All of our equipment was black with ash. It clogged our pores and smeared our uniforms gray. We tightened up all our gear, checking tie-downs and straps before rucking up. With my body armor stuffed in my ruck sack, my final load was around 90 lbs before I strapped the emergency drag-litter to the back. Not that the Sked added much weight, but it was bulky and it made the load awkward.
The platoon was chased through the trees by mortar simulators. Plans went to shit and everyone started running and barking orders. After a lengthy assessment of the clusterfuck, we were mercifully allowed to set up our patrol base. We humped through the woods, eager to bed down.
What followed was a disaster.
We moved under night vision, falling over everything. The forest was scorched by a controlled burn. In daylight the ground was a carpet of ash. Trees were bare and charred, vines and thorns still clinging to them. The platoon emplaced on the edge of a spur and fumbled through priorities-of-work in the dark.
I sat in the CP with my back against my ruck. I pulled my heels close and settled my rifle between my legs. My right hand rested reflexively on the pistol grip. Semi-conscious, I scanned the wood line. With my naked right eye I could see vague traces of ambient light. With my left eye, through my NODs, the adjacent hilltops were alight.
Residual pockets of fire.
My battle buddy dropped onto the ground next to me. He unsnapped his helmet and slumped against his ruck.
“What time is stand-to?”
“0530 . . . ” he whispered.
“What is it now, 0400 . . . ?
He fumbled with his watch. I was close. I clicked off my NODs and leaned my head back. I didn’t bother taking off my kevlar, I just closed my eyes. I wanted to be ready to go instantly in case we got blown out by more indirect. Being blown out of a sound sleep is bad enough, fumbling with your shit while it happens is retarded, and completely preventable.
I slept that way, 5 or 10 minutes at a time. The temperature was dropping as dawn approached, and I was freezing. My battle buddy pulled his sleeping bag out – he only brought the summer bag – and draped it around his shoulders. He tossed me the other half.
I set my rifle down and ditched my helmet. I pulled my watch cap down over my ears and settled under my piece of sleeping bag and stretched out. I was asleep before I closed my eyes.
The first drop hit me in the face. Then another. I sat bolt upright, my brain fuzzy with static. After a moment of confusion I tore into my ruck and pulled out my poncho, tossing it over my battle buddy and myself. The rain stopped.
“You’re fucking kidding me . . . ” I growled, under my breath.
Determined to get at least half an hour of good sleep, I dug deep into my ruck and pulled out my poncho liner. I cinched up my compression gear, reattached the Sked, and reset all of my straps and rigging. I snuggled up beneath my woobie and heaved a sigh of relief.
The rain started again, this time in earnest. My poncho protected my face and torso, but little else. My woobie hung half out and was instantly soaked. I curled up on my side, in a fetal ball, in resignation.
Fifteen more minutes of sleep, then someone shook me.
“Hey! Stand-to . . . get up! We’re rolling out in 30.”
My head was wild with loose thoughts. I moved and my saturated poncho clung to the side of my face. I threw it off with a violent motion and rolled to my knees, shoving my wet gear back in my bag. I sat back on my heels and took a deep breath. After a minute, the monkey chatter died.
I did a quick self-assessment and realized I didn’t feel all that bad. Now that I was moving, I wasn’t cold. My boots were wet, but my socks were still medium dry. Everything ached, but nothing hurt. I didn’t have to piss.
Rain ran down my cheeks and soaked my clothes. I dug a protein bar out of a magazine pouch and ninja’d my way down to my squad. They were pulling security on the flank where I had watched the fires burn the night before. The forest was a wall of impenetrable gray, streaked with black by the wasted trees.
I hunkered down against a stump next to one of the team leaders, whispered good morning, and said nothing else. I cradled my rifle and watched my breath pour out as steam. I could smell the team leader’s fresh dip. I smiled to myself. He leaned forward occasionally to spit.
We sat in silence, guarding nothing.