I’m Alive!

Mostly. Had a great weekend in Tempe with a bunch of internet friends. Great hotel, and the rain held off just long enough. But man, it was hot and muggy. We had to share the hotel with a collegiate girl’s soccer team. The pool was barely big enough for that.

The Mills Avenue neighborhood right next to the ASU campus was terrific, with lots of fun, food, and refreshing adult beverages.

Now, to try to catch up with the real world, and start writing.

I’ve met more than a few readers of the blog over the years. How many of you have gone to a meet up of internet friends? Did you expect it to be creepy, only to turn out well? Because all of my meet up experiences have been quite good.

Gun Jump

Say, did I ever tell you about the time I almost killed my buddy with a 25mm cannon?

The Bradley Fighting Vehicle has an all-electrical turret, with power drives for both azimuth and elevation.  This is a  system with two modes: normal, slow speed for fine tracking and aiming, and “slew” mode for high speed traverse and elevation of the gun. In slew mode, the turret will move at 60 degrees per second in both traverse and elevation.  There is also a manual system of handwheels in case drive power should be lost.

The driver’s hatch at the left front of the vehicle pops up to about a 60 degree angle. Because the gun is mounted so low above the deck of the Bradley,  turret is traversed to the left while the hatch is open, the gun would strike the hatch. Well, banging a $100,000 gun against the hatch at high speed would be bad for the gun, and would also tend to cause undesirable stresses on turret drive mechanisms. Accordingly, the Army, in its wisdom, included a microswitch* into the driver’s hatch. If the switch is open, meaning the driver’s hatch is open, the turret will traverse normally throughout most of the spin around the vehicle. But as the turret drive approaches the driver’s hatch, the gun will automatically command an elevation of about 3o degrees at the highest rate. That is to say, the gun will jump over the driver’s hatch. **

It was a beautiful autumn day in the early 1990s.  My battalion was in Pinion Canyon Maneuver Training Center to provide support to another brigade. While that brigade was training, we acted as the Opposing Forces for them.  OpFor was always far more fun that being the Blue Forces. The atmosphere was a good deal more relaxed. While many good training opportunities were to be had, we also weren’t being graded by outside observers. The roles and missions we performed tended to be a bit more varied and interesting.  The platoons and companies of the OpFor would be shuffled around to tailor a force to a given scenario.

I forget what people had to be shuffled around and why, but one week I found myself on my usual Bradley, A-12, but with my regular driver and gunner replaced with two of my favorite people. SGT M was my roomate, and was a very intense, wiry young man of Greek descent from California. SPC O’C was a young, large, friendly, if somewhat  quiet Irishman from Philly. Very different people, but we’d been friends for some time. Normally, the stress of operating in the field frays nerves and can cause friendships to strain.  But as OpFor, we weren’t under any great pressure, and the conviviality was nice. Both SGT M and SPC O’C were pretty easy to lead, being quite professional themselves.

Since Uncle Sam frowned on us shooting real missiles and bullets at our fellow troops, even if it was those jerks in 1-8 Infantry, we used the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES, as a training aid. MILES is like the worlds largest game of laser tag, with lasers and harnesses not just for people, but all types of vehicles, especially tanks and Bradleys.  The laser for the Bradley’s main gun clamped onto the barrel of the gun. And just like the sights of a rifle have to be zeroed to ensure a hit, the laser had to be adjusted (at least daily) to ensure hits on distant targets.

Since all three of us on the crew took great pleasure in sticking it to the chuckleheads of the BlueFor, we took every reasonable measure to prepare for the morning round of battles. High on the list*** of chores was to zero the MILES system, so we could cause blinking lights and anguish in our victims.

Most Bradley crews were quite familiar with setting up the MILES system on their vehicles. I’d actually attended a one week course on post to become my company’s subject matter expert on the system, and had grown quite proficient at tweaking the system for  optimum performance.  Zeroing the MILES box on the gun was fairly simple. There was a cheap little telescope coaxially mounted to the laser itself on the box clamped to the gun. SGT M would look through the scope, find a discrete object roughly a mile away, and direct me to traverse and elevate the turret until the crosshairs were direct aligned with the object.**** Then, with the laser aligned exactly to the target, from the gunner’s seat, I would move the sight reticle of the Bradley’s main sight (the Integrated Sight Unit, or ISU). Much like windage and elevation knobs on a rifle sight, this would move the reticle without moving the gun itself. Once both the laser and the sight reticle were both on the same target, the system was zeroed.

Normally, to get the most precise control possible, when zeroing the system, the turret drives are switched off, and the gun is aligned using the handwheels. This morning, while I was focused on helping to zero the gun, I was also on the radio getting updates about our mission, and answering important questions like “does you crew still have all its sensitive items, have you lost anyone in the last 24 hours, how much fuel do you have onboard (which, the entire company had just topped off tanks less than an hour before, just like every morning) and just generally being pestered by the higher ups. So I cheated and was using the turret in powered mode, in the slow rate. SGT M had found a nice target to align on, and SPC O’C was up on deck lending a hand and moral support.  SGT M bent over barrel of the gun to look through the telescope, and directed me to scooch the gun a little to the left to get on target. I did so, completely forgetting the driver’s hatch was open. And sure enough, it hit the cut-out arc, instantly jumped up, and smacked SGT M right in the face. He was knocked back quite violently, tumbled into SPC O’C, and they both fell the 6 feet or so from the vehicle to the ground.

In the end, it came to nothing more than some scrapes and bruises and a fair amount of (rather legitimate) butthurt, but I was mortified that I had forgotten such a basic safety rule, and could have seriously hurt my friends.

Naturally, that was the last time I tried to zero in power drive. And of course, for the rest of that particular trip to the field, I was the one putting my face next to the gun, and SGT M got to sit safely inside.

*This mircroswitch is functionally identical to the little push switch in your refrigerator that turns the light out when you close the door.

**There is a similar “cutout” switch in the back of the vehicle for the missile loading hatch over the rear troop compartment.

***Other key parts of the Pre Combat Checklist included making sure all our thermoses were full of fresh hot coffee, and that sufficient snacks, Top Ramen, beef jerky and cigarettes were loaded, and a supply of paperback books on hand for the lull between battles.

****Any object would do. It didn’t have to be another MILES equipped vehicle. Objects with a right angle, such as a building or a chimney worked very well. Of course, if you had another vehicle to use, that was fine too. That way you could instantly test how well you’d aligned the sights to the laser by simply shooting at them. If they blinked, you were good.

Having a Blast

Two stories about demolitions.

John B in the comments of the earlier posts talks about routinely training on demolitions. It’s a perishable skill. Practice may not make perfect, but it DOES keep you from blowing yourself up.

In the run-up to Desert Storm, I was the only guy in my entire company that had ever done live demolitions before. Accordingly, I was tasked to “train the trainer” and teach representatives from each platoon in the company how to rig some simple non-electric charges for breaching minefields. We had plenty of demolitions equipment- C-4, det cord, time fuse, igniters, and what have you. But no training materiel. Given that, all our training was live fire. Still, it’s not rocket science. After setting up (and blowing) a few charges, the newly trained “Subject Matter Experts” went back to their own platoons, and began to teach them. I wandered from platoon to platoon to check up on them. Most of them caught on very quickly.

One platoon, however, had a misfire. They pulled the fuse igniter. They waited the appointed time. No boom. Not good. They waited the required interval to ensure it wasn’t just a delayed explosion. Still nothing. Getting engineers or EOD out (as normal range practice would require) wasn’t really an option in the desert. So I was nominated to begin OTJ training for EOD.

I very slowly walked up to their charges, thinking that it would be a damn shame if Mrs. Xbrad’s little boy was kilt, and by a US caused accident at that. Turns out, there was very little risk of that happening.

The charge was laid out almost exactly as if they had consulted the manual. They could have been justifiably proud of their handiwork. Except for one little problem.

The fuse igniter had worked as advertised. The reason it hadn’t ignited the fuse? Well, they apparently got confused somewhere, because they were using det cord for fuse. And everywhere they should have had det cord, they had time fuse.

………………………………………………………….

The other incident took place back when I first received demo training in Hawaii.  Det cord is often used to cut down trees and telephone poles. And sure enough, one of the “targets” on the demo range was a telephone pole. My battle buddy and I figured chopping it neatly in half would be pretty nifty. So we wrapped det cord around it. And wrapped and wrapped. I’d guess we probably put about 20 or 3o wraps around that thing.

The only problem? Nobody told us that cutting a telephone pole only takes about 2 wraps of det cord. PETN is pretty powerful stuff.

When we cranked the blasting machine, the top half of that pole went up like a Saturn V rocket.  When you’re 300 meters from the blast, and it there’s a real possibility you might have to dodge half a telephone pole, you just might have used too much.

Giant Freakin’ Spider

Did I mention I hate spiders? And as a child, visiting Gramma’s place in Georgia, I was petrified by the thought of running across the fearsome Black Widow. I never did spot one in Georgia. But I never got any fonder of them, either. Sadly, SoCal has Black Widows. I’ve usually come to a live and let live arrangement with them. This little girl, I let alone.

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But this big momma…

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Look, I’ve been running around the garage barefoot for years. I can’t do that when I know there’s a ginormous Black Widow just waiting to ambush me. You stay outside, or you get The Broom of Doom!

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P.S. You totally know I went back and smooshed that first spider, right?

Cavalry Spurs

XBrad here. This post generated some interest in the Cavalry and its traditions. We’ve got another guest post by Esli addressing that topic.  Esli is an active duty career Armor officer with tours as an enlisted infantryman and a commissioned Armor and Cavalry officer.

Stetson and spurs are the hallmarks of the Cavalry, the army’s scouts and reconnaissance units. So how exactly does a young cavalryman get them? Stetsons are purchased: spurs are earned. This is a long-standing tradition in the Cavalry and no Trooper’s uniform is complete without them. True cavalrymen still recount the stories of their “Spur Rides.”

There are two ways to earn your spurs. Spurs come in gold for combat and silver for demonstrated excellence in the skills of the cavalryman. Gold spurs can be awarded by the squadron commander to any Trooper (assigned or attached) who “rode with” his squadron during a wartime deployment.

Earning the silver spurs is generally harder. This includes prerequisites, satisfactorily completing the spur ride, and then surviving the ceremony. This sequence of events, once complete, will become one of the most memorable events in an army career, though strangely the brain wants to forget many of the details!

My spur ride began as the executive officer of a reconnaissance squadron. This is a guy with a lot of time on his hands (sarc off) so I was worried about pulling out of my duties long enough to do it. I spent a couple of days training up for the event. I had already completed the PT test and weapons qualifications to the appropriate standards, and was ready to perform as a “spur candidate” or “maggot” in spur-holder parlance. (Spur holders control your destiny. If they say do it, do it. If they don’t say anything, then you don’t do anything. They mete out punishment, guidance or rewards equally. Well, no rewards, just punishment.)

Due to an incredibly busy schedule, our spur ride was a relatively short 30-hour event. Nonetheless, it was the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in 22 years in the army. We started about 0400 and spent some time getting smoked before moving to a field for a PT test in ACUs. After the PT test (which no one passed…), we returned to the squadron area for an inspection of our equipment and a written test on reconnaissance tasks. Then it was back on the LMTVs for a ride out to the field.

The spur ride consisted of day and night land navigation courses. Without getting lost, my legs totaled 18 miles. Moving as a team of five, we went from point to point, testing on scout tasks at each. While we waited at each station, we were physically and mentally smoked in various unmentionable ways. Some of the tasks included map reading and land navigation, calling for and adjusting indirect fire, estimating range, patrolling techniques, reacting to contact, combatives (hand-to-hand combat tasks), weapons disassembly/reassembly, NBC, 1st Aid, carrying simulated casualties, call for MEDEVAC, prepare a Helicopter Landing Zone, constructing a machine-gun range card, conducting negotiations, employing hand grenades, camouflage, and other tasks. Not only did we walk everywhere, but many of these tasks were physically demanding efforts for 1-2 hours each under simulated combat conditions.

Depending on speed, some teams got an hour for dinner and to prep feet for the night land navigation lane, which continued through the above tasks, but in the dark using Night Vision Goggles.

By the end of the night lane, my 5-man team had dwindled to 3. We finished with about an hour break, but I stayed awake since I was unsure of whether the spur-holders would wake us up or not. I stretched, ate, rubbed my feet, and put on Vaseline and fresh socks.

Finally it was time for the last event; a foot march (18 miles down, only 12 more). So far, we had been carrying 30-40 lbs (including team gear of radio, litter, aid bag, and a signal panel). For the foot march, we put on our rucks. My load was about 92 pounds. This foot march took me just about 4 hours, and I managed to finish ahead of the bulk of the pack. At the end, for the first time in my life, I really wanted to get an IV, but no-go; the medics checked me and determined that I didn’t need one, even though plenty of guys were getting stuck.

At last, we climbed into the back of the LMTVs, went to the squadron area, and I worked a regular duty day (as best I could) until I was released to go home and get in dress blues for a formal spur ceremony and dinner. (Walk 30 miles and stuff your feet into low-quarters. Ouch!) Most of this will go undescribed, though it did involve a horse made of 2x4s and yelling “You ain’t CAV” to which the audience replied appropriately with “You ain’t ***!!”

Because our real spurs hadn’t arrived for the first ceremony (good job, S4), we were privileged to have a second one in which we were stood on our hands in front of the squadron while our sponsors put our spurs on our upside-down heels. I was honored to be both the oldest guy to get them and the recipient of the first spurs ever awarded by that squadron.

NOTES:

1. For those familiar with EIB, the spurs are much more focused on teamwork, CAV esprit, and both mental and physical determination, as opposed to the exactitude required to complete a series of individual tasks as in the EIB. My EIB was harder, technically, and earned at about the old-school rate of 10%, while the spurs were incredibly difficult, physically, but earned at about a 75% pass rate.

2. CAV is a state of mind, not a job. Any Trooper can compete, regardless of MOS.

3. CAV is gender-neutral, and our female Forward Support Troop commander earned hers. (XBrad- The testing is gender neutral. The actual MOS for Cavalry is a combat arms MOS and excludes women by law. Some units allow females to participate in EIB testing, and they and any non infantry personnel who successfully complete the testing are awarded a certificate of completion. Only Infantry personnel may actually be awarded the EIB)

XBrad again. While Cav spurs aren’t an officially recognized award like the Expert Infantryman’s Badge, they are highly cherished (I actually had a Cav trooper as a 1SG once, and you can bet his spurs were prominently displayed in his office). And while the testing may not be battle focused, all the tasks do have a real world application.

ALICE & MOLLE- Beasts of Burden

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.

Pork

No, not political pork. I made a pork roast for dinner, and I thought it came out so well, I felt compelled to share it with you.

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Roast pork (with Merlot sauce when served), black-eyed peas, and a green salad. Life may not be fair, but sometimes, it is good.

Nostalgia

Down in the comments of this post, there’s some love for the M-14. Hey, I’m on board with that. I liked the M-16, particularly once I got my hands on the M-16A2.

But from the very first time I fired an M-14, I was in love.

M-14. Looks good, shoots good.

Interestingly, it was here at NAS Whidbey that I first fired one. I was in high school Navy JROTC (yes, dear reader, your host was, and is, a dork). Our instructor managed to wrangle an invite for a select few of us to head out to the base’s small arms range and pop off a few rounds from various weapons.

As I recall, we fired the M-16A1, the M-14, the M1911A1 (that’s a .45 for you non-technical types) and an M-60 machine gun. To this day, I still think it was pretty cool that, as a high school student, I got to crank off some automatic weapons fire.

Later that year, a community organization asked if the NJROTC drill team could provide a firing party to fire a salute for a Memorial Day event. Well, we were more than willing, but us high school types weren’t really allowed real weapons. So our instructor finagled a deal with the base again. He borrowed seven M-14s (and a Master-at-Arms to keep an eye on them) and a little blank ammo. We had about 3 minutes of practice with them, and then did our thing. It went well. The only thing that annoyed me was that I was the commander, so I got to give orders, but I didn’t get to shoot one.

I think the trip to the range, and the Memorial Day salute were the only times in my life that I ever got to fire a weapon without having to clean it. Some poor sailor got that task. Thanks, anonymous guy.