34. Good Change

Good Change

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

1 Corinthians‬ ‭13:11‬ ‭

Despite having Dad as our platoon commander, life in second platoon was mediocre at best. The general population in any Marine unit are treated like children. We were yelled at often, given strict timelines of where to be and when, Field Day was always miserable, there was little room for freedom or initiative and the list goes on. 

This treatment certainly is warranted though. Most of us at this time were between nineteen and twenty and never had any responsibility in our life. I certainly fell in that category. However, I never enjoyed waking up in the morning. I wanted to escape.

And so I did. I bought a computer and renewed my long lost gaming addiction. After work I’d sneak away to my room to play for hours on end, usually only to take breaks for visits to the gym or chow hall. When weekends rolled around, I’d hitch the bus to the Bremerton ferry and have mom pick me up to bring me home for the weekend, retreating back to the same Egypt I’d yearned to escape from for so many years. 

The early months of 2009 were spent like this. Weekdays felt like an arduous grind and weekends were only a brief numbing escape from my dismal reality. The monotony of two weeks in the wire and two weeks out began eating away at me. The few weeks we weren’t stuck in the restricted area would often be filled to the brim with infantry training. We took a four hour trip to Yakima to live in the cold desert we dubbed Yakistan, and visited Fort Lewis for either annual rifle qualification or machine gun training. Somewhere in this time we took on an extra load of work when the Department of Defense came to our base.

During the first two weeks of March our platoon was one of the two selected to undergo a DOD training exercise called Reliant Sentinel. Army and Airforce personnel toured military bases around the country that stored strategic assets and tested the ability of those on guard to fend off a potential invasion. Through many iterations defending against a third party invader, we could better learn how to provide proper security and perhaps even make a case for additional equipment that may be needed to adequately defend our assets. 

To make the training realistic, we each were handed a set of MILES1 gear and a full loadout of blanks.2 The training personnel also had smoke grenades and artillery simulations which are essentially large, loud fireworks to mimic any sort of battlefield explosion. Each team also had a third party airman who would listen in to the opposing radios in order to communicate certain actions lasers were unable to reproduce, like an RPG either destroying or disabling a vehicle and any casualties that may have occurred due to it.

The man running the whole operation gathered our platoon around before the first iteration of training.

“We’re gonna bring it hard and fast, so don’t feel bad when you lose. Nobody’s ever defeated us before and we don’t expect y’all to either. Our objective in all this is to assess your ability to repel an invasion based on how much resistance we get when takin’ y’all down.”

Challenge accepted.

Dad’s well-trained Devil Dogs were ready to be unleashed. At the sound of first contact, all hell broke loose. Explosions and gunfire erupted as our vehicles darted to and fro, down and up the road, providing barricades and posting security elements alongside the vehicles to avoid a single RPG killing the whole crew. As my team dispersed and made our way to the main element, the Bear3 sped up to the road where it added another blockade and emptied out a squad of Marines.

These Marines were from Recapture Tactics Team (RTT). They weren’t wearing cammies. Instead, they had flight suits. Their gear also looked different, sleeker, cooler. Each of them brandished fully automatic M-4’s4 and holstered M-9 Berettas. As they flooded out they spread in a flawlessly rehearsed formation and floated towards the target with an impeccable combat glide.5 Once these Marines exited, continuous rattles of their barrage resounded in synergistic intensity, effectively suppressing the enemy on the small hill they assaulted. Not far from their vehicle I noticed another Marine, this one with a boonie cover and a long rifle laying in the prone behind a knoll engaging the enemy. Though we were holding our own quite well, once these guys arrived, we crashed into the enemy like a tsunami.

Towards the end of the first run, I was standing near the road providing security when an enemy Humvee stormed towards us as the machine gunner in the turret unloaded in our direction. As I turned to sight in, I noticed Wiggins was in the turret, unleashing the M-2406 with deafening blasts, each releasing small shockwaves of pressure that rattled me with each pulse. The Humvee screeched about twenty yards past me to the final remaining enemy vehicle, his finger never letting off the trigger now at point blank range from the enemy gunner. At that point I heard the exercise was called off.

“Ho – ly shit,” the lead instructor shouted as he approached, “I’ve never seen anything like this! Y’all are crazy!” Many of us were still alive, so if he called it off we must have won. “I gotta say gents, watchin’ your performance tickled me shitless. Y’all weren’t just the first group to ever beat us, y’all CRUSHED us!” We all smiled and laughed. I guess Dad’s unrelenting training in Yakistan paid off. “Well, get ready for tomorrow, ‘cause we’re comin’ for ya on round two.”

Round two came and went. We won. Round three, four and five we bagged as well. The pleasantly surprised and happy instructor lost enthusiasm with each successive loss. With each iteration though, the enemy advantage became more lopsided and their weaponry more sophisticated. The goal for them was to see how far they could take us, essentially determining how large of a force and how much firepower it would take to overrun us. We finally lost when they instantly killed RTT with some magical explosive .50 caliber round and dropped drone smart bombs on us, stopping just shy of unleashing an army of Terminators. 

Dad undoubtedly was proud, as were we. All of us received a fancy paper commending us of our actions and some of the base procedures were revised based on our outstanding performance. Though this was the most realistic, intense, expensive, and lengthy training evolution I ever participated in, it was exhausting.

I still felt demoralized each day. Though we smashed our competition, I didn’t enjoy the work and the few rest breaks I did have never felt long enough. I began spiraling back into my old ways. Work was grueling to me  and my time off felt like I did while wasting away in high school. My once defeated video game addiction returned with vengeance and although nobody else cared about them, my screw ups continued to haunt me causing depression to set in. Something needed to change.

Besides my depressing failures running around in my head, another topic never stopped pacing through my mind. I couldn’t help thinking about those guys with their fancy gear. The Marines in RTT were the jocks of Bangor. They all looked so slick, shot better weapons, walked taller, shoulders broader, laughed like brothers and always appeared to be OFP7

“How do you go to RTT?” I asked Miller.

“You really wanna join those assholes?”

“I don’t know, kinda. They look cool.”

“Well, every once in a while they run what’s called ‘spin ups,’ which is where they haze you for about a week. If you make it through that they send you either to CQB school or DM school.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“CQB is Close Quarters Battle, the guys in the flight suits went to CQB school and rock the M-4’s. DM is Designated Marksman school. They wear boonie covers and shoot the sniper rifle.”

Close Quarters Battle school sounded tough. It’s essentially a high-speed SWAT type course that Navy SEALs attend and other special operators. British Royal Marines frequent CQB as well. Throughout this six-ish week training, around one million rounds of 9mm are shot between some thirty classmates. The pistol qualification is extremely tough, a portion that drops a lot of guys. During this segment, they train to transition from their rifle to their pistol because it is quicker to switch than reload the M-4.

They also spend weeks practicing room clearing, hence the name, close quarters. Guys could make it all the way to the final exercise and if they make one mistake, they fail. They only have one more chance to remediate the following day. If they fail the second time, they fail the course and are sent home, having wasted their whole time there.

CQB didn’t sound like my cup of tea as I figured the pressure of the final exercise would be my demise. Becoming a designated marksman felt right though. When the time came for DM spin ups to roll around, I put my name in. Wiggins though, due to seniority, took the slot. I was bummed. But, for some reason, a few days before the haze fest, Wiggins had a change of heart.

“Hey Decoup,” he said.


“Get ready, you’re going to spin ups tomorrow.”

“Seriously? Didn’t you want to go?”

“Yeah, I do, but I’m doing just fine here in second platoon and I don’t even have that much time left at Bangor anyway. I know you really want to go so I backed out.”

“Wow, thanks man. I don’t know what to say.”

“Meh, no need to thank me. You’re more fit anyway. I’m not sure I’d make it, but I know you will.”

And with that, I began my haze fest that I barely remember. Corporal Vanderkreke was in charge of us and I know he ran us through an intense gauntlet, the details of which are long lost. I do remember we met up with the guys in CQB spin ups at one point. We congregated in front of the RTT barracks where a hangover Marine, Corporal Garcia, shouted a slurred speech to us from the top catwalk.

“We’re about to fuck your shit up!”

I swear these guys in RTT ran better hungover than they did sober. We ran for miles in boots and utes,8 taking periodic stops to perform buddy squats and buddy carries. An unusual snow must have occurred too because I remember one stretch of road we slipped our way down, stopping part way to do push ups and planks on the frigid ice.

Once detached from the CQB comrades, Corporal Vanderkreke ran us through Kim’s games which means, “Keep In Memory.” As the games progressed he made them more difficult. Rather than writing the objects down immediately after we finished, he took us on a sweaty detour for up to an hour. During this time I’d have to recycle the items in my consciousness continuously as I attempted to keep up with the tall, speedy corporal. 

At the end of the week, they chose to send me. We started with about five DM applicants and only I remained. Soon thereafter, in early April, 2009 I flew back to Virginia. That which I sought, I got. I was optimistic this would be a good change.

  1. MILES stands for Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System. Essentially it is a fancy set of laser tag nodes you attach to your helmet and body armor  to register if you’ve been hit by an incoming round from the laser attached to the top of your rifle.
  2. Blanks are bullet casings filled only with gunpowder with the tip crimped shut. Once a BFA or blank firing adapter is properly seated on the muzzle of the rifle, the blank will shoot and feel like a real round shooting through the chamber minus the bullet.
  3. The Bear is an armored vehicle about twice the size of the Bearcats we drove, capable of fitting between 16 and 18 troops.
  4. Contrary to popular belief, our standard issue M-16’s are not fully automatic. The M-4 is similar to the M-16 except it is between about six and ten inches shorter depending if the buttstock is extended or not.
  5. This consists of the rifle set in the shoulder and elevated, a slight crouch to help absorb recoil and smooth bumps from steps, and carefully placed feet with crouched knees to absorb shock that would interfere with accuracy.
  6. M240-B is a medium machinegun that uses 7.62 mm link ammunition. This round is larger and more powerful than the 5.56 ammo used in M-16’s, M-4’s and the M-249 SAW light machine gun.
  7. To say someone is OFP means they are on their Own Fuckin’ Program. Essentially, they don’t have to deal with whatever BS the majority of people are suffering through.
  8. Boots and utes refers to wearing the whole standard camouflage uniform minus the blouse.

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