the march

With an M4 carbine (a shorter, lighter weapon which is replacing the Vietnam workhorse M16A2) and the standard combat load of seven 20-round mags, you are basically ready for combat. But of course, in theory, many missions involve going somewhere on foot and setting up camp for several days. So the basic practice for infantry life (and we are all, now, being asked to think of ourselves as infantrymen first) is the ruck march or road march or field march. You can also add the word “tactical” to the front of any of those names.

The ruck march is basically just walking, but is an order of magnitude more difficult. The standard at Ft. Lewis, set by the I Corps commander, is to carry a 35-lb. rucksack 12 miles in four hours. Our first sergeant wants us to do it in three hours. Our platoon sergeant has led us through a series of train-up marches, and wanted us to carry 50 lbs., on the theory that “when you take some of that weight off, it’ll be easy.” This is actually a well-known Army maxim: train harder than you fight. There is, of course, really no upper limit to this maxim. Well, maybe one. The U.S. Army Ranger School’s promotional website features an ascending bar graph of “human potential”: the first bar is “INDIVIDUAL COMFORT RANGE” at about 15%, followed by “SELF-IMPOSED LIMIT” at 50%, “IMPOSED STRESS OF RANGER SCHOOL” at 75%, and, finally, at 100%, “TOTAL EXERTION (DEATH).”

I did ruck marches in Basic Training; I barely remember them, but they weren’t that bad — mostly boring. We stopped and laid down behind our rucks every couple of miles, “pulling security.” We’d lie on our bellies, pointing our rifles into the woods and keeping a sharp eye out for “the enemy.” Soldiers would disappear in turns into the woodline to pee. The last march was, I think, 9 miles. It was exhausting, and we were all punch-drunk by the end, but it was the last training event in Basic and there were beautiful, air-conditioned buses of sleep waiting for us at the end.

The first march I did with my current unit was a brisk eight-miler with 50-lb. rucks. Or, more-or-less 50-lb. rucks. One of the platoon sergeants brought out a hanging-hook scale, but its maximum reading was, well, 50 lbs. So you could be sure that you had met the standard, but it was hard to know by how much you were exceeding that standard. Also, about five minutes after I weighed my ruck, Sgt. Hayman came out and discovered that the scale hadn’t been calibrated and was about 10 lbs. off. My ruck was, after some additions and shifting and guessing, probably about 65 lbs.

Our first sergeant is a muscular, bow-legged infantry guy with a Ranger tab; he has horsey front teeth that make me strongly suspect he had the originals knocked out at some point. He bounced along gleefully at four miles an hour, trading quips with the guys behind him. It was a fast pace, and tiring, but not entirely unpleasant — until the end, when I was starting to feel every point where my jungle boots didn’t quite fit my feet. Basic training sucks in many ways, but you do come out of it with two pairs of boots that are thoroughly and irreplaceably broken in. I’m not sure whether I’ll ever own another pair of boots that fit so perfectly. I was also starting to feel the place where my ruck had been sitting on my belt.

When we finally came back through the gate, followed the tank trail back to our street, and came back to our troop headquarters, where we could finally drop our rucks to the ground and stagger around in a cheerful delirium of natural painkillers, I realized that taking off my boots was going to be an unpleasant and bloody experience. I had seen one of my buddies carefully placing 90-mph plastic tape over danger spots on his feet that morning, and was beginning to wish I had done the same. But I had been in a hurry.

Over and over in my Army career, I remember a rainy night from my prior career in film, when a young production assistant got soaked to the bone while doing lockdown outside a location. Everyone else had raingear or a place to hide. (I myself had a full, head-to-toe rainsuit one of the wardrobe ladies had bought for me.) One of the grips, squatting comfortably in the back of his dry truck, laughed at her (he had been flirting with her earlier) and said, “If you want to work in this business, you’ve got to be smart or tough. If you were smart, you’d have bought some raingear. But you didn’t, so now you have to be tough.”

And that’s how it is. Smart or tough. And nobody’s smart all the time.

I missed the next few road marches. We were doing PT in the gym one morning, sprints on a basketball court. On one iteration, we did high skips instead of running. For no real reason, I came down with my left foot inturned and crushed the ankle. I did not go to the doctor. Instead I worked with my platoon sergeant and the other NCO’s to do low-impact PT that Friday and take things easy for a few more days the following week. By the time the next march came around, I was well on my way to being back to normal. But a sprain like that, of course, takes months to heal. About three miles in, our path turned off the pavement, and I turned the ankle again on a small stone. I knew it was happening, knew as it happened, and I swore and hopped on the other foot. They put me in the van, and I rode, annoyed and disgusted, to the end of the route. I knew there were three more marches in the pipe for the month; this time there was no getting out of it. I went to the doctor.

Or the PA. It’s a little rare to see an actual doctor. She was very nice, perhaps overly nice, as personnel in Army facilities often are: they see us come in, injured or sick but having waited too long to come, and they assume we have received pressure not to come. She gave me a “profile” — no running or rucking for a week, at own pace for another week. She also gave me a sheet of exercises and stretches, and some painkillers. I took the painkillers once for a headache and did a few stretches when the ankle hurt. Mainly I swam and biked and used the elliptical machines. I never stopped; I did more than I would have if I hadn’t been injured.

The last ruck march of our series was long and difficult. By this time I was prepared in a lot of ways. I had bought Nomex gloves to keep my hands warm and prevent the rifle chafing my hands. I had also put Band-aids over all the known hot spots on my feet — the outermost toes, left and right, the spur of the heel, the ridge of bone where the big toe meets the foot. And I had bought a wider belt to prevent the raw, bloody spots on my hips where the pack forced the narrow, issue belt to pull awkwardly. (A soldier’s Christmas list, partial, for bewildered mothers:

Nomex gloves, in black or tactical green, with a leather palm.
A “rigger’s belt,” in black or tactical green or tan. There are several kinds; the cheapest one is fine, as long as it’s webbed material and 2″ wide.
Smartwool uniform boot socks, black, wool. These will be stupid expensive. See above, re: socks.
A “Mamba” hands-free assault sling. Be sure to discover whether your child carries the M-16 rifle or M-4 carbine, as these take different slings.
Insoles, gel or Memoryfoam, or some knockoff of Memoryfoam.
A CamelBak hydration system is nice, too, although these are now being given out with new issue gear.)

I’ve never figured out how to avoid muscle pain in the trapezius — there’s no getting around the fact that all that weight is hanging from your shoulders. (Though, in its neverending experimentation and attempts at improvement, the Army has bought us all new rucksacks, which seem modestly more ergonomic and likely to rest some of the weight on the hips. This is what soldiers and the Army have in common: soldiers are always trying to beat the curve of expectations, and the Army to advance that curve, by investing in new equipment.)

The final march was a march, like all the others, only longer. We started off at a fast pace, took a brief rest at the six mile point, and then, if possible, got faster on the second half. Our first sergeant began to breathe hard about four miles from the end, but never stopped, never slowed. One guy fell out altogether; another fell far, far behind us. Toward the end, as we came back in the east gate and picked up the tank trail, I couldn’t do it anymore. My walking muscles (yes, there are specific ones, near the tops of the thighs) were completely burned out; I began to lag and fall behind the first sergeant. I had to start running. You wouldn’t think that would be possible after eleven miles, let alone desirable. But it is. You work different muscles when you run, even when doing the careful, shuffling run that will keep you from stumbling on, say, a small rock. I eventually ran far ahead of the first sergeant, far ahead of the platoon, and at the very end caught up with the road guard, who had been a quarter mile ahead of us the whole time. He turned back and saw me coming, and he started running, too. We ran together into the grassy area by the troop; our platoon sergeant, inspired, ran to catch up with us and actually threw himself into a combat roll at the end. He almost made it back up.

Taking off my socks…. There were some spots I forgot to put Band-aids over. Also, a blood blister the size of a nickel on the bottom of my right second toe. I’m not sure why that one’s so much mushier than the same toe on the other side.

It was a week for small injuries. I went down on my bike in Point Defiance Park. It was rainy and slick, and I played my usual game of sweeping my handlebars from side to side to go faster. I lost this game. When the back wheel flew out from under me, I landed on my side, sliding and rolling a few feet. Somehow I hit my head, I think — for the first time in my life, I knew what it meant to “see stars.” As I stood up, hot little rockets shot past and fizzed this way and that. I was immediately, and with startling lucidity, glad to have unfailingly worn my helmet all these months, if mostly for my mother’s sake. My shorts were torn and my Army sweatshirt was filthy. Both foam protectors had flown off my earbuds and lay it the road with a button from my shorts, and although the precious iPod seemed all right, its protective armband was ripped across its face. I surveyed the rest of me. Hip — ow. Elbow — ow. Knee — ow, and I can see the abrasion. No big deal. Thumb — oh, shit. The joint is stiff and there seems to be a piece of skin sticking out, and, hmmm, bleeding.

I was two miles from my truck. I got out of the road a few seconds before a car came by. I wrenched the handlebars back into line, pulled the chain back onto the front gear, hoped I had avoided getting grease into the hole in my thumb. I looked at the thumb. Blood was seeping out, but hardly gushing. I got back on the bike and tested it out. It continued to bleed, but the blood never ran down the thumb, never made my hand too slick to operate the shifters. I continued to ride another twelve miles.

After a couple of days, I began to wonder if I should have gotten stitches; it was still bleeding and tender. I kept it bandaged and tried not to worry about it. Most things go away. I put a fresh anti-bacterial Band-aid on my thumb the following Thursday, pulled on gloves over it, and ran the obstacle course. Giant wooden towers, lots of climbing, leaping over things, swinging from other things. I ended up with a nice pair of massive but shallow bruises on the backs of my knees from two trips sliding down the inverted rope descent.

By the end of the week, there was almost nothing below elbow level that didn’t hurt. But this is how we like it. Raze your body, leave it limping and bloody and sore, then build it back up. Twist something? Sprain something? Tear a rotator cuff, overextend a tendon, humiliate a muscle — physical therapy means working out until it returns to something like functionality. If you can’t run, bike. If you can’t bike, walk. If you can’t walk, swim. Take the shortest profile the doctors will let you out with, and interpret it as narrowly as possible. If it’s not physically impossible to do what they’re asking, don’t complain. Bandage it up, put on gloves, and climb the rope.

This is not ordinary guy stuff. This is not just “I won’t go to the doctor and I won’t be sick” — although that’s not to say a lot of us aren’t that way, too. But to some extent, each one of us has to think like the Rangers: the only absolute limit is death. Short of that, every time you hold back, whether from training or from a real mission, there’s a potential cost to someone else. The question is always lurking, even in garrison, even in training — if I fail here, if I stop now, if I let my bloody toes or my swollen ankle or my torn, seeping thumb keep me from doing this, what will I not be able to do later, and who will die because of it?

In the Soldier’s Creed, we recite “I will maintain my arms, my equipment, and myself.” But self-maintenance is different from maintaining your equipment. We are all athletes; we are much, much healthier than the average American. But for those of us who take the job seriously, taking care of your body, being sensible about what you do with your body — refusing to take risks with it, letting it heal when it’s broken or sick — means holding something back from your friends, letting them take the risks, take the bullet when it comes. We have words for someone who does this. Shammer. Shitbag. Profile.

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