Civilians often obsess over why soldiers serve, but in combat, all the many reasons are meaningless. What matters is shooting, moving, and communicating, and that’s it.

In garrison, soldiers spend the majority of their time training for war. After one “mass-tactical” night jump onto Fort Bragg’s Sicily Drop Zone that began a two-week field exercise, I linked up with the Huffington Post’s senior military reporter, David Wood, to escort him around the battlespace. A massive summertime thunderstorm swept in and pinned down the entire brigade in the dark on the treeless, slight rise of the DZ. Lightning shattered the blackness with whollop after whollop of seething electricity so that nobody dared to move from wherever they were hunkered down. I held my M4 gingerly as I realized what an excellent lightning rod it would make.

After two hours of drenching rain, a fellow soldier and I borrowed a Humvee and ferried Mr. Wood to his hotel room off post where he dried off and found a good night’s sleep. We returned to the DZ and the rain. It was joyously miserable paratrooper weather. As the saying goes, if it ain’t raining, it ain’t training.

I admire soldiers because they endure long days and nights of tedium, discomfort, and danger in spite of a system that often does not serve them. They provide essential defense for a country that, in spite of its shortcomings, is still the greatest force of good in the world. Why do they do it? Civilians often obsess over why soldiers serve, but in combat, all the many reasons are meaningless. What matters is shooting, moving, and communicating, and that’s it. It’s what forms the bonds of brotherhood—a common goal with common tasks coalescing around a greater good. It no longer matters why you’re doing it, only that you’re doing it.

Soldiers do two things: They go to war, and they train to go to war. There’s a crude saying that succinctly explains the nature of field training in the army: “Hey private, why don’t you hold the chicken and let me fuck it.” That little profanity holds three important truths: That we are a team; there is a proper order and method; and only one of us can be in charge at a time. It implies a certain unpleasantness and contempt for the training but a collective understanding that it will occur regardless.

Role-playing is an essential part of training, but sometimes the role-playing is borderline ridiculous. During a two-week field exercise in the summer of 2011, the new brigade operations sergeant major was furious that staff gear was piling up in his operations tent. “Put it in the sleep tent!” he growled.

Carrying loads of computer and camera gear, Sergeant K and I stumbled around in the dark woods between patches of poison ivy and bands of triple-strand concertina wire, asking every passing paratrooper where the sleep tent was. Nobody knew. Finally we found two soldiers racked out in a patch of red clay and pine needles encircled by white surveyor’s tape.

“This is it, dude,” one of the bleary-eyed, chigger-ridden soldiers moaned. “It’s a notionaltent.”

Alas, the “tent” was outside the foxholes and c-wire perimeter of the base defenses. Well played, Army.  Reminds me of that time at JRTC when a certain LT named O’Ravitz got his Humvee stuck while searching for a POO site and only had a Polk-supplied notional tow strap to extricate the over-loved loaner vehicle out of sucking, real-world mud. That didn’t work, so they brought in a multi-ton MRAP. Into the mud. Almost tipped. Stuck. Sent in an HEMTT wrecker. Stuck. Then the sky opened up with torrential rain. Then the tornado came.

Someone please send us to war.  – SGT MAC

Note about the Author: Michael J. MacLeod is a former US Army paratrooper who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 2008-2013 as a combat correspondent. He is one of the most published military journalists of the last decade and has won dozens of journalism awards including the Army’s 2012 Military Journalist of the Year. For his work during deployment, MacLeod was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, an award normally reserved for soldiers of much higher rank. 

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