I was happy to drop my ruck, fall on top of it and get off my feet.
We finished at an old unused beachside restaurant, which used to be part of the French Marine base located here many years ago. We sat on a broken patio, leaning back on our rucks…watching the sunrise break under a volcanic canopy of clouds. An ever so slight drizzle of rain breezed over us.
Most were exhausted from the 12 mile road March to the beach, especially me. This was the final event for our Expert Infantryman Candidates. The Expert Infantry Badge (EIB) is a highly coveted badge by all Infantrymen in the US Army and can only be worn by those who earn it as an Infantryman. The EIB requires an Infantryman to earn 100% pass rate in 37 different Infantry tasks with no assistance or use of notes. This involves the exact memorization of hundreds of steps for 7 weapons, combat casualty medical treatment, tactics, land navigation, communications systems…all tied up neatly with a 12 mile road march. Army-wide, of those who test , only an average of 17% pass. This EIB class started with 118 candidates, yet only 18 earned the EIB.
The road march, or ruck march, was the second to last task required to merit the EIB.
The route stretched through the Arta mountain range in central Djibouti. We stepped off at 0215 (yes, in the morning). EIB standard for completion of the 12 mile ruck march is 3 hours. One second too late means no EIB. Each EIB candidate carried at least a 35lb ruck, rifleman’s kit, M4 (rifle), and wear their ACH (Kevlar helmet). Total carried weight is easily over 50lbs. As chaplain, I chose to march with the candidates minus the weapon and helmet…similar to the cadre uniform during the march. As one of my mentors says, “90% of ministry is in simply showing up.”
The mountainous terrain involved slight inclines and declines along the road we traversed. The “road” consisted of well-worn tire tracks over loose-gravel and dirt. Switchbacks dotted the course. At times you could see the front and the back of the column of Soldiers within the same 50 yards by chemlights attached to the rucksacks, or “rucks.”
The light of the half-moon poured onto us the whole night. Yet, it didn’t drown out the millions of stars blinking in the heavens…the amount of stars you can only see when you are 30 minutes outside of nowhere. The moonlight and stars exposed the towering vertical shadows of the mountains that bracketed the valley through which we trekked.
Our Battalion Commander (an EIB holder) and Battalion Executive Officer led the pace the entire route. I trailed the pack, catching up to groups here and there to hand out a Jolly Rancher or Life Saver. I would like to say it was by design, but truth be told, I trailed because I wasn’t as prepared as I would like to have been. Yet, I was resolute to complete the route, come what may.
Enroute, I stuck an earbud in one ear and listened to a Bill Hybels talk titled “The Intangibles of Leadership” from the 2015 WCA Global Leadership Summit. I simply wanted something to keep my mind occupied, but a few minutes into the talk, Hybels stated the first intangible of leadership is “grit.” He defined it as “long-term tenacity” and “steely determination demonstrated over decades” and “the willingness to utilize every last drop of human effort to move something ahead to cross the finish line.” He declared that “gritty people play hurt” and “don’t quit, ever.” They “expect progress to be difficult but believe to the core of their being that they can overcome whatever obstacle stands in their way.”
I was inspired by these thoughts…and I would need to be. For me, the course was tough. With a half-mile to go to reach the finish line, the toe of my left boot caught a rock and my momentum sent me into a nose-dive. My only fall, but what I lacked in quantity, this fall made up for in quality. My right knee, hands and face took first contact. I rolled with the momentum. Took a second or two to do a mental check on if everything was working. Then I had to get up and get going. Up and away I trudged.
I crossed the finish at 3:01. One minute past the cut-off. I walked over to where some of the finishers were resting and there dropped my ruck. I was happy to complete the course, but I wasn’t satisfied. I crossed the finish line, yet plan to train harder to make up for that :01 in the future. However, thoughts for myself soon subsided for the pride I felt for these Infantrymen who showed grit and earned their EIB.
Near the finish, spray-painted on the wall of this abandoned outpost were the words “It takes some dying to feel alive.”
(Word of the Week 28MAr-03APR) #WOTDseries #Drop16