28 December 2010

Sergeant With a Death Wish

When I served on active duty with the Marine Corps, I served with a medal-of-honor winning staff sergeant with an obvious death wish.  The man was a killer, a stone-cold psychopath that one just did not provoke.  {Provoke, hell--we stayed out of his line of sight, except when duty demanded}.  Duty demnanded we attend his classes on hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting..sheer terror, punctuated by relief when it was over for that week.

He got his medal in Korea for wiping out a machine gun nest of Chinese soldiers and then turning the machine gun on their company position enabling his pinned down platoon to break through and join the rest of the company and regiment on its march to the sea in sub-zero weather while under constant attack.  He had been riding on a tank directing its fire when it was hit by an anti-tank round and he was thrown into an enemy machine gun nest.  Without rifle or sidearm, although already seriously wounded himself, he attacked the five man crew with only his KA-Bar knife.  He killed all five.

At Camp Pendleton, he spent his liberty hours down at the base ranch riding bareback broncos and bulls.  As I said, a pronounced death wish.

I often wonder what his reactions to today's G.I.'s might be.  He didn't seem to be the sort of man who would welcome women or openly gay people into the military.  Look, even back then, he despised enlisted men who were married--"if my Marine Corps wanted you to have a goddamn wife, we'd of given her to you with your friggin' web gear", he'd hiss at any unfortunate asking for liberty to attend to family affairs.

I first met him when I was serving chow during boot camp and he was the Senior Drill Instructor of the motivation platoon.  Now, the motivational platoons, back then, were made up the recruits who couldn't cut it in a regular platoon because they were either wise-asses or bad-asses, or feigning psychosis to get out of their enlistments.  These weren't the overweight or mentally slow ones, they were for a different platoon.  These guys were the incorrigibles, the ones other services would have cashiered or never enlisted in the first place.  The Marine's response was just up crank up the "boot-camp" experience to the power of ten under the supervision of someone, tougher, meaner and crazier than any of his charges for as long as it took to make Marines of them.  Some spent months in boot camp, until they "got with the program".  And, you didn't graduate from the motivation plattoon, when it was determined you were squared away there, you would be assigned to a regular platoon that was just starting on their rotation through the 12-weeks.

So, while serving chow, about my second week in, he marched in the motivational platoon, and at the end of the line began holding out his tray for us to serve--this is different, because all other drill instructors would eat in an area set off for them with a recruit serving them at the table.  But, for whatever reason, he was eating with his platoon and the kid next to me splashed gravy on his blouse.  A tattooed hand shot out across the line, grabbed the kid, lifted him and slammed him on the ground...the kid shrieked and wet himself as one hand, tattooed with LOVE on the fingers, held him down by pressing on his chest just over the heart, and the other, tattooed with HATE, grabbed his Adam's apple, shutting off the squealing as the staff sergeant knelt over the kid  whispering, "You clumsy shit-bird, you do that again and I'll rip out your goddamn heart and eat it!"

That was it. Over in a flash. But it was my first intimation of how thin is the line between life and death and how quickly that line can be crossed.  I did some very serious growing up in that instant.

The thing of it was, after boot camp, he was assigned to my company as a platoon sergeant.  Thankfully, not my platoon...sometimes he'd look at me, and say, "I know you from somewhere."  I never reminded him of where.

The other thing of it is, I made it a point to learn from him everything he taught about hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting.  I've been in a few tights in my life, and only have been beaten down once...but then, I've always been very damned careful not to splash gravy on anyone.

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