On the Plains with the Grand Old Army

In July 1986, a convoy of dark green jeeps, deuce and half trucks, and Dodge Ram trucks rumbled down Interstate 80 through Nebraska at a steady 55 mph clip; it’s destination – the Fort Carson Military Reserve near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I sat in one of the lead vehicles.  On my left, behind the wheel of a Ram, sat Staff Sergeant Ray Schmidt [not his real name – but close]. Schmidt was the head of the battalion’s S1, or administrative section.  I worked for Schmidt.  I liked Schmidt.  I respected him.  He was a good man.

Behind us, in another Ram, were two other members of the S1 section, a private and a specialist four.  I don’t remember the names of either one of them.  But I do remember some of their personal attributes.  So I will refer to them as Private Rocker and Specialist Slacker.

Private Rocker was a non-traditional soldier.  He was of a middling height and rail thin. His lack of heft stemmed from a diet of Cokes, cigarettes, and beer.  His facial features were long and delicate.  He had dark, sad, searching eyes. In contrast to the vulnerability displayed in his face, he wore his hair in an aggressive-looking mohawk, with the front bangs hanging down over his forehead.  When off duty, he dressed as a gothic punk rocker.  I frequently saw him wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, a metal studded black belt with a chain hanging from it, ragged blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs, and  pair of old, black, combat boots.  Rocker really liked punk music and such bands as the Butthole Surfers and Sex Pistols.  On weekends he’d drive down to Omaha to go to rave parties.  Once, he came into the office on a Sunday morning with his head mottled with blue and black bruises.  I asked him if he had been in a fight the night before.  He said, “No, I went to a concert and threw myself off the stage.”  Astonished, I asked, “Why’d you do that?” Rocker responded, “That’s just what you do.”

Specialist Slacker was what his name implies – a first rate slacker.  He had been in the Regular Army for years before becoming a reservist.  He thought his Regular Army time somehow exempted him from work in the S1 section.  Slacker did absolutely nothing.  He came in hung-over and late during our weekend training sessions, he took frequent smoke breaks, and he left for home before final formation in the afternoon. Slacker had only recently joined the unit. I knew from experience that Sergeant Schmidt would not tolerate his poor attitude and frequent absences.  Either Slacker would have an attitude adjustment or Schmidt would have him transferred out of the S1.

After an all-day drive across the sun-dried plains of Nebraska and Colorado, our unit, Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 14th Field Artillery, USAR, reached Fort Carson.  That first night on the post, we stayed in a run-down, World War II-era barracks.  It was white, rectangular in shape and two stories high.  On each of the floors, two rows of bunks extended the length of the building.  A central aisle ran between the rows of bunk beds. At one end of the building existed a latrine and showers.  There was nothing extraneous about the building.  The military engineers had built it for one purpose – it existed for troops to sleep. Headquarters Company slept there, got up early the next morning, ate breakfast in one of the post cafeterias, and promptly departed for our bivouac site.

The company established its bivouac in a grove of stunted pine trees located in the midst of an expansive plain of sage brush and yucca.  Three miles to the west of our position stood Cheyenne Mountain.  NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) had its headquarters deep inside the mountain.  In the event of a surprise nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union, NORAD would track incoming Russian missiles from Cheyenne Mountain and then direct a U.S. counter-strike.  The entire complex was vital to the U.S.’s nuclear war fighting capability. Undoubtedly, because of NORAD’s importance to U.S. defense strategy, the Soviets had NORAD targeted for destruction.  In the 1960s, hoping to make the facility nuclear-bomb-proof, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a series of bunkers in the mountain’s depths.  Each of the bunkers rested atop giant shock absorbers. If and when the gigantic Russian nuclear bombs went off atop the mountain, the shock absorbers would supposedly keep the Air Force personnel inside the complex from feeling any discomfort.

On the nights I pulled guard duty during the 3rd Battalion’s two weeks of annual training, I stood out on the plains of Colorado and looked up at Cheyenne Mountain.  Stretching across the mountain’s utmost heights, a mass of red lights blinked on and off, warning low-flying aircraft of the presence of a cluster of antennae. Below, at the base of the mountain, glaring white lights illuminated the northern tunnel entrance.  The presence of NORAD only a few miles from my position did not make me feel safe.  I viewed the mountain with a palpable sense of fear.  If the Soviets decided to launch a first strike while I was on guard duty, well, I knew I’d disappear – poof – gone.

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, he initiated what historians refer to as the Neo Cold War.  Reagan abandoned the Carter administration’s policy of containment and detente for an offensive strategy of rolling back communism across the globe.  In later years, neo-conservative revisionists such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowicz would herald Reagan’s policy as visionary. At the time, Rollback carried the real risk of turning a local conflict between U.S. and Soviet proxies in one of the world’s backwater regions into a globe-killing nuclear war between the superpowers.

Reagan’s Neo Cold War explained the 3rd Battalion’s deployment to the desert east of Cheyenne Mountain. We were there to train for war against the Red Army.  If war came, we were to be shipped to either the central plains of Europe or to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

No one in the unit talked about the utter futility of training for conventional war with the U.S.S.R.  In the 1980s, military analysts believed that the Red Army’s massed armored divisions would quickly overrun the American Army in West Germany. Moreover, any conventional war between the two superpowers would rapidly escalate into a nuclear conflict. As soon as one side concluded that it would lose the conventional struggle, it would launch its sea and land-based ICBMs against the other. If World War III came, the 3rd Battalion would be in the thick of it.  And in all probability, my unit would be turned to ash by Soviet hydrogen bombs. Yet, everyone in the battalion (from the commander to the lowly privates) ignored this haunting reality. Instead, we continued to train as though someday we might have to fight the Soviets in a land war. This collective denial underpinned all our actions as a unit. It infused our training with a high degree of absurdity.  Everyone had to play along.  No one could mention the obvious – that we’d probably be incinerated before we could even fire a single artillery round.  Not only did the emperor (our battalion commander) have no clothes – none of us had any clothes.  We marched across the plains training for a scenario that would never happen.  Overtime, I understood why the officers referred to these training exercises as “war games.”

The troopers of Headquarters Company erected their olive drab tents under the shade of the tallest pines in the grove.  The S1 section’s tent served as both a field office and sleeping quarters. Schmidt, Rocker, Slacker, and I placed our cots along the outside edge of the tent.  Our duffle bags, with our personal belongings, went under the cots.  Next to the cots, toward the center of the tent, we set up small, rickety field desks.  On top of the desks we placed typewriters, pads of paper, and black-ink government-issue pens.  A narrow aisle ran down the center of the tent.  In a matter of hours, the S1 opened for business.

July on the Colorado plains is hot, dry, and dusty.  The heavy, green canvas tent sucked in the sun’s heat and pushed it down against our bodies.  By mid-day, the inside of the tent became unbearably warm. Sweat poured down our foreheads and ran down the center of our backs.  Our asses became uncomfortably moist from the long hours of sitting. The four of us found ourselves frequently stepping outside to catch a breath of fresh air and to cool-off, if only a little bit.  After three days under canvas, we became odorous and irritable. The overweight Schmidt smelled the worst.  He smelled like a combination of fresh dog shit, sour milk, and eggs.  When standing next to him to consult on some vital military matter, I had to catch myself before I went into a reflex gag.  I didn’t have the heart, nor the authority, to tell him to go back to the barracks and shower.  The hundreds of battalion soldiers scattered across the plain experienced the same discomforts as the S1 section. After a few days, the morale of the battalion began to plummet. The body odor, the heat, the monotonous plain surrounding us on all sides, and the tasteless diet of plastic-wrapped MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat – also known as MRFs – Meals Ready to Fart) took a toll on our psyches. As our enthusiasm for our imaginary war waned, an actual invasion kicked off.

The invasion commenced with a whimper rather than a bang.  It started slowly, almost imperceptibly. Initially, the enemy did not come against us en masse.  Instead, he sent out small scouting parties of one or two brave little bastards who entered our camp at night to assess our defenses and report back to their headquarters.  At first, I only caught brief glimpses of them.  I’d see a grey blur streak along the dark, bottom edge of the tent. I’d hear a hushed scratching sound as one of them tried to work its way into a duffle bag. Occasionally, I’d discern the distinct crunching sound when one of them discovered a lost M & M or a piece of fallen cracker. These early infiltrators did not appear to be much of a threat to our existence.  They stayed out of sight and out of our way.  But what we did not realize was that the first ones to come into our camp were only the first wave of a much larger invasion. The scouts went home and told their chums that an American supermarket of peanuts, cookies, and potato chips had landed in the desert.  Within days, a horde of mice descended on the camp.

Kangaroo mice are light gray and round-bodied.  They possess long, rat-like hairless tails, hind legs that resemble those of a kangaroo, and short front legs.  Normally, they hop along the ground.  But when frightened, their hind quarters propel them forward so fast that they appear to be flying a couple of inches above the surface of the earth.  The second wave of mice to enter the camp behaved differently than the first scouting group.  Their greater numbers made them bolder, less apt to flee, and more willing to stay in camp all day and all night.  We started to see them everywhere and at all hours.

One afternoon, while sitting at my desk, I looked up from my typewriter to see a small mouse dash through the open door of the tent, run down the center aisle, and stop only inches from my feet.  I looked down at the little critter, it looked up at me, our eyes met, it expressed surprise at the lumbering giant towering over it, I expressed surprise at the very bold mouse beneath me.  It then turned its head to the left and right.  Something registered at that moment in its pea-sized brain because in an instant it made an abrupt about-face and rocketed back out the doorway and across the plains.  On another occasion, I was quietly sitting at my desk typing away when I heard the sound of tiny, grinding teeth.  I turned toward the sound and saw a mouse on top of the desk to my right.  The mouse was only three feet from me and completely out in the open.  The rodent was enjoying a potato chip.  What surprised me was that the mouse, now found out, did not run off.  Instead, it momentarily stopped eating, lowered the potato chip from its mouth, turned its head to look at me, and then, deciding I was not a threat, turned its head away, lifted the chip to its mouth, and began eating again.  That mouse’s nonchalant attitude convinced me that the 3rd Battalion was in serious trouble.

For some unknown reason, we did not attempt to kill the mice.  At the time, I wanted them all dead.  In hindsight, I am glad the 3rd Battalion let them live.  Rather than engage in an extermination program, the battalion commander ordered us to police up the camp, pick-up all the trash and discarded food items, and store any consumables in either metal containers or in the cabs of the trucks.  We followed his orders, but it made no difference. The mice kept coming on and in ever-greater numbers.  They were unrelenting.  They gave us no quarter and they found their way into every nook and cranny.

One afternoon, Private Rocker laid down on his cot to catch a few ZZZZs.  He still had on his BDUs.  When he awoke, he reached into the right cargo pocket of his pants to grab the apple he had left there.  He had placed the apple in that pocket because he believed it would be safe from the mice.  To his shock and horror, he reached into the pocket and felt a mouse.  The mouse had been chewing on the apple.  Once discovered, the mouse freaked out. Rocker then freaked out.  The mouse scratched and tore at Rocker’s leg in an attempt to escape the confines of the pocket.  Rocket scratched and tore at the opening of the pocket to free the mouse.  Following a minute of hysterics and frantic movements, Rocker freed the mouse, which bolted out of his pants and out the door. Rocker’s experience was not unique.  A number of troopers in the 3rd Battalion reported finding mice in their BDUs, duffle bags, and sleeping bags.  One evening, Specialist Slacker, who slept to my right, found a mouse peacefully snoozing inside his sleeping bag. He shook the bag, the mouse awoke with a start, and off it went into the sage.

After lights out at 10:00 p.m., I’d lay awake on my cot listening to maybe a half dozen mice scour the tent floor for food scraps.  By 2:00 a.m., the rodents must have exhausted that food source, because they then moved up onto the duffle bags, the tables, and even our cots.  I was awakened many times by mice bounding across my chest, stomach, and legs.  I distinctly remember waking one night to find a mouse sitting on the top of my chest.  At the very moment I lifted up my head, it used its powerful back legs to launch itself off my body.  I opened my tired eyes just in time to see it go airborne into the darkness.

By the end of the second week of annual training, the mice had noticeably lowered unit morale and effectiveness.  All of the men had lost sleep because of the mice.  We walked around camp in a daze, we had trouble concentrating, and we made more and more mistakes.  For example, during a live fire exercise, one soldier loaded a shell into the breech of a howitzer, but his gunny mate closed the breech before he could get his hand out of the way.  In an instant, the sharp edge of the breech sheared off the tips of his fingers.  On another occasion, two troopers were filling a jeep with gasoline from a hose attached to a large tanker truck.   While one soldier opened a valve to let the gasoline flow from the tanker truck, the other soldier held the mouth of the hose to the jeep’s gas tank.  But the valve was opened too far – so that the pressure, and the amount of gasoline flowing through the hose, became excessive.  Before the valve could be adjusted downward – the hose jumped out of the jeep’s gas tank and began to violently dance through the air and across the ground.  The out-of-control hose spewed gallon upon gallon of gasoline onto the ground, over the jeep, and onto the heads and shoulders of both soldiers.  Eventually the two men regained control of the hose and readjusted the valve.  Fortunately, the incident ended without anyone or anything going up in flames.

The military measures a unit’s combat effectiveness in percentages.  The most combat-ready unit is 100% effective, which means it has its full complement of men, equipment, weapons, ammunition, and supplies. It is rare that a unit is ever 100% effective. Unavoidable illnesses, absences, and supply shortages always keep a unit’s effectiveness from reaching 100%. When a unit’s effectiveness drops to 50%, it is considered combat ineffective, it’s essentially out of action.  I never learned the 3rd Battalion’s combat effectiveness during its annual training at Fort Carson.  But what I do know is that the battalion’s effectiveness steadily declined during that two-week period and the reason was easy to explain.  The plains environment, with its heat, dust, and especially its mice, had taken a toll on the Grand Old Army.

[Postscript: Staff Sergeant Schmidt took a shower on Day 10 of the training exercise.  He only agreed to do so after the soldiers of the S1 section refused to work in the tent with him unless he cleaned himself up.]

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