I was so damn tired.
I was the only man in a two-man foxhole, my buddy long gone to a squad leader’s meeting at the command post leaving me to pull guard duty alone through the night to the next morning. I had never been so sleep-deprived in my life – several times I had to hold back from sounding the alarm after seeing what I thought were giant Neanderthal aliens.1
Welcome to ROTC Spring Camp.
The BYU ROTC program in 1974 was much more rigorous than I’d expected, with a strict discipline that lingered from an earlier time when the looming specter of conscription put teeth into the threat of being ‘dropped from the program’. The abrupt change from the more easy-going first-names-only program at Ricks College threw me off but I quickly got up to speed with spit-shined boots, starched fatigues and an ego surrounded by mental sandbags.
Truth be told I needed something to throw myself into, and the French Foreign Legion was not recruiting at the time. I had been riding high during my last semester in Rexburg, but then in a twist that would make any soap opera proud I went through a broken engagement, a missed application deadline and an equally disastrous rebound relationship that left me marooned in Provo for a semester, living in a dank basement apartment with five strangers and a totally useless line-up of classes at a university that I never, ever wanted to attend.
Looking back it should have been no surprise that I got heavily involved in the ROTC program. It was the one place at BYU that I was able to make friends, it provided my shattered pride with positive reinforcement through the butt-load of merits I earned during tactical lab exercises, and it generally formed a band-aid over the gaping emotional wound left from the break-up. If there was a downside it was the manner in which my overly gung-ho attitude generated antipathy in some of my less motivated squad-mates. I was so caught up in the program that it surprised no one that I volunteered for Spring Camp even though attendance was optional for second year cadets, but to be honest there was little military zeal in my decision. I could see no sense in spending the four days of Spring Break watching the paint dry on the wall of my crappy little apartment.
The camp was held in the desert adjacent to Dugway Proving Grounds and was designed to prepare third year cadets for advanced training at FT Lewis (WA) the following summer. We would participate in a series of tactical problems and training exercises with third year cadets in rotating leadership positions – and though as a second-year cadet my mission was to simply be someone to give orders to, I surprised evaluators when I proved to be much more than just a body to command. Growing up in rural Alaska had given me an excellent set of fieldcraft skills, and I was also more accustomed to rustic living conditions than my proto-yuppie cadet companions.
The training schedule included seventy hours of various exercises leading to a 24-hour long-range patrol designed to be the capstone of the spring camp experience. For me the patrol was anticlimactic as my peak came the previous morning during a squad exercise involving a hasty attack. As mentioned I was slated to be a redshirt2 during the exercise, so I had slipped my mental gear selector into neutral and let my mind wander while we were double-timing to the training site, only to be startled back to life with:
“DEITRICK! SQUAD LEADER!”
“Huh?” (my snappy come-back!)
A squad-mate hissed “You’re the squad leader for this problem!”
Few things in life have terrified me as much as those seven words did. Lack of experience coupled with complete inattention up to that point started my knees knocking and my internal Stukas dive-bombing. After receiving my assignment I stepped aside to devise a plan and write an order but all I could think of was:
- Imminent failure and resultant humiliation
- Swift expulsion from the program
- Prompt transportation to a military prison or penal colony in South America
I was totally >bleeping< lost…and found that coherent speech was not my friend as I began to brief my squad mates, but when I opened the session to questions I inexplicably became more articulate. I was momentarily bewildered at my sudden expertise until I realized what was really happening: I was being indirectly coached by my squad-mates, all third-year cadets (some veterans) who knew their stuff and knew that I didn’t. Rather than belittle me they were subtly carrying me; when I opened the briefing up for questions they’d each ask very detailed leading questions which verbally pulled me into devising a good, professional operation order.
I remember one in particular – a third year cadet with prior service named Don Card. I can visualize every detail of his face picked out in sharp detail by the morning sun to one side with a complex expression on his face that was brave, benign and several other “B’s” all at the same time. I was dumbfounded – competitive grading meant there was no benefit to helping me, yet there he stood, gently nudging me into competence with his leading questions.
I managed to implement the order and lead the squad in a textbook hasty attack that earned me an outstanding spot report, but I had little time to bask in my tactical glory – as soon as we took the objective we were hustled back to our bivouac area to prepare for the aforementioned long-range patrol of which I remember very little. Neither do I remember much about breaking camp or the trip back to campus. Oh, I did get some John Wayne points for carrying the radio for the entire 25 kilometers despite twisting my knee early in the exercise3 but all these years later the one moment I remember the best was the earlier exercise when the other guys elbowed me towards excellence. That little bit of compassion that in turn led to a little bit of positive reinforcement was just enough to push me through an emotional quagmire that could have easily diverted me down a very bad path.
Any study of military science will almost immediately reveal that there is a minimum level of transpersonal commitment an army must have in order to function or even exist, that without a willingness to forego personal comfort and safety for the collective good any group of soldiers can easily devolve into glorified gang members. At the same time products of popular media like Combat, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and Band of Brothers would have us assume such selflessness would always entail dramatic measures like jumping on a hand grenade to save the rest of the squad or something equally extreme in nature. That sunlit morning in the spring of 1974 taught me that sometimes selflessness measured in very small doses can do just as much good as the grand gestures.
- …from the first season Star Trek TOS Episode “The Galileo Seven”
- Star Trek term for an expendable crew member
- While attending the basic course as a second lieutenant five years later I ran into our cadet lane grader (now an active duty captain) attending the advanced course. He still remembered the incident and my rather coarse response when he asked if I wanted a medivac after the injury. He laughed and said, “Right there I knew you were going to make through the program!”