Part 5 of “My time in the Corps.”

Chapter 5: Training with Force Recon

Good ole’ Third Platoon landed the best assignment we could have ever scored (in my mind) prior to my first deployment out to sea.

As our battalion was preparing to deploy for six months to the Mediterranean Sea, each company within the battalion was assigned specific specialties. One company became a “helo company” that trained especially hard in helicopter operations. Another became a “track company” that specialized in beach assaults from inside the back of “amtracks,” which are Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs). These amtracks/AAVs are essentially floating tanks that are extended more than twenty-five feet long and can carry up to twenty men in their cargo holds.

Our company, Alpha Company, was picked to become “boat company.” Boat companies train to hit the beach in the darkness of night, cutting through waves in small rubber Zodiac boats. These are the same boats you see the SEALs using in the movies. Almost everyone in the company was excited to be picked as boat company. And we had a heck of a fun time on the beach for a couple of weeks, learning to ride them correctly (up on the wide gunnels) and right them when they flipped.

But Third Platoon scored a special treat when we were picked to work alongside Force Recon as a reinforcing element.

For those who don’t know, Force Recon Marines are the elite of the elite. They’re like Navy SEALs and see themselves as equals to that much higher profile group of warriors. Also like the SEALs, they parachute, dive, and do hostage rescue missions, which are probably the hardest missions out there. These missions are the ones like you usually see SWAT teams doing on TV shows. You sneak up, put some explosive on the door, and blow it off the hinges. Then the teams rush inside, clearing rooms as quickly as possible before the bad guys start killing hostages.

This is super high-pressure, high-intensity stuff, and you have to be light on the trigger because a round through a wall kills your buddy. Oh, and you also have to be able to do this in the dark or the light, and sometimes upon command when you’re not necessarily completely ready.

It takes an enormous amount of time to fully train a Force Recon Marine. They go to jump school, dive school, SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), and many others. Most of them have been in for at least six or eight years. By far, the majority of them back in ’97 were senior corporals or salty sergeants.

These were the best of the best, and they made a huge impression on a nineteen-year-old Marine named Stan.

As part of our battalion’s deployment, Force Recon needed to be able to do deep strike hostage rescue missions that were way behind enemy lines. They also needed to be able to do ship takedowns.

The problem was Force Recon is a small unit. They were only two squads of eight. So, a mere sixteen men, plus a small leadership element.

It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re just sixteen men a couple hundred miles behind enemy lines, you’re going to be in trouble if you make heavy contact. The SEALs combat this problem by often having Rangers as a quick reaction force.

Force Recon platoons would pick a platoon of Marines, give them some extra (awesome) training, and learn to work with them over a six-month period. That’s exactly what my platoon — good ole’ Third Platoon — was assigned to do.

Our adventure started with us going to a two-week advanced training course put on by SOTG, the Special Operations Training Group. We primarily worked on shooting well at short distances, usually less than fifty yards. This was part of the Close Quarters Battle (CQB) training you often hear so much about.

For us, it was as if we had landed in heaven. Typically, you never get enough live ammo to shoot as a Marine. They seriously ration that stuff, saving it for either the zombie apocalypse or for when Putin gets to feeling a little froggy. But during this CQB training, we had more ammo than we even wanted.

We were required to fire two thousand rounds during the training evolution, which believe me is a ton. That’s so much shooting that it gets to the point where it’s no longer even fun. That’s so much shoulder time that even a puny M-16 will have your shoulder sore for a couple of days. And don’t even talk about what a pain it is to cleaning your weapon. We spent as much time cleaning weapons as we did anything else, and you haven’t cleaned an M-16 until you’ve fired that many rounds through one.

We did the vast majority of that shooting over just a few days and everyone was really stepping it up. Just knowing we would be around the Force Recon guys was enough to make guys stand a little prouder.

We also worked hard on fast roping out of helicopters, since we’d be doing that a lot. Fast roping is sort of like rappelling, except you aren’t tied in. You grip a wide rope with your hands and feet and hold on for dear life. It can be pretty terrifying when you do it on a real ship out at sea, with the wind blowing the rope and the ship below you rising up and down in as much as fifteen-foot increments.

As if all that wasn’t fast enough, we also practiced urban ops with Force Recon. We’d go to various cities (after coordinating with the local police, of course), ride around in the back of vans or moving trucks, and spring out to hit homes in practice assaults with Force Recon.

Sometimes, even a couple of our guys would be in civilian work clothes, pretending to be construction workers. We learned it was often best to block a road with cones and work signs (with hidden shooters out of sight in a van), instead of having a bunch of men carrying weapons out in the open.

This was high speed, low drag stuff right here, and it couldn’t have possibly gotten better for a platoon of plain ole’ ground pounders. And yet it did.

Force Recon wanted our platoon on the edges of any homes they hit, acting as a blocking force with our long weapons and machine guns. But they also wanted one fire team to work directly with them. Since they had to use small caliber submachine guns to clear buildings, they also required a fire team of four Marines to bring long weapons and reinforce them.

Force Recon used MP5s on their room clearing and hostage rescue work, but these weapons are only 9 mm and have a short range. MP5s are perfect for short-range, indoor work because they don’t penetrate multiple walls. But if you’re patrolling to a target and make contact with the enemy, the last thing you want is lightweight, short range MP5s, which are only good to a hundred yards or so. You need serious firepower with range. Such as M-16s, 40 mm grenade launchers, and machine guns.

That’s what a fire team of four Marines could provide and that’s what Force Recon wanted.

As you probably guessed, I have no idea how it happened, but my fire team was picked to be the four-man team that went with Force Recon everywhere on these strikes. I’d like to think my fire team was one of the best in the platoon, but looking back at the pictures from that time, I can’t say that for sure. We had some awesome fire teams in Third Platoon. But for whatever reason, our fire team was selected and the Force Recon guys really took us in under their wings.

We were quite regularly sent off to them to practice their hostage rescue missions and they were constantly pouring knowledge into our four little heads. They knew they only had six months to get us ready and they wanted us absolutely as ready as possible.

All of this was beyond incredible, but the cherry on top was working with Navy SEALs. You only hear about these guys and it was great to see them in action.

Often, on ship takedowns, the target is so big that you just need a lot of personnel to take it down. On those missions, the Navy SEALs would fast rope in first from helicopters, followed by Force Recon, followed by Third Platoon.

Yeah, we weren’t doing much room clearing — mostly holding uncleared danger areas and passageways — but we were doing ship takedowns with the Navy SEALs and Force Recon. How many people can say that?!

Seriously, what are the chances of getting to do that as a regular infantryman? It. Was. Awesome.

I’ll go into my impressions of Navy SEALs in the next chapter, but let’s get to the good stuff: taking our lives to the next level.

Lessons learned

I will always believe our platoon was picked to work with Force Recon because our lieutenant and platoon sergeant set higher standards than the other lieutenants and platoon sergeants in Alpha Company. I think both of these men, who I was lucky enough to serve under, desired to be the best. As a result of their hard work, we landed a phenomenal opportunity.

Not just a phenomenal opportunity, but a once-in-a-lifetime, win-the-lottery chance to work with one of the most elite forces in the world. The chances of getting assigned to this have to be almost inconceivable.

And then for our fire team to get selected to work directly with the elite group was just another level of luck. I had no idea any of this could happen when our fireteam was working so hard in the months prior to the deployment. We were simply competing with the other fire teams in our platoon, trying our best for mere bragging rights at the end of that week or field op, whichever we were on at the time. But we just had a great group of guys who all pushed each other as hard as was physically possible.  

Speaking of the fireteam, we also once got to lead the entire battalion on a field exercise that we were being tested on. There were fellow Marines out there operating as the “enemy” in different color uniforms and our battalion of eight hundred Marines needed to move up a road without getting ambushed.

Somehow, our fire team was picked to do a route recon alone, looking for the enemy. We took such great pride in searching as hard as we could for any enemy along the road, trying our hardest to find them before they found the battalion that trailed behind us by a mile or so.

My point in all this is that with hard work and great sacrifice comes even greater rewards. That was true in my military career and it’s always been true in the various places I’ve worked in my civilian life.

Sure, there are times politics may beat you out of an opportunity, but usually hard work wins out. Thus, the lesson is that if you’re not giving all you have, and I mean every single ounce of effort that you can possibly summon, then you may be missing out on some incredible opportunities. Some training you could be sent to. An unexpected promotion or transfer to a better division. A customer or fellow business person from another company who sees your talent and recruits you to their firm.

Everyday you’re making impressions, so you need to ask yourself if you’re making the right kind.

It’s not just opportunities you may be missing either. There were clear winners and losers in our company.

One platoon not only didn’t get assigned to Force Recon, but they got assigned to train on repairing and maintaining boat motors. And trust me, for an entire year (a six-month training workup and six months on ship), that’s mostly what they did.

They worked so hard in an effort to keep a bunch of worn-out motors running, all while facing the limitations of having inadequate parts or instruction. Worse, it wasn’t like these guys were mechanics or had a mechanical background. They were regular infantry guys who received some lame, insufficient education in how to work on the motors.

Trust me, these guys hated their entire deployment. Can you imagine joining the Marine Corps to be an infantryman and then spending a year of that time working on boat motors and shabby boats that needed constant attention and patching up?

But that same thing could be headed your way. That platoon assigned to work on boats was a good platoon. They probably were only slightly behind us in terms of ability, but look what that earned them: one year of pure hell.

The same thing could happen to you wherever you are. If you’re the one not working hard or complaining all the time, you might find yourself transferred to something even worse. Or suddenly with fewer hours scheduled.

But forget the negative consequences. Think of the positives for pushing harder in your life. If you can find a way to get yourself around people out of your league, you need to do so. Like every chance that you can.

That year of being around Force Recon did wonders for my growth and confidence, as I’m sure it did for everyone else in the platoon. (Many of my fellow platoon members went off to achieve impressive feats in both the military and civilian worlds.)

The same lesson was repeated in college. Being around professors who were far more intelligent and better educated than me helped ratchet up my ambitions and desire for learning. It’s like throwing gas on a fire. Suddenly, I wasn’t just some guy from East Tennessee with little money and limited opportunities. Instead, I had examples right in front of me of distinguished scholars, authors, etc.

In summary, if you have a similar chance to network “up” as the saying goes, make sure you’re doing it. It could be anything from attending association meetings you’ve been avoiding because they’re boring. It could be serving on the board of a nonprofit. It could be volunteering for some leadership position on your kid’s sports team. Just any chance you can grab to be around awesome people, you grab it.

You never know how much it’ll help lift you up.

Semper Fidelis,

Stan R. Mitchell

P.S. Enjoy my writing or videos?! You can leave me a tip at this PayPal link. : )—————————

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 for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.

Part 4 of “My time in the Corps”

Chapter 4: Making it and standing out

By the time I spent a couple of months at my unit, I had turned into a pretty good Marine. Or at least a decent one.

During that time, we deployed to the Mojave Desert for some brutal training. The Marine Corps has a base there (Twentynine Palms) that’s one of the largest training areas in the country. It’s so large that you can practice large-scale attacks with live fire, including tanks, mortars, artillery, and airpower.

It’s probably the closest you can come to real combat in a peacetime environment, and to this day, Marine units deploy there for a month of training prior to being sent to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

I’m assuming I proved myself to those around me during that month because when we returned, I was made a fire team leader.

A fire team is four Marines, so if you’re in charge of one, you’ve got three people under you. (A squad is three fire teams.) Promotions to fire team leader are competitive (as is everything in the Marine Corps), so presumably I did just enough in our one month of desert training to rate being promoted to fire team leader.

I was decent at running and shooting well, I could hold my own in a fight (which matters for your standing in a platoon, since horseplay is constant). I was also pretty strong on my “knowledge,” which is what the Marine Corps calls mastering the details your job. This includes remembering everything from knowing the precise range of your M-16 to how to treat a sucking chest wound to how to drill a platoon, keeping them in step and looking sharp.

I lived in books, which was no different than when I was as a kid, except now I was reading Marine Corps manuals in between Tom Clancy novels. I’m not sure why I enjoyed studying manuals so much, but I was so excited about my career that I absolutely wanted to be the best.

But while running, fighting, and reciting knowledge off the top of my head wasn’t a problem, there were two things that I wasn’t good at. The first one was humps, which is what the Marine Corps calls forced marches. These are basically really long hikes with all your gear. Believe me, the packs were heavy, plus you had your flak jacket, web gear, helmet, and rifle. These were usually six to twelve miles long, but could go as high as eighteen or even twenty-five, which was the maximum distance expected by the Marine Corps in a day.

The pace is three miles per hour, which doesn’t sound too bad until you’re walking in sand, mud, or loose gravel. And the weight doesn’t sound too bad until you’ve gone a couple miles. The pack weighs usually about forty to fifty pounds, plus you’ve got a nine-pound flack jacket, eight pounds of gear in your harness (canteens, magazines, etc.), and a five-pound helmet. Top all that off with a seven-pound rifle.

That was our typical load, but if it was cold weather, the pack weight would soar to eighty pounds or more because you needed more layers and your insulated sleeping bag.

Given that I weighed 123 pounds when I hit the Fleet, that sixty to eighty pounds felt a whole lot different to me than it did to a guy who weighed 180. Shorter guys like me also had to contend with the fact that we had shorter strides, which meant we had to walk faster just to keep up!

As you’ve guessed by now, I hated humping! Most Marines did. They quite often pushed you mentally to your limit and beyond, and you didn’t want to fall out of one. There was probably no faster way to lose the respect of your peers than to fall out of a hump and have to ride in the Humvee that followed. Not only were you shamed for such a thing, but often if you failed to complete a hump they would force you to do a remedial hump on Saturday, when you were supposed to be off. Seriously, no one wants to do a hump on a Saturday in a group of just a few guys.

Humps were easily one of my biggest fears in the Marine Corps. We would learn about an upcoming one sometimes as much as six or eight days in advance. Immediately, I’d start worrying about it. I’d plan my meals and hydration, which pair of boots I thought would work best, you name it. Every single thing I could think of to help me not fall out. I always tried to plan out every single detail that would help me make sure I survived the grueling event. If we were in the field four or five days prior to the hump home, I’d make sure I saved snacks for energy. I’d also make sure I kept at least one pair of socks clean and ready for use on that sole event. I’d even pack foot powder to cut down on how many blisters I’d get.

These little things don’t sound like much, but they gave me a small edge.

Besides all the planning and mental preparation, I also exercised like a demon when we weren’t in the field. At night, if we were back in the barracks instead of the field, I’d do heavy pack runs to further condition my back and shoulders. Carrying a load I could barely shoulder was one of my greater fears, so I constantly tried to work on my weakness, piling more and more in that pack to carry around at night.

I always had the mentality that if I pushed myself on my own (at night or at the gym) harder than our officers would ever be able to, then they’d never be able to break me on a hump or field op. Of course, I got mocked a fair amount for my pack runs (probably rightly so, since I’m sure I looked like a complete moron). But I always figured the ribbing by my friends beat letting them down and suffering the embarrassment that would have gone with falling out of a hump.

My second big fear was jumping up to reach the high bar on the obstacle course. I was so good at all the obstacles and rope climbs that you must traverse, but I always worried to death about that eight-foot-high bar on the second obstacle.

I’ve mentioned in earlier chapters that I’m vertically challenged, but I also am blessed with an inability to jump high. So pretty much every time I managed to leap and grab that eight-foot high bar, it was a miracle.

A few other Marines couldn’t reach it, and most of the time, you were allowed to have another Marine run up and put their knee out for you to jump off from. But I couldn’t bring myself to go asking for help. That seemed beneath the kind of Marine I wanted to become in my mind, so I constantly worked on my jumping.

Usually, after my pack runs, I’d swing by the obstacle course and practice running up and leaping to reach that bar. It’s funny in hindsight how much I worried about grabbing that silly bar, but you don’t want to lose face in the Marine Corps.

In many ways, a Marine squad or platoon is like a gang. Even if you’ve got rank on your shoulders, it means nothing. You are judged on a daily basis for your competence, toughness, and ability to keep up. You start falling out of runs or humps, or not being able to do the obstacle course (some guys struggled with other obstacles, which I could do with ease), and you’d quickly be noticed and usually given some attention that you didn’t want from your fellow Marines.

That attention would usually start with encouragement, some tips or advice, and even the offer to help them train on that one thing on their off time. But if a Marine refused that help and didn’t fix their shortcomings, it would quickly turn into verbal harassment and worse. Our leaders always told us we were only as strong as our weakest link, and we took them at their word. We brought plenty of harassment and pain to those who couldn’t keep up.

Clearly, as I hope I’ve explained, I worked a lot on my weaknesses (humps and jumping up to reach that eight-foot bar). But I not only worked on my weaknesses, I also focused on what I was best at: knowledge.

Ever since childhood, there are few things I enjoyed more than reading. Knowing that a love of reading was probably my only true strength, I poured my focus wholeheartedly on my one skill. I read manual after manual that the Marine Corps had published. These were dense, dry things, which were not much fun to read even if you enjoy reading.

But as I learned about advanced tactics and strategies well beyond my rank and paygrade, I knew I was honing the one ability that could help me stand out. I may have been short and unremarkable, but I knew I could read and study circles around most Marines. That’s where I poured it on and worked super hard to magnify my strengths.

Two things primarily drove me forward: fear and ambition.

I feared falling short and I truly wanted to be the best. (Still do.)

These things, the fear and the desire, are what helped me stand out and be a pretty good Marine. And standing out allowed me to do some pretty exciting things during my enlistment. Standing out got me assigned to a coveted position alongside Force Recon, which I’ll explain in a later chapter. It also led me to earn Marine of the Quarter for the entire 2nd Marine Division, which I’ll also explain later. Finally, I managed to earn the rank of Sergeant, which is not something that’s easy to attain in the field of infantry within a four-year period.

Each small victory over my weaknesses (getting good at humps and never missing the bar) led to something even greater, but if I hadn’t put in the time and work as a newly minted PFC (Private First Class), none of them may have happened.

Would a Marine who needed to be helped up over the bar or couldn’t complete a strenuous hump have gotten attached to Force Recon? Probably not.

Now flip the question to your own life.

Will you get promoted at your job when you’re not good at certain aspects of it?

You know the answer to that. No, you’re probably not going to get promoted unless you’re well rounded. Sure, you’re good at the rest of it, but you need to be working on whatever part of yourself or your job that you’re not good at.

You want to reach the next phase in life, right? Good. Let’s get to work. (And if you answered “no” to my final question, you need to go look at your wife and kids and see just who you’re impacting. It also helps to imagine and dream some, thinking of just where you might end up if you can push through your current level.)

I think we should all be reaching for that next level in our careers and in our lives. Maybe you’re a great manager at work, but you lose your temper easily. Well, you need to work on that. Or maybe you’re great at most of your job, but you’re weak at math. Same thing: you need to work on that.

Maybe you’re good at saving, but don’t know much about investing. In fact, you’re scared to. Same advice: you need to work on that.

We all have weaknesses and we should all be honing and improving them. This isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy either. Sometimes, you’ve got to do a gutcheck.

So do a gutcheck, and if you can plow two acres but are only currently plowing one, then I respectfully say that you’re letting yourself down, you’re letting your family down, and you’re letting your community down.

Want to fix it? You already know how. Recognize your weaknesses, work on them, quit your half assing, and pick up the pace. I’ll meet you at the top.

Lessons learned

Work on your weaknesses so that you’re not below standard. This will take some hard work and probably be something you have to do on your own time, but it’s worth it in the end to do so.

Also, don’t share your weaknesses.

I hated humps and worried about that high bar, but I’m not sure I told many people. Probably, with the exception of my closest three or four friends, they had no idea I feared either of them.

When it came time to do the obstacle course, I tried to be the first in line to go. Same thing on humps. Sure, I hated them and worried I might not have the strength to finish them, but I didn’t show it. As we were putting on packs, I’d be the saying, “This isn’t anything. What’s eighteen miles? They can’t break us.”

I tried to always be motivated and fired up (and loud), so I would enter every event that we faced as full of piss and vinegar as possible. With my night runs, if someone asked (other than my closest friends), I’d tell them I was training so I could make the cut to join Force Recon, a really elite unit in the Marine Corps.

I’m pretty sure most guys in the barracks saw my night runs as simply Mitchell being Mitchell. You know, the silly motivated guy who wanted to be the best. They probably had no idea that it was Mitchell worrying he couldn’t complete an upcoming hump.

The takeaway here is don’t mention to your boss what you’re not good at. You might be right on the cusp of a transfer or promotion. Instead of talking about your weaknesses, fix them. And when you’re assigned work involving them, go enter it with good cheer. Tell your boss you’d be glad to take that math-related assignment on.

End of sermon. You know what to do now. Fix your weaknesses and magnify your strengths.

I hope this somehow inspires you in your own life. I want to encourage you that no matter where you are in your journey, and no matter what weaknesses you may have, you can overcome them. You can double the effort you’ve been putting into something or do additional research until you’re comfortable with it.

I was constantly asking Marines who had a reputation for being great at humps what their secret was. Some said just take it one step at a time. Others said just focus on the pack in front of you. Still others said to sing a song in your mind, keeping yourself distracted.

I utilized all these techniques and others, especially when I was panicking and struggling to catch my breath. (It can be hard to breath with all that weight pulling down you.)

Just like me, you can go from being the kid who’s bullied in high school to being labeled the best Marine in an entire division. Have some faith in yourself. You’ve got this.

(You can read Part 5 here.)

Semper Fidelis,

Stan R. Mitchell

P.S. Enjoy my writing or videos?! You can leave me a tip at this PayPal link. : )—————————

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 for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.

Part 3 of “My time in the Corps.”

Chapter 3: Snakes in the grass

Let’s lighten things up a bit. We’ve had two heavy stories, so let me share a hilarious one with you. (Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them!)

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.

Lessons learned

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.)

Semper Fidelis,

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 for a multi-book audio deal. Additional works include a Western thriller, detective series, and World War II story.