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You need to understand two things. First, people get killed every day in the U.S. military. Only the real spectaculars make the news. My own service, the Marine Corps, likes to say that there are no accidents, only screw-ups.
Second, no one likes officers. Sometimes I don't and I am one. But on a blistering July day at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, humid the way only swampy and sandy coastal low country can be, you'd be surprised how many people would rather crap out in the shade rather than practice shooting their way into a building—even if what they learn is going to save their lives later. That's why there are infantry platoon commanders, to make Marines do what they ought to, not what they want to. And that's why no one likes the bastards.
Echo Company was shooting live ammunition on the MAC ranges. The military worships at the altar of acronyms; they may even sacrifice virgins to them. MAC stands for MOUT Assault Course. And MOUT stands for Military Operations on Urban Terrain. In layman's terms, city fighting.
My platoon, 2nd platoon, was on station 6, the grenade house, waiting for 1st platoon to finish up. I'm Second Lieutenant Michael Galway. Everyone asks about the county in Ireland, but the name couldn't be more common.
The grenade house was set up as a single floor of a building, with entrances, hallways, and rooms. The walls were made from old auto tires stacked vertically, the open center filled with packed sand. The interlocking rubber and sand cylinders kept the bullets and grenade fragmentation from bounding back at you.
Metal silhouette targets were scattered throughout. A squad entered, engaged targets, and moved down the hallway.
You didn't want to just charge into a room filled with enemy soldiers all waiting behind cover and aiming at the doorway. So after the door was breached, one Marine, covered by the rest, tossed in a grenade. As soon as it blew, breaking the concentration of anyone inside, the next two went through the doorway left and right, putting their backs to the near wall. Aiming first at each corner and sweeping toward the center, they shot everyone in the room. The first Marine buttonhooks and starts following the wall down, and the number three man takes his place. Number four comes in to support number two.
This delicate drill had to be done quickly and precisely. There was no room for error with the muzzles of loaded weapons dancing all over the place, nor was it advisable to fumble around with live grenades.
Which was why I took one look at my Marines crapped out under the trees and said to the squad leaders, "I know you're going to start practicing your clearing drills right now."
There was the usual chorus of bitching as the Marines groaned to their feet. The lieutenant was being a dick again. I really didn't enjoy being a dick, but I'd found that it worked a lot better than appealing to the virtue of the average American teenager.
Second Lieutenant Jack O'Brien, the 1st platoon commander, was spending the week at embarkation school to learn how to load ships. So First Lieutenant Bob Gudtfreund, the company executive officer or XO, was the range safety officer for 1st platoon, along with Staff Sergeant Meadows, the platoon sergeant.
I could hear the characteristic wh-whap of grenades going off inside the house, followed by the crackling of rifle fire. I think that stuttered sound was caused by the detonator going off a fraction of a second before blowing the main charge. What struck you when you heard a real versus a movie grenade was how incredibly loud they were. No orange flame—that was for the movies. With close to half a pound of Composition B explosive they were loud even when muffled by rubber and sand. We thought it was motivating, which I guess was why people thought we were crazy.
While the firing was going on inside the house, Staff Sergeant Meadows was debriefing another squad just outside.
I turned my attention back to my drilling squads. WH-WHAP!! The unmuffled roar and blast of hot air struck me like a thunderclap. I whipped my head back to see a blooming cloud of black smoke outside the grenade house. I tried to move in that direction and my legs froze. They wouldn't budge; it was as if my central nervous system had more sense than I did. It couldn't have been more than a second, but it felt like I'd been paralyzed for an hour before I got control of my legs and ran toward the smoke.
The cloud of sand dust and acrid high explosives slowly drifted away to reveal a squad of Marines littered all over the ground.
The first Marine I reached was lying face down, the bottom of his helmet resting on the back of his flak jacket. I grabbed his wrist to feel for a pulse. But how the hell do you feel someone's pulse when your own heart is pounding itself out of your chest and reverberating all the way down into your hand? I rolled him over carefully but the helmet stayed where it was. I almost leaped back. Practically everything from the top of the flak jacket collar to the bottom rim of the helmet was gone, blown away.
I scrambled over to the next one. Sergeant Palermo, one of the squad leaders. He was rolling back and forth, both hands clasping a gaping wound in his thigh just above the knee. Bright red arterial blood jetted through his fingers. I couldn't get to the pressure point on his groin, his equipment was in the way. So I jumped on top of him and kneeled on the side of his thigh above the wound, putting all my weight on it. The blood stopped pumping out each time his heart beat.
In first aid training the victim is always stoically awaiting treatment, but it was like being on top of a bucking horse. Sergeant Palermo was yelling and swearing, and it was all I could do to stay on. "Hold still!" I shouted. I needed a tourniquet, and if I moved he was going to be pumping blood again. I yanked the sling off an M-16 lying on the ground and had to dig in the dirt under his thigh to get it around and above the wound near the groin. The knot was the easy part. Then I stuck Palermo's bayonet in the knot and twirled to twist the sling tight. I tied the bayonet to his leg with one end of the sling.
I ripped a battle dressing out of my first aid pouch, even though we're always drilled to use the wounded man's, not our own. I packed the pad into the wound, then put another on top of it and tied the whole thing on tight with the dangling gauze tails. Finally I looked back up at Sergeant Palermo's face, and thought he was dead. I felt an irrational spasm of anger. Textbook first aid, and the son of a bitch dies on me. No, he was still breathing. He'd just passed out.
More help had arrived and I could pull back and evaluate the scene. The usual turpentine sap scent of the Lejeune pine forest had been replaced by the raw odor of spilled bowel, and blood that smelled like the taste of a copper penny in your mouth.
Doc Bob, the platoon medical corpsman, and a bunch of the Marines were working on the casualties. The Doc was placing dressings on an open abdominal cavity. Someone behind me was puking. I didn't need to see that.
But I did notice the rest of the platoon packed around us in one tight knot, with nothing to do but watch and close to freaking because of it.
I realized I had to do my job, which wasn't first aid. I stood up and took a couple of deep breaths to steady myself. Mood was contagious. If I was calm then it wasn't as bad as they thought. "All right, listen up," I said. I pointed out four Marines, "Go check the grenade house for more casualties." I ticked off two more, "Put all the packs in a pile with the ammo, and guard it." And to the rest, "Spread out, secure the area, and keep everyone away from here."
And in that beautiful Marine way they instantly shook themselves together and dashed off to execute their orders. It was as if I was on autopilot and watching the stream of commands flowing from someone else's mouth. All training.
My acting platoon sergeant, Sergeant Harlin, was just standing there. "Sergeant Harlin!" I barked. "Get me a list of names and numbers from the I.D. tags of the casualties."
Lance Corporal Vincent was right behind me with the platoon backpack radio, his mouth hanging open and wearing an expression of pure horror such as I'd never seen on another face before. The radio was set to the base range control frequency. I wiped my bloody hands on my trousers and grabbed the handset from Vincent. "Blackburn, this is MAC station 6, over."
Blackburn was the callsign of the range control duty officer. His voice crackled over the net. "MAC-6, this is Blackburn, over."
"Blackburn, we have just had a grenade accident. We have emergency casualties, and require medevac by air if possible."
"MAC-6, wait out." He put all the ranges on base in check-fire to keep them off the radio net. And I guess was seeing if there were any helicopters in the air.
The noise was so bad I had to step back in order to hear the radio. The wounded weren't yelling. They weren't screaming. It was a high pitched animal shrieking. I'd never heard anything like that before; it was the kind of sound that wakes you from a nightmare.
Second Lieutenant Frank Milburn, the 3rd platoon commander, had run over from the Dodge City range with Doc Stone, his corpsman. Thankfully he hadn't brought anyone else, it was enough of a zoo.
The corpsmen only had one bag of intravenous solution each, carried in case of heat casualties. And no pain killers other than aspirin. Battalion surgeons never issued morphine syrettes, because a corpsman losing narcotics was the same career-ender as a Marine losing a rifle. And why would you ever need it? Peacetime mentality.
Lance Corporal Nolan ran up to me, "No casualties in the grenade house, sir.
"Okay," I said. "Stay there and secure the area."
Blackburn came back up. "MAC-6, Blackburn, over."
"MAC-6, you have one CH-46 inbound, callsign Griffin 1-2. Say the number of casualties and type of injuries, over?"
"Blackburn, seven emergency and two routine. All grenade fragmentation, over." A dead man was a routine medevac. There was no rush over the dead.
"MAC-6, do you have a zone and means of marking, over?"
"Roger, Blackburn, he can put down right on the range. I will control and mark with smoke, over." The red smoke grenade was hooked onto the radio backpack, part of the range safety officer's required equipment.
I plucked it off the webbing and handed it to Vincent
"We've got a helo coming in!" I shouted to the Marines. "Put 'em on ponchos and be ready to move."
The helicopter broke into the net; I could hear the rotors behind the pilot's voice. "Mac-6, this is Griffin 1-2, over."
"Griffin, MAC-6, over."
"MAC-6, can you give me a zone brief, over?"
I gave him the standard landing zone brief, by the numbers: location, size, marking, obstacles, and wind. Then I saw him. "Griffin, I'm at your 2 o'clock."
"Roger, pop smoke."
I motioned to Vincent. He pulled the pin and hurled the grenade out in front of us. "Smoke out."
"MAC-6,1 have your red smoke."
Frank Milburn ran out to guide him in with hand and arm signals. The helicopter settled down right in front of him, the rotors blowing up a blizzard of sand.
The jostling of the wounded Marines being picked up off the ground and carried aboard set of a fresh wave of shrieking that nearly drowned out the sound of the helicopter. Doc Bob and Doc Stone rode along with them. The bird lifted off.
When Griffin 1-2 checked off the net, Blackburn came back up and told me to get on the range telephone and give him names, social security numbers, and blood types of the casualties. I realized they wouldn't want that information going out over a radio net in the clear.
When I returned from the phone Milburn was huddled with Corporal Anderson of 1st platoon. "You need to hear this," Milburn said to me.
Corporal Anderson was a tough little redhead with the face and voice of a 1930's movie gangster. It made seeing him on the verge of tears all the worse. "I told him not to do it, sir! I told him not to!"
"Who?" I demanded.
"The XO, sir."
It was only then I noticed Gudtfreund sitting on the ground, his head in his hands.
Milburn and I walked up to him. I said, "Bob, what happened?"
Gudtfreund just shook his head.
Milburn put a hand on his shoulder. "Bob, what happened?"
But Gudtfreund wouldn't say anything, or take his head out of his hands to look at us.
Milburn gave me a look that said it was useless.
Then, with no warning of his arrival, our company commander, Captain Mark Dudley, was in my face. "What happened?" he shouted, spittle flying. Milburn was right there but it was all directed at me. "What the fuck happened?"
"First platoon had a grenade go off outside the house, sir," I said. "I don't know how it happened. We have two dead and seven wounded."
His tone shifted from belligerent to bewildered. "Two dead?" As if begging me to correct myself.
"Yes, sir. All casualties were medevaced by helicopter. They should be at the Naval Hospital now. Corporal Anderson and his squad were in the house when it happened. They're waiting out in back."
That brought the volume back up. "Were you the range safety officer?" he demanded. I was not the Captain's favorite.
"No, sir," I replied. "The XO was."
Without another word to me, Captain Dudley ran over to Gudtfreund. When he got the same response that we did, he jerked the XO to his feet and dragged him out of earshot.
I realized I was so dry I could barely peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth. I chugged an entire 1-quart canteen.
It was my first chance to really stop and think about what had happened. There were no television displays of grief. Not by me; not by anyone. Plenty of strong emotions, though. Sadness made even deeper by the knowledge that it had obviously happened due to someone's mistake. Relief, too. That it hadn't been my mistake, and that I'd done my job right and gotten through it. Though I think I might have puked my guts out if I hadn't been so preoccupied. That had to be the secret of leadership in war—being too busy to lose it. There was more than a little exultation, too. I was still high from the adrenaline.
And a secret part of me would always be humiliated about not being able to get my legs moving right after the explosion. That I didn't have any control over it really scared me. Would it happen again, but worse?
Like a silent movie, Milburn and I both watched Captain Dudley gesturing wildly at Gudtfreund, whose arms were spread wide in supplication.
"Dudley knows he's fucked," Milburn said. Training accidents, especially fatal ones, were career-enders for commanding officers.
We were on the range for hours more. The Provost Marshal took control of the scene and all the ammo. Gudtfreund and Corporal Anderson's squad were all whisked away for formal interviews.
Captain Dudley marched the company back to barracks. His career was over and, ironically, mine was saved. The story probably isn't what you'd expect.CHAPTER 2
Everyone else had the weekend off. I was back on base at 0800 on Saturday morning for duty as the battalion Officer of the Day. For the next 24 hours I was the Colonel's personal representative. The duty was manned seven days a week, but weekdays the OD was posted in the morning by the battalion XO and then went about his normal routine, only taking over after everyone left for the day. On the weekends it went from 0800 to 0800, which was why it was usually reserved for the most junior lieutenants.
I had a small office in the headquarters building with a desk, a phone, a locker, and a metal bunk bed rack to sleep in. I also had a green clothbound logbook to record everything that happened during my tour. Along with a vinyl binder hopefully full of the answers to any questions I might have. Not to mention an M9 Beretta 9mm automatic pistol and a ring of keys to every lock in the battalion area. The key ring was a great metaphor for the Marine way of doing things. It was attached to a shaft of wood the size of my forearm. That wood had probably gotten bigger every time some poor OD mislaid the keys.
The job wasn't as dramatic as the pistol made it out to be. Answer the phone and deal with any problems. Fill out the papers if a Marine had to go on emergency leave. Tour the area. Make sure the food in the regimental chow hall was up to snuff. The Marines restricted to the area as a result of company punishment had to come by on a schedule and sign in to prove they were still there.
Excerpted from The Blood We Shed by William Christie. Copyright © 2011 William Christie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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