One never wants one’s Marines to be bored. While with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit cruising through the Mediterranean, we were scheduled for an exercise at a training area in northern Italy called Monte Romano. As an intelligence collection and signals exploitation unit, we didn’t operate with the main body. We supported the warfighters by other means.
When the exercise planners looked at the deployment schedule off the USS Iwo Jima, they realized that all the helicopters were used until nearly endex, so if we were to participate, we would have to go in well ahead of the main body. LPH-2, the first in the Iwo Jima class of helicopter carriers, did not have a well deck or any other way to get the Marines ashore besides through vertical lift. It turned out that the simple solution was to go in early. They told us that our vehicles, which were located elsewhere in the battle group, would show up on time and all would be good.
Without our vehicles, but with our charter to provide communications, signals exploitation, and jamming, we had to hand carry our equipment. We went in heavy and we went in two days before the exercise. The lieutenants had to stay with the battle planners and couldn’t (or didn’t want to) go in with us. They kept their advisors, the Staff Sergeant and the Gunny with them.
That is, they didn’t have a clue. And thank God they didn’t come with us – they would have made us do stupid things, as happened before in the absence of orders. Why? Why, when we could be more creative and productive on our own.
There we were, on some lonely hilltop in the middle of Monte Romano, which was not a live-fire exercise area, so beef cattle roamed freely. Once we established communication using our field portable satellite radio, the PSC-3, we were done for the day. It was the morning and we had been there for a total of fifteen minutes. Yes, the Lieutenants thought it would take us all day to get communication. The average IQ in this august group of misfits probably exceeded 130. There was no technical challenge great enough that it couldn’t be overcome in short order.
Once communications were established, we looked at each other and wondered what to do. We could set up a fairly formal bivouac area, or we could just grab spots to sleep on our own. We did the latter and that took another fifteen minutes. I set up in a briar bush on an animal trail. I pinned my poncho using the thorns and would be able to sleep without rain bothering me. Then it all started.
Our senior guy, Sergeant Mike, picked up a dried cow patty and spiked it onto the back of an unsuspecting Marine. With plenty of ammunition lying about, we took to it and thus began the great Italian cow patty war of 1988. M16A1 rifles were strewn about the area while crazed Marines ran to the attack or from the attack, in no particular order. Then small teams formed for multi-pronged attacks on key individuals. The end result was that everyone teamed up against Sgt Mike. He was a bigger fella and once he got going, turning was not so easy. As he accelerated downhill away from the attackers, he found himself boxed in and then unable to turn. He maintained full speed until impacting a briar bush that stopped his momentum cold.
I’ve lived a lot of places throughout the U.S. and never quite seen the likes of this bush. It was nearly solid with a thick trunk, but grew into a bush-like round shape. It was only about eight feet tall, but wider than it was high. Regardless, Mike was pelted from behind with cow patties, but he remained unfazed. He stood silently, then turned around. Through his t-shirt, a number of red spots started appearing where he had been pierced by the thick thorns of the Italian anti-Marine trap bush, or whatever its formal name was.
“Wow. That sucks.” Is all he managed to say. Shrugging it off, we all trod back up the hill to our bivouac area. We had succeeded in killing a total of 45 minutes since our insertion. It wasn’t even close to lunch time yet.
So we fixed bayonets and started the javelin toss, where the length of your throw would not count unless it stuck in the ground. As we soon found out, the ground was rocky and unlike a cat, an M-16A1, once in flight, never lands bayonet first. The winning throw was probably only around six feet as that was the only throw that stuck in the ground. However, one can javelin toss an M16 a good distance although it lands with the sound of something breaking because the handguards on the M-16A1 were not as tight as the improved guards found on the A2 model. The distance of the longest physical toss must remain classified as even 20 years after the fact, somebody might get in trouble if somebody else found out we were throwing our rifles around like idiots.
The Lieutenants would have had a fit. And it still wasn’t even lunch time.
The weather was very nice, so we began the dangling dino tanning contest, which ended abruptly after the sound of the first shutter click.
Did I say that our vehicles were supposed to arrive when we needed them? We amused ourselves for two days and not surprisingly, the geniuses showed up without our vehicles. Okay, that would be the lieutenants. The first sign of danger was when the OIC pulled out a map. Of course, he wanted us to move to a new location. We broke down our gear and looked at the vehicle mounted jammer, sitting most ingloriously on the ground, the Honda EX2000 generator to power it, and a typical military jerry can of gas.
And no vehicle.
We took turns manhandling the jammer which did not have carry handles, but a big metal plate that grounded the unit to the vehicle. The generator had a handle, but really was not meant for carrying long distances, just like the gas can. We had antennas and other radios and our packs. Fortunately, we only had to traverse about a mile of pretty rough terrain, including passing some WWII fortifications. It was a beautiful area.
We set up on a hill top in plain view of the entire world (which grossly violated our operating orders, but the Lieutenant wanted to ensure we heard everything so he could give a glowing report about the competency of his unit). We slept in a cave, which was really bad as stone is hard. We ate nothing but MREs for six days straight. No big deal – the Italian entrepreneurs showed up and we traded uniform items (including personal Ka-Bars) for wine. And that was probably some of the best wine I’ve ever tasted. MREs taste better with a nice bottle of red. The desert warriors of today won’t get to discover that fact as the Iraqis or the Afghanis don’t quite deal in red wine…
For some unknown reason, when the MREs were distributed each day, the Lieutenant was always left with Beef Patty Dehydrated. He had that one for eight meals straight and then he started to complain quite loudly. Then he degenerated into the lowest form of officer life – he chose his meal first. This endeared him even less to the men. If there was some way we could have abandoned him in northern Italy, we would have.
It took me a while later to learn that he was a good guy at heart with an awful lot hanging over his head. Look behind someone’s actions to find what drives them. But still, if the sergeants can’t have a beef with the lieutenants, then who can they complain about? Beef. Get it? And for what it’s worth the beef-patty dehydrated was absolutely disgusting unless one had Tabasco, which didn’t come in the early MREs.