49. Heat Casualty

Heat Casualty

I will call upon the LORD, that he may send thunder and rain.

1 Samuel 12:17

Cold weather training ended about a week later. Several months later, we journeyed to the all inclusive resort, Twentynine Palms, California. This luxurious vacation destination features withering heat, scattered parking lots surrounded by decades old buildings, premier half-moon huts and breathtaking rocks amidst a sea of hills and dirt. If you hate trees, this waterless oasis is the place for you. 

Every deploying Marine infantry unit first stops here to die a little inside. During this thirty day training evolution called Mojave Viper, we travel to various sections of the endless desert to perform exercises from the squad level up to a battalion coordinated assault on an objective. We blitzed through MOUT1 towns, dug fighting holes, patrolled in the desert and sustained minor head trauma while jostling in the deafening paint shaker between stations.

Did I say paint shaker? Sorry, I meant Assault Amphibious Vehicle. This state of the art treaded personnel carrier is a tank without cannon, an MRAP with no armor and a jackhammer minus the off switch. Also known as the Amphibious Tractor, or by us Marines as simply “Trac,” it features stiff metal seats and rattling joints to keep everyone alert from departure until insertion into the objective. Despite looking like a one way ticket to the bottom of the ocean, it can and will take you from boat to shore for any of your battlefield destinations. 

Before departing on our next training op with these brain-sundering saunas, First Sergeant Bala gathered us all around. Standing in front of a tan hooch with the slick-pink strips of sunset touching down, the six foot powerhouse of Marine Corps motivation spoke.

“Listen up.” The low hum from our huddling conversations ceased. “It’s gonna be hot the next few days. Echo company had four heat casualties already and Fox company had nine. This shit ‘aint easy but it’s real. We’re training to fight. And the enemy doesn’t give a fuck if you’re passed out with a thermometer in your ass. They want that. They don’t take days off. They’ve done this their whole lives. So it’s everyone’s responsibility to do everything we can to keep our brothers in the fight.”

Later that day I gathered some of the young Marines who would join me during my weekly Bible study group. As we wrapped up our gathering, I said, “Why don’t we finish off with some prayer requests?” I looked over to Larry to my right. The lean Louisianan whisked his eyes from the dirt, to mine then back down.

“I ‘ain got nutin’ corporal.”

“That’s okay. What about you Sanchez?”

“I’m good corporal.”

“Clarkin? You got somethin’ on your mind?” I asked.

“Yes, corporal. For my wife and baby girl. 

“Okay, what can we pray for?”

“Just that they stay safe while we’re out here and especially on deployment.” I gave Clarkin a nod. 

“And you Powers? What do you got?”

He sat, legs crossed, arms wrapped around his knees, with a drooping, downward gaze. Still staring at the floor, he said, “Just that I stop messing up, corporal.”

Tilting my head in his direction, I took in and let out a slow breath. “Okay. Yeah, Powers… we can pray for that.” After a short, concerned pause, a prayer request came to mind. “I got an idea. How ‘bout we pray that we don’t have any heat casualties?” At the suggestion, a warm sensation trickled from my neck to my low back. Everyone agreed, and we bowed our heads.

The following day we prepped for our four hour trek in the bowels of the metal kiln on treads. We walked up to the dozen or so beasts, jaws open for us to enter their rattling gut. As we approached our vehicle, the two AAV operators greeted us. Each wore gray cover-alls spotted with oil stains, streaks of grease and patches of dirt clinging to splotches of sweat and engine fluids. 

I stepped up the ramp of their iron maiden, tilting my head down to avoid the rim of the opening. The stiff seat met my tiny butt as I sat down. Each sighing breath filled my nostrils with the scent of grease and diesel fuel that slowly diminished as I acclimated to the stench. Leaning against the wall, I stared at the cloudless sky through the wide open hatches stretching the length of the vehicle.

After the rest of the Marines piled on, we waited. Every training exercise involving more than a squad of Marines inevitably begins with a holding pattern as the brass coordinates the details well above our pay grade. A term I’m sure is not restricted to the Marine Corps inevitably applies in every similar situation: “Hurry up and wait.”

Once the engine fired up, I popped in my ear protection. Even conversations in my head were drowned out in the overwhelming grind of the treads and colliding engine parts. Then, the vehicle moved. 

For some time we advanced in one direction. When we finally turned, the sun beams found my salty cheeks. Each labored breath filled my lungs with wilting air. I brought the Camelback hose to my lips and sipped.

As the blue sky turned shades of pink, the rear hatch opened.

“Move, move!” Sergeant Alverado shouted as we emptied and dispersed. I sprinted from the rear to the front of the vehicle, dropping to the prone. Straight ahead lay our objective, a makeshift town with metal rectangular buildings. We began bounding ahead, unloading blanks for suppressive fire. By the time we reached the objective, we proceeded to clear each building one room at a time until they called off the exercise. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment as I walked back to the tracs, trying to catch my breath. Eight hours of waiting, sitting and baking in the vehicle for only thirty minutes of actual infantry training seemed like an inefficient use of time to me.

The following day was the big one: digging in the defense. This training evolution was the one First Sergeant Bala warned us about. All heat, no shade and continuous manual labor. None of the other companies made it out unscathed.

Our company convoy of 7-tons and Humvees formed a roughly five-hundred yard line across a flat, grassless plain. Shortly after emptying out of the vehicle, I fished out my E-tool from my ruck’s side pouch, greeting it with a disdainful look. One of my favorite childhood hobbies used to be digging holes in the backyard until the Marine Corps ruined it. 

E-Tool is short for “military issued tri-fold entrenching tool.” Grunts have spent dozens of hours dominated by these shovels. This not so friendly, neatly folded spade’s width spans barely more than six inches and is slightly less than two feet when fully extended. So naturally it is the perfect spoon to dig a chest-high fighting hole capable of comfortably fitting two Marines. If training didn’t call for a trench, we filled sandbags with these tiny instruments. If all else failed, they were an easily foldable 2.7 pounds of additional weight to add to our burden on the many ruck marches we endured. 

We broke ground at about 0800. The heat steadily mounted as the beat of scoops and scrapes perpetuated near and far. With each hunched over dig, my cammies clung to my sticky back before slowly peeling off once upright. My armpits drained fluid and my swollen feet retained it. Waves of hot air diffused from my forehead and cheeks with each bounding pulse from my strained heart. 

I cursed the sun. The bright oppressive ball never let up, never took pity on us, only continued its mindless obedience to blast us with heat without once hearing our requests to “Tone it down a bit!” All I could do is bear my back for the lashes from its unforgiving rays.

Both the sun and its sapping abuse reached its zenith around 1300. As I continued to dig, the shimmering sand suddenly turned dull. A shadow floated over us and a vitalizing breeze with it. When I looked up, a churning squall formed above us like a bottle of black ink spilled in a swimming pool.

The sun was no match for the impervious clouds. Their swells of black and gray cast down a thick darkness as we all looked up in awe. I removed my boonie cover, still mesmerized at such a sudden change in scenery. 

I felt a peck on my cheek. Then another, then dozens more. The silence broke with the sound of innumerable tiny impacts. The rain intensified with each passing second. I smiled as I stretched out my arms, palms open, eager to be embraced by the most benevolent deluge. I welcomed the aroma of rain colliding with parched dirt. My revitalized lungs joined the cheers that stretched up and down the line as Marines hopped out of their fighting holes, threw E-tools on the ground and raised fists in the air like slaves freed from their captor. 

Our freedom was short-lived. After less than five minutes, the friendly rain clouds departed, vanishing nearly as quickly as they came. Though the tempest disappeared, our morale remained. We continued digging.

As we wrapped up Mojave Viper, First Sergeant Bala gathered us around for a final debrief with a smile on his face.

“I want to congratulate everyone for a job well done. We fought hard and we trained hard and none of it could have happened without each and every one of you sweating your ass off every day, giving one hundred percent. And we did it all as the only company without a single heat casualty. We’re the best this battalion has to offer. We’re ready to take the fight to the fucking enemy.”

We all glowed with pride in the evening sun. His words of encouragement reinforced by the hard work and dedication we poured out in the desert emboldened us for whatever may come. We’d earned our confidence and braved the furnace, all without a single heat casualty.

  1. MOUT stands for military operations on urban terrain. These towns consist of empty buildings that are used for urban exercises, generally consisting of room clearing.

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