there’s nothing that says you’ll approach unobserved. And there’s nothing to say the enemy wouldn’t toss a grenade of their own out. After all, no plan survives contact with the enemy.
Also, if you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing, your buddy could catch one in the back. Not exactly a nice way to build a friendship that lasts forever.
But this was training, and what could possibly go wrong.
I was about to find out training can go very wrong.
We were set up for the scenario and this girl we called “Chuck” and I were the ones at the door providing cover fire.
I can’t recall her real name. My Basic/AIT yearbook vanished years ago so I can’t look it up that way. I’d pulled KP with her the first week I was at Ft. Mac, and that’s where we learned she was huge fan of Chuck Norris. And that’s where she got her nickname.
I think it was my old friend Doug Mullennax leading the team up the middle. As Chuck and I started laying down fire into the opposite warehouse, the assault team jumped down, and staying low, raced across the open ground between the two buildings.
I heard a cry of pain from Chuck but she just kept shooting. “Rich,” she yelled, “You’re spraying me.” What she meant was the casings my rifle was ejecting was coming down on her.
“Sorry,” I yelled back, still firing. I canted the rifle a little so the rain of hot casings wouldn’t hit her.
Doug got his team across, and they crouched down at the open door. It was a four man team, and it would involve some serious moving to make things happen. A couple of the team pulled hand grenades. I could see Doug count down. and two of the soldiers tossed the grenades in opposite directions into the building.
There was a bang as the simulated grenades went off.
That was our cue. Watching closely, I could see one of Doug’s team step up onto his knee, and jump up into the building.
We stopped shooting.
The soldier rolled in, came up on one knee and started shooting. No sooner had he made it in, another soldier did the same, only she fired in the opposite direction.
Doug and the other soldier got in, moved around inside and I heard him yell, “Clear.”
I looked over at Chuck and my mouth dropped open. Her left check had a burn about the size of pinky finger on it. It reminded me of a well done piece of bacon. It was starting to boil up. One of my spent casings had caught her right on the cheek and branded her as if it were a burning hot iron from our branding set.
“You OK?” I asked.
I think I was more horrified by her injury than she was. I’d just taken a pretty face and branded it.
Worse, if the spent casing had been an inch or two over, it would have gone right into her eye. I didn’t want to think of causing a friend to lose an eye.
Being the tough chick she was, she said, “”It stings.”
As if to prove it was nothing, she jumped from the loading door to the ground and began rushing over to join Doug and his team.
If you say so, I thought, following.
The Drills noticed her burn right away. I saw them shaking their heads, no doubt thinking she’d gotten very lucky and not lost an eye. She was sent over to the TMC (Troop Medical Clinic) when we got back to Charlie-10 that evening. Since I made the burn, I got to go with her. She was muttering all the way that it didn’t hurt.
The next day, she knew all about the burn and complained it did hurt.
I apologized all day long.
The burn looked awful for a week.
We graduated from MP school several weeks later, and she still sported the burn mark. Worse, it showed no signs of going away.
I hope she got it fixed, but knowing her, she wears it to this day like the medals she earned.