Bataan 2019: Why we voluntarily walk 26.2 miles

On March 17, 2019, the Bataan Memorial Death March will occur. This will be the second year The Husband and I participate in this event and we are beside ourselves with excitement. To most people, it seems odd for a couple to use precious vacation time for the opportunity to walk on dirt roads through the high-desert of White Sands Missile Range for 26.2 miles. Upon finishing, we will be in pain, exhausted, and dehydrated. Our reward? A certificate of participation and aching bodies.

I wrote about this last year as well, but I still get confused, even bewildered, looks from coworkers, friends, and strangers when I describe the event so I want to touch on why we have decided to make this an annual pilgrimage.

By Ле Лой – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43326904

Let’s start by looking past the pain, heat, and dust – this event is a memorial to tens of thousands of prisoners of war who were forced to march more than 60 miles without adequate food, water, or medical care in the Philippines during World War II. If they failed to walk, they died. Those who made it showed incredible strength and a will to survive most people will never have to face in their lifetime. This is more than just a marathon, it is a salute to those who would not be defeated; it is a testament to the fortitude of human beings under immense stress; it is a payment of respect to the survivors and the hundreds who didn’t live to see Camp O’Donnell.

My own experiences in the Army motivate me to participate in these types of events. I have witnessed true courage under the most high-stress and dire conditions. It may seem weird to the uninitiated, but taking part in the Bataan Memorial Death March is more than a personal badge of honor, it is a show of respect to those who served and sacrificed before me. By showing a willingness to experience even a tenth of what they went through, I hope the survivors will see they are not forgotten and their sacrifices do not go unnoticed.

Bataan Memorial Death March

A more grounded element of my motivation is the challenge of the event itself. A majority of the route takes advantage of semi-improved dirt roads that snake through the mesquite and scrub brush of White Sands Missile Range. These roads consist of loose, deep sand churned up by thousands of people slogging along its course causing feet to sink deeper into it with each heavy step. Ankles, calves, knees, and quadriceps are pushed to the limit with steady inclines in this sandbox environment. The physical challenge is one thing, but each step drains a person’s mental commitment to finishing the course. I have always avoided the easy path, thinking of it as cheating. You can’t grow as a person by doing everything the easy way, you have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and into new territory otherwise you’ll atrophy.

Pre-Event Selfie – 2018

Finally, this is a bonding experience for The Husband and I. Last year, we found ourselves at each other’s throats off and on, but it is understandable given the pain we found ourselves in. Despite some hostility (we still love each other very much), we managed to complete the Honorary Route (14 mile course that excludes the lollipop section that starts at checkpoint 8) without killing one another or causing serious bodily harm to each other. Between these bouts of pain and dehydration fueled fits, we talked, laughed, and enjoyed the experience together. To be honest, I think the Bataan Memorial Death March would be a great couples counseling session for anyone who wants to see their partner at their rawest.

So, that’s a glimpse into why I participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March. It’s not for everyone, but everyone should consider taking part in it at some point in their life. You can learn a lot from yourself in the middle of nowhere.

To register, head over to the official Bataan Memorial Death March site and click the “Register” button. Prices just went up at the beginning of 2019 with another planned increase in February. Don’t wait, only the first 5,000 participants are guaranteed a full race packet, it’s got some good stuff in it!

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September 11th – Our Day of Infamy

At this point, you’re social media feeds have been packed with #NeverForget, #NeverAgain, #AlwaysRemember, and American flags all day long. Good! Events like September 11, 2001 should not be forgotten for fear of history repeating itself. Anyone who thinks the evil of this world is suddenly going to throw their hands up and quit preying on the innocent is a bit naive.

I am writing this post while flying from Portland to Los Angeles then to Albuquerque on an American Airline’s plane. I’ve seen a number of threads on social media asking “Where were you when…” or “What were you doing when…” and it felt appropriate to share in a post written while flying.

At the time of the attacks, I lived in Midland Texas and was a stereotypical rebellious “goth” teenager. I made a point to play devil’s advocate whenever possible and bucked against the establishment simply to test boundaries. I balked at the military and shared my far-left anti-establishment politics with anyone around me (whether they wanted to listen or not). I was a senior in high school and felt more than ready to take on the world.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I found myself in bowling class (yes, bowling class, the alternative to traditional P.E. – because, goth). We had just arrived at the bowling alley when the second plane hit the South Tower. The class took notice and paused all conversation, trying to figure out what movie the alley was playing. It only took a few seconds to realize it was all too real.

No one rolled a ball that day; no cheers for a strike; no smiles could be found on the two dozen kids in that class nor the three adults who worked at the lanes. Any talking was hushed whispers as all eyes were glued to the television screens which normally showed repeats of past bowling tournaments and advertisements for bad nachos and over-sweet sodas. Life felt like it had stopped.

It was fairly obvious to me that the world changed that morning. America wouldn’t be the same, the world wouldn’t be the same, , my generation wouldn’t be the same, I wouldn’t be the same. Having grown up in relative peace (all American conflicts had been low-grade combat operations that hadn’t lasted all that long – the Gulf War being the exception), I knew it wasn’t impossible for a full-scale war to occur in my lifetime, but it did seem unlikely until that morning.

At the appointed time (after all civilian air traffic was grounded, the Pentagon had been hit, and Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania), we all loaded the bus and returned to school. I remember going to my parked truck instead of my next class and another student walking by and asking “Why you pissed off?” I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to ask him “Why aren’t you pissed off?” I couldn’t really reply other than to tell him to watch the news.

I left school shortly thereafter.

The attacks of September 11th weren’t a primary influence in my decision to join the Army nor did I suddenly hate all Muslims or form a negative opinion of an entire region because of the actions of a few, but, I can say it helped push me to be an Infantryman. Male pride and ego played into this decision as well, but knowing that we were attacked as a nation that day sure didn’t hurt my motivations.

I can only hope that we, as a country, never have to experience an event like this again; however, history is bound to repeat itself when we forget the lessons we have learned in the past.

Where were you? What were you doing? How did you respond to these attacks?

Happy Birthday Army!

platoon
Korea c. 2003 – I’m in front of the back row a few people in from the left. This was one of my first field problems as a Team Leader.

Today, the US Army turns 243 years old; Happy Birthday Army!

To learn more about the formation and broad history of the Army, you can check out the history site of the US Army for more information. I would like to add that I was a part of the oldest branch of the Army (the Infantry). Just another bragging right the Infantry has over the rest of the Army 😉

However, this post isn’t just to say Happy Birthday to the Army or play the “my branch was better than yours” game; I am using this post to say “Thank you” to the US Army and highlight other means of doing your civic duty.

When I joined this aging organization I was a cocky, annoying, know-it-all teenager with no real direction in life. The Army set me on a path to success in life through hard work, discipline, self-sacrifice, and old-school grit. I truly believe if I hadn’t served the sometimes grueling, often times exhilarating, and always proud years in the Army, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the person I am today.

I do not believe military service is for everyone; some people simply aren’t built for the lifestyle (physically, emotionally, or mentally). That being said, it wouldn’t hurt for everyone to spend time in government service more suited to their interests and strengths. If you love nature, go work for a couple of years in the Forest Service; more about helping people in need find housing, HUD is for you; want to give back to veterans who sacrificed so much for so many, check out the Department of Veterans Affairs. Live and learn within these organizations so change can be affected by the masses instead of being afterthoughts in the minds of politicians during campaign season.

What do you get in return? A few things:

  • A better understanding how these organizations are actually run on a day-to-day basis. We as a citizenry assume we know what is going on, but, in reality, so much of our government runs on policy and process unknown by the general public.
  • A sense of civic pride and national identity. People will feel a sense of ownership in their government again because they gave a piece of themselves to keep it going and improve it.
  • Maybe, just maybe, a program could be organized that after a minimal amount of service is completed, participants will receive funds for further education (you know, college or a trade school of the participants choice). Much like the GI Bill for the military, these funds are not likely to cover 100% of the cost of the education, but it would go a long way. And, no, you couldn’t withdraw the money to spend it on whatever you want.

Not sure if this “Civic Pride” idea will catch any fire, but it doesn’t hurt to share.

Happy birthday Army! Thank you for all you have done for me and I wish you many more years of proud service!

What are your thoughts on civic duty? Share your thoughts in the comments and don’t forget to like and share http://www.averageluke.com!

3 Reasons People Become Addicted to War

Company Mission - LUTAFIYAH - Hell (2)
Me during my third tour in Iraq (Iskandariyah ’07-’08) waiting on a company mission to kickoff.

Let’s be honest, any rational person reading the title of this blog post thinks it’s crazy for anyone to be addicted to such a horrible course of events classified as a war. However, these same rational people, when thrust into the dangerous profession of being a front line soldier are at risk of becoming addicted. It can happen gradually over an extended period of time or all at once. What cannot be disputed is that everyone is at risk.

So, why does this happen? What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war? How can a person be willing to do anything to get their next fix of something all civilized societies in the history of the world have classified as the worst part of human nature? Why are these addicts encouraged to pursue their addiction? What can be done to save these people before the inevitable results of constant exposure to high-stress, life-threatening events exacts the ultimate cost?

For answers to the questions above, you’ll have to keep checking in to this blog. This post will only attempt to shed light on the one of them: What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war?

Let’s get into it…

One: Belief in a cause…

This is the most obvious and the most prominent. When a person has such strong convictions in the reason for the war occurring in the first place it is easy for them to want to do everything possible to support it. This includes returning to the most dangerous places on Earth time and again to fight for that cause. Many service members want to be in combat because they feel like they are fulfilling their duty to protect their country from <insert enemy title> (think terrorists, communists, fascists, and other bad “ists”). A cause is a powerful thing and governments throughout history have created causes to lure their citizenry into voluntarily putting themselves in danger for the fulfillment of the cause.

Two: Adrenaline…

There is no feeling in the world like the pure adrenaline pumped into your body when another human being is actively attempting to end your life AND you have the capacity to stop them from accomplishing their mission. It’s the ultimate win. Athletes get a taste of this when they win a high-stakes competition; business leaders sample this feeling after closing a big financial deal; everyone savors it right after narrowly escaping a car wreck. No one but the front line combat troops (and law enforcement officers) truly understand this type of adrenaline pump. Addiction to adrenaline is in and of itself an addiction, but adrenaline from an engagement with the enemy is unique in my opinion.

Three: The simple life…

This one is likely to confuse some people, but I will attempt to clarify. For a young, single, no children at home combat troop, combat is the simplest existence on the planet. No utility bills to pay, housing (shelter is a more apt description) is provided, food is available…all the basic necessities of life are provided. Money isn’t worth much because there isn’t anything to spend it on (except cigarettes, dip, candy, gear, and hygiene products). The almighty dollar won’t save you in a firefight. Life is simpler with three objectives:

  1. Accomplish the mission
  2. Bring everyone else home
  3. Bring yourself home

Married combat troops – not sure how much this one applies to you, but I’m sure some of you would agree with this description.

This is just my take on the “problem” of addiction to war – feel free to shout me down in the comments!

Wait, why do you run towards the bullets?

It doesn’t make much sense to the average person why anybody would willingly run towards the source of a fired bullet. To be honest, from the outside, it doesn’t make any sense. However, this is exactly what every infantryman is trained to do and it is expected that they will not hesitate when the situation presents itself.

Getting shot at is a unique experience. Different people react differently to the situation. Some hide behind something that will stop a bullet (cover) and hope the person shooting at them gets bored and goes away. Others hardly register that they are getting shot at and move slowly to a safer place. While some charge in the direction of where the bullets are coming from in an attempt to get to the source before the shooters realize a crazy person just charged their position.

The senses can go a bit crazy when getting shot at – time can feel like it is slowing down or speeding up, sounds become very distinct or everything goes silent, the eyes can lock on specific things such as flying debris or blur everything at once, muscles can seize up or go completely slack. There is no guarantee that a person is going to know how their body and mind will react every time another person is purposefully trying to kill them. Training helps, but it is not an adequate stand-in for the real thing.

Stupid Smile Day
On patrol in Iraq – Likely in Iskandariyah sometime in 2007 or 2008.

Okay, let’s break all of this down a little bit because it is more complicated than the surface makes it appear.

DISCLAIMER: This is a hypothetical situation partially based on real experience but mainly fabricated in my mind to illustrate the title of this post – so keep calm and don’t Monday morning quarterback it too much.

First, let’s outline the situation many infantryman find themselves in during a deployment to a combat theater. A platoon (about 25-30 soldiers) is tasked with a “knock and search” mission within a designated area. Given the confines of the area’s layout, the HMMWVS and MRAPS aren’t able to provide close support and are left with a small detail of soldiers a few hundred meters away from the squads on the ground. To reduce the enemy’s ability to skip out of the back of a house during the search, each of the three line squads (likely 7 soldiers after leaving two with their vehicles) are on three parallel streets, searching houses in line with each other (i.e. each squad is clearing three houses next to each other so no squad ends up in front of or behind the others).

Suddenly, without warning, the distinctive cracking sound of an AK-47 splits the air as dozens of 7.62 MM bullets impact around the soldiers of the squad on the far left of the clearing area. Shouts from the soldiers now fill the air as they reflexively start firing in the direction they think the rounds came from – which isn’t very likely to be accurate. The other two squads pause, consolidate, and begin their game plan to close with the enemy and destroy them.

Unfortunately, the middle squad is now under direct fire from a second enemy position. The sound of an RPK on full cyclic is deafening as it lays down suppressing fire on the middle squad. An RPG impacts a wall close to the squad leader, knocking him down and causing momentary confusion amongst his soldiers. The middle squad is pinned down and cannot effectively move. It’s an old west box canyon made up of mud brick houses and walls – a death trap.

Welcome to an ambush. It is not your friend.

In the situation I have outlined above, you’re effectively fucked if your in the middle squad and not in a great place if you’re in the squad on the far left. The only elements that can maneuver effectively are the squad on the far right and the vehicles. Now, everyone will have a different way of handling this, but, inevitably soldiers are going to have to maneuver under fire (i.e. while getting shot at).

Iskandariya, Iraq
A typical street in Iskandariya Iraq – really, any town in Iraq.

Ideally, the vehicles would be able to flank around to the left of the far left squad and lay down covering fire thus allowing the squad on the ground to maneuver while the enemy is ducking. Meanwhile, the squad on the far right would be able to flank the enemy in the middle zone while the middle squad distracted the enemy with a heavy base of fire. Two flanking elements on opposite sides of an objective requires coordination and great training to accomplish with minimal risk, but it can be done.

Too bad the real world isn’t as clean as a basic tactics manual makes it seem.

The vehicles can’t flank around the left because of an irrigation canal. They can only try to maneuver down the streets the squads are on, but this will simply put them in the line of some very direct fire and result in becoming combat ineffective. Instead, they stage (positions themselves for a particular purpose) as the casualty collection point (CCP) and prepare for a hasty departure. Not ideal.

The squad on the right tries to flank the enemy position in the middle but run into barriers such as walls, ditches, and houses which slow their progress. The middle squad has two wounded at this point and their base fire is dwindling. “Talking guns” kicks in as the team leaders coordinate their team’s firing so there are always bullets going “down range” (i.e. towards the enemy). This helps keep the enemy behind cover (something that will stop a bullet) and not shooting at friendly forces. It is only partially effective on the best of days.

This has left the squad on the left with two options:

  1. Sit tight, return fire, and pray one of the other squads can flank the enemy.
  2. Coordinate their fire, maneuver to the enemy position, and kill them.

In my world, due to training, conditioning, and my own irritation with getting shot at, I always opted for Option 2.

With one team laying down suppressing fire the other team would sprint in short intervals up the street towards the enemy position. After each burst, the team that moved would lay down fire while the other team moved either on line with the team firing or to a position ahead of them. Rinse and repeat until you are at the enemy position. Once in the same place as the enemy an entirely different drill is used to get in the house, clear it, and secure the site – but that is for many other posts.

In the end, soldiers have made the conscious decision to move a distance (with or without cover) while an enemy is trying really, really hard to kill them.

So, just to put a bow on this post:

  1. You run towards the bullets because running away is very rarely an option (the enemy wins and that causes much bigger problems).
  2. Sitting still and waiting for help isn’t always an option because help might not be able to get to the enemy.
  3. From personal experience, the enemy does not respond well when insane soldiers run straight towards them instead of cowering in fear – this is an advantage over the enemy.

Not all infantryman who make it through training end up being able to do this in the real world. Are they cowards? Maybe. Should they be kept in their position within an infantry unit? No, but they will because barring gross negligence that is provable it’s a game of “he said, she said”. It’s unfortunate that there is not a better way of handling these situations. Again, this is for a future post.

Have you ever been shot at? How did you respond to the situation? Tell us all about it in the comments section and remember to like, follow, and SHARE this pot with all of your friends who wonder about getting shot at!