FORT BRAGG, N.C. – It’s the dead of night and we’re standing in a flatbed truck in the middle of a thunderstorm watching tracer fire streak past us on both sides.
The tracers glow a bright, luminescent green through our night vision goggles. In fact, everything is green, just like in the movies. Every so often, a bolt of lightning turns our green world even brighter. The bullets, rockets and bombs exploding around us are real. So are the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division who are staging this assault as a demonstration of a coordinated attack on an enemy position.
Their target is a bunker dead ahead. Camouflaged gunners pour on a steady stream of machine-gun and small arms fire. Bullets ricochet off the top of the bunker, arcing into the night sky. Rockets whiz past us, exploding in a shower of sparks, adding to Mother Nature’s own thunderclaps.
I slip the night vision goggles off, and the stream of bullets is reduced to an occasional red streak. A solitary crimson ember descends slowly from the sky, illuminating nothing to the naked eye. If there were bad guys out there without these devices, I think, they’d be obits before they knew what hit them. I slip the goggles back on, and the red ember becomes a flare transforming night into day, albeit a lime-colored day.
There should be more paratroopers dropped into this killing zone, but their mission is scrubbed due to the lightning. No sense risking soldiers’ lives.
That doesn’t keep the Army from trucking us around in the midst of the storm, though. We’re mere tourists.
It’s exciting, all these pyrotechnics. But the bullets are flying in only one direction – away from us. It doesn’t take much imagination to sense what it would be like if this were the real thing. It wouldn’t be exciting. It would be terrifying. You would want to run. You would want to hide. You wouldn’t want to be in this place. Playing soldier isn’t as much fun when the bad guys shoot back.
Earlier that day, members of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, of which I was a participant, had been briefed on Army Special Operations Command, seen a demonstration of a vertical wind tunnel where paratroopers practice free-fall, and toured an Army Psychological Operations center, where they print propaganda used both in warfare and peacekeeping. One such publication was a Superman comic book designed to teach kids in places like Kosovo about the danger of land mines. They also churn out leaflets, like the kind dropped on Iraqi anti-aircraft positions in the Gulf War warning them to.
Later, we witnessed an urban assault demonstration complete with flash-bang grenades and gunfire. Then we were taken to a firing range where we shot pistols and automatic rifles. After retrieving my paper targets, I concluded that any enemy falling in my gunsights was pretty safe.
Next, a few paratroopers dropped in – literally. They arrived via a HALO jump – that’s shorthand for High Altitude, Low Opening – meaning soldiers leap out of perfectly good airplanes from thousands of feet above ground then wait until the last possible moment before pulling their ripcords to slip in behind enemy lines, unnoticed.
Then, we were bused through throngs of raging anti-American demonstrators to the American Embassy in the fictitious African republic of Nogoland, where we scurried to the rooftop to await “rescue.”
The Army Rangers came by Chinook helicopters, storming the embassy compound with grenades and gunfire, attacking everything that moved. By the time the shooting stopped, nothing was left alive. I doubt even bacteria could have survived that assault.
“We do not apologize for swatting flies with a 16-pound hammer,” explained Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the Army’s Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.
After evacuating the embassy, soldiers escorted us to the awaiting Chinooks for a simulated treetop level escape from Nogoland to Pope Air Force Base, where we met up with enlisted “Airborne buddies” who walked us through a series of “static displays,” meaning that nothing blew up or made noise. We saw communications gear, howitzers, mortar teams and armored vehicles – the tools of the trade.
More importantly, it was another chance to talk to the guys who meet the customer, the infantrymen. They were universally polite, knowledgeable, on-task and noncommittal when asked if they planned to re-enlist.
The biggest gripe I heard: The Army’s plan to issue black berets to all soldiers, robbing the Rangers of their unique headgear. The “Army of One” advertising campaign earned a few rude remarks, too.
Turnover at this level is high. Like the television ads used to say, the Army is a “great place to start,” and after a few years a lot of these young men and women move on. They have options. The service has trained them well.
There’s another issue, too:
How long can the service reasonably expect capable people to stick around as “trigger pullers?” as one Marine major called them.
Speaking of Marines, no tour of American military life would be complete without spending a day with the Leathernecks. After a day at Fort Bragg that began at 5:45 a.m. and ended at midnight, we were off to . . .
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.
We were standing in the driving rain, shivering and waiting for the Marines to land on Onslow Beach. Despite the camouflaged Gor-Tex jackets we’d been issued, we were soaked and freezing.
One of the J.C.O.C. members, in a moment of wimpiness, suggested the program should be moved indoors because of the inclement weather.
Marine Maj. Gen. Martin Berndt, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, was within earshot and his face screwed up in disgust as he heard those words. Fellow participant Ron Gunzburger, editor of HillZoo.com, recorded his incredulous response:
“The colonel told you the coats will keep you dry and warm. Well, they won’t. You’ll be cold. You’ll be wet. That’s tough. Suck it up! Get over it!”
And with that, “Suck it up and get over it” became our mantra. After all, we were with the Marines, and like they say in their recruiting ads: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
Moments later, it was show time. Amphibious landing craft bobbed toward shore as helicopters bombed the storm-swept beach, clearing it for the assault team. Like a scene from D-Day, the landing craft hit the beach and young Leathernecks came charging out, guns ablaze.
The Army arrives by air, the Marines arrive by sea. Once they show up they both start breaking things.
The seas were choppy and the Marines had to travel from near the horizon to shore. I knew I wouldn’t want to take that trip without some Dramamine.
The ride is so miserable by the time the Marines land they really “feel like killing somebody, which is good,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Braaten.
“But you’re not feeling so good because of all that weight you’ve lost throwing up.”
Faster landing craft would help. The technology is there, the money isn’t. A familiar story from all the armed services.
Later that day, we would witness demonstrations of Marine river patrols, crowd control techniques and a bomb disposal exercise, the finale of which was blowing up a bomb via a gun-toting robot on wheels.
Like their Army counterparts the day before, the Marines staged an urban assault, equipped with helicopters lowering troops to rooftops, tanks, machine guns, the works.
I asked a Marine major if he could explain to me the difference between the Marines and the Army Rangers we had met the day before.
“The Rangers are very good,” he allowed. “I’d rate the best of the Rangers about equal to the average Marine.”
“I would have been a Marine,” a Ranger told me, “but I couldn’t fit my head in a jar.”
HOOOAHH VS. OOORAH
Rivalries between the services are legendary, of course, but the soldiers of the Army and the Marines do have one thing in common: They both make funny noises.
Which is endearing, because most of what they do for a living isn’t the least bit funny.
We were at dinner and a general was holding forth on the challenges facing the Army in the post-Cold War world, when from the back of the room came this grunting, coughing sound as if someone was struggling with a belch or was about to hurl.
One too many toddies before dinner, I assumed. Then it happened again. Another guy.
“Hoooahh.” Then another. And another.
I soon learned this is the Army’s equivalent of shouting “Amen, brother!” in church.
Depending on how you say it, “Hoooahh” means “right on.” Or it means “darn shame, ain’t it.” For all I know, it can also mean “pass the ketchup.”
Marines, likewise, do the same thing. Only theirs is “Ooorah.”
“Men, we’re going on a 20-mile run.”
“Then, we’re going to do 500 pushups.”
‘Afterwards, I’m buying the beer.”
Since the Air Force was the next stop on our tour, I asked an Air Force major if members of his service were into this kind of noise-making. You guys have something you say? I asked.
Sure, he replied. “Fore.”