Tuesday, March 24, 1998

To Serve the State

This story, from beginning to end, is based on a dream I had in the last few months of my enlistment in the Navy. After I woke up from it and went to work for a mid-watch (7:00PM to 7:00AM). I said to my supervisor, Tony, that I needed to write something down and I'll probably be working on it for a few hours. He said, sure. I sat down at the computer on our operations floor and I started to write. After a few hours, I printed my story and handed it to Tony. He sat down and read it in silence. When he got to the end, he looked up at me and said, "That's f*****d up." Then I told him, "That's the dream I had last night." I was eager for my enlistment to end. After five years in the military and about a year and half of therapy, I knew that it just wasn't the right place for me to be--One of my few recurring nightmares is that I'm still in the service. I didn't want to become the person in that particular nightmare. I knew from the first day of basic training that I didn't fit in. It just took me a few years to realize that if I didn't get out, that environment would destroy the person that I really was. That being said... Enjoy the story. ;-)

We arrived in late march. It was early morning, about 0230. We filled out paperwork, were tested for narcotics and wrote short notes to our families, some of us saying goodbye for the last time. Once we became members of The State, we were no longer permitted contact with anyone from our civilian life. Those whose parents were already members of The State could count on maintaining contact at least through official channels. But for the rest of us, in the cold hours of this March morning, we were reborn, given new identities and a new family in the form of The State.

None of us were sure where we were. The vehicle we arrived in had no windows. It traveled a good two-hundred KPH and never hovered more than forty centimeters above the surface of the expressway. The ride was long and uneventful. As we traveled, we watched a video program discussing what we might endure in our training. We were told to expect hardship. Physical, mental and emotional. The training would be difficult and many of us would not complete it. There were more than fifty of us in our group. We would train with one-hundred-fifty to two-hundred more once we arrived. But the number that would complete the training would be far fewer.

When our vehicle stopped, we felt it hover for a few minutes then lower itself to the asphalt, the clang of metal on the tarmac riveted throughout the body of the transport. The interior lights went out. The video screens shut off and there was only silence. We were afraid. Our heartbeats deafened us as we waited in quiet agony for it all to begin. A door opened and a drill instructor entered the vehicle wearing the black uniform of The State. We were welcomed to the training facility with screaming and the thunder of weapons fire as we ran out of the transport and into a crude formation. We already endured intense physical examinations before arriving and met the strict physical requirements for serving The State. Thus, we were found able to endure physical punishment early on. One trainee attempted to smuggle in a portable media player. He hid the media player beneath his belt and the audio transceiver in his ear. It would have been unnoticeable, had he not attempted to adjust the device while in formation. He was pulled out of the formation and forced to the ground. His hand, still holding the device, was brought up behind his back until he released it. Then the transceiver was fished out of his ear and crushed underneath the boot of another drill instructor.

"Were you not told to leave all media behind, Trainee?" the instructor screamed at him.

"Yes, Sir," the trainee strained to say, his arm still twisted behind his back.

Two other trainees who turned to see what was happening were also brought out of formation and forced to the ground. I was near the rear of the formation and could see all that was happening. The rest of us quickly learned to ignore the disciplining of our comrades lest we be disciplined beside them.

We would see no bunk that first night. Though the air and asphalt were cold, the light of the moon revealed that we were in the middle of a desert. If anyone had thoughts of running away, the act only of a coward, we were assured that if The State didn't kill you in the attempt, the heat and the vastness of the desert would. We marched to what appeared to be an aircraft hanger to be issued our training uniforms and other essential materials and equipment. When we had all of our gear, it was time to move into our quarters. We got into formation outside of the hanger. It was morning. The sun was high in the east and the desert heat was starting to make itself known to us. Before going to our barracks, we stopped at the dining facility. We entered wearing our crisp new uniforms and looking... out of place. Though to our untrained eyes the other senior trainees looked like seasoned veterans, they were only keen to the routines of their respective levels in training. Many would still never see graduation. Training was a constant weeding out process. First, they weeded out the weak. Then they weeded out those who refused to conform. Finally, they weeded out those who probably would never survive. To graduate was more than an honor. It was more than a first step in your career. It was proof to yourself and to The State that you have what it takes to survive. It was a baptism by fire. A communion with death. A confirmation of life lived for the purposes of The State.

We dared not speak as we ate our first meal. We had only fifteen minutes to eat and then we were back in formation and marching to our barracks. Everything was always in a rush. We did little more than place our gear on our bunks before we were back in formation outside. An announcement was made throughout the training facility that all new trainees were to report to an indoctrination meeting. We marched across the facility, the sun beating down on our bodies clad in the gray uniforms of trainees. We arrived at a parade ground where over two-thousand new trainees stood in formation facing the senior staff of The State Initial Training Facility. We then played audience for the next two hours to a carefully choreographed parade singing praises to The State and its perseverance through the last century. Its survival in the face of opposition from outside and within. Its triumph over the tyrannical rule of more primitive nation-states in the world. Triumph in wars that were already won and wars that had yet to be fought. It ended with a procession of floats, if one could call them floats. Some were little more than large, primitive looking wagons. Each symbolizing the great nations and empires of the past that had since crumbled and were now eclipsed by the growing power and dominance of The State. From the ancient empires of Babylon and Rome to the fallen "Super Powers" of the Soviets and Americans. Their flags and symbols draped over floats in the procession as if they were the coffins of fallen heroes. In a way, they were. While The State was still relatively young compared to these empires and kingdoms at the peak of their power, it still had more control over the world than any three of them combined. And where there was control, there was peace. For that was the ultimate goal of The State: to bring peace to the world. Even if it meant the violent end to those who might oppose it.

Some of us could not stand through the entire program. Between a lack of sleep and the desert sun, it was simply too much for some to bear. They were removed and quickly out processed. The weeding had begun.

Our initial company of over two-hundred dwindled to one-hundred Twenty-eight in the first three weeks. A few lucky senior trainees were given a second chance by being reassigned to our company. Though they had some experience that we lacked, and offered us a few insights into what we could expect in the next couple of weeks, they were not given positions of great responsibility. In some cases, they had failed to keep up with the training of their original companies and were now given the privilege to continue their training with us. In other cases, their companies had been weakened in numbers so severely that they were dissolved and its members absorbed into new companies like ours. After absorbing these senior trainees, our company was back to its original strength.

Companies were organized into two platoons and each platoon was divided into four squadrons of between twelve and twenty-five trainees. I was Second Trainee in my squadron, so I was in a leadership position. It was my duty to motivate my trainees and supervise their learning as well as my own. In the classroom and in the field, my First and I would attend special training that we would in turn give to our subordinates. If we failed to do our jobs well, we could be replaced. Decisions of this nature were usually made by a drill instructor. In a few instances, the decision could be made by the First of a platoon.

Those of us that made it through the first half of training were now going to be transferred to a State Intermediate Training Facility. This intermediate phase of our training would be conducted in near combat conditions. Those of us who made it through would then be given the opportunity to have their place in The State secured. We would then go on to more specialized training on land, in the sea or in the air. But the first order in the next two phases was survival.

We marched to the airfield where we were greeted by two giant tilt-rotor aircraft. Each could carry a platoon of over one-hundred trainees. Here, we left behind our drill instructors. They had seen us through the first part of our training. In the coming weeks, we would look back on their heavy-handed philosophy and stern, sometimes abusive, treatment with nostalgia and even longing. The hard part of training hadn't even begun. It wasn't until we were inside and secured to our seats that we felt an eery familiarity to our situation. Once again, there were no windows in our transport. We would not know where we were going until we got there and even then, there were no guarantees. Despite having trained at the Initial Training Facility for nearly two months, we never did learn exactly where it was located, only that it was in the middle of a desert.

The wearing of chronometers was strictly prohibited for trainees with the exception of the trainee leaders like the First and Second Trainees of each squadron. However, our timepieces were confiscated prior to our departure. The flight was long enough to try and sleep. Ultimately, it made no difference as to how far we had traveled. Like the desert before, it didn't matter where we were only that The State required us to be there. The transports hovered above an asphalt airfield like they did that first morning of training. Only this time we were hundreds of meters above the ground instead of only centimeters.

When we finally landed and the tilt-rotors stopped, the interior lighting of the aircraft changed from the dim yellow they had maintained throughout the trip to an intense red. We stood up from our seats, as we were ordered, and shuffled to the door. When it opened, we were welcomed with the same intense heat that we endured in the desert but now it was accompanied by almost unbearable humidity. It was difficult to breathe and it would take us several days to acclimate. As we left the aircraft, we assumed our, now usual, formation in the field. As we formed up, we took a brief opportunity to see where we were. The airfield was a clearing in the middle of a dense jungle. The only way out was a single road that could lead almost anywhere.

We were met by two new drill instructors. They wore the green and brown camouflage of Jungle Soldiers. We still wore the training uniforms from Initial Training but would soon wear uniforms similar to those of our new instructors. Only they would be in shades of gray. Until we had completed all of our training, we did not yet earn the privilege of wearing the uniform of The State. The first instructor informed us that we would march to our new quarters. It would take an hour at a leisurely pace which, we learned, was a double time march for those of us still accustomed to the routines of Initial Training.

We got there in a little over fifty minutes. This earned us only a few minutes to rest before moving into our quarters which were tents capable of holding a squadron each. My squadron consisted of only eighteen trainees. My First and I were quick to organize our personal areas and ensure that the rest of our people were finished and in formation before the other squadrons. Though a couple of squadrons did beat us to formation, it was only because they had fewer numbers, twelve to fifteen trainees, and they beat us only by seconds. While it was only a formation prior to our first meal in Intermediate Training, we learned early on that competition was the key to success in training for service to The State. Honest competition to be the first and to be the best was an excellent motivator and, ultimately, the key to survival.

While the intensity of Initial Training often resulted in injuries on the part of trainees, rarely did a trainee lose his life. Though some wounds didn't heal sufficiently for a trainee to go on to serve The State and others were out processed with disabilities (though The State was not obligated to assist a former trainee who never saw actual service), Initial Training was not life threatening. But in Intermediate Training, where near combat conditions were the norm, it was not unusual for lives to be lost. It was very rare that a company endured its combat training without even minimal casualties. Survival at the Intermediate Training Facility didn't just mean moving on to specialty training. It meant being one step closer to earning the privilege of serving The State.

Our first meal in the jungle was in one of several large tents that doubled as lecture halls and class rooms. The rules were not as strict as they were in Initial Training but time constraints were still in place. New companies arrived two or three times a week so there was the constant shuffle of instructors and trainees about the main base. It was a far cry from the evenly spaced barracks, school houses and training centers in the desert. This new base was much larger and spread out in a maze of trails and training areas that were as tangled as the jungle vines themselves. Our training would consist of combat, search and destroy missions, wilderness survival and long, seemingly endless, treks into the depths of the jungle. A jungle that could be just as deadly as any enemy of The State. Our first lecture followed our evening meal and discussed the many ways a trainee could lose his life if he or she wasn't careful in and around the facility. Our company would lose its first trainee a week after arriving from a snake bite near the obstacle course.

It was a natural clearing in the jungle. A fire had burned through it about ten years before and it never fully recovered. Now it was a firing range. We had come here before when we trained with the more powerful and capable combat weapons which we now carried with us twenty-four hours a day. But on this day, we were training to use a new weapon. A rocket-propelled grenade. We were taken to the range one platoon at a time and spread along the line by squadron. Most had dwindled to more manageable groups of a dozen or so but a couple, including my own, still retained between eighteen and twenty trainees. My First and I decided to split our squadron into two groups of nine so we could train more easily. As was customary, the First and Second of each squadron were trained with the weapon first so they might assist the instructors in training their subordinates. I was already familiar with the weapon through lectures and reading available manuals and instructions relating to its use. But this was the first time I held it in my own hands. I familiarized myself with its weight and how it felt as I positioned it in the appropriate manner to be fired. As I was instructed, I loaded the weapon and released the safety.

"Do you see that fallen tree, Trainee?" asked my instructor.

"Yes, Sir," I said. The tree was gigantic. Centuries old when it fell, I suppose during the great fire. It was now rotting and falling apart with every rain shower and gust of wind in the open clearing.

"Trainee, I want you to finish what nature has started for you. Do you see where the tree was broken a few meters from the ground?"

"Yes, Sir. Do you want me to completely knock it over?"

"That's right. Fire when ready."

I brought the weapon up and aimed. When I pulled the trigger, the rocket fired and formed an arch of smoke between myself and the fallen tree. But it overshot my target and exploded on the other side.

"That's not what I wanted, Trainee," said my instructor.

"Then I will try again, Sir." I loaded another round into the weapon and aimed again. I heard another weapon fire nearby. It was my First aiming at a different target. The muffled applause that followed informed me that he had hit it. I then fired my weapon and this time the device fell short exploding in front of the tree. It shuddered as the blast threw shrapnel against the aging wood, but didn't fall.

"Trainee, Im giving you one more chance. If you don't knock that tree over, you will no longer be Second."

"I understand." I loaded the third round into the weapon. My position in the squadron now depended on this shot. I aimed the weapon again and fired. The smoke trail arched once again and impacted squarely against the tree, exploding and shattering the already crumbling trunk. What was left of the tree fell to the ground in a loud thump kicking up mud and decomposing plant matter around it.

"Excellent work, Second. Now show your subordinates how to load and fire the weapon."

"Yes, Sir." I proceeded to instruct the trainee behind me in arming the weapon. As I did so, I heard the explosion of another grenade. But I didn't hear the sound of the rocket preceding it. I heard screams and turned to see what had happened. The other half of my squadron was scattered from where they were firing. As the smoke cleared, I saw three bodies laying on the ground. One was an instructor; the others were trainees including my First. My instructor ordered my group to remain then had me follow him to the site of the accident. When we arrived, we knew there was nothing we could do. They were dead. The rest of the platoon halted their training and the other instructors simply waited as if this sort of thing happened before. I later learned that it had. Not necessarily at the firing range, but usually in near combat situations. They merely waited. I didn't know what to think or say. I couldn't recognize my First except for the name embroidered onto his now bloody and shredded uniform. The other trainee appeared to be standing too close when the grenade had exploded prematurely. My instructor turned to me and ordered me to gather my squadron together. I had them in formation and requested instruction.

"Trainee," said the instructor, "who is the next senior trainee after you?" I pointed out another trainee that had been with the company from the beginning. As I looked at her, I realized that she had arrived with me at Initial Training on the same transport. I called her forward and we stood by the instructor. He then looked at me and said, "Trainee, you are now the First for your squadron." He then looked to the trainee I brought forward and said, "You are the Second." The instructor brought a portable communications device to his mouth and had the other instructors end the training. The company formed up and marched back to the main base. We would learn to use the rocket-propelled grenade another day. For now, there was other training that could be done and there were bodies that needed to be disposed of.

They weren't the first to die... and they weren't the last. We lost a few trainees in a search and destroy exercise. Another was killed in an airborne exercise when her chute failed to open. And we lost a few others who simply couldn't handle the mental stress of the training. As the weeks wore on, the training got harder and more realistic. Finally, our opportunity to have our place in The State secured had come. Our last month of training was a "Full Theater Simulation." What used to be called a "War Game." The six most senior companies were divided into two opposing forces of six hundred men and women each. An objective was declared. Territory had to be taken to guarantee victory. All of our knowledge and training was to be used in this simulation. Though our combat weapons were modified to fire lasers and we wore special sensors on our bodies to register injuries and kills, there was still a very real threat to the lives of the trainees. Lives were lost, mostly in accidents. In other cases, because of carelessness. The line between these two descriptions was a blurry one.

The simulation was difficult for both forces. It required transport to the Advanced Training Facility under all too familiar conditions. Though the environment this new facility was located in seemed a temperate compromise between the desert and the jungle, it was still a harsh place to fight even a simulated war. The combat areas ranged from urban locales to open fields and dense coniferous forests. Smaller preemptive operations were exercised at the jungle facility but this State owned territory was created to simulate every possible land-based combat environment.

Very little enemy territory was actually taken by either force even by the third week. The front lines remained relatively fluid for the greater part of the simulation. There was room to extend the operation, should it be needed, but in the few times that these simulations resulted in a stalemate, it usually meant recycling the best half of the trainees into more junior companies and out processing the remaining trainees to return to their civilian families in shame for failing to live up to the requirements of The State; especially after having had so much time and resources invested in them.

Through the attrition, by various means, of certain members of the company, I was now First of my platoon but I continued to fight alongside my original squadron. I lead them on a surveillance mission one night and we found the location of our objective. It was in a bunker at the top of a hill. We weren't actually sure what it was, though rumors in our force ranged from it being a simple flag to some sort of weapon. An unarmed cannon, perhaps, or even a classic sidearm. Whatever it was, we were certain that we knew its location and we were preparing an offensive operation to acquire it. Though the company Firsts became our tactical commanders, the instructors were our strategic advisors. When we informed them of the intelligence we had gathered, it seemed that the end of the simulation was at hand.

Our force was gathered together for a final briefing by our instructors. We were informed that this final offensive in the simulation would signify the end of our training. It was the aim of the instructors at all the Training Facilities to make us warriors for The State. Our performance during the simulation was being recorded and evaluations were being made to determine what specialized training we might go on to receive after these training objectives had been met. But it was with grave determination that our instructors informed us that, "It will only be those of you who survive this phase of your training, the final offensive in this simulation, that will go on to pursue careers in the service of The State."

We thought we understood what they had meant. We were young, but we were not strangers to death. We knew because we were children of the intensity and danger that went with training for State service. Watching our fellow trainees die offered us a cold reminder of that. But we were still naive enough to think that we had already seen the worst that peacetime training had to offer.

Through the smoke and gunfire of the simulation, we moved forward. The area surrounding the objective had been secured but victory would not be ours until the objective itself, whatever treasure was hidden in this bunker, was in our hands and available for presentation to our strategic advisors. As a platoon First, I had some pull in our force and I fought for my original squadron to be the one to secure the objective. We had, after all, gathered the original intelligence which helped us determine its location. With little infighting among the ranks, my squadron was given its honor. Of the original eighteen that had arrived, despite the attrition of some and absorbing a few others, ten of us remained. Our force lost a small number of trainees in the confusion of the battle field. But we didn't think about it. Simulated or not, to us, this was war; and in war, men and women die.

The objective bunker was at the top of a hill. It wasn't steep, but it was heavily guarded by the opposing force. We didn't know, until after the simulation had ended, that they were not even aware that the objective was located there. At the bottom of the hill was a trench lined with reinforced concrete. This was the first major obstacle we had to overcome in taking the hill. Once that was done, it was a matter of surrounding it, protecting it from the opposite side and fighting our way to the top. Once we arrived at the bunker, we would fight our way in, if necessary, and claim our prize.

But intelligence was something that worked both ways. Reconnaissance units from the opposing force saw our troops preparing for the offensive so they reinforced their positions on the hill. It was a tough fight, but we managed to break through, traversing the trench and snaking our way around both sides of the hill. An entire enemy platoon was positioned on the hill but they were trapped once we surrounded it. In our fighting, up until then, we had managed to weaken their force substantially, eliminating almost an entire company in the process. Our numbers had dwindled somewhat as well but we were able to maintain a strategic advantage through extensive use of intelligence gathering and search and destroy missions. Since we knew that this would be the final battle in the simulation, we threw everything we had at them leaving minimal troops behind to protect our base of operations. The opposing force, however, didn't think that this would be the deciding battle and left a much larger defensive unit behind thus weakening the troops assigned to guard the hill. A clear battle line was drawn between the hill and the opposing force and we split our troops evenly between the enemy positions at the bottom and the platoon at the top. It didn't take long before we had overwhelmed the enemy platoon by nearly two-to-one and secured the bunker. By the time the enemy platoon First had realized what they were sitting on, it was too late.

The battle raged on at the bottom of the hill and I radioed down to the tactical officer informing him that I was taking my squadron into the bunker. He gave us the go ahead and we smashed through the locked door. I was the first to walk through and found what appeared to be a command and control station. There were maps of the area and potential troop locations plotted in a ten-kilometer radius, including those of my own force. The maps rested on what appeared to be a crate. I then heard something. A short, high pitched, sound. My former Second Trainee, now First, of my original squadron was with me.

"Do you hear something?" I asked.

"A beeping sound?" she said.

"Yeah." I swept the maps off the crate and heard it again. "Its inside of this." I grabbed a bayonet from my pack and pried open the top of the crate. We looked inside and saw a metal canister with a digital interface on top of it. It beeped again and continued slowly for a few seconds. Then it became more regular. The display then blinked and showed a countdown beginning at ninety seconds. I looked closer and saw a symbol that I thought I'd never see in a simulation. My knees felt weak and my heart raced. I turned to the squad leader and we both started to run out of the bunker, pushing others out with us. As we emerged, I screamed, "Its a trap! Run to the trench!" We started down the hill as fast as we could move. The opposing forces that sat on the hill with their kill lights blinking on their uniforms were confused at first but then started running with us. I hadn't realized how far it was to the trench. And I knew now why it was constructed with reinforced concrete. I didn't dare stop to see how many would make it with me, if any. I just ran. When I got to the trench, I dove head first and saw a bright flash of light as I fell to the bottom and I covered my ears and closed my eyes as I heard the roar above the trench. I thought I saw someone jump in beside me but I wasn't sure. I just curled into a fetal position at the bottom and waited...

Eighteen of the original twenty-five in my squadron made it to the Intermediate Training Facility. Ten of those made it to Advanced Training. Of those ten only three of us remained. Of all the forces involved in the war game, some twelve hundred men and women, only four hundred remained. Fewer than twenty died during the course of the exercise. The majority died in that last fatal blast of a nuclear grenade. I couldn't understand it at first but it started to make sense as I stood with my comrades in a quiet graduation ceremony at the end of our training. As we stood in our crisp new black uniforms of The State, I realized that winning doesn't necessarily mean taking home a prize. Sometimes it just means survival. And lessons like this would ensure the survival of The State.

No comments:

Post a Comment