Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain

That phrase was one of my lasting takeaways from Bridgeport, California where we attended the Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) before we came out here. Unfortunately, we only spent a week at MWTC, which was time enough to feel the pain, but not enough time to really get acclimatized to the altitude and thus feel less of it. The powers that be thought it’d be better to spend three weeks in the desert at 29 Palms rather than spend more time in the mountains, but I’ll save the discussion of the deficiencies in our, as a whole, well designed training programs/methods for another time and a more qualified observer…though if we’d maintained for a month the same ops-tempo that we performed for six days at MWTC we probably all would have been broken. Since we only had a week to do the training at MWTC, we did the required three days of class work back in Hawaii before we left. The program is designed for you to receive the classes in Bridgeport after you arrive. This theoretically gives you a few days to get acclimatized to the altitude since base camp is at 6000 feet. No such luck for us however – during our first night, some ten hours after our arrival, we were helo’d up to 9000 feet of elevation to begin the fieldwork, and this after spending the previous night on a bus from Reno after having just flown in from Hawaii. This order of events would have consequences for all of us, especially those not in good hiking condition. I’ve personally been at much higher altitudes hiking in South America, but I’d never carried so much weight at altitude over the distances we were to cover.

An appropriate title for our six day course up on the mountains at MWTC would have been “An introduction to the hardships associated with conducting military operations in mountainous terrain”. Basically, the training at MWTC involved a lot of walking up and down mountains with plenty of weight on your back. Lots of other training was conducted, but the real lessons were an appreciation for the difficulties in moving around in the mountains and the importance of route selection. During my day as the navigator I drew the ire of my comrades for choosing to stay in the treeline, following the draws up and down, rather than just staying near the ridgelines and maintaining altitude – my selection being a much tougher route physically, though with the advantage of stealth in that case since those particular ridgelines were sparsely forested. My lesson learned from that day was that one need not confine his options to the uncovered ridgeline or concealed draws simply because they offer a reasonably direct path to the objective. You’ll seldom find a perfect alternative, but in reality a multitude of possibilities exist…you just have to be willing to go to points C, D, E, and beyond if necessary on your way from A to B. In other words, the best option available is often a concealed, high altitude approach, staying near the top of the ridgeline, not losing or gaining any more elevation than necessary along the way, even if doing so requires covering significantly more lateral distance and/or backtracking.

During the first three days roughly a third of all participants had to be removed from the training area back to base camp for various ailments including torn knee ligaments, sprained ankles, altitude sickness/exhaustion, and hypothermia. We were warned ahead of time, but there’s nothing like experience to hammer home the lesson that, when put together, all those extra items you thought you needed will increase your pain exponentially. Thankfully, after the first couple days we were allowed to send back non-essential gear, lightening our load to 60 or 70 pounds. That event, coupled with the reduced size of our entourage due to attrition and the slave-driving of our leader, allowed us to cover 15 km and gain a net of 3000 feet in elevation in only 5.5 hours (essentially a road march) on one particularly miserable afternoon, which was apparently really good work according to the instructor, who I might add never looked the least bit winded during the entire six days. An amusing, if not pathetically annoying, point during that movement came when a Sergeant Major rolled by us on his four-wheeler and got on someone’s case for not having shaved that morning. Incidentally, MWTC was also where I learned the word “cocoon” can be used as a verb, as in, “Damn it’s cold! I’m going to cocoon myself in this sleeping bag.”

Our brief time at MWTC was a great introduction to the challenges we face here in Afghanistan. We’ve learned to lighten our loads, but sadly one can only get rid of so much. Most of the time we don’t go out for a very long time, so you’d think we really wouldn’t need much, but despite the relatively short length of our outings the necessary gear is extensive and fairly heavy. A recent inventory of my gear after a patrol revealed:

1 helmet

1 sunglasses

1 plate carrier (lighter version of the flak vest) with sapi chest and back plates

6 magazines (loaded)

2 frag grenades

1 smoke grenade

1 handheld GPS

1 handheld radio with mic

1 night optics (time of day dependent)

1 utility kit with map, pencil (won’t freeze), zip-ties, energy bar, chemlites, and extra AA batteries

1 pocket target map

1 knife

1 20 oz bottle of water

1 compass

1 flashlight

1 pocket-sized Pashto language handbook

1 notebook with 2 pens

1 lighter

1 watch cap (You never know when you might stop somewhere for awhile and need to stay warm; the watch cap packs the most warmth for the size burden.)

1 wristwatch and

1 personal first aid kit with 2 tourniquets, quickclot, 1 needle kit, med tape, compressed gauze, and pressure bandages

All of this in addition to 1 rifle (loaded) and whatever clothing (I’m loath to use the word “uniform” to describe my attire given the mixture of garments I typically wear.) I’m dressed in on that day. The gear I take is pretty much the minimum, and I’m probably required to have more items like a pistol and personal locator beacon, but thankfully we’re isolated enough out here that a lot of the ridiculousness goes away and common sense takes over; a pistol is not going to do a lot of good given the threats we face. A lot of guys carry more magazines and those that carry an M203 grenade launcher (most everyone but me) have a few extra pounds on their rifle in addition to the grenades themselves, which weigh nearly a pound apiece and are normally carried in bandoliers of 15. In the summer we will surely need to carry more than 20 oz of water.

I was able to get on a scale today with the gear listed above and it came to 55 pounds. If I ditched the body armor and hand grenades I could lose 25 pounds…but that’s not a decision I’m going to make. The US Army guys we work with wear a vest that is probably five to ten pounds heavier than our plate carriers. I don’t know how they do it, but then they don’t get up into the mountains as often as they should either. Our camp here is at 5000 feet and we rarely ascend or descend more than 1000 feet from that, but nevertheless it’s tough since many of the slopes are at a 30 degree angle or more. It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s just that we can’t do it fast, and there are times out here when it would be nice to be able to move quickly up a hill. I’m to the point now where although I might not move very swiftly up the mountain, I can at least keep plodding along without feeling like I’m going to suffocate, which was how I often felt in the beginning. One magical day about a month in I realized I wasn’t exhausted after reaching a point on a mountain where I’d always been worn out before, and feeling so good I decided to run up the mountain…for about 50 meters before reality set in and my heartbeat threatened to blast out my eardrums. Hopefully, it will keep getting easier, but it certainly won’t ever be painless, and the weight of our gear will always be a hindrance to rapid movement.

As Marines we like to think of ourselves as the successors to the mighty Roman legions that conquered the known world so long ago. Historians have debated and will always debate the many reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It seems I remember reading somewhere (probably in Gibbon’s work whose title uses those same words) that among the many reasons for the Empire’s fall was the fact that the legionnaires became unable and/or unwilling to carry the gear and armor required of a Roman soldier. We’re certainly not at the point where we can’t or won’t carry our gear effectively, and you’d like to think that nutrition and military technology will improve to, in theory, make things easier for us, but then in 2000 years the soldier’s weight load probably hasn’t really changed that much; today’s technology just makes us more lethal and survivable than our predecessors, but only relative to those same forebears because our increased lethality and survivability is essentially negated by our opponents having much the same technology, even if that technology is only a 1950’s vintage Russian made assault rifle or light machine gun. At any rate, this entry wasn’t intended to be a dissertation on the soldier’s load nor was it intended to examine military technological innovation and its effects or lack thereof on the infantryman, so I’ll close with the simple observation that the soldier’s load does and will continue to emplace limits on our operational flexibility, especially in this environment.

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