(First - I should tell you; I have no photos of the actual places and people of this part of my story. I have, instead, used images of the places I went at other times, and with other people)
What I was actually doing was officially known as "pre-phase" and was the holding unit for the JFK Special Warfare Center and School's first phase of the SF enlisted Qualification Course.
Now the Army hates idleness in general and idle enlisted scum in particular, so though there really was no instruction to be done there the troops foregathering amongst the Cosmonites were kept as busy as the Army and USAJFKSWCS could keep us.
Which principally involved PT.
We PT'ed in the morning and again in the afternoon. Between the pushups and sidestraddle hops we ran, everywhere, and were introduced to the specialty of the special forces, speed ruck-marching.
This was a particularly grueling torture, involving a relatively light load - about 20 to 30 pounds in the rucksack plus the LBE (the "load bearing equipment" harness that supported our essential fighting tools; ammunition pouches, field dressing, compass, and canteens). The luckier among us had been issued the old cotton web belt and suspenders. These had one drawback - they tended to absorb sweat in the summer - offset by the immense plus of being cuddly soft and flexible.
The less fortunate had to put up with the newer artificial fiber variety, which was supposed to be more durable but was also nastily stiff and rough; it was misery under the rucksack where the V-strap shoulder harness would gouge and tear at your neck. Although most of the more experienced guys - the E-4's and above - knew enough to pad their necks with an OD sling bandage (known in GI slang as a "drive-on rag") the cadre were like all cadre everywhere and were death on the drive-on rags. You could wear them, but only if you could keep them tucked down under your collar.
So loaded up, drive-on rags tucked safely away, we would take off at a fast marching pace. And by fast I mean fast; when we were moving well we were striding out just short of a moderately slow jog. These rucks were usually at least as long as a PT run; several miles, and sometimes more. And while the primary object was speed, the other requirement was murder - keeping formation.
Because like almost all route marches, our column was nearly constantly stretching and collapsing.
The GI term for this is the "accordion effect". Truly well-trained units can reduce the number of times it happens and the severity of the accordion. But I suspect that even the best marching outfits get hit now and then.
It's worst for the guys in the back, largely because they usually can't see what's going on up ahead, and especially if the guys in front slow down gradually so that the slowdown isn't really noticeable.
Because what happens is that the leaders get going again, and the guys behind them take a moment - a fraction of a second or so, maybe - to see the front guys speed away and close the gap. Every successive rank in the column adds another fraction of a second or so to the lag, so by the time the guys in the back start moving the front of the column is pelting away at a run. The poor bastards in the back then have to beat cheeks like their hair was on fire and the water bucket was in the road ahead, rucksacks slamming up and down, equipment flapping and jouncing.
Repeat this four, six, or seven times over the course of a couple of miles.
You can see how the guys in the back might get a trifle winded.
And that was pretty much that; runs, rucks, and a handful of offhand "classes" simply designed to get bodies in shape for the real business; Phase I of SFQC.
My Phase I started the way most of everyone's training adventures started back in those days; with the arrival of the "Silversides" 80-Pax trucks.
As transportation for humans, they pretty much sucked.
I rode them to and from ranges and everywhere else in Basic and AIT, and later as a paratrooper we rode them down to Green Ramp at Pope Air Force Base to get 'chuted up to jump, or to fly off to high adventure
(that is, to somewhere usually dank and dirty, where we spent anywhere between several days to several months getting tired, bored, and filthy - adventure generally means reading about someone else's misery a long way away and long time off)in distant lands. Just seeing the image slams me with the memory of vicious exhaustion, the reek of sweaty cotton and unwashed GIs, and distant angry voices shouting "Get the fuck in there, you fucking numbnuts! Stand on your rucksack! We need to get another fifty people on this goddamn truck!"
This trip was no different; we were jammed into these things and driven off into the piney woods for an hour or so, and then dumped out into some sort of backwoods shotgun shack village, shoved into line, and shaken down by a band of screaming lunatics.
That was my introduction to Camp Mackall, North Carolina
(Later I did some research and found out that Mackall really has a hell of a history. For all that Fort Bragg and Fort Benning like to preen about their Airborne pedigrees the real "Home of the U.S. Army Airborne" is Camp Mackall. Pretty much all the WW2 airborne troops trained there, and the post, knocked together in 1942 from pine woods and peach orchards, was the training and staging area for the 82nd Airborne long before the artillery gave up Ft. Bragg to the east.)the location for the 1st and 3rd Phases of the SFQC.
And that was very much the style of the first week of Phase I; lots of running, lots of screaming, and lots of frantic - but, in retrospect, pretty pointless - action.
This was the effect of the privates, I suspect.
The thing is that nothing we did in those early weeks of Phase I really did anything to make us smarter, more efficient, more cunning, ruthless soldiers, make us more clever at working with foreign fighters, make us into more intelligent individualistic soldiers.
It weeded out the frightened, the completely unfit, and unwilling, and - occasionally - the merely unlucky.
But it was not really a very smart way to make "special" soldiers.
And I'm convinced that is because so many of us really shouldn't have been there.
Many of us - the genuine trainees - just didn't have anything that would have helped us learn what we should have been learning. We were essentially civilians with a lick of O.D. paint on the outside.
We had, most of us, done little real work, and had little or no experience with real hardship, or with gutting out a difficult task under stressful conditions. Most of us had never been hungry, or sleepless, for any real time. We had no experience with the simplest of tactical tasks, or even living outside, other than the sad simulacrum we had enjoyed in Basic Training.
So the SF cadre had to treat us, and did, like fools, that is, like recruit privates. And that's not what a special forces soldier is supposed to be, but that's what we were.
The 1981 Phase I SFQC consisted or roughly eight weeks.
Two weeks of "general subjects", which was just more physical conditioning with some idle crap and fairly ridiculous "hand-to-hand combat" thrown in because, I'm convinced, somebody saw something like it in some World War 2 commando movie.
Two weeks of Land Navigation,
Two weeks of
Two weeks of Patrolling.
I can't really tell the story of the whole course, so I'll try and give you just what I remember as the highlights.
The thing I remember most about the first couple of weeks were just the small change of living at Mackall.
The "barracks" were wooden shacks without doors or windows; just rectangular cutouts at the ends. They had concrete floors and metal-frame bunks with plywood planks for "beds"; you just rolled out your rubber lady (the old green rubber inflatable air mattress, although the foam sleeping mat was coming in to replace the "deflatable" piece of shit just as I arrived) and your fart-sack or your poncho liner and there you were.
They kept out the rain, though.
The latrines were real special, though; the only fourteen-hole pit toilet I've ever seen in a lifetime of camping and military service.
I shit you not; the actual crappers were arranged like a ginormous horizontal ferris wheel, each conventional toilet seat screwed down to a huge plywood disc that sat over a ten-foot diameter concrete pipe stuck vertically into the ground. You just walked up, smiled to your neighbor grunting and farting away two seats over, sat down, and opened fire.
They were fairly foul, and were made worse by trooper's habit of taking sodas onto the crapper (later in cycle when we got "pop privileges") and then hucking the empties down the hole. The suck-truck that came every week or two to drain the vile broth inside these hellmouths continually plugged and broke down trying to suck up these cans. At one point later in my cycle all the privates were marched off to have a swim and the student-NCOs (who had been tasked with enforcing the no-pop-cans-in-the-shitters rule) were offered buckets and ropes and told that they could choose to clean the cans out of the unspeakable wheatina down in the latrine-holes...or terminate the course right there; choose to drop out of the course with no chance of ever retaking it or joining the Special Forces.
I'm told that two sergeants rode back to Ft. Bragg that night.
From used food my thoughts turn to actual food, which was an obsession with all of us by that point.
I can honestly say that SFQC may well have been the longest, hardest continual work I ever did, in the Army or elsewhere. We were awake something like 15 to 17 hours a day and doing some sort of physical work almost all during that time, including some of the most demanding running and ruck-marching I've ever done. We must have been using somewhere on the order of 4,000 calories a day, and in General Subjects week we got probably about 2,000 or 3,000 going in; two cooked ("hot A") meals for breakfast and dinner and a canned food ("C-ration") at noon.
We were all constantly hungry.
The breakfast was, as Army hot A breakfasts usually were, the best meal of the day; eggs, bacon or sausage, flapjacks or waffles, toast or biscuits (and, this being the Army which meant you ate "Southern" wherever you were, cream gravy), and lots of damn hot, damn black coffee.
Oh - and I can't possibly forget this - the entire time we ate chow the cadre played the entire "Ballad of the Green Beret" album by SSG Barry Sadler over the PA system.
It's an awful country-western sort of thing. The famous song is the ballad of the title, you know, the one that talks about "fearless men, who jump and die"? That one? But there's more, so much more. There's an awful song about Saigon. Another one about nurses. And one about "garritroopers" - those REMFs that have sat around behind every army since Marius' day - only it's misspelled "garet trooper":
"He’s got a hip knife, a side knife, a boot knife, a shoulder knife
And a little bitty one that’s a combination flare gun, dinner set,
and genuine police whistle..."
Ugh. Barry Fucking Sadler; if he hadn't shot himself in the head in Guatemala I'd have to shoot him myself.
Let's get the hell off this subject.
Anyway, of all the yummy SF breakfast treats the big local delicacy was - and this was when the company was purely a local Southern thing - Krispy Kreme pastries; nasty oversweetened dough slathered with a layer of sugar so thick that when cool it solidified into a waxy white rind that cracked when you bit into them.
The Krispy Kreme products were so beloved that the last incline leading back to the camp gate was known as "Honeybun Hill" after the most disgustingly over-sweet fat-pill offered at morning chow. I'm not sure about anyone else, but the thought of getting outside of those evil things dragged me up that hill more than once.
And that was pretty much that; lots of healthy exercise and Army training. And then it was on to Land Nav.
Land Navigation was both genuinely challenging and good training. A low-ranking U.S. Army soldier, for all that we like to talk about how individualistic and well-trained our troopers are, isn't in practice that much better off than his old Soviet counterpart who couldn't read - not maps, anyway - and drank antifreeze strained through a bread loaf. Most of had passed some little piddly compass courses in Basic, of course, and had the rudiments of map- and compass-reading, but SF Land Nav was hard, really hard, and it forced you to learn how to move long distances through rough terrain and get where you were going.
The training I got at Mackall has stayed with me, and served me well, all the rest of my life. But ask me to remember "Land Nav" and what I recall is desperately trying to lope down the firebreak roads in the dark fearfully eying every bush and oddly-shaped tree for fear it was one of the cadre trying to catch a "road-runner".
We were warned never to use the firebreaks. If I had been more veteran I would have understood that roads and trails were places where enemies would place mines, or site ambushes, and that to use the roads and trails was to ask death to sit down and share a honeybun with you.
But at the time, all we saw were trackless tangles of wait-a-minute vines and shitty terrain alongside lovely, open, level sandy roadways. So we ALL tried to run the roads, and the cadre tried to catch us. Some got caught; the first catch was a warning, the second, automatic "re-cycle" - a return to COSCOM and beginning the next Phase I all over.
None of us wanted to be recycled.
We learned to read the terrain, to interpret the topographic lines as ridges, hills, and gullies. We learned to shoot azimuths on the run, and dodge around obstacles first left, then right, to stay in a rough line. We learned how to find our way through a place we had never been with nothing more than a piece of paper and a magnetic needle, and that's no small thing.
We called it "Starvation", because midway through Phase I we were reduced to two C-ration meals a day. A C-rat (and the Eighties C-rats were held by the Vietnam guys to be practically haute cuisine compared to the earlier C's, although they all bitched about not getting the issue cigarettes, especially Camels) contains about 1,500 calories if you eat every fucking scrap including the O.D. metal shavings inside the Beef With Spiced Sauce can.
Picky gourmets that we were, we usually ate just the main meals - although even starving nearly everyone still rejected the awful "Ham and Eggs, Chopped", a disgusting yellowish loaf widely believed to have been pressed from used diapers - the canned fruit, jam, and the candy.
The crackers and toffee-chocolate bars sucked the fluid right out of you, and outside the pound cake the various "dust rolls" (supposedly cinnamon and chocolate nut rolls) acted like sponges and sucked up a canteen of water just in the chewing.
OK, well, rabbits aren't exclusively "pets", but you get the idea. We learned how to kill and clean small game as well as getting some pretty ludicrous instruction on trapping and hunting that might have kept us alive had we been forced to live off a captive game farm. However, as a nice suburban kid I did learn that, no, meat doesn't come from a store and have never since been squeamish about butchering my own meat. When you think about it, that's not a bad lesson, either.
The largest single meal we ate during the entire two weeks came in the form of an entire haunch of goat for our squad.
This animal, a rather bold-smelling billy, was used as a teaching tool on how to kill and butcher a medium- to large animal. We sat through the last moments of the goat and the ensuing lecture with barely-contained frenzy; the minute the lesson concluded were bounded away to choose our method of preparing our meaty bounty; smoking? Roasting? How should we treat this scrumptious largesse to best produce the appropriate gorging glut of protein.
We had settled on smoking, constructed our smoker to U.S. Army specifications, and were already salivating at the delicious goaty flavor drifting up with the ash smoke when the camp commandant arrived.
We had little prior contact with this exquisite, who lorded it over us with Olympian detachment, but he seemed to look on us at that moment as fellows, as his comrades. He asked us how we were doing (wonderfully, we all said loyally, of course). He made some observations about our smoker.
And then he began to tell us about Lucky, the goat.
Lucky, it seemed, had been the most precious and adorable of kids. As a goat, he had been grown to be everyone's pet, a figure of universal love and tenderness, the very embodiment of a sort of goatish Special Forcesness. The commandant described Lucky's many playful antics, his gentle and loving nature, and his long and faithful service as the Camp mascot. Through the years he had proven to be a goat of precocious ingenuity, almost human lovability, and had followed the commandant with the devotion of a faithful dog.
And now we were going to fucking eat him.
I'd like to say that we felt too guilty to consume the backside of this wonderful goat. I'd like to tell you we sobbed as we bid farewell to the quarter of the beloved Lucky that had become ours. But I won't kid you.
We just felt a little crummy afterwards.
That, and the fact is that smoked goat tastes a lot like goat smells.
Then there was bunny baseball. But, hell, this story is long enough as it is.
As a medic this was the hardest part of Phase I for me. I had no idea what we were doing when we started. I had to learn in a week what the infantry guys had been doing for months. It's a tribute to the cadre that I learned it and can still, to this day, remember how to write a five-paragraph operations order. I learned as fast as I could - and I learn pretty fast - and tried damn hard to become an infantry sergeant in two weeks.
Unfortunately, two weeks is not a long time, learning is not the same as knowing, and trying not the same as doing.
And on top of the patrolling we added a new stress to go with the hunger; sleeplessness.
Prior to Patrolling Week we had been going on five to seven hours of sleep a night. Now we were reduced to catnaps of two hours or less. Four hours of unbroken sleep was an unspeakable luxury. Most of us were - although we didn't realize it - operating a something like 40 to 50 percent of our peaks. We were still going, however, still pushing ahead to that tantalizing doorway to Phase II and (for the medics) nearly half a year of poontang and playtime at the paradise of Fort Sam Houston.
But for me, it didn't happen.
I failed my first graded patrol; as assistant patrol leader I was in charge at the Objective Rally Point as my PL and his squad leaders went to recon the objective. As I made my way around the circle of bodies the pine woods exploded with a single shot; one of the M-60 gunners had been fooling with his charging handle and had let the bolt go forward, firing a blank round.
I stumbled on, as a regular troop; raids, recons, movements-to-contact, wedge formations, ranger files, ORPs, passages of lines...finally I got a second chance. As Patrol Leader all I had to do was move a short distance, find a hide position, set up a patrol base, and wait.
I set the guys in place - in groups of three, "33%", so two could sleep while one pulled security - knowing how stoned we all were. I went around and around the perimeter, shaking and kicking troops awake. Finally, I was beat. I woke my APL, told him to give me fifteen minutes sleep, and laid down on the bare ground.
I was shaken awake by a grinning trooper of the 82nd.
"You die, GI!" he crowed, dragging his finger across my throat, and ran on.
All I remember of the next day was walking across a sunny clearing with the machinegun on my hip, and the instructor-walker pulling me aside; literally pulling me, as I was responding pretty much to direct stimuli only. Sitting on the ground listening to him explain that I had failed my second graded patrol, and was being recycled. Getting on the deuce-and-a-half and feeling the early summer sun warm on my face and wondering if the sky was ever so blue anywhere else.
I don't remember feeling peculiar, or unusual, or anything different than my what-I-thought-of-as-my-usual-self on that ride back to Ft. Bragg. I sat, and made idle talk, and dozed; I didn't understand why the guys in there with me, the other recycles, kept looking at me so oddly.
It was much later that one of them told me that all the while I was in the back of that truck chatting, and napping, and sitting I was crying constantly but silently, without so much as a sob or sniffle, just the two bright tear-falls that never stopped.
He said it was the creepiest thing he'd ever seen.
And so I returned to the old wooden WW2 barracks on COSCOM Hill having failed to do something I desperately wanted to do for the first time in my life. To find that the rest of my life had been waiting for me there.