Chapter 3: Snakes in the grass
This story involves my first ever field op with my new unit. I was super nervous for two reasons. First, I was the new guy and I did not want to make any mistakes. I just wanted to hide among all the others and not screw up too badly.
Secondly, I was nervous because I knew this would be a tough field op. One thing you learn in the Marine Corps is that each step of your training is tougher than the prior.
So you leave Boot Camp thinking that was pretty hard, but now you’re a Marine. Unfortunately, you learn in School of Infantry that everything is much harder. Your packs are heavier and the distances you must travel are much greater.
Then you arrive to your unit, which is called the Fleet (short for Fleet Marine Force). Whereas you have spent three months in Boot Camp and two months in School of Infantry hardening your body and trying to learn the art of war, Marines in the Fleet have spent years mastering and perfecting war. They are ready to deploy on a moment’s notice to either the fleet, from whence they get their name, or by air to some distant land.
The safety parameters in the fleet are much smaller as well. By the time you arrive in the fleet, this is no longer a game. If it ever was.
Your unit is often on air alert or preparing for an upcoming deployment, which usually happens every two years. You find yourself watching the news more, because you know it’s your unit that could be called up.
Thus, I went into my first field op fully aware that I would be tested, and certainly under close scrutiny from the long-time vets of Third Platoon, Alpha Company, First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment.
Any mistake I made on this field op could cost the Marines of Third Platoon their lives if this was the real deal. My squad leader, a tall intimidating presence, make sure myself and the other new Marines realized how important this field op was.
“This isn’t like the School of Infantry,” he warned. “In the fleet (Fleet Marine Force), we do shit exactly how we’d do it in war. ”
There will be absolutely no talking under any circumstance is. We will only be using hand and arm signals. Just like war.”
He was referring to how in the School of Infantry, you will sometimes pause in the middle of a patrol so that an instructor can point out that you are too close together. Or to spread out. Or should have watch the road longer before crossing it. Whatever teaching point you failed to achieve. In the Fleet, you let the field op play out and then debrief at its end.
This field op was focused on patrolling. We were all cammied up
it would be running security patrols around our patrol base, as well as patrolling and trying to find an enemy force that we were going up against. This is real fun stuff if you’re not brand-new and so nervous that you’re about to die.
And of course, as was my luck, the new guy from Tennessee was ordered to be the point man, one of the most stressful positions on a patrol. The point man is the lead man, and you are responsible for seeing the enemy before they see you.
I could not believe I was being put on point on my very first patrol. Talk about a stressful dress rehearsal? My squad leader, who was an excellent Marine, told me before we stepped off, “Remember, under no circumstances are you to say a single word. Not a single word.”
As if I weren’t nervous enough. You see, hand and arm signals that you use in the fleet are often different than the ones you learn in the School of Infantry. Many of them overlap, but not all of them.
Besides worrying about hand and arm signals, I was also worried about where we were going. I’m sure the squad leader showed us on a map or route, but I was so new and nervous that I hadn’t paid well enough attention. Furthermore, I never dreamed I would actually be point man.
If you are not point man, a patrol is easy. You just follow the man in front of you, keeping the correct spacing. But now all that pressure had been placed on me.
I’ve now set the stage for the story, so let’s begin. We stepped off and were moving through a creek bed.
Creek beds can be good to move through in a patrol, because you are in the low ground and it’s often overgrown with vegetation. This thick brush provides great cover and concealment.
My squad leader had told me before the patrol started that I was to follow the creek bed and at the right distance, he would point in the direction we needed to go. That’s how we ran things back then. The number two man kept an eye on a compass as well as the pace count. Remember this is in the days before GPS was prevalent. All we had to get us where we were going was a map, a pace count, and an azimuth from our compass.
A note about maps. It sounds easy not to get lost when you have a map, but when you’re in thick woods, without hills or roads to determine your location, you must keep a perfect pace count and azimuth direction. Otherwise, you will absolutely get fuzzy about where you actually are. (Sure, you can walk to hit a road, but you’re trying to master war and avoid such rookie moves.)
As we moved on our patrol, I desperately tried to stay quiet, watching my steps, while also keeping my eyes up and looking around for an enemy patrol from another platoon.
Every few steps, I would glance back at my squad leader to make sure I was doing nothing wrong. As well as to make sure we were not supposed to head in a different direction. Each time I looked back, I got the impression he was not happy with our pace and I should be moving faster. I tried to do so.
We moved a little further when suddenly I see a large black object squiggling away for me. You guessed it: it was a massive black water moccasin. Easily over two feet long and thick as your wrist in the middle.
Certainly the biggest snake I had ever seen out in the wild up till that point in my life. We had been briefed on water moccasins in School of Infantry. We’ve been told they were poisonous and often aggressive and that we should stay the heck away from them.
My heart was already racing and I was just thankful it was moving away. I glance behind me and my squad leader looked furious that I had stopped. He raised his hand and gave me the move out hand signal several times, clearly pissed that the short guy from Tennessee was holding up the patrol. I nodded, took a deep breath, and tried to compose myself.
Get with it Mitchell, I told myself, or this guy (or maybe Smith) is going to kill you when the patrol is over.
I went to take my next step and that’s when I saw the black object by my feet. Yes, a second black water moccasin, just as big, was curled up and ready to strike, just a foot or two from my left leg.
You can’t even put a number on how fast my heart was pounding. We were weighed down with a ton of awkward, heavy gear, and I knew there was no way I could jump back and not be bitten.
I have no idea how I managed to not leap back and scream. I guess we can credit Marine Corps discipline and my incredible fear of my squad leader and Smith.
After the snake and I had a terror-filled two or three second stare down, I realized my best chance was to slowly — read very SLOWLY — step backward.
I may have moved slower than I had ever moved in my life, but I slowly lifted my left leg and took a half step back. And then I slowly moved my right foot back a half step.
Once I was back a good five or six feet, I looked back at my squad leader and pointed at the snake. There is no hand and arm signal for snake, so I pointed at it and use my right hand to make a squiggly movement. He was a good fifteen yards back, so I knew he couldn’t see it. Plus, it was laying behind a log, half out of sight.
My squad leader was trying to decipher my hand and arm signal, while also looking at me like I was an idiot. He raised his hands in a “huh” look of questioning, and I pointed at the snake again, then repeated the squiggly hand signal.
He looked confused for a second, nodded, and gave me the move out signal several times, impatient at my delays.
I nodded and made a good five-foot circle away from the water moccasin. I also managed to immediately get back in the zone.
Who knows? Perhaps the adrenaline shot had my senses on high alert. But I was so focused, looking around for the enemy and watching where I stepped. Definitely watching where I stepped after encountering those two snakes.
I had spent a lot of time in the woods as a kid, growing up as a pretty serious deer and squirrel hunter. And though I hated be on point for my first patrol, I was also pretty confident that I could sneak up and see the other patrol before they saw me.
I was precisely in such a state when the the loudest screams I’ve probably ever heard erupted behind me.
“Shit! M*therf*cker! Holy shit! Oh my word!”
I turned in time to see my squad leader jumping and screaming like you wouldn’t believe. He even threw his rifle down, which is just something you never do as a Marine.
It was at that moment that I realized he hadn’t walked around the snake. Or understood my hand and arm signal.
I stood there, sheepishly watching him as he was bent over, hands on his knees, other Marines running up to check on him.
“What was it?” one of them asked.
“It was a f*cking snake,” he snarled. “It damn near bit me.”
After probably thirty seconds, he collected his wits enough to demand, “Mitchell, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I did, Corporal,” I said. “I gave you the hand signal.”
I repeated the squiggly hand signal I had passed back to him.
“I thought you were asking if you should keep following the creek,” he said, shaking his head in exasperation and still breathing hard. “That thing nearly bit me.”
Several squad members were looking at me with anger-filled eyes.
“It nearly bit me, too,” I said. “I saw the second one crawling off, stopped for a moment scared out of my mind, then went to take another step, and BAM, saw the curled up one a foot or two away. That’s when I pointed at it and gave you that signal. You had said not to talk, so I didn’t know what else to do.”
Several of the squad members were eyeing me at that point, and it was on that day that I later learned I had earned the first bit of respect from them. Some of them were from the city and probably even more scared of snakes than I was. And then the squad leader’s reaction and breaking of silence had probably caused him to lose more face than he ever wanted.
I felt completely terrible about it and apologized numerous times. He really was one of my favorite squad leaders in the platoon (or that I’d ever have) and I’d soon learn when his replacement came in just how bad a squad leader could be. But that’s a future chapter. And a far less funny story.
There are four main lessons that I took from this humorous (after the fact) event.
First, I think you need to be careful if you’re in a leadership position about how strong and adamant your orders are. While I understood the need to practice patrolling at a higher level where you avoided talking, there are clearly times when it’s probably necessary. Had he been bitten, it could have been bad. Water moccasin bites can even prove fatal, and we were miles and miles away from roads or emergency care.
But in all the instructions he provided before we stepped off, the primary thing I remember was not to say anything under any circumstances.
The second lesson is a counter to the first. If you’re the one being ordered to do something, there are times when you need to defy that order. I have wished a hundred times over that I had walked back to him, risked his wrath, and whispered that there was a pissed-off snake up ahead that wasn’t budging. (Water moccasins are notorious for being aggressive.) More than anything else, it bothered me that he had lost some face that day. I really liked the guy (still do) and I know what it’s like to be in a leadership position and lose face (you’ll see in plenty of my future stories).
The third lesson I took from the event is no matter how low in rank or status a person is, they may know something that you need to know. Just as I wish I had walked back to him, I’m sure afterward he wished he had walked up to me when the new guy was giving some crazy hand-and-arm signal that made no sense. Such a move would have prevented the entire event from happening as well.
The final thing I learned is don’t rub it in. I’m sure I could have bragged about being brave and keeping my composure, and I could have re-enacted his reaction many times over in front of other Marines. But that would have not only been wrong, it would have been a major lie. The only reason I kept my composure is because I feared him and Smith more than I feared that snake. I also wanted to earn their respect, not go running back to him like some straight boot (newbie).
Furthermore, he was well liked by the other Marines, so if I had shared this story behind his back (or even in his presence), I would have been undermining a man who was well respected. He was nearing the end of his four-year term and he rated the respect that such an accomplishment (and his rank) carried.
Believe me, it’s no joke surviving four years in the infantry. So many get injured or can’t hack the stress. Many go AWOL (called UA, Unauthorized Absence, in the Marine Corps) or find ways to be transferred into something less strenuous.
So to summarize:
- Be careful about overly strict instructions, if you’re in charge.
- Be willing to speak up and defy what you’re told from above, even if you’re brand new.
- If you’re in charge, listen to those below you (no matter their status or level). They may be seeing something that you’re not.
- And never gloat or rub in something that you’re lucky enough to pull off. (No one likes an a**hole and I promise you that you won’t get far by acting in such a way.)
Stan R. Mitchell
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Stan R. Mitchell, author and prior Marine, is best known for his Nick Woods Marine Sniper series, which has remained in the Top 100 on Amazon for more than three years. The series has also been picked up by Audible.com for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.