If there is one word to describe Victory Forge (VF), it’s abominable. Our drill and platoon sergeants taught us to embrace the suck; get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. VF was the mother of all suck in Basic Combat Training. By telling you our story, my hope is to inspire you to believe that you can endure struggles, however minute or extreme they may be, as long as you readjust your mindset and never stop pushing.
On a balmy South Carolina afternoon in our layers of elbow and knee pads, fliks, and uniform, my fellow soldiers and I loaded into four white buses to VF. We were prepared to enter an assimilated war zone, and utilize the warrior skills we developed throughout our training. We knew the other company was out there, waiting to ambush us. Knots in my stomach tightened as our bus approached the entrance to our campground.
Are they lurking beyond those trees? Will they follow and attack from the rear? Are we strong enough to fight back?
All of these thoughts raced through my mind when we filed out of the bus and listened to our drill sergeant brief us on the obstacle ahead.
“Alright, Privates. The games have begun,” he said.
From this moment forward, my memory is a little fuzzy. We marched in columns of two along a dirt road, scanning the woods. It seemed as though we were walking for miles with sweat dripping down our brows. Our platoon marched in the back, but we still easily heard the whistling sound of a (dummy) missile coming straight toward us.
“INCOMING!” We shouted and dropped to our bellies, cradling our rifles. After the explosion, I heard (blank) rounds firing in the distance. We jumped to our feet and stayed low as we moved forward. Although I never saw an enemy, I anticipated an encounter everywhere we went. Even as we arrived to our campsite where we were going to post for the next three nights, I was on high alert.
My battle buddies and I were given our orders to dig our hasty’s (a two-three man shallow hole). We only had about three hours of daylight left to trade-off digging, eating an MRE, pulling security (laying in the prone behind our weapon) and utilizing the latrine (bathroom). As darkness crept over our area, our reassurance of sleep dwindled. Our drill sergeants gave us instructions to fill sandbags that we would use to dig our deliberate (a deeper firing position). We couldn’t believe they were ordering us to continue working through the night.
When we rose the next morning, stiff from laying on roots and dirt, we savored a brief baby wipe shower and another MRE for breakfast. The humidity arrived way too early while we started digging our deliberate which needed to fit all three of us. Most of the others only had to dig their holes big enough for two. All afternoon into the evening, we soaked in our sweat, the sand from our holes, and warrior paint we smeared on our faces. I convinced myself, for whatever stupid reason, that our drill sergeants wouldn’t make us sleep in our deliberates. I was about to have a rude awakening. Literally.
We positioned ourselves in our deliberate. My battle buddies posted on the side while I squeezed my wide hips in the middle. I wasn’t even tall enough to stand completely straight. Leaning over my weapon which peaked out of a tiny hole, I felt the air clutch onto my throat. I removed my long-sleeved blouse and took a few deep breaths that didn’t serve me. Panic set it. I remember crawling over my battle buddy, and trying desperately to get the hell out.
This was a funny moment later when I found out that our really cool drill sergeant had wandered by and saw me sprawled out on the ground beside our deliberate.
I knew that I had a panic attack when I couldn’t differentiate between the stars circling my head or the ones in the night.
Minutes later, rounds fired off in a nearby platoon. Instantaneously, my battle buddy, the one who so kindly allowed me to crawl over her, helped me back into the hole. Again, we saw no action but heard shots all around us. The waiting almost seemed as distressing as being shot at.
I had fallen asleep standing up with my head on my rifle. My lower back, shoulders and neck ached. Even though we traded pulling security for an hour while the other slept, we each maybe only slept for a total of one or two hours. We tried our hardest not to allow irritation and exhaustion get the best of us. We had come this far. We knew we had only one night left, so we were going to make the best of it.
This was our time to either soldier up or fall out. The latter wasn’t an option for us. Since our drill sergeants fought over the lack of missions and time wasted in the field, we were able to use the day to adjust our deliberate and make it easier to rest in. The guys in the holes next to us were genius and carved out chairs to sit in! Why we didn’t think of that, I have no clue. But we were mightily impressed by how they could take a terrible situation and make something great out of it.
Our final night was approaching, and we knew this was going to be the night our platoon was getting attacked by either another company or by our own drill sergeants. We were getting ready to settle into our deliberate when our drill sergeant told us to hurry to F*** up and get into formation; a thunderstorm was coming and it was coming quickly.
I had never been within close proximity of a lightning bolt until this very night. Alpha Company huddled underneath an LPA (lightning protection area) with our assault packs and weapons. A flash of hope came over me, thinking our enemies would subside for the night and the worst of VF was over. Once again, my optimism failed me.
On the bleachers, I laid down with a poncho spread out on top of me and closed my eyes, pretending to wait out the storm like the other 100 and something of us. I started to accept the devastating and inevitable outcome that we would have to march back to our drenched holes, and endure the remainder of hell. It was around 11:00 p.m. when this reality sunk in. Through my fogged eye-pro, I searched for my battle buddies and walked back to our hole to prepare for battle.
The air was thick and heavy with dread. How could any of us sleep? We managed to trade off pulling security until around 1 or 2 a.m. when the gas bombs went off.
“GAS, GAS, GAS!!!”
We could hear soldiers sound off all around us. In seconds, just as we had learned, we donned and sealed our gas masks. Because our drill sergeants were low on blank ammo, they had an abundance of smoke grenades to launch at us. The males in the holes beside us had their weapons, which were loaded with blank rounds, snatched by the First Sergeant who shot one of them. The ‘casualty’s’ battle buddy dragged him away and dug him a grave.
Our drill sergeants finally left us alone. The attacks subsided as the sun peaked through the tall trees. We had survived the worst of VF, but there was still the ruck march back home.
Half of our company worked hard to round up all of the equipment and gear into our trucks. I was lucky enough to stay back with our deliberate and fill in the hole. After I was finished, I dozed off and finally got some much needed sleep before our long hike.
Around 5 p.m., our senior drill sergeant checked that we had all of our gear with us. If anything wasn’t where it was supposed to be, we low-crawled across hard gravel. We did just that. Plus, we were smoked for not having tools packed a specific way. Our drill sergeant made us do 3-5 second rushes, and police up all of the trash around the site. I guess you could say that was our warm-up…
We also had to get our holes approved to make sure they appeared as if we were never there. Finally, we were ready to head back to the barracks.
At a moderately fast pace, we marched almost 2.5 miles before taking a 10 minute rest stop to drink water, take a pee break in the woods, and catch our breath. Some were starting to feel faint, even though we were marching at night when it was somewhat cooler. I kept my mind on the prize: a cold shower and a soft bed.
Another 2.5-3 miles and we had reached our halfway point. Lucky us, a storm decided to grace us with its presence. We found shelter under an LPA and waited for it to die down.
The rest of the ruck march was cake, despite my aching feet, tired shoulders, and burned-out state of mind. I made a decision to focus on the finish line.
The drill sergeant needed a four-man front as we crossed the threshold to our barracks, so I sprinted ahead where we lead and finished the 12 mile march, earning the title of an American Soldier.
“Lock and load, Ridder,” he said. “Lock and load.”