Saturday, October 20, 2007

Know your limits...or else.

Four or five of us were gathered in an Admin back classroom, trying to make up our minds. What we were doing was going through a platoon roster and selecting a super squad (or two). Our 'dream team' was going to be voluntold to go and compete against other 81mm mortar teams from the Battalion, and everyone in our chain of command up to and including the Commanding Officer was keen on a top showing. We had the pick of the litter from the platoon to attend the competition, and some of it was difficult to decide.

We tried to keep gunners and a-gunners together as a general rule.

On the 81mm mortar system, if a platoon went with a 2 man gunning system, the gunner and a-gunner learned to work together very well. The more time spent learning the other's subtleties, the faster they could get. Some pairs could get scary fast. They would have the gun up and ready to go just about as fast as the commands could come down over the radio. The problem was there was more to the competition than just shooting. When we would consider one pair of Marines, one or the other would have some serious potential problems in other areas of the 'Comp'.

Running through the roster sounded somewhat like this. "Ok, Jones and Smith, or Smithe and Jonsey. Thoughts?" "Jones can't go three minutes without losing a vital piece of gear. How in the hell is he going to pass the inspection?", or "Smithe can hardly spell his name, how is he going to pass the written test?". We eventually narrowed the platoon down to about 20 candidates, and then made a list of every Marine's pros and cons, as it related to his ability to compete.

One of the last Marines to make the cut was a guy we'll call 'House'. Lance Corporal House was an outstanding gunner, probably one of the best in the platoon. He was pretty smart, knew his stuff forwards and backwards. On the gun he was the man, no doubt. He was also more than just a little bit out of shape. After much discussion and a little debate, most of us agreed that his contributions to the team on all other aspects of the comp would more than outweigh any potential issues that he would have on the hump. A few of us suspected that we would live to regret this decision...

Humps were considered one of my strong points. It wasn't that they were easy for me, it was just that I had learned early that the best way to never have any problems was to always keep up. When you start slowing down and giving in to the pain, even a little bit, things get real interesting real fast. After a while I fell into working as one of those guys that was constantly running back and forth, hustling the 'weak bodies' from the rear all the way to the front. When you are constantly worrying about getting others to the front and focusing on not letting them fall back or pass out, it tends to keep your mind off of your own pain.

The hump.

We were staged for the hump, our team divided into two lines, all Marines sitting on their packs on either side of the dirt road. All we were waiting on was the call over the radio that the preceding team was far enough on their hump for us to avoid interference. Our packs were full (the gear inspection was the event immediately after the hump), and all of our mortar components were either strapped to the packs or more common, ready to carry by hand.

Finally we got the word to gear up. To put on a heavy pack the most common way is to situate the pack on the ground, the side with the straps facing up to the sky. The Marine will then situate himself so that he is standing with his feet closest to the top of the pack. Grasping the frame bars with his hands, he will then squat down a little and lift/heave/grunt the pack overhead, to land on his shoulders and back. From a bent over position the pack infantryman will then adjust and tighten the straps of the pack for the best fit. As House was putting on his pack, I noticed that he had opted to strap the base plate to the outside of his pack.

Now, the base plate is the circular looking 30 pound hunk of metal that basically prevents the barrel of the mortar from burying itself into the deck when firing. It has plenty of space to get a good grasp, but it can be kind of awkward to carry, especially over long distances and at speed. This being a competition hump, it would be more of a fast shuffle than a fast walk.

The first mile went great.

Starting at about the 1.5 mile mark, House started to have some issues. I was already in the back, motivating a Marine that had rolled his ankle. It wasn't a bad sprain, he was one of our 'no problems humpers', so I wasn't too worried. I told him to take it easy, and gradually make his way back up to the platoon. Working our way to the front, I yelled ahead for one of my Sergeants to fall back and help out House. He cursed, grabbed another motivator of Corporal persuasion, and fell back to where House looked like he wanted to keel over.

One of the things about competition humps was that the penalty for a Marine failing to complete the hump was so severe that we decided to remove permission to fall out to anybody from our team.

No failures, no exceptions.

It was in this light that the Sergeant and Corporal that fell back with House eventually motivated him enough to almost catch up with the platoon. As the main body had only slowed from the good-paced jog to a medium paced shuffle, it rapidly became apparent that he was going to have a hard time catching up without passing out. No good.

The Sergeant told him to drop his pack.

*zwrip, zwrip... thud*

Straps were loosened, and the pack hit the deck. The Sergeant and the Corporal then 'beer-coolered' the pack and base plate between them, and House was advised that he had better appreciate the significance of two Marines not only carrying their own full packs and gear, but his as well. He was forbidden to pass out, die, or in anyway shape or form cause any more issues. Ever. For the rest of his life.

Shortly thereafter, the Sergeant and the Corporal realized that they were now falling further and further behind.

Running back and forth, I finally got the last straggler up to the group and noticed an odd sight. We were two bodies short, and House wasn't wearing his pack. Hmmm...

I stopped in my tracks and let the platoon pull away from me. I was breathing hard but wasn't especially worn out. I was feeling pretty good, actually. Looking to the rear and just coming around the bend of the road, I noticed that the Sergeant and Corporal were not looking too hot. Walking back to them, I noticed that the constant motion of one Marine on either side had loosened up the straps to the point that the base plate was starting to separate from the pack.

Finally they got tired of fighting the unbalanced weight and dropped it to fully separate the plate from the pack. I offered to take the pack. The Sergeant accepted my offer.

Damn. That's what I get for being motivated.

Now he and the Corporal were switching off the base plate and making much better time. I was actually keeping up pretty good, considering the two full packs I was carrying. House's pack couldn't fit ideally on my back of course, so it was just kind of situated on the very top of my own. The result was that it leaned against the back of my head, forcing my gaze down. This helped, somewhat, in that I couldn't look to see how far ahead the platoon was from the three of us, all I could do was keep looking down and put one foot in front of the other.

We plodded on, nearing the rest of the team. The Sergeant handed off the base plate to the Corporal so that he could run ahead and let the Staff Sergeant know that all hands were accounted for and NOT declared a hump drop (Boo! Hiss!). The Corporal and I were switching off the base plate now. (Boo! Hiss!)

At this time, carrying two packs and a base plate, I wouldn't have said that I was peachy keen frolicking in a field of roses or anything, but I was still doing ok. Ok enough that I was able to talk some trash to a Marine that was starting to suffer under the weight of his mortar barrel.

Not getting an immediate expletive from his direction, I glanced sideways at him; he looked like clammy death, personified.

Not good.

All the other 'hump motivators' were having a hard time and preparing themselves for the final mile or so.


Craning my neck around at him I asked him if he was going to survive the hump. No answer, just panting. I told him that there wasn't too much I could do in the way of help, as I was kind of occupied, myself. After about 100 yards he told me 'take the barrel while I puke, dude.' He then tossed the barrel to me.

Close to the very end of the hump there was a huge boulder right on the shoulder of the road. One of the instructors for the competition had dismounted from his vehicle, climbed on top of the rock, and watched the majority of our unit pass by him on the final stretch. The end was well within sight of the boulder. Lagging somewhat behind the main body he saw a sight that prompted him to exclaim with an apparent abundance of motivating spirit, "OORAH, DEVIL DOGS!!! GET SOME!!! OORAH!!!"

I never did find out what motivated him, whether it was the poor bastard trying to stagger under his pack and puke at the same time or the poor dumb bastard that thought it was somehow possible to carry two full packs, a base plate, a mortar barrel, and various smaller miscellaneous mortar gear. I literally staggered across the finish line and didn't even pause to drop the gear and lower my pack. I just keeled over to my right once the last inch of boot leather passed the line.


Snigglefrits said...

Apparently this is where the "What doesn't kill you makes you a better person." phrase originated.

Sounds like you should be one hell of a "better person" Murphy!

Murphy said...


I think it demonstrates the dangers of an excess of motivation, and not knowing when to say when. That hump damn near killed me, and I was in pretty good shape, back then.