3 GWOT era stories you can’t tell at the family Christmas party
A lot of Vets I know take time out of the holidays to reconnect with battle buddies and retell old war stories. This is in and of itself completely normal. In fact, while some memories may be a little painful, it’s good to relive them with the people that were there to share in the experience.
The other day something else occurred to me: The amount of absolutely insane experiences you can have in service that you simply take in stride is bonkers. Looking back, nothing in these stories seemed out of place given the context in which they occurred. However, if you’ve ever told this type of story at a Christmas party, you may have been the only one laughing.
The Cracker of Destiny
In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, multiple units of Marines found themselves in a block-to-block, house-to-house fight. This particular engagement lasted well over a week of fighting dawn to dusk, ceasing at night only to clean weapons and snatch a few short hours of sleep. On one of these days in a particularly quick but tense gun fight an enemy combatant was taken out by several Marines firing different weapons platforms. A higher-than-average caliber round struck the enemy in the face, causing a large portion of his brain to be exposed. All of this is standard stuff for an open and active war zone.
The Marines took and secured the compound that the enemy was firing from, staying there for just under an hour. On the way out to continue the fight, one of the Marines who had recently opened an MRE walked by the enemies prone body, dropped a cracker in to what can only be described as the face hole, and in a very thick southern accent said “here you go buddy, there’s one for the road.”
The Marines around him had a quick chuckle and continued their op. At the time, it was a moment of grim levity in an otherwise very tense situation. In hindsight however, it brings into sharp focus why every time you call the VA the first thing they ask is if you'd like to be connected to a therapist.
Hazardous Duty Pay
On a well-deserved break from patrol operations, a unit of Army Rangers was enjoying their down time in the bricks the way most of us do. A little extra sleep, some Call of Duty, bullying your medic into giving you an IV to “cure” your hangover; just your typical Saturday morning activities.
As anyone who has been aboard a military installation can tell you though, just because the Rangers were on down time, doesn’t mean the rest of the base was. This fact was sadly lost on the young lady who was leaving a barracks room after having been paid for… services rendered. Still a bit off center from the evening’s festivities, she was making her way across the catwalk to the stairs when several large caliber mortars began to detonate at the nearby range.
Hearing the explosive concussions, she assumed the base was under attack. In a moment of blind panic, she vaulted the railing, and leaped for an inflated kiddie pool below her. Landing stiletto-first into the shallow water likely didn’t do her any favors, and her leg was broken on impact.
The walk of shame has been a time-honored tradition in military housing since 1775, but having a safety mishap report to go with it? There’s a safety stand down that’s going to be awkward.
Field Day Hell
Being stationed in a large enough base during a war can sometimes make the day-to-day reality of combat seem farther away than they are. Commands especially fall prey to this false sense of calm and forget that punishments should be weighed against safety concerns.
And so it came to pass that a junior enlisted man found himself in the unfortunate position of having jacked up badly directly in front of his 1st Sergeant and paying a hefty price. His instructions for incentive-based correction were to take a canteen cup containing soap and water, along with a toothbrush, and begin cleaning the rocks outside the Combat Operations Center (COC). To be clear, we aren’t talking about large rocks, but a large area of gravel stones roughly half the size of your fist.
Accepting his fate, he went out to scrub, and scrubbing became his existence. For four days, he scrubbed each rock of gravel clean and replaced it. Knowing that the task was impossible, he continued, hoping that the constant hard work and attention to detail would mean showing contrition for his prior failures and perhaps getting back on 1st Sergeants good side (assuming he had one.)
Then the rockets fell. Ordered chaos ensued as the soldiers scrambled to bunkers and prepared themselves for the possibility of a ground assault following the rocket barrage. Our intrepid rock scrubber got his kit and his rifle and stood his post with his peers. As the command came around to all the positions to assess the status following the attack, they noticed only one casualty. That being the wounded pride of the rock scrubber who was being chewed a new one for abandoning his assigned task. After all, the commotion had added a fresh layer of grit to the previously immaculate rocks. Furthermore, he was being loudly reminded that his proficiency was viewed as so egregiously incompetent, that his greatest contribution to an attack would be to keep morale high by ensuring command had a beautiful COC.
Now, the soldier had to clean the rocks of not only dirt and sand, but also the saltiness of his tears.
When you’re drinking with friends during holiday leave, or reminiscing with people you served with decades passed, consider for yourself how a therapist or your Meemaw would react to hearing about what you experienced. I’m not suggesting that you keep all your internalized traumatic experiences to yourself. Just read the room, and try not to ruin Christmas. No matter how hilarious the joke may seem.