I’m a step counter.
It’s one of those idiosyncrasies that no one would ever know unless I confessed it out loud. I’ve been counting steps since I can remember. There were 11 steps to get upstairs in our parsonage. This number included the odd, angled step at the very top that helped one make the right turn. I decided early on that I would not include the top landing as a ‘step’ in my numbers, since it really wasn’t a step, but rather, the end goal. In my two-room grade school, there were 7 steps up from the basement floor and 8 steps up to the upper grade room. In my current home, there are 7 steps to the first landing and 7 more after you make the turn to the top. I delighted in steps that had even numbers because when I took two steps at a time, it was a much cleaner ending. Mentally counting “Two, four, six, seven” did not feel nearly as finished as “Two, four, six, eight.” I went through a short-lived phase around fifth grade where I was committed to taking three steps at a time, but counting in multiples of three was not my cup of tea. To this day, jogging around the country block always begins with a valiant effort to count every other step–each time my right foot hits the ground.
I’m a step counter.
I didn’t know back then that my step-counting would come in handy in the military twenty years later. But it did. And it made me chuckle.
In military training, there are three things that really matter: Physical fitness, good aim and the ability to find your way home when you get lost.
Our physical condition was always being honed and tested. Every morning of every military school I attended began with exercise. Since I had played sports throughout my life, I never begrudged the early morning runs or group callisthenics. I’m one of those team-player types who’ll do just about anything if someone is coaching me along and others are doing the same thing.
Hitting a target with one’s weapon was also pretty important, for obvious reasons. I wasn’t a poor shot but neither was I an ‘Expert.’ I was a ‘Sharpshooter’ which means for every five targets that popped up, I hit three of them and oftentimes four.
It was in Land Navigation that I surprised myself. ‘Expert Driving Navigator ‘would not be words used to describe me by anyone else, whether family or friend I have been known to miss an exit on a road I’ve traveled many times and be unaware, only to find myself miles past my destination. Ask all four of my sons if they’ve ever had to remind me to take a turn while driving and they would definitively nod their heads. But, for some reason, and I’m going to chalk it up to my history as a step counter, navigating through a woods with a compass and a carefully prepared map that included my precise drawings came easily.
At Boot Camp our Drill Sergeants treated us like children who knew nothing. At OCS (Officer Candidate School), our Drill Instructors treated us like adults who knew nothing. But at my third school, OBC (Officer Basic Course) the ‘Cadre’ Instructors treated us like adults who should know something. And if we didn’t know it, we should be able to find it out on our own. This was a welcome and refreshing change in the training climate. We were set up to fail and then trusted to figure out the solutions for ourselves.
This graduate-level training environment was felt on the first evening of this 12-week school. Earlier that day, my three female bunkmate cadets and I had moved into our room and neatly put away every item we brought. By this time, all of us understood how to very-extremely properly make a bed, organize one’s gear and leave the place immaculate. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt smug as I tucked my camouflage-colored notepad and pen in my left cargo pocket before heading to an introductory evening class. Boy, did I have it together.
After class we returned to our room which appeared to have been hit by a proverbial bomb. The beds were flipped, all of our gear was outside the lockers and a good deal of the gear inside our cargo bags was strewn about. We got busy talking about the infraction that could have caused this and, since this wasn’t our first rodeo with this type of surprise discipline, we moved the celing tiles to see if there were any stashes of food from previous cadets. There wasn’t. We couldn’t find anything wrong.
The next day we learned the males’ rooms were also rampaged. In our evening class, we found out there was no infraction that preceded any of it. It was a simple exercise in “Be prepared–because, when you least expect it, that’s when something out of your control will go wrong.” And after that something goes wrong, as leaders, we would have to be able to prioritize and keep functioning. That was the first of many unfriendly ‘surprises.’
At age 35, I was no longer the oldest trainee in the group by 15 years, like I had been at Boot Camp. Now, I was only older by 5-10 years. I managed to pass all the academic coursework, physical fitness tests and weapons qualification with, if not flying colors, visible colors. Military schools were the first schools that I found myself enjoying. The information seemed useful and deeply important and since I’d always been fascinated with war, understanding more about logistics, troop movement and battle tactics answered some long-held curiosities. Watching ‘Saving Private Ryan’ as a civilian was a completely different experience than watching it as a soldier. It was like English subtitles had been turned on.
OBC’s culminating event was a 4-day excursion–two full days of qualifying on a variety of different weapons and two days of completing a Land Navigation course. While it was quite an experience to learn how to fire a grenade launcher and shoot several high-powered weapons that made an M16 look like a toy gun, what I looked forward to the most was counting steps through the woods. I wondered how a Land Navigation course at OBC would be different than one at Boot Camp or OCS.
My greatest triumph during my military training came on the 2nd round of Land Nav at OBC. We spent the first round in woods that I would describe as sparse. While there were trees everywhere, there was enough distance between them to pick out a faraway object which helped one walk in a straight line, guided by one’s compass, toward a point we were searching for. To a civilian, this might not sound like a very difficult task. But, in real life, when your end goal is 1500 meters away (3/4 of a mile), there are between 200 and 500 steps between points, and ravines, water and other geographical barriers prevent one from going in a straight line, successfully navigating to that last point becomes a little tricky. Prior to starting the course we had to do some homework to figure out distances between points and how many steps it would take to get to each point. My artistic side was helpful for this assignment. For this particular round, I finished the course easily and waited on the road as others exited the woods, feeling smug–some of them an hour later than I had.
On Day Two, our leaders upped the ante. We were driven by bus miles deep into the 3000-acre woods, dropped off and told that the bus would return with our gear before dark. This time, we were instructed to finish the course as a group within a certain time limit and every length between points had to be led by a different person. This woods was not just dense. It looked black it was so thick. There would be no honing in on some distant object to help one walk in a straight line. The biggest kicker was that we couldn’t begin until dusk which put half of the 4-hour course in darkness. We had to rely on night vision goggles. These might sound cool but unless you’re used to wearing NGVs, all they are is another form of blindness. From the get-go, I knew this was not going to go well.
Sure enough, my 6-person team got thoroughly lost. I don’t mean to sound vain when I say that I knew exactly when getting lost happened. But I did. Even though one person was leading, we were all tracking with our compasses, and at one point I knew we had gone too far to the left. I should have said something but didn’t. Not a great decision for a leader in training.
We were already two hours behind our time hack when I offered the idea of backtracking and starting over from our last point. We had been taught how to backtrack but backtracking from being lost is a different kind of animal. The group agreed it was worth a try and I led the way. Through sheer luck or, more accurately, a generous angel, I found our previous point and the group unanimously agreed that I should lead the way for the rest of the course. It was completely dark and we presumed there were others searching for us.
It was a surreal experience to head up this mission, having the confidence of some very capable and experienced soldiers. I was far from the classic candidate for being lost in a Texas woods wearing NGVs. I grew up playing piano, sewing and drawing and had a soft voice and cheerful demeanor. I kept thinking, “If my mom could see me now, I don’t know if she’d laugh or cry.” I also kept thinking how ironic it was that my history as a step counter was paying off in a big way.
I led us to the final point and felt giddy with satisfaction, though I didn’t let on. Revealing one’s emotions in the military is not encouraged. Sure enough, there was a search team on our tails. We were reunited with the rest of our platoon, and it would only be a matter of time before we could set up our tents and I could change into a dry uniform since it had started to rain lightly and we were virtually soaked through.
But, as they say. . . pride goes before the fall.
We had reached the rally point and were waiting for the bus when our Cadre informed us that the bus had broken down. We were all fairly seasoned in military training tactics so we knew this was not true, but an evil ploy. It was one more way to test whether we could handle ourselves without gear. . unexpectedly. For someone who had lived for seven years in a cabin in AK without running water, electricity or phone service, this might not have seemed like such bad news. Surely, someone with that kind of primitive experience could hack a night out in the woods with no cover. But, I would come to find out that, up until this evening, I really had no idea what being truly miserable felt like.
Along with it starting to rain, the temperature had dropped–just a few degrees but enough to turn our wet uniforms into what felt like icepacks. We walked quite a ways into the woods from our rally point, looking for an open place to lie down, illumined only by the dull cast of red lights from our flashlights since our Cadre had collected the NVGs. Cadet Harrison, the only other female, and I found a small indentation in the ground and settled into it like two curled up caterpillars. There was no reason to ask each other if we were okay with spooning. We were both already convulsing with cold. She was about 5’3″ and I’m 5’9″ so I wrapped my right arm around her and pulled her as close as I could. Our saving grace that evening was that I had stuffed a small thermal blanket in my cargo pocket that morning. I don’t know why. I’m usually not a forward-thinker so pulling this jewel out felt like we’d hit the jackpot. It did offer an extra element of comfort but I don’t remember that comfort being warmth.
It rained almost through the night. The reason I know is that I was awake, listening to it and feeling it on my face. I kept thinking if I could just stay still long enough to allow my body to create heat, I’d be okay. But my body was wracked with convulsions and the violent jerks kept reintroducing my ice-pack uniform to my skin. I didn’t have to feel awkward because Cadet Harrison was convulsing as hard as I was. After some time, I figured out it was more comfortable to wear my Kevlar helmet with the chin strap extra tight so it suspended my neck from the wet ground, acting as an indirect pillow. Oh, what a pair we were.
It was 11pm when we first began trying to sleep, but it became very clear very quickly there would be no shut-eye that evening. So, the next mission was to figure out what to think about for the next six hours which were going to feel like 36. Not a word was said between us. I knew she was calculating her survival just like I was and, besides that, there simply was no energy for talking.
I thought of everything that night. I figured that every thought was worth a couple moments of time passing. And then, as I had often done in the past, I began to go through hymn verses that I knew. Not out loud, just in my head. I had learned from experience that reflecting on hymn verses while miserable was akin to hearing a beautiful language for the first time. Words that I had sung hundreds of times all of a sudden came alive with new meaning. When I got to the words of ‘Abide With Me,’ even in my miserable state I inwardly smiled at how appropriate was verse one. Surely the author had written this verse for such a night is this:
“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, Lord, abide with me.”
Somehow, those awful hours elapsed. I probably burned 20,000 calories through the convulsions and teeth chattering that evening. How thankful I was when the rain stopped at about 4:00 a.m. and the early morning sky appeared clear. At 5:00 a.m., the sky exploded with a deafening sound, loud enough to make it feel like the earth was rumbling. A CH-47 Chinook, which is a large troop transport helicopter, landed in a clearing not far from us. More chills coursed through my body, but of a different kind–the kind brought on by awe. We made our way in wet, cold-crisp uniforms through an expanse of dense woods and quietly walked up to the flying giant that had come to save us. No one uttered joyful thoughts or expressed relief, even though in my mind I was sprinting as fast as I could to that plane which I was hoping would provide an element of warmth. We were all proving to each other that we were tough enough to handle one miserable night and climbed on board acting as if the whole event was routine.
The ride back to our base in the belly of that plane was a game changer for my attitude. While it was a memorable experience to ride in such an impressive machine with the back door open so we could see the terrain below us, heavy on my heart was how I emotionally handled that miserable night in the woods. I didn’t handle it well at all and doubted that I could have gotten through two more nights just like it. I realized on that trip home that I had started to adopt a cocky attitude, a result of high scores on tests and finishing at or near the top of my classes in the schools I attended. Alongside that was the mire of rank and how the pursuit of a higher rank can quickly and insidiously become one’s sole focus. The misery of those 6 hours was a reality check that froze the smug and cocky right out of me and reminded me my service wasn’t an opportunity for me to shine.
That following weekend, on my personal time, I looked up the Battle of the Bulge. Having watched the miniseries “Band of Brothers” multiple times, I wanted to know more about the episode that covered Easy Company’s battle in Germany’s Ardennes Forest during the winter. Episode 6 in this series is called “Bastogne” and focuses on the heroic and life-saving work of the medic in a company. Those men spent 6 weeks in a dense forest in temperatures that hovered around 20°, and in snow 8 inches deep. The weather was largely overcast, offering no hope of being warmed by the sun’s rays even for a minute. And these men didn’t have the luxury of having their only job being to stay warm. They had to fight a battle at the same time, with frostbitten toes and fingers, taking cover in depressions that could hardly be considered foxholes because the ground was too frozen to dig. Freezing rain routinely glued their tank tracks to the tundra. And, while I’m sure these men complained about the unbearable cold and discomfort, they stayed. Against all odds, night after night, they stayed.
That’s the story behind the design of this card, ‘Abide with Me.’ Sometimes I create my own background but when I stumbled across this beautiful scene of a woods at dusk, it so closely resembled the sparse woods in Texas on that first round of day Land Navigation two decades ago.
While my step counting has waned, I still find myself doing it occasionally. I also count letters inside of sentences and slice them into different numerical groupings, looking for an even ending, but details on that will have to be saved for another time.