Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Walking a mile (or 7) in their shoes.

By Mike Ullery

Chief Photographer


Rubbery legs make each step an adventure. The combined weight of gear totaling 80 pounds joins forces with gravity to push your feet into the very pavement on which you tread. Putting one foot in front of the other, each step puts you one step closer to the objective.

You ask yourself, why are you even here? What possessed you, a middle-age photographer, to ask for the opportunity to participate in a ruck march with members of Bravo Battery, 1-134th FA, Ohio National Guard?

As you march, it comes back to you. You felt that in order to really understand how our citizen soldiers feel during training, you needed to experience it yourself. You needed to feel what they felt, up to, and including, wearing the same equipment they wear and bearing the same load that they carry.

A ballistic (bullet resistant) vest weighing more than 30 pounds is wrapped tightly around your torso. The vest alone is heavy. It is designed to stop most small-arms fire. For maximum protection, a pair of half-inch-thick ceramic plates can be inserted to protect vital areas from high-velocity rounds. Your vest contains these plates, an extra 10 pounds, or so, so that you can fully experience a soldier’s burden.

In order to provide maximum protection and not chafe skin raw, the vest must be worn with all the elegance of a herd of boa constrictors worn around one’s body. Like a boa, with each breath as the miles click off the march, the vest feels like it tightens around your body, making breathing a challenge in itself.

As you concentrate on keeping each leg from buckling with every step, the sharp crack of fireworks and the whir of bottle rockets passing close by, grabs your full attention. The troops have hit the dirt on either side of the trail. You have just been “ambushed” by “enemy insurgent forces.” You hit the dirt alongside the soldiers, your body driven into the ground like a pile driver by the weight of the heavily-loaded ruck sack.

The soldiers are busy. Although they bear similar loads, they scurry to locate the “enemy”, overcome his fire, and win the engagement. The radio operator is on the air, calling in the contact report and, if necessary, getting a dust off (medical evacuation helicopter) in the air to take wounded soldiers off the field of battle.

As an “embedded” photographer, you struggle to get your camera in action, shooting photos of your unit in “contact.” Shooting is difficult. The pack on your back makes it feel like you are attempting to take pictures while under a huge boulder.

After the “enemy” has been destroyed, your unit nimbly gets to their feet as you struggle back to your’s, not wanting the soldiers to see the fatigue and rubbery legs.

The march continues, left foot in front of right, and again … and again, as your objective gets closer. The pace set by the point man for the entire march is one that would make a race walker sweat.

You are spaced in combat intervals. A distance of about 10 to 15 yards separates each soldier. If a hand grenade of mortar round lands among your unit, fewer soldiers will be killed, or wounded if you keep the proper distance between soldiers.

When it is all over, you have bore your 80 pound load for a distance of seven miles. It is not hot, not even warm, but your clothes are damp with sweat.

As you slip the ruck off your tired, aching shoulders, and release your body from the confines of the bullet-resistant vest, you finally inhale an unencumbered breath of air.

Your body feels like a Humvee ran over you … multiple times. Yet, there is a very satisfied feeling, that, you have accomplished a goal. You have walked the walk.

You drive home thinking that you now know what it feels like. But wait, during this exercise, being “under fire” meant firecrackers and bottle rockets. You recall that when these same soldiers reach their deployment destination, there will be real enemy, with real weapons. They will be carrying even heavier loads than you experienced on this training march and if they fail to react quickly, and correctly, they could lose their lives. You realize that they are not “playing army.” These citizen soldiers of the ONG are preparing for war.

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