Sunday, October 30, 2011

...and it was a little bit frightening...

I pray, you pray, we all pray for pepper spray!

 I'm not sure why, but the Marine Corps has a lewd fascination with pepper spray. There is some kind of institutional masochism in place demanding we leap at any opportunity to give Marines a full blast of oleoresin capsicum dead in the face.

My first encounter with this sadism was at Marine Security Guard school in Quantico, VA. At the time the embassy guard program was funded by the State Dept.  We were introduced to weapons not normally issued to Marines. These included the Model 19 .357 revolver, 870m shotgun, the mini-14, and the UZI.

We were further instructed on the Force Continuum and  the full spectrum of violence including non-lethal weapons. Not only were we familiarized with the capability CS grenades, we learned hand cuffing techniques, pressure point control tactics, PR-24 baton, and of course, how to wield pepper spray and amuse your friends at parties.


The exciting portion of non-lethal training was when the instructors lined us up to be sprayed.  The thought process was in order to properly employ pepper spray the user has to understand and experience its effects. In this case, we merely stood there and took a quick shot to the forehead and endured the effects as it dripped into our eyes. Once it took affect we were allowed to dunk our heads in a bucket of water to decontaminate. It didn't help much.

Still a Lance Corporal, this sounded like complete BS to me. The Marine Corps had successfully trained me to proficiently operate an M-16 rifle without shooting me in the leg in order for me to understand its effects. To get everyone to comply with this barbarism they made enduring pepper spray a requirement for graduation. I grudgingly graduated.

In 2001 I returned to Quantico to attend the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program Instructor Trainer Course.  Throughout the weeks of training we became quite familiar with pepper spray. Clouds of it materialized along engagement courses just as we were about to cross bayonets with the instructors. Pools of oleoresin capsicum inhabited obstacle courses and was used to fertilize the grass of landing zones.

Then of course, was the afternoon we were actually sprayed in the face. What this had to do with hand to hand combat I could not grasp. I already knew the effects of pepper spray and how to employ it so you couldn't convince me I needed to familiarize myself with it again. It was straight cruelty and, of course, a requirement to graduate.

This time instead of just standing there and taking it to the face we would negotiate through a number of drills including pistol disarms, baton use, take downs, and striking. We would also be carrying our own side arm and would have to use our pistol retention techniques in order to prevent instructors from taking it throughout the drill. With my enthusiasm nearly overwhelming me, I went to the head of the line as is my practice when something looks like it is really going to suck. It not only gives the impression of bravery but also gets things over with sooner vice later.

A stream of pepper spray hit me right between the eyes for a full three seconds. Just long enough for me to wonder if this is what it's like to have Godzilla piss in my face. Immediately the instructors directed me to the first station at the top of their lungs along with the admonition to: "Strobe your eyes!"
Hmmm, like being sprayed in the face with flaming thumb tacks!
"Strobing" was meant to be helpful advice aiding us to see where we were going by rapidly blinking. The problem is pepper spray makes you want to staple your eyes permanently shut and roll around in hot broken glass. Strobing your eyes with a face full of pepper spray begins with a hip thrusting movement as you fling your head back hoping momentum will open your eyelids for a brief mili-second before crashing down again like a rusty garage door. Strobe my ass.

As the spray took effect the skin on my forehead and face began to burn. The sensation steadily grew worse until it felt like someone had pressed the red hot nozzles of flamethrowers directly into my eye holes. Like running wax the flesh of my eyes melted and ran out of the sockets. My face felt like someone was repeatedly smashing it with a sock full of razor blades.  Only martial pride kept me from piteously vocalizing the sensation. 

Strobing got me in the general direction of the first station. Spitting and blowing the molten spray from my mouth, I closed with the pad wielding Marine and began delivering vicious horizontal elbow strikes as instructed. Fortunately at close range you don't really need to see what your are hitting so strobing was happily suspended.

Strobing my way to the next station I clinched with the pad man to deliver knee strikes. I pulled the Marine in as close as I could and rubbed my head and face all over his. Cross contaminating him as much as possible, I was rewarded with a hearty expletive. If there's one thing about Marines, we're not selfish and are always willing to share.

I felt someone reach for my pistol and repaid his effort with an arm bar take down. This was followed with a wrist lock punctuated by roughly planting my knee on his neck. Zaitoichi was a sissy! I was my very own blind gunslinger.

My memory of the rest of the drill is mostly suffering and strobing through various stations. There were intermittent moments of very brief satisfaction as I got to hit someone or twist their joints painfully. When I say brief I mean I mainly recall running around "strobing" while imps sheathed ice picks into my retina. 

Once the drill was blessedly complete we were allowed to decon our eyes and face for two minutes with a water hose. The sensation of cool water running over my skin was the caress of a fair maiden. As the water rinsed my eyes it felt like two very hot coals were being extinguished and made me want to sigh with relief. This was all a dirty, dirty trick.

As soon as the water shut off it was as if someone had hit me full in the face with a bucket of burning pitch.  It was only with a supreme effort of will I managed to keep myself from screaming into the tree line and gouging my eyes out with twigs.

That evening I watched as all the urban legends concerning pepper spray treatment were proved false by Marines searching for relief. It would appear the only cure for oleoresin capsicum is time. I spent the evening on my hotel balcony in the cool fall air.

Grudgingly, I have to admit to a lesson learned here too. On the battlefield, as in life, pain is merely part of the terrain and not a reason to fold up and quit. We are capable of functioning quite well even when impaired or hurt. I think I prefer being kneed in the groin though. 

And finally, if anyone ever pepper sprays me I am going to break a telephone pole over their back. 

Semper Fidelis,
America's 1stSgt   

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Everybody was kung fu fighting...

Quantico, VA. Marine Corps Martial Arts Program Instructor Trainer Course waaaaaaaaaaay back in Oct 2001.

The major philosophy of MCMAP is the synergy of mental, physical, and character disciplines. Ideally, honing these three aspects develops a complete warrior.

How were we developed into a complete Martial Arts Instructor Trainer package? Mostly we had the living excrement beat out of us for seven weeks. We were punched, kicked, hip tossed, and hurled to the earth repeatedly. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like being struck with a planet, trust me. We brawled with bayonet trainers, batons, knives, and even tried to drown one another in the pool. Sometimes the air was saturated with a fine mist of pepper spray. Good ol’ oleoresin capsicum. Spicy! It’s an interesting experience to be low crawling face down in the ground and suddenly realize: “Wow, they pepper sprayed the grass for us!” It was a thoughtful gesture.

Bad as all this might seem, if you showed “…a little swing and a little hang…” with a splash of character and an aptitude to instruct, you would graduate. It was by no means easy though.

I had a chance to show some character once. During a sparring session my “partner” drove his knee through my groin directly into my spleen. The blow landed just to the left of any truly vulnerable bits but my brain housing group was convinced it was a mortal wound: “Warning! Warning! We’ve been hit in the junk with a jackhammer! Initiate thumb sucking immediately!”  

Portions of my higher brain function began to shut down and commence fetal operations. Alas, an irate command penetrated the static haze of “quit” engulfing me.

“You’re not done!” I looked over in disbelief at the source of this absurd statment only to see a black belt instructor trainer pointing at my opponent as if to say: "He's over there idiot."

Incredulous I would stop fighting merely because someone had punted my undercarriage into the grand stand, our instructor made feral noises in his throat indicating we would continue mauling each other. Denied the blessed opportunity to hug the mat, self pity and snot bubbles were replaced with a hurricane of punches and kicks. If I couldn’t wallow in pain I would certainly cause some.

I don’t recall much about the actual outcome of the bout itself but the lesson remains. Don’t stop fighting until the fighting is through. No matter how bad it hurts there is always enough juice left for one more shot.

Next time you are pushng the limits of your physical capability remind yourself:  Has your mind quit? Because your body hasn’t.

Semper Fidelis,
America’s 1stSgt

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Walking Dead: There's No Crying In The Zombie Apocalypse!

Last week began the highly anticipated second season of AMC's The Walking Dead. Great show, love it. But they never do what America's 1stSgt would do in a post apocalyptic, zombie slaying scenario. It really chaps my hide.

*SPOILERS* (If you haven't watched it yet I only have derogatory comments to make about you.)

Fifteen minutes into the season premiere and the "survivors" were already pissing me off. Let me count the ways:

1. How about 360 degrees of security?

    Last season their camp was over run by the ravenous undead because security sucked. Seems they learned nothing from this incident and stop on a highway jammed with abandoned cars. As they loot the vehicles for fuel and gear (and spare parts because their RV has broken down too. Surprise!) the guy on over-watch somehow misses the shambling HORDE of zombies lurching up from behind them. How in the world they didn't drive through this same herd of undead earlier is left up to the viewer to figure out.  At any rate, a little vigilance on the part of the characters would be nice especially considering two of them are cops.

2. Ever hear of the word reconnaissance?

    They have one guy on a Harley as forward recon (real stealthy) and they get all jammed up on the highway before he comes back to tell them there is no way through. Kind of defeats the purpose. I am also not jazzed about riding a motorcycle around during the Zombie Apocalypse in the first place. I suppose it's a personal choice.

3. When the zombies come they decide the best course of action is to get under the cars. WTF?

    Get under the cars? How about get in the cars you clowns? Better yet, get off the road and into the tree line.  I will say hiding under the dead bodies was brilliant. For me the hero of the show is Daryl even if I think he is dumb for riding a motorcycle.


4. How is it almost everyone in their group remains unarmed? They're in AMERICA.

    Seriously, if you are in the land of the Second Amendment during the Zombie Apocalypse and are unarmed it is your own stinkin' fault. When almost everyone is (un)dead there will be guns and ammo everywhere. Try a Wal-Mart for heavens sake.

5. If you don't want your gun taken away then you shouldn't put it down. EVER.

   The Havamal, the book of Viking wisdom, advises never to take a step without your weapons. In the Marine Corps we call this weapons accountability. When zombies stalk the streets this is called common freakin' sense!

6. Those dumb enough to lose their guns should not expect to get them back, especially if they have tried to kill themselves last season.

   During the Zombie Apocalypse the proper response to members of the group who are demanding guns but have demonstrated suicidal tendencies in the past is: "We are not wasting good bullets on humans just now. Here is some rope and I see plenty of trees. Either way just get busy and quit bitching." 

7. America's 1stSgt is a combat tracker and would not return to camp without your little girl.

    Tracking at night is indeed impossible. However, a good tracker will "sleep on the spoor" and continue at first light. Zombies be damned.

In the end I think the band of survivors in The Walking Dead are completely lacking in good order and discipline. What they could use is one of these:



Semper Fidelis!
America's 1stSgt

Monday, October 17, 2011

This is what we call a no $#!*ter.

Been wondering of late why TV and movie writers can’t seem to create anything worth the paper it’s written on? It’s because real life is more fantastic than the made up stuff by far. Was hanging out with some of my fellow 1stSgts recently and was regaled with a story too good to be made up.  

It was fine spring morning in the Company Headquarters when a young Marine marched smartly to the 1stSgt’s office asking to speak with him. The good 1stSgt, relishing the opportunity to interact with one of his troops, invited him in.

Marine: “Good morning 1stSgt, I’d like to take a week of leave.”

1stSgt: “Sure. What’s going on?”

It was a fair question. Often Marines request to take some leave to attend a buddy’s wedding, family reunion, sibling’s graduation, or other milestones we often miss while otherwise deployed and bayoneting the forces of evil. As leaders we kind of like to know what’s going on in our Marine’s lives.

Marine: “I need to waste this dude back home. He’s been messing with my mom.”

1stSgt: “What?”

Marine: “Should be able to take care of it in about three days or so. I just need to handle my business.”

1stSgt: “Are you kidding me?”

Marine: “Well, I didn’t want to go UA [AWOL]. So I figured I’d ask to take leave first.”

1stSgt, reaching for the phone: “The SgtMaj is never going to believe this.”

It’s a scene you’ll never see on TV. I guarantee it.

Semper Fidelis!
America’s 1stSgt

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Genuine Leatherneck

I've been on the road recently but had the opportunity to stop by the National Museum of the Marine Corps the other day. Walking through the Iwo Jima exhibit I had the honor of meeting Frank Matthews, a docent at the museum who participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima when he was only 18 years old.

Frank Matthews, genuine leatherneck.
In his late 80's Frank is the only Iwo vet working in a National Museum anywhere in the United States. In World War II Frank was a Private First Class with 24th Marines, 4th Marine Division and  the only surviving member of his platoon. Here he is talking about the landing:

It is always great to engage Marine veterans when the opportunity arises. You never know what nugget of history you will glean. Frank took a little time to share a quick story from after the battle when they got back aboard ship.

His 1stSgt ordered him to report to the galley for mess duty. Young Frank decided to roll the dice. Besides, after 36 days of combat, what's the worst that would happen?

"1stSgt, you can't send me to the galley." This quite naturally began to stir the cauldrons of fury all Marine 1stSgts keep way down in the belly. Through gritted teeth the 1stSgt demanded clarification.

"1stSgt, I'm the only surviving member of my platoon. That makes me the acting platoon commander. You can't send an acting officer to work in the galley."

Frank related that his 1stSgt burst into full belly laughter, "...probably exactly what he needed." Then he turned back to the young PFC.

"Matthews, get your tail down to the galley. I don't care if you act like a Colonel down there."

Seems relations between 1stSgts and their Marines haven't changed much since the Old Corps.

Another gem from Frank:

I envy any Marine who is able to tell a story involving a flame thrower.

Semper Fi!
America's 1stSgt

Monday, October 3, 2011

Day of the Pili-pili Gas.

American Embassy, Bujumbura, Burundi.

Back in 1995 I was a corporal serving with the Marine Security Guard detachment in Bujumbura. Buj is the capitol an interesting nation just south of Rwanda. They shared similar ethnic cleansing issues between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen along with cultural pastimes like taking a machete to their neighbor, shooting up villages with AKs, and an event we liked to call The Night of 1000 Hand Grenades. While normally this kind of violence was not directed at Americans it didn't pay to be hanging around the bus stop during a drive by hand grenade-ing. 

Periodically the embassy staff would conduct a tabletop emergency action drill covering various scenarios involving things like rioting, attacks on the embassy, etc. As part of one particular drill the Marines reacted to the embassy to conduct some internal defense. In full battle rattle we smoothly took our positions throughout the small two-story building in order to have a 360 degree view of the compound which we shared with the national bank.

Our protective gear included a Kevlar helmet and flak jacket festooned with pockets and pouches filled with assorted ammo for our shotguns and .357 revolvers. In two back pouches we carried canisters of CS (tear gas). These resembled a small plastic can of coffee with a pin and spoon set-up which dispensed approximately 100 grams of CS powder. Some of this equipment was older than we were, particularly the CS canisters.  After years of bouncing around in those pouches the plastic parts holding the pins begin to wear out and crack.

In the Detachment Commander's office one of the Marines settled in a chair taking an overwatch position. He heard a soft 'pop' and looked down to see he was suddenly covered in a thin blanket of green powder. One of the canisters had gone off in his gear and doused him in CS. CS "gas" isn't really a gas so much as aerosolized crystals. The sharp edges of the crystals are what cause irritation particularly to soft tissue areas like the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract.  They are a lot of fun at parties.

The Marine at Post 1 later related all he saw was a chair fly out of the Det. Commander's office followed by a set of flak gear being hurled into the hallway. Then came the unfortunate owner of the faulty canister as he sprinted down the hall toward the front door of the chancery.

"I knew I had to get out of there before the CS hit me." Valiantly he hit the first crash bar on the inner door leading to the waiting area. As he hit the second crash bar of the front door he collapsed in a heap as the full force of an entire canister CS took affect. Crawling, he slowly clawed his way toward an outside faucet finally turning the water on his face and lay there inert, like a snail liberally sprinkled with salt.

Noting a CS canister had gone off inside the building, Post 1 donned his field protective mask and immediately began ordering everyone to evacuate the bottom floor.  Being human, everyone strode from their nearby offices indignantly demanding to know why they had to leave, particularly the local nationals who no doubt had never experienced or considered the effects of tear gas.

"Why? Why must we…Arrgh! *cough* Run away! *retch*!" Now fleeing, the gagging, snot flinging mob clawed out their eyes as they spilled into the small parking area between the embassy and the bank.

Our Det. Commander was a Staff Sergeant the Foreign Service staffers knew as Bernie. Bernie was not widely regarded as the sharpest bowling ball in the drawer. He calmly approached the Regional Security Officer during the emergency action drill in the upstairs conference room and merely said: "We've got a little problem downstairs."  Thinking one of the Marines probably injured himself, the RSO made it about half way down the stairwell:

"So what's the…gah!…Aw Bernie!…You dick!" Bernie never did get that license to practice brain surgery.

By the time I got the word it was: "We need you downstairs. You might want to put your mask on."

After surveying the carnage we opened a large side door to the building and began to decontaminate the first floor. In this case decon consisted of throwing the chair and flak jacket outside and sweeping and swabbing the deck. As a side note, readers may find it interesting in the world of chemical, biological, and nuclear incident response, hot soapy water and bleach are the number one decontaminating agents for most situations. Radioactive alpha and beta particles? Hot soapy water over here please!

We swept the CS powder out of the side hatch in great billowing clouds. Being Africa, most folks leave their windows open for fresh air. We cleared the national bank out in a matter of minutes. A local military commander even called our RSO later and remarked: "So I hear the Americans are attacking the bank."

Cultural differences are interesting to watch. In the United States it is considered quite rude to stare at people. Within the brain housing of alpha males such as you find in the Marine Corps, staring must mean you want to fight. In Africa and other places worldwide staring at folks isn't viewed in the same manner. I couldn't say why, but in Central Africa, anything a mzungu (foreigner) was up to was worth the time to hang around and check out. Certainly a mzungu wearing a gas mask and carrying a broom was far too interesting to ignore; as such local guards and a small crowd gathered along the back fence.

So intense was their interest they never once did the math and figured out their noses were running and eyes itched because of what we were doing. I laughed to myself as they continued to rub their eyes and sniffle while crowding in to get a better look. Being the young smart ass I was, I kicked up as much dust as my broom would allow.

At one point a man with his shirt pulled over his nose and mouth ran from the bank to his car. Once safely in his vehicle he rolled down the window before pulling away. We never did find out how well it worked out for him.

Once we had cleaned up the gross contamination the embassy staff was able to return to their offices on the ground floor. Some remarked they could still smell the "pili-pili gas" as they pointed to their noses. Pili-pili is an African hot sauce, very spicy. I thought the comparison was hilarious.

In the end what is really important is to note a handful of Marines with one CS canister can shut down an entire city block and a national banking institution in a single afternoon.  Imagine if we really meant it!

Semper Fidelis!
America's 1stSgt