Heft of an Alice Pack

Note to the story: This is a blast from the past. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost the 241st birthday of the Marine Corps will be happening this week (Thursday November 10th.) As always for me that is a time of celebration not only of my personal history but the history of the nation I call home. I knew I wouldn’t post this on the day but trying to figure out when best to share it was the harder call.

And that brings us to the other reasoning in the mix. The normal day I try to get out a story post is Tuesdays. But unless you have been living under a rock, you know that this is Election Day for the US. I knew I could never compete with this heated battle even as I found myself glued to the keyboard watching the results come in.

The Black Medallion story we have been working through will return next week with the start of the next section.

(Originally posted April 20, 2015). I don’t spend much time rehashing my life in the Marines with the rest of the world. For the most part, life as a Marine is something only other Marines really understand. Much like anything else with a culture, we have our own stories and language. You can mention a name to other Marines and they will know exactly what you are talking about. It is almost a quiet reverential moment between family with a communication by memories.

I spent some time with some creative non fiction recently, a bit of memoir if you will. In this I explored a moment in boot camp that is a common experience for other Marines. It may be something that the rest of you can take something away from.

Mind you, this wasn’t written with a purpose other than to share a moment in time. There are no agendas here. Maybe you will take something away from the moment, maybe you won’t.

The Heft of an Alice Pack

Mount Motherfucker, the mere mention of the name had been enough to bury a recruit in dread. But I wasn’t a recruit, not anymore. This time when I looked up, toward the top of this bitch of a hill I was ready. I had been here before.

Heft of an Alice Pack

flickr creative commons via Hector Alejandro

When I went through Marine Corps boot camp, one of the most talked about challenges had been our two weeks of field training and then the final hump of Mount Motherfucker. It was the official name of the final big hill that the training platoons had to surmount to end their field training, all part of a five mile force march with full combat load.

To put it in perspective, a full combat load added roughly 90 lbs. to a Marine’s carry weight for just the minimum combat gear. This grew heavier if the Marine worked with special weapons, but for the purposes of boot camp every Marine was trained as a Rifleman.

During our two weeks we were put through all manner of torture to prepare us for the rigors of war. One of the worst days came during NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) training. We spent this day in full MOPP gear, our chemical agent protective gear.

Summers in Southern California are hot, damn hot. Add in the cloying weight of full MOPP gear that is designed to keep outside air completely away from your body and you can expect to feel like sitting in a sauna, for hours. We spent a day like that. It was crazy.

I sat there in my fighting hole, with my partner next to me, encased in a bubble that cut me off from the world around me. I couldn’t tell if he was awake or dead, neither of us moved to conserve precious liquids. I lost track of time as we waited for the call to stand down from chemical emergency. We prayed for that call, the one command that would allow us to remove the gear that would kill us from heat exhaustion.

That was the irony of it all. The gear that would save our lives from a chemical attack, was the very gear that stood to kill us during a training exercise. But training, discipline, the things that would save your life when all hell broke loose, those were the things that kept you locked down. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how much you wanted to rip it all off and feel the wind on your face again, you held tight and followed orders.

I don’t know how long it had been since we first went into the gear, but I remember at one point I had slipped into heat exhaustion. I had leaned forward in my fighting hole, my rifle pointed down range, the only thing that kept me from a face plant into the dry scorched earth in front of us. With bleary eyes I glanced down and came face to face with a lizard, no more than 5 inches long. The thing had snuck up on our position and grew bold enough to stare me right in the gas-masked eyes. It didn’t last, once I snatched at it, it bolted.

The trials of the time were, much like the NBC day, designed to tear us down. They pushed our limits and forced us to redefine what we thought we could do. Every day had become a new challenge to push ourselves that much more than we had ever pushed before.

This brought us to our last challenge, Mount Motherfucker. Tired, beaten and abused would have been enough to force most people to give up on a five-mile force march. A force march is a test of endurance and tenacity on its own. We cut through the hilly desert countryside of Camp Pendleton, our fight against our own limitations. And then we hit that last mile, the base of the mountain.

The truest test of your resolve comes when the only thing you can do is keep pushing forward. Sure you can fail, you can drop away, but if you take that option you will never finish. The only option, the only one that matters is to finish. We fought that hill.

Up until the hill, we had marched in orderly ranks. A company level march isn’t done as a tactical movement. You can’t really hide a company of Marines traveling enmass. Marching up the hill changed that. For the most part discipline held true, but there were those who had reached their limits. For some their pace had slowed and they fell back, there were a few that dropped completely. But the push was all that mattered.

This was a personal battle. Even with all the other men marching around you, fighting those same inner demons, it was the battle each of us had to fight on our own and conquer our bodies and prove we could find those last bits of reserve we never thought we had.

When we crested the peak of the hill, we stopped to allow those who fell behind to catch back up again. The view had changed. Instead of looking at the feet and back of the man in front of me, the fight to block out all but what needed to be done, I was able to look around to see the remains of the battle I had won. At the top of the hill, the peak of Mount Motherfucker, you can see a good distance into the hills around you. On a clear day you could see the ocean.

Platoon 1039 of Bravo Company MCRD San Diego was the last platoon of the last company to climb Mount Motherfucker in Marine Corps boot camp. My platoon, I was one of the last people to climb that hill in basic training. They told us we were the last when we reached the top. The weight of the change in traditions and the elation of beating the challenge bolstered us to finish the march back to our rally point and pick up for the trip back to our barracks.

The thing with challenges, once you beat them, your whole perspective changes. A few months later, I faced this hill again. In preliminary combat training after boot camp, we spent time in the same field training area as we had in boot camp. Things had changed. Instead of sleeping on the ground and the constant torture to test our limits we had raised tent squad bays. We camped in as close to civilization as a person can find out in the dusty hills of Camp Pendleton.

Though we didn’t suffer many of the mental and physical tests of boot camp, there still were challenges. The new hill challenge had become the Grim Reaper. This hill was said to put Mount Motherfucker to shame. It had become the new hill for recruits to battle during basic training.

We fought the Reaper and won. But the challenge had changed. After the previous battles we knew we could do it. The mental challenge was no longer the battle it had been, to prove that we returned to Mount Motherfucker. Even with full combat gear we climbed and beat the hill without a thought.

The weight of an Alice pack changes when it becomes little more than the gear you carry. Before you defeat the challenges that define who you are, the things you carry are the things that weigh you down and drag you back to the bottom of the hill.


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