I was a grunt, a ground-pounder, a door-kicker, a knuckle-dragger, a dog face, and a devil dog. I’ve been dogged-out and dog-tired, I’ve rucked until my dogs were barkin’ while it rained cats and dogs. I’ve had a dog in the fight, lived a dog’s life, gone to the dogs, been in the doghouse, and doggone it I’ve seen the tail wag the dog. I’ve seen a barking dog bite, dogged-shut a submarine escape hatch, had a dog as a best friend, ‘cause every dog has its day. I’ve experienced the dog days of summer, listened to Three Dog Night, and I’ve seen a dog that won’t hunt in this dog-eat-dog world. You feel me, dog?
When I was a regular Army grunt, I was in a mechanized infantry unit. The only time I ever had to carry a rucksack of any appreciable weight was in some of the professional development courses I attended in hopes of catching a timely promotion. Still, occasionally I found myself at a grassroots level of basic Army life, living in tin huts in the Rocky Mountains and living out of a rucksack for days on end. For a young soldier of my intellect and experience, it was a praiseworthy undertaking, but I would not know what a truly heavy ruck or long march was until I transitioned to the ranks of the Green Berets.
U.S. Army Rangers are the daddies of heavy rucksacks; there is no disputing that. Having a former 2/75 Ranger as a team sergeant ensured that we Green Beanies would never wander too far away from appropriate respect for the very pinnacle of light infantry—Army Rangers.
Our team sergeant was not even an average Ranger, but rather a cut-above Ranger who had fallen on tough luck with physical injury during tryouts for Delta selection in West Virginia. Ironically, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Mark B.—who just went by “Buck”—was not even technically our team sergeant. Buck was just an SFC—team sergeants were master sergeants (MSG). We had MSGs on our team who came and went, but we always regarded Buck as our de facto senior sergeant. He was the voice of common sense and authority. Once the MSG of the team had finished spewing edicts, all eyes would shift to Buck for the earthly version of what had just been said. We ultimately would do what Buck told us to do.
Most of my time overseas in my years with the First Special Forces Group (Airborne) was spent in the cold-weather months in the Republic of Korea (ROK)—land of the little PX, land of rotting cabbage and burning tires in winter, land of Reebok tennis shoes and women with flat buttocks, land of endless rice fields and animal manure, land of one-eye buffalo and Kiamaster trucks. It was the land of Soju, Maekju, Bulgogi, Pibimpap, and the KATUSA.
Deployments to Korea were cheap. As long as we conducted a tactical airborne drop in-country, the Air Force would regard it as training for them and not charge the Army for the use of their aircraft. That meant a 16-hour non-stop flight with multiple in-flight refuels, and in-flight rigging for the jump. An hour or so prior to a tactical drop, an aircraft will drop to a very low altitude and fly a nap of earth (NOE) profile. That is, it will fly at a fixed low altitude above the contour of the ground in an attempt to avoid being ‘painted’ by enemy radar, so the aircraft is in a perpetual state of rising and falling.
Just prior to an in-flight parachute rigging under an NOE profile, paratroopers are required to consume monstrous amounts of Twinkies and vinegar. I’m just kidding, but for those of you who have never experienced the trauma of this event, let me paint the picture: Ambient temperature inside the aircraft climbs to around 98° F. No room to sit turns into no room to stand. Projectile vomiting seems to become some sort of morbid competition. No room to stand turns into no room to set down your barf bag.
Men stumble and stagger in place as parachutes and rucksacks are passed at treetop level over the stacks of (jump) sticks. No room to lay your barf bag down turns into no room to think or change your mind. The deck of the aircraft becomes moderately slick with the accumulation of sweat beads, spilled stomach linings, and water as men try to drink to stave off heat exhaustion. The temperature nudges up to around 105°. A slow death awaits the fool who suddenly realizes he has to pee. God spare the jumpmasters who have to inspect this load of paratroopers. Don’t bother declaring jump refusal; any of those would be sucked out of the belly of this beast when the green light illuminates.
Finally, you are doing that awkward quick-step waddle and falling head-first out the jump door. Once under canopy, the broad Nakdong Gang river becomes horrifyingly apparent. Water wing flotation devices were worn by us all due to the prominence of the expansive Nakdong Gang “water obstacle.” The distinct essence of an amalgam of feces and burning rubber wafts by. “My God, is that dinner cooking or a garage burning?” comes to mind. “Which rice paddy shall I land in?” comes as well.
We get a ride from this rice paddy to our forward operating base (FOB). At least it isn’t a forced ruck march with everything we own. FOBs were typically tent cities on the parade fields of Korean special forces (Tuk Su Bu Dae) compounds. The personnel activity associated with a tent city will immediately render the ground muddy. I don’t care if you are in the Gobi Desert, a tent city will produce a mud hole. The more affluent tent cities will have floors of wooden pallets in the tents, as well as along the walkways that connect the network of tents. It actually can become bearable in such a place.
On one rare occasion, the Korean special forces troops vacated their entire open-bay team room to allow us to stay indoors, while they subjected themselves to life in the tent city. That was a commander’s decision, not the enlisted men’s choice. As Green Berets, we understood the importance of establishing rapport. We would not be winning over any friends this way. We would have to affect the rapport thing some other way.
Playing catch with a football was one way. Have you ever seen a Korean person try to throw a football? It simply can’t be done. They would watch us, mesmerized as we sent the ol’ pigskin whizzing through the air, stable and spinning like a bullet. They tried and tried to throw it; we tried and tried to teach them. We would eventually use this technique to root out North Korean spies trying to infiltrate our lines: “OK, Mister…John Smith, is it? Take this football and hit me, I’m going long!”
The food of Korea
Our commander, being the skinflint that he was, recognized the frugality of these deployments, and furthermore the tranquility of sending us a few weeks early to Korea to live in tent cities and eat for free in the Korean military institutes of culinary grandeur. There was no cognitive separation between the three daily meals: It was rotten cabbage, rotten turnips, and rotten something else, washed down with “barley tea,” which was essentially tepid water with some dirt in it to give it that barley flavor.
“There sure isn’t an abundance of meat around here,” Buck observed one day.
“Yes, it will be great when HQ gets here and we can finally have MREs (military field rations),” another chimed in.
On one particular afternoon, walking back to the tent city from Bob’s Big Boy of Korea, our senior medic shouted to a couple of Korean soldiers cutting across the chow hall lawn, “Hey, stop walking across our dinner!” It paid to have a sense of humor. GBs are good at that.
The language of Korea
Green Berets are all required to be qualified in at least one foreign language by the Department of the Army’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. I was qualified in six, none of which were Korean. In fact, none of the men on my team spoke Korean. Riddle me that, Joker! Still, I scrambled to pick up as much as I could.
My senior communications sergeant, Guy L., and I decided to go for a run to the back gate of the compound and back one evening. As we approached the gate, the two Korean guards exited the guard shack and stood at port arms facing us. “Here goes…,” I prepped. “An yong ha, shimnika?” I politely greeted.
“How do you dooo?” a guard replied. As we turned away and continued on our path, Guy pondered out loud, “I wonder if we sound as retarded to them trying to speaking Korean as they do to us trying to speaking English. How do you do…who the fuck even says that anymore?”
Another quip before I curtail: I was entering the compound one night with a brother GB. As we approached the Korean guard post, I fished my ID card from my breast pocket, ready to present, wondering why my bud was not doing the same. Within easy earshot, my bud gestured a lazy salute and proudly announced, “Cheap thrill,” and continued walking without pause. The guards chin-dipped to bid us entry. Out of earshot, I asked him, “What the hell was that? What was that all about…cheap thrill?”
He replied, “Oh, they know me. Cheap thrill is my badge number.”
“How so? What is your badge number?”
“Seventeen,” he replied.
I mentally counted up from zero to 17 in my head in Korean, and 17 is pronounced, “Sheep chill.”
And this, my friends, you cannot make up!