It was hot. But then again, I thought, the desert was supposed to be hot. Being a Southern boy, I had a natural advantage – the heat I was used to was hot and humid; this was hot and dry. Makes a difference.
When I’d first arrived I’d noticed a lot of the Marines had a white stripe painted down their back. What?, I’d wondered, riding in the back of the deuce and a half. I’d seen mortars on the way – unexploded shells, their backs arced into the desert pan; their tails thrust up like little fish diving into the sand.
“You gotta watch those!” our platoon commander had shouted over the noise of the truck and wind. Us men stood or sat; bobbing up and down, legs weaving as the truck pitched over the sand, engine whining and groaning. The hard bench seat below me spanked my ass as we jumped up and down across the small rises in what, I humorously thought, had become our road. But I was paying attention. These kind of details could save my life.
“Those are unexploded ordinance!” he screamed, pointing across the sand. It looked liked a thousand of them – tiny fins scattered across the desert. Here and there you could see the sand splash where one of them had exploded. “You’re gonna be training in an impact zone!” he warned, waving at the wide desert beyond. “Welcome to the Corridor!”
And there we were.
I’d known I was in the desert the morning before, when I’d awaken to find my bunkmate fishing a sidewinder out from beneath his bunk. You couldn’t kill them – that was against the law (California law) – and the Marine Corps would be fined $75 for every one you killed. He’d fetched the snake by the tail and walked it out into the desert, holding it in an outstretched hand. It had lunged to try to kill him, but it failed. Throwing it into the desert, he’d returned, both laughing and disgusted.
“Damn thing nearly got me,” he said, limping across the sand.
Tent city. City of the zombie damned. But it was better than what was coming – a lot better – and yet I loved it. All of it.
Military was in my blood.
Army bred and Army born, I’d become tired of what I’d come to see as the “Cub Scouts”. I had wanted to be a true soldier; ever since I was five. It wasn’t until I was eight that I tried – really tried – to impress my dad. And it failed.
Maybe this sort of thing would impress him, I’d thought (mistakenly – he punched me out and my momma kicked me when they’d found I’d joined the Marines. Just a hint of what was to follow – and a taste of my distant past.) I was 17.
My brother had failed in this game – becoming a Marine. Oh yeah, he’d become one – then finding out that it wasn’t the neat and orderly game – with everyone becoming robots; sitting there on their footlockers, long gleaming guns poised, waiting the call to war – instead being a bunch of rowdy teenagers bored beyond tears between bursts of screaming excitement; nights of rowdy drunkenness – and then days of doing it again.
We called it ‘training’. The Marines called it ‘real’.
And we played hard.
This was PHIBLEX … some number. We’d participated in so many Phiblex’s we’d done lost count. Overrun by the ‘enemy’ – often our fellow Marines (and once a bunch of boy soldiers) – we’d retreat and run – though there is no command to ‘retreat’ in the Marines – there’s just “Bug Out!” and “Attack to the Rear!”. Of the two, I’d always preferred the first one. It’s much easier to ‘bug out’ before they’d get you.
The incoming Marines (our ‘enemy’) – had no fear (just like us) – and a hard attitude (just like us) – and would swarm over our encampment, ‘capturing’ Marines and torturing them, or just trashing their hut and things.
Standard Marine fair. At one I’d been, a Marine Corps gentleman had dropped from a tree – through a jeep roof – and slit the throat of the officer riding within. Then he’d sprung away before the jeep could stop rolling (the driver shocked and in fear) – and disappeared.
They never found out who did that one.
Yeah, I’m telling you these kinds of things because that was what it was like in the Marines in the late 70’s through 84.
In this desert of mine, however . . .
We trained in a mined field – living there all the time. Those white stripes? Salt from sweating bodies, working in the sun. You never felt the sweat – any perspiration would immediately evaporate, leaving you cool and dry (or at least me, the cool Southern boy with the cool Southern temperament – and I was a ‘Sarge’). And this place had been used as an impact range since like 1944. Abandoned shells lay everywhere – some as big around as my leg and almost just as long. Others were tiny shells – meant to ‘jump up’ and ‘bite you’ – meaning blowing off an arm or leg. Friendly things, that, compared to the one who got my friend. He blew up one night, going to take a piss. All we saw was a bright flash/explosion; thunder in the hills. We didn’t discover him missing until the next morning – and what we found wouldn’t even fill a sandwich bag. We were given several to find him. He fit in just one.
These were my men. I was a Sargent in the Marine Corps – made E-5 in four and half years. Some General had given me rank – promoting me in the field. He’d had stars on his shoulder – I don’t know how many – and I’d been impatient to get back to work. My men were resting while I fixed some truck – we had further to go in the field. I never rested; not when it came to my men. Or tried not to. My job was to do the best I possibly could – no matter what. Especially for my men. I was there to protect them – from the Marines and themselves.
It was hot in the summer in the desert – this was near Southern Cal. So-Cal they called it. And it was hot.
They’d measured 135 one day – in the shade. Don’t believe what they tell you – it gets hot as hell in the desert sometimes – distant patches here and there – and was soon to get even hotter.
We’d been there about a week or two – I can’t remember which. One week, I think.
And then the rain began to fall.
What a wonderful thing!, I thought, looking up at the falling sky. The clouds were patchy and thin – the rain didn’t last very long. I was looking forward to seeing the desert come to bloom. I’d read about such things in my distant travels: how the desert would come to bloom with life, flowers all around and the skittering critter things – the ones that ate you up at night.
Two of my men died trying to avoid them. They fell off a water buffalo – sleeping on its domed green back, they’d rolled off, breaking both their necks. Sleeping on the ground was a dangerous thing – I’d learned that on my first morning there. (See that part about the rattlesnake and my friend carting him off.)
But this was a different thing. It was a light rain; a simple shower. I heard the old-timers grumbling, saying this was a BAD thing. But I, in my ignorance, thought I knew better. I thought it was a wonderful thing. Spring in the sun kinda thing.
Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Within hours the calls came in.
“Help me! Help me! We’re dying out here . . . really . . . everyone’s pass…(static).”
“Where are you at?” we’d urgently call back. They didn’t know. Their officers had left them to go joy-riding – taking all the maps and everything. Leaving them with empty canteens.
And the rain had fallen.
This raised the humidity up a few points. And then a few points more. Before you knew it everyone was sweating.
Only this time it was for real.
People were dying. And they were my men.
And we couldn’t find them.
We sent helicopters swarming across the desert – hauling abandoned me laying left and right like delirious logs – some twitching and some in coma. You could pinch their skin and it would stand upright – just like you’d left it. And they would scream in pain.
There was dehydration galore. Such a useless thing; so many senseless deaths and injury.
Two hundred and fifty men.
In just two hours we were hauling the ones we could find – the ones who could take it – through cooling showers built into tents. But even that was not enough. They lay where they had fallen – where we would lay them – some groaning, and some opening their eyes.
Others just lay there dead. Or so I saw them. They weren’t moving – pale faced Marines – young boys – faces scattered with sand.
And they weren’t moving. Not a one.
The ambulances hauled them away, one by gentle one.
And I lost my Marines that day. Many of them. Some of them never came back.
It was a mixed unit I was with – a bunch of ‘makeup guys’. I was platoon leader: it was my job to save them.
But I can’t, not now, not ever.
I wonder how many truly died. Most were heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heat prostration. Some died of their wounds; I know, I saw them: a man crushed beneath a landing ramp; some others in a jeep.
And we weren’t even in a war yet. This was just the ‘beginning’, the training for what we were to be: American soldiers fighting an American war. And so often with ourselves – officers running away some where, abandoning all their men (this was a problem out there; cursed officers). Five of my best friends got stranded on a mountaintop. As the officers left them (with one canteen between them), they offered them their best advice:
“Drink mo’ water! Drink plenty of water!”
Five guys; one canteen.
Five days later we found them. They were down to sucking on some rocks. Hard life, that one. Sucking rocks for comfort. And yet …. so freakin’ familiar.
Our Marines. Gotta love ’em (soft smile, knowing my guys – your guys – out there in the desert somewhere – only this time “doin’ it for real.)
I’ve got my souvenirs from that trip – sand shrapnel in my face. Scars pepper my arms and legs. Some are from that explosion; some are from other things. But its mostly those in my face that bothers me. I see them whenever I look in the mirror – tiny pits and things. Some of them are from acne – the others – just sand.
Blown into my face from a passing shell. It had landed nearby. Just a little bit . . . too . . . close.
The Marines play for real. Or at least they used to. I don’t know about anymore.
It took me twenty years of picking to get all that sand outta my face. I just removed a grain the other week . . . making it almost thirty.
Souvenirs. Memories and things. More than this way-over the limit posting could ever tell.
Brothers in arms. Brothers . . . in tears. Brothers everywhere – all around the world.
Marines: I salute you. Sadly, with knowledge …. of all you have been through.
Soldiers everywhere. My heart goes with you.
Forever into battle.
(“Tears In the Sand” stands for so many things: the sweat we lost, the tears we shed – and the lives of so many men – here and the world over through the chains of time. Simper Fi, my men, simper fi.)