The day was partly sunny. The march to the firing range never reached a pace faster than time and a half. Upon arrival, we formed carefully constructed rifle pyramids with our bright new M-16's. With the last rifle in place, Sarge yelled out, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, waste not, want not.” Once again, “What the hell does that mean.”
After we suffered through an hour of classroom instruction we were ‘awarded’ a two-minute piss break. Twenty guys entered an area, ‘in the round.’ It was enclosed by a six-foot-high corrugated tin fence and in the center was a pit filled with piss, chemicals, and a rusted steel pole rising eight feet into the air. I assumed it was there to give us a chance to practice on our aim; after all our next adventure would having us aiming at a different kind of target.
We filled all the available space, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, aiming our ‘water pistols’ at the center pole, trying not to look around too much. Some were righties, others lefties, while a few—without good reason—were two handers.
One by one, streams of pee hit near the rusty brown and silver pole. Those dancing about before entering the pit started first and lasted the longest. Others kicked in after hearing liquid hitting liquid. The others, like myself, preferred peeing in private behind a locked door. We closed our eyes and concentrated hard to start our anatomical water faucets. Everyone has their list of tricks, including me; picturing waterfalls, imagining being back home behind a secure bathroom door, or envisioning being hooked up to utter machines that suck milk out of cows. I really had to go so, I settled on staring at a big dent at the top of the rusted steel pole. Nothing. “Mr. Johnson” began to shrink. He said, “Forget it, we'll try later.” I shot back, “Bullshit, get back out here, we’re not giving up yet.” “Oh yeah, let’s see how successful you are with me in here and you out there,” closing his eye he slipped my grip. OK, so having a conversation with your penis is bizarre, another distraction that didn’t work.
A minute later, all but two of us had finished, shaken off, distributing droplets of urine on their pants, their boots, and on the boots of others. Re-holstering their guns, they departed. Soon it was just me and one other reluctant urinator. Showdown.
With his legs spread two feet apart, Mr. Reluctant Urinator mirrored “Mr. Johnson” and me. Holding himself in his left, he pushed his glasses up his nose to a large knot located between his eyes with his left forefinger. My thoughts switched from Gary Cooper in High Noon, too, “Hey, I know this guy.” My mind raced, my bladder relaxed, and I remembered. Cape Cod and the busted bottle of bubbly. My piss partner had tried to stifle giggles while attempting to eat a salad. That knot and those glasses were one of a kind, with no chance of being duplicated.
Successfully completing our mission, we made small talk about a small world and hustled back to the formation for our final M-16 indoctrination, before we qualified as; Marksman—whew, made it, that’s all that counts, Sharpshooter—eh, not bad, could have done better and Expert—nailed it .
Forty minutes later, we were in our foxholes eager to learn the fine art of firing the M-16 rifle. The pits measured three feet by three feet by five feet deep and had sandbags stacked in a corner for the shorter guys. While waiting, I was entertained by fantasies of adding my name to the legendary ranks of Sergeant York and Audie Murphy while we patiently waited for the DI's to locate their imaginary X marks the spot.
I examined my weapon. With a full magazine of 5.56 mm bullets, she weighed seven pounds six ounces, could effectively fire at targets four hundred sixty meters away, at a cyclic rate of 700-800 rounds per minute, and cost the taxpayers a whopping $127.00. I named mine Myrtle. She was sleek, solid black, and much lighter and more accurate than my cumbersome M-14A1. The M-16 was a “she” because once assigned to an infantry unit in Vietnam; we would be eating, sleeping, and becoming one with our new mate. She was a companion that we would love, cherish, and care for, ‘til death do us part.’
She was ready for action. I rested her hard plastic middle in my left hand and turned her over on her back. I pressed a full six-inch clip of ammunition into the open slot on her underside. I pushed hard until the clip clicked into place, fitting firm and snug. Although she was a powerful instrument of destruction, she felt warm and friendly in my grasp. I was secure and in control….and I also thought maybe I’d already been in the Army waaaaaaay too long.
Looking left and right, M-16 rifle barrels, set on semi-automatic, glistened in the warm morning sun. Steel helmets bobbed up and down like the bobble-headed dog in the back of my Aunt Jane's car. Orders echoed up and down the line, rifle barrels aimed across the flat, dirt field in front of us and safety switches, in chorus, flipped off. I pushed up the rim of my helmet and stared at the cardboard targets thirty yards in front of us. They barely moved in the breeze. Bullets would shred these targets upon impact.
After a long silence, the command to “Fire” echoed down the line. I took a deep breath, let out half, closed one eye, locked in on my cardboard bad guy and squeezed the trigger firmly five times. All my senses came to a peak. The sight of small clouds of dirt kicked off the ground, the smell of burning gunpowder permeating the air, the deafening sound of bullets whizzing at four times the speed of sound, cracking at decibels well over one hundred and fifty, all contributed to this utterly surreal moment.
While pushing the lip of my helmet up a second time, I noticed a small splattering of blood on my hand. I felt an instant and intense panic. Determining the blood wasn’t mine; I began a search for its source. Down the firing line to my left I saw the same chain of glistening rifle barrels and bobbing helmets as before; looking to my right, a link was missing from the chain. The foxhole to my right was silent.
I pushed up and out of my pit. “Cease fire, cease fire, cease fire, cease fire, I screamed, trying to compete with the cracks of rifle fire. I was moving in slow motion; my body and mind in two different time zones.
The firing line fell silent at the sight of my hysteria, but I continued the command, now in a whisper, while I gazed into the hushed dark hole. I didn't remember who was to my right, even so, I wouldn't have recognized him. Slumped in a contorted mass of bright red and olive drab at the bottom of the foxhole, was a headless soldier who had fired his weapon on full automatic into the underside of his chin. I closed my eyes and turned away at the same moment a DI and a second lieutenant arrived. My body went hot, then cold. A brisk breeze chilled the gooseflesh rising on my neck. The Lt. commanded that I return to my position, patting me on the shoulder as I retreated to my foxhole, disoriented and in shock, and moving at a staccato pace. Whatever noises were filling the air up and down the line, I didn’t hear them.
“God, oh God.” I closed my eyes for a long time and prayed for the bloody mess that lay in a crumpled heap less than ten feet away. I prayed that I would never again have to witness bone, blood, and flesh opened to the earth.
We’ve all been told war is hell; but in war, hell is not always defined by the borders of a foreign land.