An Uncapped Pen

February 4, 2008

Casual Duty – Chapter 11 – Desert Survival Training

Filed under: Writing — cindylv @ 2:51 am
Tags: , ,

Alvarado Hall
Fort Huachuca, Arizona

“Two of the gravest general dangers to survival are the desire for comfort and a passive outlook.” Bridie read through the paragraph on how to overcome her desire for comfort, and stifled a chuckle when she reached the final sentence: “Remember, comfort is not essential.” That must be the Army’s secret motto.

If the past few months were any indication, she was in for four years of discomfort in active duty, and another two in the inactive reserve. It really wasn’t that bad, she thought, if you didn’t mind being too cold, too hot, too tired and too hungry all the time. At least we’re not at war right now, and nobody’s shooting at me. Bridie thought about the possibility of going off to war, living in a foxhole in some foreign country, bombs dropping, shooting her M-16, throwing live grenades and killing people. It seemed like Sergeant Lang, her recruiter never really got around to talking about that part of Army life. He spent most of his time talking about the travel, learning new skills, and all the money for college.

The week since her arrival here had been spent in a whirlwind of briefings and orientation training sessions. Starting last Friday morning, she joined the ranks of the in-processing platoon and marched to personnel, finance, the hospital and dental clinics, the Provost Marshal, the Chaplain, and supply. She’d attended briefings on equal employment opportunity, sexual harassment, re-enlistment bonuses, advanced education opportunities through the Ed center, the importance of proper hand washing techniques to minimize the spread of disease, and support services available from the Army Emergency Relief Office. The location of the Post Exchange and Commissary were noted, along with the Post Office, American Express Bank, Class VI and Military Clothing Sales Stores. A second lieutenant from the post commander’s office detailed the post events requiring standard military customs and courtesy (reveille at 0600, and retreat at 1650 hours.) The Desert Wildlife Garden surrounding Alvarado Hall has been designated as an official “No Salute” zone, due to the overlap between scheduled enlisted and officer training classes.

Bridie flipped back through the pages of her notebook and saw a notation for 1 May, the day post commander officially adopted a sleeves rolled-up policy. Too bad I missed that event, she thought. On 1 June, the post will convert over to the wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT) uniform policy of unbloused boots and untucked uniform blouses to ensure conformance with the Training and Doctrine Command 350-29, Prevention Of Heat And Cold Casualties. She circled the note on her schedule. Now there’s something to look forward to.
Another thing she was looking forward to was eating dinner that didn’t come from the mess hall. Effective that morning, the restrictions on off-post travel were lifted and Val and Roberts promised to take her to Rosalie’s. Val assured her that the bout of food poisoning that caused him to collapse in the street on the way to Sick Call last Friday had nothing to do the food from Rosalie’s. Still, she couldn’t forget the sight of the medics loading him into the back of the ambulance. And two days in the hospital and another three of convalescent leave to recover in the barracks seemed pretty serious to her. Bridie took turns with Roberts hauling trays of bland food back from the mess hall three times a day. This morning they’d all walked over to breakfast together and then Val reported to the clinic to get cleared for duty. Tonight they’d celebrate his recovery and Bridie would get the chance to meet his secret girlfriend, Lucia.

“Some physical conditions contribute to the passive outlook, including exhaustion, prolonged exposure to cold/heat, dehydration, fatigue, weakness and illness. You can avoid these conditions by proper planning and making sound decisions.” Bridie read the next slide. That’s pretty much everything she’d experienced since she reported for Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Maybe this place will be different. The weather certainly seemed nicer. The sun shined every day. Blue skies with puffy white clouds and 95 degrees with no humidity. At home, it was probably still in the 70s, and raining all day, every day. At home, she’d had her own room, with a door that locked. If she wasn’t working that night, she would have the whole apartment pretty much to herself. She shared the bathroom with her Dad, but sharing with one person wasn’t anything like sharing with fifty shrieking women.

“Lack of the will to keep trying can also result in a passive outlook. Lethargy, mental numbness, and indifference creep in slowly, but they can suddenly take over and leave you helpless. The first signs are an air of resignation, quietness, lack of communication, loss of appetite, and withdrawal.” Bridie shook her head to clear the wave of sleepiness settling in. The instructor was droning on about increasing your self-sufficiency with daily practice. By exploring new situations, solving problems, learning to accept the reality of a new situation and taking appropriate action, she, too, could learn to become self-sufficient and reliable in an emergency. “Don’t just sit down and worry. Keep busy!” the instructor implored. “And after break, we’ll cover the keys to survival using the acronym S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L.”

Ooh, she thought. More bullets to memorize! Bridie’s brain ached from memorizing lists of actions to be taken in the event of any conceivable emergency. Sergeant Barrett had never met a situation that didn’t require a list of actions to be taken. She dutifully copied notes from the chalkboard. Size up the situation, your surroundings, your physical condition and your equipment. Undue haste makes waste. Remember where you are – DO NOT rely on others to keep track of the route! Vanquish fear and panic. Improvise. Value Living. Act like the natives. Gain rapport by showing interest in their tools. Bridie smiled as she imagined herself standing in a circle of native aborigines comparing hammers. Live by your wits. The time to learn basic skills is NOW, not when you are engaged in battle.

During morning break, Bridie walked out to the desert landscape garden and read identification plaques on the plants. Palo Verde, Mesquite, Yucca. Where were the oaks, maples, elms or fruit trees? She missed the lake outside her back door, the beach, and even grass. Here in Arizona, everything outside was scraggly or spindly and covered in either reddish-brown dirt or brownish-red dust. Standing outside in the sun, she felt the hairs on her arms stand up and look around for any moisture. She brushed off the layer of dead skin cells that formed when she scratched her arm. If one more person told her, “but it’s a dry heat” she’d scream. “The heat in your oven is dry and the meat still gets cooked, doesn’t it?” A couple more months of this dry heat and I’ll turn into an alligator, she thought as she filed back into the classroom.
The instructor covered the basics of signaling friendly troops using fire, smoke, star clusters, flares, mirrors and other shiny objects, flashlights, clothing, and natural materials such as rocks and vegetation. He relayed stories about downed airmen leaving messages in rice paddies during the Viet Nam war. He suggested that learning Morse code, and basic pattern signals such as close-in visual/body signals and ground-to-air emergency codes would be a good idea. “Of course, a radio is probably the surest and quickest way to let others know where you are. So be sure to learn how to use the radios in your unit,” he concluded.

Late in the afternoon, he took the class outside to demonstrate field expedient methods for determining direction using the sun and shadows. Bridie took her turn pushing the stick into the ground and marking the tip of its shadow with a rock. She and her partner waited about 15 minutes until the shadow moved approximately two inches and then marked the tip of the second shadow. Her partner drew a line from the first mark through and about a foot beyond the second mark as directed.
“Now, stand with your left foot on the first mark and your right foot on the end of the line you drew.” The instructor made his way around the class, correcting body positions as necessary.

Bridie stood with her feet on their marks and waited for him to check her position. “Sounds like Twister,” she muttered under her breath. “Right foot yellow. Left hand blue.”

“If you are in the northern temperate zone, as we are, you will be facing in a northerly direction and can determine the other directions by recalling their relation to north. Now erase those lines, pick up your sticks and switch places with your partner.”

After each soldier demonstrated their ability to find north with their sticks, he described other methods using conventional and digital watches. Back in the classroom, they viewed slide that showed them how to identify the North Star using the Little Dipper, the Big Dipper or Cassiopeia. Bridie closed her eyes and remembered lying on the pier at night, staring up at the stars as she listened to the fish jump.

For the last block of instruction of the day, the instructor clicked through a slide presentation providing detailed lists of animals that bite, insects that sting, plants with spines and needles that prick, and water that makes you sick. “Snakes. No need to fear if you know:
* their habits
* how to ID dangerous kinds
* precautions to prevent snakebite
* treating victims of snakebite”
Well, that certainly made her feel a whole lot better about being stationed in the desert until the last slide: “No single characteristic distinguishes a poisonous snake from a harmless one except for the presence of poison fangs and glands. And only in dead specimens can you determine the presence of these fangs and glands without danger.” The instructor concluded his snake lecture with a line she’d heard almost every day in Basic, “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.”



  1. Wow, that’s a lot of stuff to learn. I really like the last line too. This is a lot of information and I’m thinking you might want to try to get some additional story line woven in here too. We had the question of Val’s recurrent sickness in the last chapter and there was a big hook at the end about a distraction and you didn’t mention it in here — I was hoping to find out what the distraction was for sure, but if you’re going to tell me in chapter 12, I’ll wait!

    Comment by lisakenney — February 4, 2008 @ 6:52 am | Reply

  2. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for your comments. I kinda need your input on what I’m thinking here. This chapter is pretty much sequel – not scene. Some reaction, some thinking about memories on Bridie’s part. But a lot of setting things up for the future.

    The disturbance at the end of Chapter 10 was when Val collapsed in the street and Bride watched him being loaded into the ambulance (as presented here in Chapter 11). Please take another look at it and see if it’s explicit enough to warrant the “hook” at the end of chapter 10. I could probably beef it up in rewrite, if need be.

    The desert survival training tips (info dump) will all be critical to the remainder of the story. I’m sure that I’ll have to cut and/or rework a lot of it after I’ve gotten to those chapters. Part of the info is what will keep her alive. Part of it will be proven to be ridiculous and unworkable in the field (like the direction finding tips).

    And I wanted to emphasize her boredom with the sheer weight of endless inprocessing and training requirements.

    Since Bridie is so “booksmart” and so inexperienced in the field, a big part of the story is her learning how to trust herself and developing her survival skills in the desert.

    I have been trying to write ahead a bit, to be able to understand just how much I needed here, but I decided to go ahead and just post this chapter as is, with the understanding that it will need work…but that will be later. Maybe over a cup of coffee halfway between Colorado and Las Vegas???? ;^D

    Comment by cindylv — February 4, 2008 @ 7:18 am | Reply

  3. Ooooh — hey, I think I’ve been up too long. I didn’t make the connection between the disturbance and then the explanation about Val being taken away in this chapter — my fault, my fault. No more offering suggestions when I’m not well rested! Coffee sounds good to me :) Seriously though, maybe we can chat about our stuff sometime on the phone.

    Comment by lisakenney — February 4, 2008 @ 7:58 am | Reply

  4. OK, I’ve been tossing this around and not sleeping and sitting up and thinking about it…you’re right, Lisa. This chapter reflects my first draft, before I work it all out. I think I’ll back up and rework what’s here for my submittal next week. If I don’t, and I leave it sit here — unworked, I’ll never be able to move forward. (Maybe that’s why I’ve been sitting around stuck for three days, eh?)

    Thanks for your advice!

    Comment by cindylv — February 5, 2008 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

  5. Move forward! Leave it — that’s the whole point off whipping through these a chapter a week. If you start tinkering now, you’ll never get to the end. I insist you leave it alone and rework after you get to the end. I can’t bear to look at any of my stuff after it’s posted because I’ll totally stop and lose all my momentum. You’ve got good stuff in here. Come back to it!

    Comment by lisakenney — February 6, 2008 @ 11:06 pm | Reply

  6. Okay I’m trying to catch up with all of you in turns. The chapter does need a revision, but that’s all. It’s got some great lines in there and the end is terrific.

    And Cindy, there is a reason why we call these, First Draft Ugly.

    Soldier on.

    Comment by Usman — February 7, 2008 @ 11:16 am | Reply

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