Sunday, February 22, 2009

A First Class Nap

The final two days at Camp McCrady included a memorial service honoring CDR Salkeld, the convoy exercise, rifle turn in and getting briefed by the Navy staff on our travel plans.

The memorial service was very nicely done on such short notice. We found out that CDR Salkeld had already submitted his retirement paperwork, and was on is way out the door when he found out about the IA opportunity. He pulled his retirement papers so he could go on this tour. He didn't need to be here. He wanted to be here. CDR Salkeld literally "wrote the book" on Marine Corps Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) warfare.

The convoy exercise was uneventful. I was assigned as "Passenger Number 2" in the Convoy Commander's vehicle. Since I was absent when crew assignments were made, I didn't know how they assigned who as what for the convoy. The convoy commander was a first class petty officer, and the vehicle I was in had a lieutenant commander as a driver, a lieutenant as a passenger, a chief as a gunner, and myself (a lieutenant commander) as the second passenger. As each scenario unfolded, the first class was verbally peppered by the LCDR driver and the LT passenger with, "tell vehicle one to do this", "tell vehicle 5 to do that", and every variation of "do this" and "do that" that you can imagine. The first class took it in stride, but you could tell that the combination of trying to manage the other 5 vehicles, the verbal barrage of his passengers, and reacting to the scenarios began to show on his face. I quietly sat back and played my role as Passenger Number 2, both resentful of the fact I wasn't driving, and relieved that I wasn't the convoy commander. I later told the first class that he did a good job as the convoy commander, and let him know that he showed great restraint in not telling the LCDR and LT to shut their pie holes.

The final day was a flurry of packing, last minute bus rides to the PX, and what seemed like hourly musters. It began though, with rifle turn in. A lot of folks had stayed up pretty late the night before cleaning their rifles. I was still slightly annoyed that I put about 300 rounds through my rifle with a cracked bolt face and missing locking lug, so I procrastinated cleaning the thing until the absolute last second. The drill sergeants told us that weapons turn in could be a stressful event because the weapons custodians were very finicky about the cleanliness of the rifles and would refuse to accept them until they were spotless. They let us know that most folks got turned away two or three times to re-clean their rifle before it was finally good enough to be turned in. Still, the night before, as my squad mates stayed up late cleaning their rifles, I went to sleep early with a filthy rifle tucked away in my locker.

The next morning, after breakfast, people began lining up to turn in their weapons. I walked right by the growing line of fifty or so folks outside the armory waiting for them to open, and went straight to the cleaning tent. The cleaning tent was completely empty. There was table space for about forty people to clean weapons at once, but right now there was only me. I methodically broke the weapon down and went about a very selective, cursory cleaning of the major areas of the rifle that I, as an armorer, would expect them to check. I was working for about 5 minutes before the first reject from turn-in showed up. There was a steady stream of them thereafter, mumbling curses under their breath and with bitter resignation after spending all night cleaning their rifles, now started the process all over again. Ten minutes after the first reject showed up, I put my rifle back together and headed over to the armory to turn it in. By now a drill sergeant had positioned himself outside the armory and was going up and down the line doing a sort of pre-inspection. There were about fifteen people in front of me, but the drill sergeant was going through, kicking most of them out of line and sending them to the cleaning tent, to save some time. The drill sergeant got to me and gave my weapon a once over. I waited until he started his inspection, then distracted him with, "you know they never replaced my bolt." "look at it, its still cracked." I tried to be slightly annoying, with animated hand gestures while going on and on about my cracked bolt. It seemed to work because he spent about twenty seconds looking at my bolt, handed me back the rifle and let me stay in line to turn it in. When I got to the weapon custodian, I already had my rifle broke down shotgun style with the cracked bolt in my hand. She was sitting at a table and I thrust the bolt at her and said in an annoying tone,"this is broke...its been broke for a week...I kept coming over here to get it fixed and you were never here...I hope you don't let anyone else use this..." As she was looking at the bolt face intently, I nonchalantly sat the weapon on the table, turned and walked out. I slowly walked away, and waited for her to call me back, but after three seconds went by, I had a mental image of the Road Runner in my mind and thought, beep! beep! and kept right on walking while Wyle E. Coyote was left holding my broken rifle. It took another three hours for folks to finish cleaning their weapons, during which time I finished packing my bags, and took an hour long nap.

I woke to the sound of banging metal wall locker doors and people filling their seabags with all the gear we had been issued. I got up, went to lunch and waited for the 1400 shuttle to the PX. On the bus ride there I made a final phone call to Carolyn, then ceremonially deposited the phone and charger in an envelope to be mailed back home. After dropping the phone off at the UPS store, I went through the PX and bought a can of Pringles, a big bag of Good 'n Plenty candy, a bag of sunflower seeds and some beef jerky for the flight later. I then went to the food court and ate two chicken soft taco's from Taco Bell and a double cheese burger from Burger King.

We had a final round of meetings, briefs, and musters before being loaded onto buses for the drive to the airport. At the airport, the buses stopped in front of a large hangar, whose door was mostly closed. A strip of white light four feet wide came from the slightly open door and lit the area around the buses. One of the Navy staff then told us that we needed to go through the door in single file, and that there were some folks inside who wanted to say good bye to us. I was about 20 or so from the front of the line and as the first few entered the hangar I heard an eruption of cheering and applause rivaling the end of a rock concert. As I passed through the opening I was immediately hugged by one of the couple hundred of folks that were waiting for us behind the door. The cheering and clapping continued in earnest until the last one of us was through the door. It took a few seconds to grasp what was going on, but apparently the local VFW, American Legion, Purple Heart Association, Blue Star Families, several churches and television stations had come out to wish us a safe journey. Each group had a table set up inside the hangar and gifts for us. Some made bagged lunches, some gave out teddy bears, candy, etc. We mingled, chatted, hugged and thanked the folks for about thirty minutes before we had to leave. I ended up with a plastic shopping bag full of food, trinkets, stuffed animals, and about six bottles of water, in addition to the food I bought at the PX.

When it was time to go, the navy staff lined us up by rank to walk single file out to the plane. It was odd because for the last three weeks, there was no mention of rank. We were all trainees, now they were putting us back in line so that the more senior folks would get on the plane first. I apparently didn't notice the fact that the handful of captains and dozen or so commanders were already gone, because when they lined us up, the lieutenant commanders were at the head of the line. The community of Colombia, South Carolina had one more surprise in store for us. When we walked out of the hangar there were about forty folks in two lines of twenty, each holding a seven foot staff with a large American flag whipping and snapping in a strong breeze. Some of the folks were obviously struggling to keep a grip on their individual staff as the wind tried to send it flying. It was a little emotional walking down the two rows of snapping flags while the people holding them reached out for a last handshake or hug as you passed by. I took my time and thanked them all. I was through the gauntlet, and looked up to see the 767 that would be flying us to Kuwait.

After walking up the stairs and being greeted by the stewardess, I turned to find a seat. When I passed through first class, the captains and commanders were already pretty much settled. I guess they snuck them out of the hangar early. I also noticed that there were at least five of the seats unoccupied. When I got to the coach cabin I took the first available seat and waited patiently with my carry-on bag and grocery bag still in my lap.

There were about 120 of us and the 767 would seat well over 300, so crowding was not a concern, and loading went quickly. Once everyone was aboard and getting settled one of the commanders from first class popped his head back in to coach and said, "Are there any lieutenant comman..." That was all I heard before I brushed past him and plopped down in an open seat in first class. "...ders that want to move up to first class?"

The first class seats were nice, very nice. There was sooo much leg room that you had to unbuckle your seat belt to reach the seat back pocket in front of you. I made myself comfortable, and listened to the stewardess tell us we would get fed within an hour after taking off, and then breakfast about an hour before landing. It was scheduled to be an eight hour flight. I decided to take a nap until the first meal was served, and as the plane was taking off, I used a remote control with several preset buttons to put the over sized leather seat into the full horizontal position and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up to the serving cart bumping my chair. Good, just in time for dinner. However, when I looked at the cart and the people around me, I found that the stewardesses were cleaning up the breakfast meal! What the ?! I did the math and realized that I had been asleep for over seven hours. I was starving and convinced the stewardess to at least let me have a bowl of cereal and some orange juice this close to landing. As I scarfed it down, the captain sitting next to me finally said, "I didn't think you were ever gonna wake up." I told him it felt like I was only out for a few minutes, I guess I needed the sleep.

We landed at Hahn, Germany to refuel. It was a shut down Air Force Base, and as we were shuttled to the terminal, you could see that most of the buildings had been re-utilized, except for row after row of empty, abandoned three story barracks buildings. Most of them still had unit insignia's painted on the side, and an occasional busted out window or missing door. We stayed in the terminal for about an hour before being bused back out to the plane. After take-off and after I had watched Body of Lies on the personal, on-demand service included on the personal video monitor attached to my seat, I got up to go to the bathroom and noticed the the cockpit door was standing wide open. I glanced in, and to my surprise, the pilot waved and said come on in. In I went, and felt vertigo when I looked out the windshield into a cloudless sky. The lack of clouds provided a clear view of the snow topped mountains we were flying over. There were no sings of civilization to put the mountain range in perspective, just the jagged snow covered landscape. The pilot got up and invited me to sit down in his seat. I sat down and the co-pilot pulled out a camera to take a picture of me "flying" the plane with the Alps in the background. He then asked for my email adress so he could send me the picture. I walked back to my seat, scratching my head, thinking, did that just happen? A few minutes went by, and I realized that I had forgotten to go to the bathroom.

I spent the rest of the flight watching a downloaded episode of Battlestar Galactica on my lap top until the battery died, and then snoozing off and on. We landed in Kuwait at about 0200 in the morning local time.

"Maybe Carolyn Does Have A Point"

Intermittent and frustratingly slow internet access combined with being in the dark while training at the Udari Range and traveling from Kuwait to Bagram have left me and this blog somewhat electronically constipated. Meaning, I am a bit backed up in keeping you guys up to date on my goings on.

At Camp McCrady, in addition to rifle and pistol training we also spent some time driving Humvee's, doing a bit of land navigation, had some convoy training and even spent one final day shuttling between ranges to shoot a few machine guns and to do some "reflexive" firing of our rifles. Most of these evolutions were refreshers for me, but I paid attention and took the time to re-familiarize myself with the concepts and equipment.

Driving a humvee is much like driving a car, it just weighs more and is a bit wider. It also has a turret cut out of the roof where you can mount a 50 caliber machine gun, and hundred pound doors, but really, not much different than a car. The first day of driving, the drill sergeants asked for 5 volunteers. I raised my hand and was chosen. The training was pretty basic- load up the vehicles, keep a safe distance, and follow the vehicle in front of you through the sandy, tight, rutted roads that ran through the Carolina pine forest. The student driving the hummer in front of me was putt-putting along like he was at Disneyworld on the Tomorrowland Speedway, so I'ld let a gap open up between us on the straight aways, then accelerate hard through the turns in the woods. It wasn't quite like a Subaru, but I still got it to drift and counter-steered through some of the corners. We did this for about 5 miles through the woods, and I felt satisfied that I could handle the vehicle. For a while I was oblivious to the fact that there were four other people in the vehicle with me. I was just out four-wheeling through the woods on a Saturday afternoon, and besides, none of them were talking all that much, so it was easy to forget they were even there. Their silence ended when we stopped, and got out. I was met by a chorus of, "Spicer, I am never driving with you again. EVER!" Jeez, they sounded just like Carolyn after one of our trips to the mall. Its not my fault they had never driven in a humvee before. They really needed to lighten up. I didn't hit any trees, regardless of how close I got to them.

Land Navigation involved three hours of class room instruction, followed by a practical exercise using compass, protractor and map in the woods. After the classroom portion, as the entire class of 80+ people were putting our armor and helmets on, there was a lieutenant who stood out like a sore thumb by wearing his soft cover, vice helmet. I walked up behind him and started singing the old Sesame Street song, One of these things is not like the others... in a light-hearted attempt to have him put his helmet on. He replied that we were just walking to the bus and taking them off as soon as we boarded. I told him that we needed to set the example for the rest of the class, or people would be randomly shedding gear whenever they wanted. He bowed up and started mumbling about how his IA billet wouldn't require him to wear the gear, blah, blah, blah. Since we are all in "training" our ranks are supposed to be left at the door, so its not like I could have ordered him to put it on, but his attitude rankled me a bit, and our little back and forth continued as the class was walking out the door and towards the buses. The drill sergeants and the navy chiefs in the class were finally noticing and getting a good laugh out of the whole thing. As our discussion continued out the door, I think I just got weary of his whining and the little marine locked up in the back of head woke up and snarled at him to, "...just quit your f---ing bitching and put the f---ing bucket on your f---ing melon!" Oops, where did that come from? It apparently ended the conversation though, as he went red face and quiet, then turned away and got on the bus without saying another word, still without a helmet, though.

During the bus ride there was whispering and some back-of-the-bus, middle-school chatter about what I had said, but by time we got to our destination it seemed to be forgotten. The land nav course required your group to find a series of four numbered stakes in the woods. There were about thirty out there and each group had different ones, so there was no way to just follow another group through the woods. The basics of land nav involve laying a grid over a map so that it is divided up into squares, which get you within 1000 meters accuracy, these squares are then divided into smaller squares, which get to 100 meters, and those are divided down into smaller squares, to get within 10 meters. The smaller the sqaure, the longer the number used to describe the location is, and the more accurately the location will be described. For example, a four-digit number would provide 1000 m accuracy, 6 digits gets you to 100 m, and 8 digits gets you to 10 m. 10 digits can get you to 1 m accuracy, but for people walking in the woods, using the 8 digit number is the norm. My group consisted of the chaplain, another civil engineer corps officer and a supply corps officer. After we were given our map, protractor, compass, and list of points to find, we waited until we had mapped our route before moving out. I noticed that the entire course was within a single grid square, and that none of the points was more than 300-400 meters away from any other point. As we were walking to the start point, I overheard the lieutenant that I had been previoulsy discussing head wear with telling his group that their first point was 1100 meters away. I was about to chime in and tell them that that was impossible, but... what fun would that be? It felt a bit petty, but it did make me smile. The drill sergeants gave us an hour to run the course. We were all wearing helmets and armor, so we would be trouncing through the forest with the added weight. We were supposed to find as many points as we could until we heard the bus horn blaring. That would signal us to return. Our group had a good time with the walk, and found all of our points. We were stopping and chatting with some of the other groups when we heard the bus horn. When we got back to the bus, about half of the groups were already there. The rest began to trickle in- all of them except one- the group with my favorite lieutenant. The entire class was sitting in the bus waiting, chatting and getting restless. The drill sergeant was starting to get antsy, when the last group finally crested the small hill at the edge of the forest fifty meters in front of the bus 45 minutes after the initial horn signal to return. Everyone on the bus (except me) greeted the last group with jeering and cheering and the type of vicious, but good-natured ridiculing that I have only found in the military. As I sat silently on the bus, picking the dirt out of my thumbnails with a buck knife, I glanced up to see that everyone in the last group was in fact wearing their helmets as they trudged the final few yards to the bus in the mid-day South Carolina sun. As the sweaty and obviously frustrated final group boarded the bus to a din of ridicule, I focused my attention on the point of my knife, as it worked up and down, and back and forth along the surface of my fingernails attempting to push back the cuticles. Outwardly, I was the picture of indifference, but inside, it was the best laugh I had had in a good long while.

As the end of training was coming into sight, we spent a day being shuttled between several ranges. We were able to shoot the M249 5.56mm, M240 7.62mm, and the M2 .50 caliber machine guns. We didn't get many rounds each, but they wanted to make sure we had the ability to pick up a belt of ammo, load the weapon, and put rounds down range if we unexpectedly found ourselves in the unlikely position of needing to. We also learned the basics of M16 reflexive firing, and ran through a pistol night shoot. The day was a kind of "last hurrah" of weapons firing. There would be no more after today.

The final training evolution at Camp McCrady is a convoy exercise. We would mount up humvees, drive through the woods, and be faced with about a half dozen scenarios ranging from IED's to sniper fire to angry mobs blocking our way. I was back in the barracks witnessing the boxing up of CDR Joe Salkeld's personal effects when the crew assignments for the convoy exercise were made. Later, I asked one of the chiefs what my convoy assignment would be, and he told me that I was originally slated to be a driver, but a handful of students stood up and demanded that I be anything except a driver, and refused to be in any hummer that I was driving. Chief asked what the hell that was about and what did I do to piss them all off. Outwardly, I gave him the seabee salute. (both hands inside my front pockets accompanied by a shoulder shrug, and a "I don't know") Inwardly though, I thought, "Maybe Carolyn does have a point".

Rifle Madness

Firstly, I am in Kuwait, sitting in Starbucks sipping an iced cafe americano, and doing fine. I'll do a couple more posts about Camp McCrady to close it out, working up to the present. I always seem to be a week behind. I'll try to get caught up to real time while sitting in Kuwait.

I had previously wrote about the pistol training we recieved, so I think it fair that you get a quick synopsis of our rifle training. It begins with some classroom instruction, and then moves to a simulator, kind of like a big video game. There they correct your stance and mechanics, review safety procedures, and go through a dry run of what happens on the range- all in a controlled environment. Next, we're off to the range.

Range days are early days. The goal is to put the first rounds downrange at first light, so if you do a little backwards planning, you start to see why getting up at 0400 is the norm on range days. After a very quick breakfast. (shove it down now, taste it later) The class, wearing all of our battle armor, is loaded onto busses for the 30 minute drive from Camp McCrady to the ranges at Fort Jackson. Sleep is the norm.

About ten minutes into my nap, I woke up and looked around the bus. It was dark. There was a pool of red light coming from the small fixture above the rear exit, and a smaller pool of white light surrounding the driver emanating from the dash. On each seat, there were two classmates jammed together sleeping, leaning on each other for support . In the dark, with helemeted heads slunked down inside of body armor, we looked like a bus crammed full of soundly sleeping turtles- turtles with M16's. The drill sergeant driving the bus, who must have done this a thousand times before today, timed her pressure on and off of the gas pedal with the gentle rises and falls of the dead straight two lane road we were travelling, so there was no sense of inertia, no leaning left and right nor head bobbing casued by speeding up, slowing down or turning. It was complete and utter stillness. The only sounds came from the rolling friction of large bus tires on pavement, the intermittent acceleration of the diesel engine timed to the rise and fall of the road, and if you listened very closely you could hear the song Cyanide by Metallica coming from the radio on the dash. The bass and drums seemed to help push the bus down the road. As I glanced out the window, and into the predawn South Carolna morning, I noticed that the narrow two lane road was lined on both sides by a dense pine forest. The greyness of the sky faintly outlined black shapes of trees, creating an infinite jagged, grey black horizon on both sides of the bus. There was also a thick, knee-high mist that clung to the forest floor and road alike. As the bus sped down the road, the mist would reluctantly part, then reform behind the bus in defiance of our passing. I nodded back off to sleep to the faint smell of pine.

The first day on the range our task was to "group and zero" (G&Z) our weapons. G&Z is a two step process. You can guess what the two steps are. To properly group, you fire three rounds, see how close they are to each other. The bulls-eye is irrelavant at this point, the goal is to get 5 of 6 consectutive shots close enough together to demonstrate that you have a consistent aim point before moving onto zero'ing the sights. Based upon my experience in the simulator, and my marine background, I didn't think I would have too much trouble. I loaded my first three rounds, sighted in, and pulled the trigger twice. After the second shot I was out of ammo. What the..? I loaded three rounds, didn't I? I went down range to check my target and had two holes next to each other and one far off to the side. This made no sense. Did I actually shoot three rounds? Did someone else shoot my target? Oh well, it was still pretty early in the morning. I loaded my next three rounds, and same thing. Two trigger pulls, empty magazine. I walked to my target with the drill sergeant, telling her I only pulled the trigger twice, and she replied with a respectful, yet condescending, "I am sure you did, sir." We looked at my target and the resluts were the same, two shots nearly on top of each other, and one nowhere near the others. She pointed out that I had four of six close enough together, but needed five to move onto the zero'ing phase. I was still a little confused, and as her and I walked back to the firing line she told me to go ahead and fire six rounds this time instead of three. I loaded the six rounds, sighted in and waited for the command to fire. I fired the first round, and when I pulled the trigger the second time I heard and felt a familiar, but unexpected blurp of fully automatic weapons fire. A-ha! I guess my trigger and/or hammer were wore out. I took the weapon out of my shoulder to remove the magazine and noticed that the expended casing of the fifth round was not fully extracted from the chamber before the live sixth round was rammed underneath causing the bolt of the rifle to be jammed about three fourths of the way forward. The drill sergeant was already at my side looking slightly perturbed at me for firing a four round burst on full auto. She was glaring at me, until I dropped the magazine from the rifle and pointed to the jam. I asked her for permission to try to clear the jam and she said yes. I vigoroulsy yanked on the charging handle to pull the bolt back, but it didn't budge. I banged on the forward assist a few times, then yanked the chrarging handle again- still stuck. I got up to a kneeling position and while holding the weapon at a 45 degree angle downrange, proceeded to repeatedly bash the buttstock of the rifle on the sandbag in front of me. On about the fifth, full wind-up, overhead smash, and as the people nearest me started to look concerned, the bolt finally released and both rounds dropped out. The drill sergeant then kneeled beside me to look at the weapon. I broke it down shotgun style and performed a function check on the trigger and hammer. I found that if I pulled the trigger slowly to the rear and held it back that the hammer wouldn't reset, causing it to repeatedly fire on one trigger pull. I also found that, if instead of applying slow steady pressure (the correct way to shoot) I jerked the trigger to the rear and let it go quicky the hammer would reset. I showed this to her, and she agreed to let me continue with grouping. It took a little getting used to yanking on, and quickly releasing the trigger because it is the exact opposite of what you are supposed to do. But, hey, you go to war with the weapon you got, not the one you wish you had, right? Nine shots later I had a good enough group to move on to zero'ing. Once you get a good, consistent group, the drill sergeant takes the weapon and adjusts your sights so that your consitent group ends up in the bull's eye. Now you repeat shooting sets of three shots until you get 5 of 6 in the bull's eye. It took about 18 shots for me to zero the damn weapon by yanking on the trigger, and I really didn't trust the sight corrections the drill sergeant made. To center my shots I had to compensate for the trigger yanking by aiming low and left. I don't know how I got 5 of 6 in the center, but was relieved when I fianlly did. After walking off the range I ate an MRE and waited for the weapons truck to show up with the armorer to have my rifle repaired. He showed up and I told him I probably needed my trigger and hammer replaced. Personally, I hate it when people tell me how to do my job, by saying, "Back when I was a fill in the blank, this is how we did fill in the blank." So I didn't tell him anything more than was necessary when I gave him my weapon. Back when I was an armorer, I would have replaced both the hammer and trigger, because they tend to wear out at the same rate, and if you only replace one, it won't be long before the other fails. I only said that in my head. The army amorer inspected my weapon, found that the hammer wouldn't reset, replaced it, then performed a function check. The hammer still wouldn't reset, so as he mumbled profanity under his breath, took the new hammer back out, took out and replaced the trigger, then put it all back together again. This time it passed a function check.

The next day we went to a LOMAH range. LOMAH stands for location of misses and hits. Each firing position has a small computer that is connected to a single microphone near the muzzle of the rifle and eight small microphones near your targets at 50, 150, and 250 meter distances. When you pull the trigger the microphone picks up your shot and the eight microphones down range triangulate the sound of your shot passing through or near your target. The computer then shows, on a little screen, where you hit, or missed. I got into position to fire my first five rounds at the 50 meter targets. First shot-a miss, second shot- a miss, third- miss, all five shots were misses. I looked at the range coach and he couldn't even tell me where my shots were missing. I was a little frustrated. Most of my hits on the 150 and 250 meter targets were registering. When we cycled back through the 50 meter target again, the results were the same as the first run. All misses. The third time through the 50 meter target I aimed directly below the target, and was rewarded with five puffs of dirt exploding out of the berm. I later found out that the microphones on my position for the 50 meter target were broken. It would have been nice to know that before I started shooting.

Later that night, while cleaning my rifle, I noticed that one of the locking lugs on the bolt face of my rifle had sheared off at some point. Jeez, when did that happen? The locking lugs on the bolt face rotate and lock the bolt into the chamber a nano-second prior to the round firing. After the round is fired, the compressed gas generated from the fired round gets fed back through a metal tube running along the barrel which casues the bolt to unlock, move to the rear and feed the next round. This all happens very quickly. At a minimum, a missing locking lug could cause a lack of gas pressure and interupt the cycle of fire resulting in a jam. The worst case scenario would be that the bolt was covered with hairline cracks, resulting in the metal bolt shattering into a thousand tiny steel fragments that would explode out of the side of the rifle the next time the rifle was fired. I had only seen an M16 blow up in this fashion once before. Luckily for the shooter he was right handed, and the fragments exploded out of the right side of the rifle, away from him. If it ever happens to a left handed shooter, the hot exploding, shards of metal would be blasted into the shooters face. Not a pretty picture.

The next morning, prior to getting on the bus, I showed a drill sergeant my cracked bolt, and we walked to the armory to have it replaced. Since it was still 0500 in the morning the armorer hadn't shown up for work yet. The drill sergeant suggested we wait for the armorer to show up at the range. Rifle qualification for the army involves shooting from three positions (prone supported, prone unsupported, and keeling) at timed pop-up targets at distances varying from 50 to 300 meters. You get 40 random targets and forty bullets. Each hit counts as a point, perfect score is 40, expert is 34, and you need 23 to quailfy. We would be firing the course four times as a trial run of qualifying the next day. The armorer didn't show up prior to my turn on the firing line. I decided to go ahead and shoot with the cracked bolt. What were the odds that my bolt would explode? And if it did, the pieces were likely to fly out to the right, which was clear, so the peices wouldn't hit innocent bystanders. It was hot and as soon as I got into a prone position my glasses slid down the sweat on my nose, and my helmet rode forward to obscure my vision. The drill sergeants had warned us about this and I forgot to tighten up my helmet straps. I shot poorly to say the least. I had at least five jams, but was able to clear them each time. But as I furiously cleared them, I would have to eject one of my forty remaining rounds, and targets were still popping up and down, compounding my misery. My scores were 17, 21, 23, and 19 out of 40. If it would have been qual day I would have squeaked by with a 23, a small victory.

The amorer never showed up at the range on prequal day, and didn't show up for work early enough to replace my bolt prior to going to the range the next day to qualify. When we got to the range I asked to be one of the final shooters, to give the armorer a chance to get there and replace my bolt. I did many things wrong the previous day, but focused on making three adjustments; slower, deliberate breathing, pulling my elbows in tight after every shot, and keeping my cheek glued to the stock as I scanned the range for the next pop up target. As I was sitting and waiting to head to the line, one of the navy chiefs in our class approached me and asked how I shot yesterday. He had also shot a 239 on the pistol course. I told him I squeaked by with a 23, he told me he got a 35, and proceeded to propose a wager on our outcomes today. He offered to spot me twelve points and 20 bucks on the outcome. I countered with taking ten points, and the bet would be for a buck a point in the difference in our scores. We shook hands and he walked off. The armorer still had not shown up when it was my turn to fire. As I approached the line, I pulled the straps of my helmet so tight that I could no longer move my jaw to chew the gum in my mouth, and yanked on the restraining cord of my glasses hard enough that I felt the frames begin to bend around the front of my face. I calmly approached the line and went through the first iteration of the course. First score- 22, with one jam. The second time through, I was fortunate enough to find the quiet place in my head, the place where nothing matters, and nothing can bother me. I had one jam, but don't remember making the physical movements to clear it. After I fired my final shot of the round and was waiting for them announce the scores over the loud speakers. The drill instructor who was with me two days ago when I was bashing my rilfe on the sandbags, said, "that was really nice the way you cleared that last jam." Since I didn't even remeber doing it, I just smiled back and said thanks. The loudspeaker announced my score- 29. I'll take it, all things considered, and more importantly, the most I would owe chief, with my ten point spread was one measly dollar. That is if, and only if, he shot a perfect 40. I felt relieved and don't really remember my final two scores. I think they were in the low twenties. But it didn't matter. I was happy with the 29. Later, I met up with chief, and he was visibly upset. He had a bad day on the range, and even though he had shot a 35 the day before, the best he could do today was a 28. With the ten points spotted meant he owed me eleven dollars. I told him that I wouldn't take his money, that I just wanted some extra motivation, and just assumed that I would be paying him anyway. I have a general rule, that I will not take anything from an enlisted person. The only exceptions to this rule are beers and shots of liquor. It would be impolite to refuse, and I'll always leave the bartender a decent tip with instructions to buy them another round after I leave.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Going Dark

We are preparing to leave for Kuwait. Shouldn't give out details, but suffice it to say, it is soon. I'll be back online...later.

Take Care, stay safe, and I'll see you on the other side.


Your Husband, Father, Son, Brother, Uncle, Nephew, and Friend


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"He Didn't Need To Be Here."

I have intentionally not mentioned other people's names in my posts. There are privacy issues, security concerns, and the simple fact that I am writing about my experiences, and I don't think it is appropriate for me to be splashing names all over the Internet. With that in mind, I still would like to tell you about Joe. He is my "bunk mate." He has got the top bunk, and I am on the bottom. Soon after we all got settled here at McCrady, we talked, and I asked him where he was going; Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. He told me that he was headed to Patuxent River Naval Air Station. I followed up with asking where he was going after that, and he told me that that was it. He was doing an IA at Pax River. "Then what the heck are you doing here?" I asked. He replied that he didn't know, only that his orders sent him here for basic combat training. With a comical, grandiose gesture I said, "On behalf of the government of the United States, and the Department of Defense, let me be the first one to apologize to you for wasting the next two and half weeks of you life." He didn't need to be here.

People complain, and people here complain a lot. I have tried to not complain, and for the most part have been successful. But I still find myself griping about trifle things every now and then. There are others here who do nothing but bitch and moan all day long about everything. Not Joe, though. If anyone has a right to complain, it would be him. But he never does. He didn't need to be here

This morning we had formation after breakfast and the plan was to road march about two miles with all of our weapons and battle armor to the urban training area, where we would spend the entire day outdoors going through training on check point operations, unexploded ordnance, room clearing techniques, and getting familiarized with armored vehicles. During the march, Joe fell a little behind and some of the drill sergeants asked him if he wanted to get in the van following us. Joe said no, and caught up. He didn't need to be here.

Once we got to the training site, I was standing around talking with classmates, waiting for the drill sergeants to start the days activities, when I heard a commotion behind me. I turned around and noticed someone laying on the ground with two or three people bent over them waving and screaming for help. I ran over to see what was wrong and found Joe on the ground gasping for breath, foaming at the mouth and his eyes rolling around in the back of his head. Luckily, one the people nearest him when he went down was a corpsman. Those helping him were already in the process of stripping off his body armor, so I started taking off his knee pads, untying his boots and elevating his legs. By this time the two navy nurses and all of the corpsmen in our class were there, so I retreated. He didn't need to be here.

The drill sergeants eventually came over to investigate. They radioed in the situation, called the base fire department, and followed up with a 911 call. Minutes passed and the situation deteriorated. The nurses and corpsmen began rescue breathing and chest compressions. Where was the god damn ambulance. After what seemed like an eternity, the ambulance arrived and whisked Joe away. He didn't need to be here

Joe was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

I was pulled from training a while later and told to report back to our barracks. Since I was his bunk mate, they wanted me there when they inventoried and packed up his personal effects.

They have finished with his things in the barracks, and I am now looking out the window watching them repeat the process with his truck. There is a single thought that keeps running through my mind, and you probably already know what it is.

"I Guess We Can Call That One a Five"

Howdy Folks. This time around I thought I'd give y'all a recap of the pistol firing I've gotten to do here. We have spent the majority of our time here at various rifle, pistol, or machine ranges, and I have yet to provide any details. We did our final firing over the weekend, so I'll do a post now to brag a little about my pistol prowess, and one later detailing my frustration with the rifle.

Soon after we were issued rifles and pistols, and given some basic instruction, firing began in earnest. I've previously qualified on the pistol for the Navy, so I wasn't too concerned about the lack of practice. The plan was to take us out to the pistol range, run us all through the qualification course three times each without a break. If you qualified, you were sent to the pistol "stress" fire course. Those who didn't, would stay on the range until they did. No kidding. The drill sergeants made it clear we would be there until sunset if that what it took. The first time through, I knew I would qualify, and also knew that I had two more chances. I wanted to do well, but I didn't care; not in a negative way, but in a relaxed, unhurried, almost blase' manner. I had a clear mind, and focused on nothing except a mental void. The course involves firing from a 3, 7, and 15 meter line, shooting a total of 48 rounds. Each round has a max value 5 points, so a perfect score would be 240. In my disassociated mental state, I didn't care that I was perfect from the three meter line, and when I left the 7 meter line still shooting perfect I reminded myself that I still had two more qualification rounds after this and reformed my void of mental indifference. I didn't even remember pulling the trigger on the 15 meter line, I just remember looking down at my empty pistol, and waiting for the range safety officer to give us permission to go down range to change out our targets. When I checked my target I saw that I was almost perfect. I had gotten every shot in the five ring, except one. It was a half inch outside of the center, for a final score of 239. Oh well, I still had two more chances.

The funny thing is, the next round, when I was focused, and interested in the outcome, I shot worse and scored 237. By time I finished firing on 7 meter line on the third round, It was obvious that I would not get a perfect 240. As I was walking to the 15 meter line for the final time, I took an interest in a coffee cup that one of the range safety officers had left leaning up against the base of my target. While walking, I flippantly told him,"You know, since I can't get a 240, your coffee cup is about to be destroyed, right?" He told me he would throw me off the range if I shot at anything except my target. I just shrugged. I fired my first magazine, and before loading my final magazine containing my last eight rounds, for the final time that morning, the safety, who looked a lot like Ed Harris, smugly said, "You don't have the balls to shoot that cup." I responded with silence. Anger, frustration, embarrassment, and nervousness all fought to get in, but at that moment I felt nothing. When the command to fire came, I dropped to one knee and put seven straight shots into the belly of the silhouette target. Then, without skipping a beat and maintaining the cadence of the previous seven shots, I lowered the pistol down and to the right. I don't remember pulling the trigger as the cup passed in front of the sights, but from almost fifty feet away, my final bullet hit the six inch tall cup dead center. As the cup and its contents exploded against the berm behind the targets, I heard a "HOLY S*** !" from the safety behind me. He added, "I guess we can call that one a five. " My final round was a 235.

After that we were put through what the Army calls a stress fire. There are five stations: prone, kneeling, crouching, standing supported, and standing unsupported. You wear all of your body armor, helmet, etc and have to run between stations while a drill sergeant is yelling in your ear the whole time. There is also a three minute time limit. Maximum score is 18, and you need 12 to pass. Most folks focused on, and a lot of them were scoring 18, but used all of their allotted three minutes, and even walked between some of the stations. I was feeling good after killing a cup of coffee, so as I approached the stress fire start, I told the drill sergeant to not hold back with the yelling and getting in my face. When they said go, I took off running and ran between each station, and pulled the trigger as fast as I could each time. I finished in 58 seconds, but only scored a 17. Almost perfect, again. But also like the last time, I had a blast. As far as I know I was the only one (out of 80+) to finish anywhere near the minute mark. I was quite the spectacle. I later overheard several conversations where people talking about the coffee cup, and how I was shooting up the stress fire course without even appearing to aim, like some crazy cowboy. It was a fun day.

If anyone knows me, then they know that I am not one to brag or toot my own horn all that much, but what happens happens, and I'll write about it. Good or Bad. Speaking of bad, let me tell you about my time at the rifle range. That's a story for another day, though. Til then, take care.

My 239 target. Notice the one hole, left of the number 4 on the right side. As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much"

Monday, February 16, 2009

One Shot, Ten Words

Enjoy a South Carolina sunrise. I'll write more later. Peace. (click photo to enlarge)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"I've got nothing else to say Drill Sergeant"

We left off with the 9mm pistol class, but before I go any further I should say a few things about the Army Drill Sergeants that are training us. They are on par with some of the most professional and dedicated senior enlisted service members that I have ever worked with; including senior enlisted Air Force contracting officers, Marine Corps Staff NCO's and Navy Chiefs. They have patiently and professionally prepared a group of salty sailors, most of who have never handled a weapon before and spent many years at sea, for a deployment with ground forces in combat zones around the world. Many of the drill sergeants are recent combat veterans and take their instructor role here very seriously. They willingly impart their lessons learned under fire to better prepare us. Whether it is graphically describing treating combat injuries, reacting to roadside bombs, or simple things like how to better adjust the 70 pounds of gear we have to wear or what small items should always be in your pockets, they take a personal interest in giving us the tools we may need to survive and come home.

That being said, there was one period of instruction that, in my opinion, was very lacking, and is the basis for the title of this post. Tuesday morning we were issued weapons, and the first brief we got was a presentation on the proper handling and clearing of the M16 rifle. The instructor simply read the slides with no emphasis or personal anecdotes of the results of mishandling weapons and ammunition. I have seen marines accidentally shoot each other with pistols, and have personally almost had may face blown off by a round some idiot major forgot to unload from a M870 12 gauge shotgun; so yeah, the whole "accidental" (negligent) discharge of a firearm thing is a pretty touchy subject with me. I get worked up over it, and the word that was put out to our class Tuesday morning was woefully inadequate. After all the rifle and pistol marksmanship instruction during the day Tuesday, they gave us all a magazine and five blank rounds of ammunition. From that moment on, we have been required to carry a loaded rifle around wherever we go on Camp. We have to unload and clear them whenever we go in and out of buildings, but if we are outside, they are to be loaded because that is how it will be when we get to our final destinations. Except then it will be live ammunition. Once they dismissed us, I looked at my squad mates and guaranteed them that there would be two negligent discharges by lunch tomorrow. Oh how wrong I was.

There were two within two hours.

When I went to breakfast Wednesday morning, there were more. One guy shot off two rounds, bang bang right in the clearing barrel as I was walking past. There were at least a half dozen more that I heard about on Wednesday. I was losing my fracking mind. I reprimanded, corrected and instructed as many folks as I could, but without going completely old school, Marine Corps NCO ballistic on their dumb asses there wasn't much more I could do but be grateful for the fact that they were only popping off blanks. Wednesday and Thursday were also very busy training days with lots of movements between evolutions. We covered: combat first aid, with a strong focus on tourniquets, and medevac procedures, personnel recovery, surviving as a prisoner, code of conduct, communications equipment and procedures, and were run through a Humvee rollover trainer. For those of you who have been in a rollover crash, then you know how disorientating it is. We were run through the trainer twice. The first time through, after they flipped the vehicle, I undid my seat belt, rolled over and was on all fours on the ceiling looking for the door handle in the dark. I couldn't find it, and had to turn around and crawl out of another door. The second time they flipped us, I used my left hand to hold myself upside down, reached across my body with my right hand to undo the seat belt while still holding myself upside down with my left hand, then reached back across my body (still upside down) and grabbed the door handle, opened it and then somersaulted right out the door and sprang to my feet in one fluid motion. That's one lesson I am grateful I learned in a trainer, and not on the side of the road in Afghanistan.

When we were done with training for the day, one of the drill sergeants asked our platoon for feedback on the training we had had so far in the week. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to express my concerns about the plethora of negligent discharges that had been going on for the last day and a half. I told him that I didn't think there was enough emphasis on weapons safety and instruction on unloading and clearing our weapons. He replied that they only had so much time to spend with us, and that we, as leaders need to police ourselves. He basically called me out. I never got to finish telling him that there was time allotted, but I didn't think the instructor did a good enough job, and that block of instruction could be improved with more emphasis on safety, because, as if on cue, BANG, not fifty feet behind us some poor unfortunate sailor just popped off a round trying to clear his weapon before going into his barracks. At that point I stopped mid-sentence and just said, "I've got nothing else to say Drill Sergeant" and walked away.

Thirty minutes later our company was mustered in a classroom with the entire cadre of Drill Sergeants. The ones who had survived combat gave us an appropriate, but NC-17 rated period of instruction on safe weapons handling. I slept much better that night.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Spicer, What the hell are you?"

Here is the second post I promised. I am going to apologize upfront because week one at NIACT will take two posts to cover. Feel free to post comments to let me know what you think of what I am writing-- too much, too little, etc. I'll strive to improve.

To breifly recap where we are in the story. I had just showed up for muster at Donnelly Hall on Naval Base San Diego to await transportaion to South Carolina for training en route to Afghanistan. I am looking forward to getting on the plane and getting some sleep...

Most of the 175+ folks who started the week are still around. A few had been determined to be unfit, unprepared, or ill suited to continue on with the process; but that number was small, less than ten, and for the most part the parking lot at Donnelly Hall was filled with now familiar faces, remebered from a week worth of hours standing in line after line getting paperwork checked. The difference now was that a lot of the people were with their loved ones saying good-bye. I was bored, tired, and had nothing else better to do, so I sat and people watched for a while. Seasoned sailors, junior troops, wives, husbands, teenagers, toddlers, girlfriends, boyfriends and everything in between were all saying their final good byes, and then there were the folks like me, the ones who had already said good bye to friends and family somewhere else. I called home one more time to let my family know that I was waiting for a bus to the airport, and that I would call them when I got to South Carolina. We finally loaded the busses and drove to the Naval Air Station. Our flight was late. Suprise. We went wheels up at about noon, at which point I easily fell asleep.

The flight was a short three hours, about half the time of my flight from BWI to San Diego. I guess the FAA lets the miltary fly their passenger planes at whatever speed they want. We deplaned, walked to the terminal, met our transportation and were bussed to Camp McCrady at about 7pm EST.

When we arrived at Camp McCrady we were fed a meal of sweet and sour pork on styrofoam trays in a classroom. We then lined up to be issued linens. When I was handed mine, the brown stain on the pillow case made me consider asking for a new one, but then I thought it was only likely a 50/50 proposition that a new one would be any better, so I just hoped that the other side of the pillow was stain free. We were all segregated by rank and gender. Everyone was assigned to an open squadbay barracks. All of the male officers CDR and below were put together. The only folks who get individual rooms are Captians and Master Chiefs. The squad bays are typical with grey metal bunks with white and blue striped matresses lined up in two rows of ten in a large open room lit by two rows of flourent lights and 12x12 inch white VCT flooring. I was able to snag the last available bottom bunk, quickly made it, unpacked a few things out of my seabag, and then called home to let Carolyn and the kids know that I was settled. I asked the first random person that walked by me if there was any place nearby to watch tv. He told me that one of the nearby barracks buildings was converted into some sort of All Hands Club, named The Impact Zone.

The Impact Zone looked like every other barracks building that lined the single street that runs though Camp McCrady, except it had a neon tube light hanging and flickering outside. One thing about McCrady that you should probably know is that the only people here are Navy folks like me, and Army people that have been recalled to active duty after having already been discharged. So you can be sure that they are some surly soldiers to say the least. They did their time, got out, and are now here on Camp McCrady getting reprocessed back into the Army. You gotta feel for those guys. Anyway, back to the story. The Impact Zone was a loud, dark, smoke filled converted squad bay with a bar in the back corner. Light was mainly provided by fixtures hanging over four pool tables. A jukebox was blaring everything from Slipknot to 50 cent to Allan Jackson. The place was full of boisterous recalled soldiers and GWOT sailors of every rank who were almost as loud as the jukebox. Almost. Everyone inside seemed to be celebrating thier final night of normalcy. The place was a veritable stew of fraternization, but no one got too out of hand. I ended up playing pool, and getting to know some of the people I would be spending the next three weeks with until the place closed at 0200, and then after, I played foosball with some recalled Army warrant officers and Senior NCO's in a barracks rec room until four in the morning. After two back to back all-nighters, and a cross country flight, I was a wee bit tired and had no problem falling asleep in a drafty old Army barracks full of sniffling, sneezing, snoring, and coughing strangers.

The next day was Superbowl Sunday and thanks to my brother-in-law Frank I was able to lay in my rack and watch the game on my laptop live in HD. He had given me a TV reciever adapter as a departing gift and it worked perfectly. I was able to pick up the over-the-air HD broadcast of the Superbowl. The next day, Monday, at 0500, we would begin the training cycle.

Monday we were welcomed by the Navy staff, turned in our medical records, and filled out some paperwork. They asked who needed gas mask inserts or ballistic eyewear inserts. I let them know that I had gotten them in San Diego, but was told that I had the wrong ones and they would order me some more. Sound familiar? The Army staff then bussed us around from warehouse to warehouse, lined us up and issued us a bag of full of gear each time; body armor, helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, extreme cold weather gear, ballistic eye protection, back packs, camelbacks, sleeping bags, even a gerber multi-tool-everything except weapons. We got back to our barracks around 7pm. The remaider of the night was spent marking, reinventorying and organizing all of our new stuff.

Tuesady we were issued weapons. M16 Rifles and M9 Pistols. We also spent the entire day rotating between rifle and pistol classroom instruction. A long time ago I was an enlisted marine, and an armorer. I don't own any weapons (except a shotgun that has been unfired and in a case for 15 years) and I am not a gun nut, but my job for four plus years in the marines was to fix the rifles, pistols, machine guns, and mortars that a battalion full of infantry grunts would regularly break in every way imaginable. Not to brag, but I was a damn good armorer, and I could diagnose, breakdown and repair anything they threw at me quicker than they could tell me what they thought was wrong with it. It was very satisfying to be handed a busted weapon and with the marine watching, break it down, find and replace the broken parts, hand it back to him good as new, and then have him put rounds down range. I have probably broken down the M16 rifle and M9 pistol close to 10,000 times, and while it has been almost twenty years since, my fingers are still quite nimble. During the M16 class, I let the instructor use my weapon for demonstration purposes and just walked through the class helping others keep up with the instructor as he went through the basics of breaking down the weapon. Later, during the M9 class one of the sailors sitting near me jammed the recoil rod and spring in incorrectly so that he couldn't finish reassembling it. He called the instructor over and showed him what he had done. The instructor fooled around with it for a minute or two, then told the sailor that he couldn't fix it, and that it would have to go back to the armory to get fixed. I asked politely if I could take a look at it and after a little cajoling he finally handed me the pieces. All the old memories came back to me as soon as the broken pistol hit my hand. I pulled out my gerber tool, flipped open the pliers, then pushed, twisted and then pulled the jammed rod out of the upper receiever, rolled the rod in my palm to see if it was bent, inspected the spring to see if it was damaged, then as quick as you can say click click clack clack click I reassembled the pistol, performed a full function check, took it completely back apart, handed him all the pieces, and said, "Try to put it back together right this time." I guess that was unexpected because they all silently gaped at me like I was an alien until a Supply Corps officer looked at me and said, "Spicer, what the hell are you?"

Monday, February 9, 2009

"Would you like me to shave it for you, Sir?"

It's been two weeks, but in some ways it has seemed much longer. In the future I'll try not wait as long between posts. A lot has gone on, and I will likely break this into two posts. One covering my week at NMPS (Naval Mobilization Processing Site) San Diego, and the other covering my first week at NIACT (Naval Individual Augmentee Combat Training) in South Carolina. In addition to using this blog as a way to keep friends, family, and blurkers (anonymous web lurkers..I don't know, I just made up the word) up to date, I hope this can be a resource for other Navy folks preparing to go on their own IA/GSA. That being said, I'll try to sprinkle some advice, lessons learned, etc to help others get through the process. Let's get started...

The entire NMPS process revolves around medical screening and the issuing of uniforms. It is frustrating at times, because the staff has developed a system that is built around getting a reservist that has been brought on active duty financially, medically, administratively, dental-ly, and uniform-ly prepared to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan in less than a week. Challenging to say the least, and I tip my hat to them for being able to do it. The frustration emanates from the fact that not everyone going through NMPS is a reservist called up for active duty. There are actually three type of individuals that get processed. Reservists, IA's (Individual Augmentee's; these are folks that temporarily leave their regular Navy jobs and fill specialized positions that the Army is required to fill, but lack the personnel or skill sets), and GSA's. (Global War on Terror Support Assignment; these folks are just like the IA's except they are doing the work between two Navy assignments vice temporarily leaving their current Navy job) I am filling a GSA billet. The IA's and GSA's usually will have large chunks of time with nothing to do. You still have to show up at 0630 to take care of a 30 minute issue, then they tell you to come back at 1700 (5pm) for something else, virtually eliminating the possibility of taking advantage of what San Diego has to offer.

The NMPS process starts at 0600 on Monday with uniform fitting for the 175 or so personnel being processed this week. Not much to it, you either get issued Navy desert tan or Army digital green cammies. You don't get them at this point, you just figure out what size, etc you need, and they promise to have them for you by Thursday. You also try on desert combat boots. Since this is where my feet are going to be living for the next 13 months, I tried on six different sizes before settling on a pair. Next was officially checking in, getting orders stamped, turning in medical and dental records, and then heading into the auditorium for an entire day of power point presentations. Legal, Family Services, Finance, Medical, etc, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah. Brief after brief, after mind numbing brief. A lot of it is just for reservists. They even tell you that, so its like they are giving you quasi-permission to nap through those. At this point you also start to get to know the people around you. Where are you going? Iraq? Afghanistan? Djibouti? IA? GSA? Reserves? Through idle chit-chat I found out that there were at least three other Civil Engineer Corps Officers, and a couple of enlisted Seabees in the crowd somewhere.

While the slide show torture is going on, the NMPS staff is pouring through everyone's records behind the scenes. They are finding out what everyone is missing, and what we all need to be deployable. They then break the 175+ folks into several sub-groups based upon what we need to have done. I was put into Team Charlie, and told to be back tomorrow morning at 0630.

Tuesday began with Optometry. They checked my eyes and told me that I needed gas mask inserts and ballistic eye wear inserts. I told them that I had just gotten them two months ago at Bethesda, but they insisted I had the wrong type and they ordered me new ones. Next stop, the Lab for drawing blood, then it was off to Immunizations. They said I had set a new record, in that I needed 10, yes TEN, shots. After discussing with them my allergy to eggs, the number was dropped to a mere seven vaccinations. So much for breaking the record of nine. I went into the adjacent room where two corpsmen were laying out syringes and vials on a tray. They told me to take my shirt off and to roll up my sleeves. The first corpsman told me, "Sir, your arm might be a little sore after this." Really? who would have guessed. The other one was talking at the same time and I thought I heard him say, "Would you like me to shave it for you, Sir?" Huh? What did he just say? I looked at him like he had two heads and said, "Do what?" He then told me that most people got their arm shaved where the small pox vaccine is administered because it makes the daily bandage changes less a little more tolerable. I said, no, just get done with it. I then had to see a Doctor for final medical clearance. I got to the wait area at 0930, and sat in the chair waiting until 1700 (5pm) before I saw the Doctor. Holy Crap! Oh well, at least I finished my two books. After spending 15 minutes with the doctor he certified me fit for duty in Afghanistan

The rest of the week was filled with more of the same, show up early wait around all day and then go back to my room and sleep with a couple trips to the gym mixed in. Thursday rolled around and they gave us our uniforms, and as luck would have it, I was missing the gore-tex coat and pants. They told me they ran out, and that they would mail me the items when they got more. They didn't know when that would be, but assured me that they would mail them to me as soon as they got them. We'll see about that.

At 0630 Friday morning they told us to come back at 1500 so they could tell us when we needed to come back Saturday morning for our flight. I went back to my room and gathered up all the stuff I wouldn't need any more and carried it over to the UPS store at the Navy Exchange on base. I wouldn't need the stuff anymore, so I crammed it all in a box and mailed it home, instead of lugging it around the world for the next year. I also decided to rent a car for Friday night to go out. After going back at 1500, they told us we needed to show up at 0800 Saturday morning for our flight to South Carolina. It took them about three hours to tell us this because they wanted to make sure that we were all there and how important it was that none of us were late. I went back to my room and packed my remaining belongings and decided to drive up to Rincon to check out the Harrah's casino/resort on the Indian reservation there. I figured it would take about 90 minutes to get there and 90 minutes to get back. What could possibly go wrong?

After packing, it was about 8pm when I left my barracks room and started driving to Rincon. I got their around 915 and took a quick walk around the place. The place had high ceilings, was well lit, well maintained with newer machines and polite, well dressed staff serving an upper-middle class clientele. It was definitely not a dumpy run-down, smoke filled, dark dreary place filled with toothless degenerates who pawned off their hub caps to play nickel slot machines. I ate at the buffet and while it was a little on the expensive side, I had more than my fill of well prepared prime rib, smoked turkey, salad, brick-oven pizza, Chinese five spice hot wings, and red beans and rice. I then wandered over to the poker room, to find that they were running a $2-$3 no limit game with a $60 min/$200 max buy in and a standard $3/$6 limit game. I chose the limit game because I didn't have the bank roll for a no-limit game. To play no-limit you should have money for at least five buy-ins because you could go broke on any given hand. I bought into the 3/6 game for $120, waited about 15 minutes for a seat to open up and joined the game. I soon found out that while the casino was open 24 hours, the poker room closed for four hours every day between 0500 and 0900 in the morning. I decided at that point that I would play poker until either I lost my $120 buy-in or when the poker room closed at 5 am, whichever came first. That would give me plenty of time to drive back to San Diego, gas up and turn in the rental, and drag my seabags down to the muster area by 0800. Simple plan.

For anyone who has ever played 2/4 or 3/6 limit poker in a casino, you know how it is. There is always at least six people paying to see the flop, three or four paying for the turn card and at least one knucklehead who chases every hand and calls every bet to see the river, hoping to catch the one and only card that will give him the winning hand. There is no consideration given to correct mathematical decision making in whether or not to call a bet or fold, nor any attempt to hide tells or to look for them in other players. This is good for a decent player who does do those things consistently, because over the long haul, better decision making will lead to more winnings. The problem is the short term volatility of bad players getting lucky. The hand full of decent players at the table tend to avoid each other and individually pound on the bad players. There is no open collusion, it is just the way it is. A look, a nod, a rolling of the eyes, a quick smile between two perfect strangers lets them know which players can play, and which ones are just dumping their money to the table. This table was split evenly between decent and poor players. I had about ten good hands where I pounded on and pulled chips out of some of the weaker players. Of those hands, unfortunately, most times the weaker player got lucky and made a winning hand on the river. I managed to ride my initial buy in up to near $300 and back down to $40, back up to $200, and back down again. Two or three of the donkeys (bad players) lost over $500 each, My good hands just weren't holding up. That is the nature of the beast. You can't prevent bad players form getting lucky. I made it to 5am and cashed out for $60. Seven hours of poker cost me $60. That's entertainment and practice for 7 hours--not too bad. There is always next time.

I started the car at 0515 and drove for ten minutes before I realized I was heading the wrong way. I got my bearings, made it back to San Diego by 0645, and pulled into the gas station on base to fill up. The pumps were shut down because the station didn't open until 0800 on Saturday. I drove back out in town found a gas station, filled up, drove back to base, and dropped the car keys in the night drop box and made the 15 minute walk back to my room in ten minutes. I showered, shaved, put on my new Army cammies and boots, and closed the door to my room for the final time at 0750. I dragged my gear to the muster area and checked in at 0758 with two minutes to spare. Before my seabag hit the deck beside me with a thud, I was already thinking how good it would be to sleep on the plane.

That's it for now. NMPS is boring, no real way to make it any sexier. Stay tuned though, the next post will be full of guns, drill sergeants, booze, 0430 wake up calls, negligent discharges, and exploding coffee cups. I'll try to get it up by Tuesday night