Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Time for War Story

Originally Posted in my Blog of 2009

In my short time on this planet there are three things that I have found important to always remember.

1. You are never too big to fail. Failure makes success possible, if you recognize the failure is all you.

2. Love as many people as possible. Preferably not in the same place at the same time.

3. Laugh. Especially at yourself.

The first one is easy...ok..not that easy. Failure is easy...admitting that you are the reason for your failure is hard. It has become fashionable to blame everyone else.

Loving as many people as possible is harder still. It is easy to just ignore them...more work to dislike them..even more work to hate them...but Love...that is a chore. I do not mean the hippie type of hug your fellow man type of love (first of all I do not swing that way). I mean the ... hmm ... I almost shared a feeling. Must remember to keep that in check.

Laughing at myself ... I am a pro at that.

This war story is about all three ... what I learned ... and what you might learn. Oh ... If you learn nothing that is fine ... maybe you can just laugh at me ... which is also fine ... at least you laughed.

Let me set the stage for you. It is the early 1980's just outside Sembach, Germany. I am with 17 other men on a train track. It is night ... It is cold ... It is not raining. We are in training as Exercise Evaluators for REFORGER.

REFORGER is one of those nifty military acronyms that stands for Return Of Forces Germany. REFORGER was one of the largest exercises of its day. It included Air, Ground, and naval forces from NATO, and even the pansy French participated (I actually like the French military, but that is another story).

This particular night we were taking part in a night time land navigation exercise. Most of us ... well at least 16 of us ... were very familiar with using a map and compass for moving around at night. Keep in mind this is before GPS and On-Star. Our leader was a very unusual person for this type of thing. He was a reservist, he was an engineer for NASA, and he was a Major.

The fact he was a reservist was not that strange. Many reserve units used REFORGER as their two weeks a year training. The fact he was an engineer for NASA was a bit odd. Most of the reservists we worked with were firemen, or policemen. The fact he was a Major was very odd. Officers, especially Majors, did not normally lead a 17 man squad. Apparently he asked to do this. In our eyes he was old ... probably pushing 40 ... he was out of shape ... his stomach stuck out ... and he didn't seem confident. That last one would be an issue.

The purpose of any land navigation exercise is to hit all of the points on the map, and do it quickly. We had completed the day time portion in pretty good time. The Major did not join us on the day exercise so there were just the 16 of us. By default I was the second ranking person. Two of us had put on Staff Sgt at the same time...but I was 10 days. Lucky me.

Going into the night portion of the exercise we were cocky. No doubt about it. Most of us ... that is 16 of us ... had done this many times before ... and we had already found the guy with the most steady pace (important for determining how far you have walked) ... the guy who was good on the compass (important for walking in a straight line) ... and the guy who was good at reading the map (Important for walking the right way). However, the Major was in charge.

The Major had other ideas. He wanted to "try his hand" at working both the map and compass. Ok ... that is not how it is done. The reason the guy working the map does not work the compass and map is pride. No one ever admits they are lost until ... they are really lost. I have proof of this, but that is another story. Normally you have two guys working the map ... this is to make sure the first guy is right ... all arguments are handled by them. One guy works the compass ... in fact everyone checks there own compass ... but the designated compass man actually sets the direction. At no time does one person work both ... unless you are alone ... in which case .... you have no choice.

I tried to explain that to the Major ... but he was insistent ... and he was a Major. Note: Had this been a wartime situation the Major would have never been allowed to go with us. Orders are orders ... so off we went ... following the Major ... and now we are on train tracks ... it is dark .. it is cold ... and it is not raining.

There were three things wrong with being on train tracks. The first was ... we had been out for 6 hours ... and the exercise was only supposed to last 4 hours. The second was ... our radio was not working. The third was... there were no train tracks on our map. All three of these were problematic.

In our defense ... we had tried to tell the Major that something was wrong. In his defense ... we should have tried harder. If we had stuck with our original plan to double check everything he did we would not be on train tracks. Instead we became lazy and decided we would let him fail. Now we were on train tracks ... it was dark ... it was cold ... and it was starting to rain.

The fact our radio did not work was not that unusual. It was the PRC-77. We called it the "prick". Mainly because it was the size of a briefcase, used Magnesium batteries, and was prone to exploding when it got wet. I believed that it was stuffed with rocks and explosives. I had actually spoken to someone once with that radio. We were both surprised ... then it stopped working. Our radio man was not happy about his job ... but he did it ... because we told him too.

The Major asked me if I could figure out where he went wrong. I thought about. Then decided it would be better to just figure out where we were. I knew we were south of the base. Just not sure how far south. So the command staff ... that is myself and the guy I outranked by 10 days ... decided that we would just head north for a klick or so ... we should be able to find a landmark then. We were on train tracks ... it was dark ... it was cold ... and it was raining.

So north we went. After about 50 meters I had the strange sensation of floating ... well not so much floating ... actually falling ... then SPLASH! Now I was underwater ... almost got up ... then underwater again ... the guy behind me was landing on me. Lucky for him I broke his fall. We were all in a creek ... it was dark ... it was raining ... we were all wet.

That is when the radio man began dancing around. His radio ... was smoking. He got it off in record time and threw it at the other bank of the creek. Then he got mad. Military Rule #8 The shortest person will either carry the M60 machine gun ... or the really heavy radio. Our radio man fit the bill ... he was 5' 4" ... and weighed 90 pounds or so ... he was really mad ... and he was mad at me.

The Major was worried that the radio man was going to hit me. I was not so worried about that ... I was 6' and 185 pounds ... I could have taken him. Although ... I will admit the radio dude had anger on his side. The radio man continued to yell at me as we all walked out of the creek. To be so short he was very loud.

We assessed our damages. We had one guy with a busted ankle ... our radio was on fire ... it was starting to get lighter ... it was very cold ... it was raining ... and we were all wet. I joked we would need to shoot the guy with the bad ankle. No one laughed.

It was at this moment an A-10 from Sembach started its engine. The A-10 is not really that loud in comparison to other aircraft, but it has a distinctive high pitched whine. Like a Liberal with a microphone. So we began walking toward the sound.

The group opted not to shoot the guy with the bad ankle. The radio man was still mad at me ... and the Major was very ... very ... quiet. We made it back to the base ... and as expected ... someone wanted to know what took so long.

There was an unwritten rule in the Security Police at that time. We did not point fingers. We left the base as a team ... granted we were not a very functional team ... but we were a team. I took the blame ... the guy I outranked by 10 days took the blame ... the Major took the blame ... and the radio man was still very angry with me.

The upshot was that our Colonel (Rocky Lane was his name ... I kid you not.) took pity on our lives and sent us back without killing any of us.

The next day the Major called us all to the All Ranks Club for a "debrief". When we walked in we were shocked. There was chicken, ribs, and a keg of beer (it was that nasty Bitburger beer, but it was beer) . All of it bought and paid for by the Major. When we were all there ... the Major said ... Thanks. Then he left.

That chicken, and those ribs were probably good (Bitburger beer is not good ... sorry to the folks that brew that stuff ... but it is harsh.) The Major was not treated very well by most of us ... we never said anything harsh to him ... we just never took him into the team the way we should have. Yeah...that is the type of Love I mean ... we never accepted him since he was from NASA ... and an officer. When I had that epiphany it was too late ... the exercise was on ... and I would not get a chance to tell him thanks.

I learned that you are never too big to fail. I had failed the Major and my team by allowing the Major to fail. That was wrong of me. Sorry Major. Yeah...I can work a map and compass ... but I can't build rockets.

I learned that by keeping the Major out of our group I was not allowing him to contribute. I was not showing the man any love. I have improved on that since then ... and it has served me well.

I reinforced the notion that laughing at yourself is healthy ... and deserved. I still laugh to this day when I think of that radio guy ... smoking radio... and how mad he was.

Well at least I am not on train tracks ... cold ... and it is not raining. It is snowing right now. That's life in Montana.



  1. I was in Germany in August 1968 when the United States held Refoger I..

    By some remakable coincidence (according to the State Department), it "happened" to coincide with the USSR's Invasion of Czechoslovakia.