We’ve harped about the awesome loads that infantrymen have to carry into battle several times here. Since the days of the Revolution, our grunts have been overburdened. One way of easing the strain is to find the most comfortable possible way of carrying those loads that simply must be carried. The personal equipment can be described in a variety of ways- web gear (from the cotton webbing it used to be made from), LCE or LBE (Load Carrying or Bearing Equipment) or “782 gear” in the Marines. But the Army, being the Army, just has to have an acronym for it. And one of the oddities of the Army is that the last two generations of load bearing equipment have hade feminine names.
The current iteration of this gear is MOLLE, or MOdular Lightweight Load-bearing Equipment. A wide variety of pouches and containers can be attached to either the soldier’s body armor or a lightweight vest, or a rucksack, and tailored to individual needs to carry the soldier’s load. MOLLE was just starting to come into widespread use about the time I was leaving the Army, so my experience with it is limited.
Back in the old days, we used ALICE- All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment. This lightweight nylon collection of equipment served US Soldiers and Marines from the 1970s through the 1990s.
ALICE as based on two separate loads the average troop would be expected to carry, the fighting load, and the existence load. The fighting load was just that stuff that you needed with you at all times, and especially in a fight. The heart of the fighting load was a belt and suspenders made to carry ammo pouches, canteens, and similar items. A typical fighting load would be the belt and suspenders, two ammo pouches (each holding three 30-round M16 magazines), two 1-quart canteens, and a small first aid pouch with an emergency compress, and maybe a bayonet. Of course, it was pretty typical for grunts to personalize their LCE with a few flourishes. I usually ended up having a compass pouch on mine, and whenever I could get away with it, a carabiner holding a pair of D-3A gloves via the backstrap. Some units were very adamant about keeping all LCE virtually identical, and others were a little more willing to let you personalize. One unit I was in laid down the law that every single person in the division would have an identical arrangement of their LCE, with no variations whatsoever. That order generated so much ill will, it was soon rescinded. Like most long serving troops, I had a set of LCE for inspections and parades and such that was virtually new, and very pretty. I also had a set that I only used in the field, and it was somewhat more broken in and had few personalized touches. I used a set of obsolete Vietnam era cotton suspenders (they chafed less) and cut off the metal hooks used to attach it to my belt. Those hooks were replaced with green nylon parachute cord. I had the regular accoutrements of ammo pouches and canteens, but also had a total of 3 first aid pouches, one holding my emergency compress, one with my compass, and one for a spare pack of cigarettes. I also had my mini-maglight flashlight strapped to it, as well as a handy little Buck folding knife. It was a thoroughly disreputable looking set of LCE.
The other half, the existence load, was basically the ALICE rucksack, which was either the medium or large nylon rucksack on an aluminum external frame. The contents of the ALICE pack was whatever your commander told you to include on the packing list, and whatever small bits of comfort you could squeeze in after that. Extra socks, underwear, cold and wet weather clothing, a poncho liner (always!), poncho and usually quite a few MREs. The left shoulder of the ALICE pack had a quick release device so you could dump it in a hurry if you had to, such as in a firefight. Unfortunately, if the pack was under a heavy load, the quick release was difficult to operate. Even worse, if the pack was under a very heavy load, it would suddenly fail and disconnect with no warning at all.
So it came to pass as a very young PFC I was moving along a ridgeline on the island of Molokia in Hawaii. I was the platoon leader’s radioman, and in addition to a very heavy PRC-77 radio, I had a ton of other stuff crammed into my ALICE pack. This ridegline was extremely steep, and probably about 300 feet above the valley floor. And the path at the crest of the ridge was narrow, only about a foot wide. That’s when the quick release of my rucksack decided to give way all on its own. The left strap was suddenly disconnected, and the weight of the rucksack shifted violently to the right. And that shift dragged me right off my feet. And down the hill. It seemed to take forever for me to tumble all the way to the bottom of the ridge. As by buddy Wade later described it to me, it was like the hand of God had reached down and flicked me off the ridgeline.
I hate ALICE.