Many men at one time or another have asked themselves, “What would I be like when under pressure?” One has to ask, “Would I run, try to protect only myself, or would I help those who were less fortunate than me?”
I remember back at basic training in the Army, it was 1970 and Vietnam was still going on. The people of the U.S. were at the point of wanting this “conflict” to end. There seemed no clear cut victory in sight and many men were dying each day. For me at the time, I was in a unit of mostly volunteers. We were in the military for various reasons, some patriotic; some needed a job, while even some men were there to get U.S. citizenship. We all wanted to do our part, but none of us were certain what that was anymore. Our drill instructor had just come back from Vietnam, his 3rd tour of duty there. He kept telling us that we were all going to “Nam.” He continually reinforced in our minds that he wanted us to be in the best condition to face what some called, “Your time in Hell.” If his intention was to scare us, he did his job very well. We were all ears after his speech. He said that he wanted basic to be so hard that a tour in Vietnam would seem easy. This man also wanted us to be able to survive and come home. Again, he got his point across very well.
Each day had its trials; many of us were getting sick due to colds, flu and even spinal meningitis. The damp cold weather of Fort Lewis, Washington in the winter was the main culprit. It rained and snowed at the same time and no ponchos were allowed until we were soaked through. We had windows open (due to the spinal meningitis) at night with not enough blankets to keep us warm. We were housed in what was supposed to be temporary built buildings that were constructed only for the duration of World War Two. Men started to drop like flies and we were discouraged, sick, and feeling pretty low. One man tried to end it all by taking an overdose of medications, (twice) while others seemed to be quite and wanted to just get through with what we had to do.
One day we were supposed to throw live grenades, which made us nervous since we had never handled a grenade before. The old grenades were made in a pineapple shape, which were easy to grip; these now were smooth and round. Since it was raining again, slippery hands made each of us nervous since we were sitting behind the ones throwing. Another situation presented that we needed to face by gritting our teeth and “getting through it.” The instructor told us to use the trench in the ground ahead of us in case someone would drop a grenade by accident. “Yeah by accident, that was a real possibility with many of us already sick and one guy at least to point of ending it all.” That thought alone made me even more nervous since we just heard that a man in another unit nearby, just emptied his rifle clip into his drill sergeant; snapping at a critical point when shooting his weapon. The other thought at this point was the accident that occurred at the fort where a live machine gun’s mount broke while firing over soldiers crawling under barbed wire. Some men lost their lives that day. Would this be another occasion like that, would someone lose their life because a man was too tired or sick, making a fatal mistake with his grenade?
When demonstrating each step of throwing the grenade that our drill instructor (D.I.) went through, he had our undivided attention. He tried to assure us that each grenade had the most precise timed fuse. We had 5 seconds to get it away or die. When getting into the right position to throw, he demonstrated by pulling the pin, “Throw it dummy, throw it!” We were all thinking that at the same moment. Then he said that it would not go off until he let go of the handle. He then proceeded to let go of the handle and each of us were riveted to the edge of our seats. He threw his arm back and crouched at the same time. What happened next was our worst nightmare, his hand slipped and the grenade flew out and landed next to us. Simultaneously, we all dove towards the trench in front of us. I was in the second level down of men in the trench, with two levels above me, that is, guys lying as flat as they could be. With the exception of rifles and backpacks mixed into the layers of flesh, we all had hopes of surviving.
Instead of hearing a loud explosion, we heard only a bang. It must have been a dud! After getting untangled, we noticed our D.I. with his tooth-missing grin leering down at us saying, “This lesson could only have been taught this way!”
Over the years I have thought many times, “Why didn’t I jump on the grenade to protect my fellow soldiers?” But, my only thought was that of survival at the time. The only consolation was that each of us had the identical same thought. Over the years, there have been those that have sacrificed themselves to save their friends in battle, and I have thought growing up that these men were heroes. There final thoughts were only to save others, even at the cost of their own life.
This question is asked again in my book, “Only Time Will Tell.” The big difference is that my main character will be asked to save millions of people, not just a few. Like men in war, he will have to face his own humanity and weigh his life against that of many others. If you are interested in reading more, follow the link below.