After resignation came the awareness that this would all end in time, and if we qualified in the various requirements. Not qualifying meant that we would repeat that portion over until we did qualify. I don’t know how many times that they would force you to repeat, but I wasn’t going to find out. I threw myself into making sure that I passed each step. I had forgotten about my plan to fake pain in my leg in order to go back home. I just couldn’t do that right now. My men needed me, who would check it their straps were rolled like little canvas cinnamon buns?
I could get out, but they had to stay. Somehow something had clicked and I couldn’t find a way to leave people behind. We were not able to communicate to family except by writing letters, and I couldn’t find away to explain this to my wife and family. Also, I didn’t trust that our letters weren’t read before they were sent. The Army seemed to know everything. We did hear of a soldier that tried going AWOL. He got his friends to mail a wig to him, and he was trying to get to the airport, and mailed a friend to pick him up at a set time and place. Instead, the MPs showed up, and was facing charges.
So on my own I decided to delay the faking of a limp, and I focused on the bullseye on the rifle range. Surprisingly I was doing really well. I was the best in my squadron, and then I ended up best in the platoon. At the end of M-16 training I was best in the company, shooting expert and competing for the top shot in the battalion. My drill sergeant was almost impressed, he still hit me in the head when I broke one of the firing range rules.
One of the most serious breeches was bringing back live ammo or even the empty shell cases. The live ammo part I understood, but the empty brass rule was a little confusing but what the heck. At the end of the day, all the used ammo was distributed to the squad leaders and we would shoot down range until everything was gone. I think the extra time shooting help my overall qualification. We were even allowed to go full “rock and roll”, flipping the switch to automatic and emptying a clip in a matter of seconds. Our weapons certainly dirtier than everyone else but we had a lot of fun.
Finally we would all line up in two rows and present ourselves individually to two drill sergeants of the firing range. We were to open the breech of our weapons, show them to the drill sergeant, and scream “No BRASS, no AMMO”. Then we could march home to the barracks, march to the cattle cars.
Every now and then we could hear laughter and for some reason a boot was crawling around in the dirt. Either he actually had ammo, or brass, we didn’t know. I found out that brass was a possibility because one of my men shot left handed, and the ejected shells could actual fly from the rifle and go down your shirt. You could accidentally take some brass back to the barracks. But why the laughter?
When it was my turn to present my weapon, and shout my phrase, I heard my drill sergeant muttering next to me, “No ASS, no BRAMO”. Even now after forty years I am unsure if this happened to me, or I just witnessed it. Someone screamed that phrase at the top of their voice. I don’t know how often that worked, but it worked often enough that I saw many troops dropping to the deck while drill sergeants laughed.
I ended up shooting third in the battalion, the top two slots went to brothers, twins, were had lived on a farm and raised with rifles. They were amazing, we were head to head until the long range tracer fire. I tried to use my sights and elevation. They trusted the tracers to let them know where the rounds were landing. They hosed the targets and I’m not sure who pulled ahead, but they must have been very close. I waisted a full clip before I turned to the fire hose technique of using the tracers to guide my rounds, so I was a full sixteen rounds behind in third place.
Another weapon qualification was the bayonet. It basically had two modes, one where it was affixed to the M-16, making it a very short spear, and the other mode, which was as a hand held knife. The training consisted of running through a sequence of straw filled dummies, thrusting and slicing while screaming “Die!”. I did pretty well at this. Apparently I was among the last boots to be trained at this, because within a year it was removed from the sequence and replaced by more field medical techniques. Someone thought that having the New Army screaming die, while stabbing dummies was just a little too vicious. I don’t agree, and I thought we should have spent more time training for those moments when you ran out of ammo. Fighting hand to hand with a knife was more of a special forces type of training, but I enjoyed it. Having a knife seemed natural to me. A spear was even better.
Qualifying in tear gas operations was essential. We all carried masks on every March, and learning to use them was important. The first training was taking the platoon into a field where we were surrounded by tripwire about eighteen inches high on all four sides. We were to lay down on our bellies in the center of this square. Smoke was then floated over us, plain smoke. At some point the smoke was mixed with tear gas, and as soon as one trooper smelled the gas we were all to turn over on our backs, remove the mask from the pouch, and place it over our head. This didn’t occur all at once, because there was some delay before hearing the shout “gas”. I was on the other side so I was among the last to roll over to get my mask.
Just at the moment that my mask was held above my head, someone came running and stumbling towards me. Their mask had not sealed well and the gas caused the soldier to panic so he jumped up and ran. When he got to me his right foot punted my mask about thirty feet away, while continued stumbling towards the trip wire. He hit the wire and went flying through the air. It worked just as it was supposed to work. Meanwhile I had no mask and the tear gas hit me. It was pretty bad, choking throat, burning lungs, and snot flowing from my nose. Well, the snot wasn’t much different than the everyday experience of having the flu, but it was heavier and constant.
So I simply stood up a walked over to masked, picked it up, cleared the gas, and went back to my spot and laid down. I don’t think anyone saw me because there was so much smoke. I could hear the collective screaming of the drill sergeants towards the punter of my mask. I think he was crying for several reasons.
The next thing was for us to file into a closed tent without our masks. Tear gas was then introduced into the smoke and we were to make our way out of a maze into the fresh air. This was bad, but not as bad as I thought. When I realized that I was missing two of my squad, I went back in and lead them out. While I did react to the tear gas, it wasn’t nearly as bad as for some. Fortunately no drill sergeant noticed so I was not volunteered to demonstrate tear gas avoidance.
The last weapon to qualify was the live hand grenades. Deadly little things. I qualified expert on the basis of tossing the record throw of the range. Possibly the record still stands because the grenade went beyond the defined borders of the range. The reason for this distance is described in the only story that I’ve written about the Army. It is in this blog with the address of https://johndiestler.com/personal-history/the-grenade/
It is a longer story but tells more than just about the grenade