Thursday, December 09, 2004

No Whining - Why to Bitch is An Honorable Thing.

I have a story about uncomfortable questions.

Way back when there was only one landmass on the planet (about 1981, as a I recall) I attempted to shoot my first Fleet rifle qual since leaving Marine Corps boot camp.

I had left Edson Range the year before wearing a Marksman shooting medal, which denotes the lowest level of qualification. It is known as the "Toilet Bowl" among Marines. I have been a shooter since I was six years old, and actually competed in junior rifle matches with good success as a teenager. I was on fire to correct my mistake and pick up that Expert medal.

My M16A1 issue rifle on Okinawa was produced by Colt in 1971. Whether or not it ever saw service in Vietnam is unknowable. What I do know is that it had been used by Marines for ten years. That means it fired possibly thousands of rounds, blank or ball, each year, and was cleaned with the vigor that only Marines bring to weapons maintenance. It had been dropped, bumped, immersed in water, mud, snow, or salt water countless times. It was dirty when it was issued to me (pretty unusual, actually, in my later experience) and I spent a good two hours getting the worst of the crud knocked out of it. The bore cleaned up amazingly well in spite of all the gunk elsewhere. Shiny, even for being chrome lined.

Range qual has three phases: snapping in, range days, then pre-qual and the qualification day. Snapping in is a rehash of basic marksmanship that covers safety, technique, positions, wind doping, etc. You head out bright and early on the following Monday to shoot half the day and run targets the other half. On Thursday you shoot prequal, which is scored in case qual day, Friday, is weathered out.

I hit the range at Camp Hansen on Monday relaxed and confident. I had zeroed my rifle the Friday before. The ideal for a good combat zero is to end up with a three shot group you can cover with a dime that centers exactly one and a half inches above the aiming point on the target, which you fire at from a prone position, using the sling for support. The range is twentyfive yards. I ended up with a nickel group centered on the bull itself, so the PMI (primary marksmanship instructor) had me crank DOWN the front sight post six clicks. A click equals 1" @ 100 yards - so six clicks at 25 yards should raise the point of impact an inch and a half - easy, right? This should give you effective dope (sight settings) to hit about six inches above an aiming point 200 yards away, in this case, the center of the round bullseye.

Monday was cool and breezy, with a low overcast. I fired my slow fire strings (sitting, kneeling, offhand (standing), and did alright. My calls, that is the record notes I made in my book where I "called" where I was aiming the moment the trigger broke and the rifle went off, were uniformly at the six o'clock edge of the round bullseye...but my actual scores were scattered in a swarm all around that point. Some bulls, more fours, and I even had a three. Normally, a vertical spread of shots indicates poor breathing control. A fog of shots scattered randomly around a purported good "call" point usually means the shooter isn't holding well - and hey, PFC Utah was just a Marksman, right?

I shot the rapid fire string at two hundred yards - two magazines, five rounds each, from the sitting position. Tragedy! Ten rounds on the paper...some bulls, but the group was sloppy big and some rounds almost fell off the bottom of the target. My coach chided me for rushing.

The longer Monday dragged on the worse things got. The breeze even went away but my calls more and more bore little relation to the marked scores on the target. Rapid fire at three hundred was flat horrible - I put a couple of rounds into the berm in front of the target and showered the scorers working the frames (the area is called the "butts") below it. Not a good thing to do - it pisses them off and cuts up the target. At five hundred yards I had to put the front sight post down so far (to raise the bullet impact to reflect the range) I was looking at the very nubbin top of the post between the protective wings on the front sight assembly. There should have been about an eighth of an inch showing - at least that's what was up on my fellow shooters' rifles. And I still put at least one more round into the butts. Left....right...and always freaking LOW.

The weather deteriorated as the week dragged on. I did well enough on Monday and Tuesday to have qualified, but barely Marksman. Wednesday was just shit from the first round to the last round. I asked for an armory inspection on my rifle but with the horizontal sheeting rain and all the armorer just tested the trigger, visually inspected the bore (after three days of shooting - and us standing in the rain), and declared it good. Desperate, I had by now started holding my aimpoint at the top of the target frame at five hundred yards just to get on the paper. I failed qualification on Thursday - with many others, the weather was horrible - and Friday was declared a washout.

From Toilet Bowl to Non-Shooting Fuck, all in four days. You cannot be considered for promotion in the FMF if you aren't rifle qualified. You get points plus for being a sharpshooter or expert, too.

A short month later I stood a personnel inspection (Alpha uniform and rifle)for the Commanding General's Inspection with my battery. The inspecting officer, a major from 3d Force Service Support Group (maintenance/logistics guys) was really sharp. He noted the absence of even a toilet bowl over my left breast pocket right off the bat. You don't offer up your troubles to an inspector - I just reported that I was indeed an unqualified shooter (nonshooting spastic fuck unfit for social contact)SIR...

...and then a wonderful thing happened. He was doing the rifle inspection routine and came to a full stop at the front sight assembly. "Why is the front sight post turned so far down on your rifle, Marine?" "Sir, because the only way I could hit the paper was to hold on the top of the target frame with my sight set there, SIR" says I.

He had his assistant make a note, and continued on down the line. After my platoon was dismissed, I was accompanied back to our armory by the Major's Sergeant, who was an armorer. He cracked my rifle open and put the upper part (with the barrel) on the bench and ran an inspection rod down the bore. It's a simple tool - it is cast to mimic the profile of the lands and grooves. It should rotate as it slides down the tube riding the spiral of the rifling.

It bounced to the bottom of my rifle like a coat hanger inside a pipe. Vindication!

But I still couldn't get a simple do-over. The Rules state that mechanical issues must be raised before qualifying. I was screwed for the year. Even after I shot a 235 out of 250 with my newly-barreled weapon a few months later but had to wear the hated bowl until the next time around. I shot expert the remaining years I was a Marine, too, rain or shine.

And what's the point? Between my CG inspection experience and requalifying I attended an enlisted all-hands presentation given by the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. I believe his name was Crawford. All the sergeants-and-below ranks attended at the base theater on Camp Foster. After his talk he opened the floor for questions. The first Marine asked about improving barracks conditions (we lived in open squad bays while the Air Force guys down the road were hosting Lives of the Rich and Famous episodes) and the second Marine asked if a phone center might be built closer to his unit.

Then I stood up and asked when the Marine Corps was going to be equipped with rifles that worked, and in a real rifle caliber that could like, you know, kill people?

About half a heartbeat after the last part of "?" passed my lips my brain froze. I do remember the SergeantMajorMC remarking that the "Butt behind the buttplate has more to do with how a rifle works..." but it gets hazy after that. That's o.k.. My platoon sergeant, battery gunny, first sergeant, and, later that evening, battalion sergeant major ALL made sure I understood the foolishness of my ways.

I didn't have the heart to tell them that I'd asked the same question of President Reagan in a Christmas card just a few weeks before. When I got a letter from an Undersecretary of the Navy a little while later, it was hand delivered by my first sergeant. In it, the undersecretary informed me that the A2 model was in the pipeline and an improved round (same poodle-shooter caliber) along with it. Also that the Marines were going to get new artillery (the M198) and enough trucks and jeeps to move it.

And he wished me a happy new year, too. The first shirt advised me to restrict military matters to chain-of-command channels and let me go.

The issue of troops asking questions of leadership is important. Of all the SecDefs of my lifetime, I believe that Rumsfeld is probably the best. That troop, even if the question he asked was planted, is going in harm's way and deserved an answer to his question. Rumsfeld gave him a good one that reflects the reality of the situation we live in. Good for the troop, and good for Rumsfeld.

And gee, the newsies get to spin for a few days. They, of all people, shouldn't complain about this at all.

1 comment:

PresbyPoet said...

Great story. What everyone missed is that there is a very good reason for the top guy to ask. The guys in the middle try to cover up problems. That's why Peter the Great went out in disguise to find the truth.

I agree with you about Rumsfeld. The problem is that leaders who do well in garrison, are likely lousy in the field. I think the marines are the model we need to follow. I was in the Army 1966 to 1969, stationed in Hawaii. I had no contact with weapons after basic. I'd of had an idea of which way to point, and what to pull, but no practice.

That is the problem in Iraq with the support guys. They have to change their mindset. It is hard to break lose from what you are sure you know. There is this idea of combat and non-combat arms. That is why they think women can be in so many positions. It is the bureaucratic approach to reality. "If we say a position is non-combat, it is non-combat". Reality has a nasty way of biting bureaucrats, the only problem is that the bureaucrat never pays for decisions like the bullet size, or the gun that don't work.

You have to assume the enemy is smarter than you are, so you don't get caught off guard. It's so easy to underestimate your enemy. At Midway, the Japanese assumed we would just sit back until they had taken the place. They had this fancy plan with two carriers going up to Dutch Harbor, they left a perfectly good carrier in Japan, and they didn't have a replacement search plane when the Tone's was late. We hit them with a hard blow they wern't expecting. They assumed we would be passive. It cost them.

I could go on for 3 pages of war being the story of the unexpected. In WW2, if we had gone from the turkey shoot and taking the Marianas direct to Iwo and Okinawa, it would have cut 6 months from the war, because they hadn't had a chance to fortify. By waiting, it cost time and lives. I suspect we need to go into Iran. Waiting till Iraq is peaceful would just allow the Mullahs to build up their weapons.

Hindsight should be 20/20, it is men like McClusky at Midway flying beyond the safety limit of his fuel, risking lives to search to the Japanese carriers, who didn't have the luxury of second guessing. They had to make the hard choice, and live with it.

I wish we had the full support of America, it will cost us. I fear Al Qaeda has nukes, it may be what it takes to wake us up. We live in dangerous times. So what else is new... Just ask the Marines in Korea at the reservoir. Just ask the Marines at Guadalcanal.

I suspect the only reason we had the left with us in WW2 was that Hitler had already attacked Russia. Otherwise Roosevelt would have faced the same thing Bush did.

We will make it. All we must do is endure.