In Basic Combat Training 35 years ago, one of the tasks a trainee had to complete was a 12 mile road march with full ruck sack and gear. Without completing it, you could not graduate.
I was an eighteen year old kid, 5 feet 11 inches tall, and weighed all of 125 pounds. I was tall, lanky, and had very little muscle tone at all. I ate like a horse, but it metabolized almost instantly. An M-16 was pretty light but the rest of the equipment was not, and the very word “march” was clearly a misnomer. With my Drill Sergeants, a road march meant a road run. They always told us that to succeed in BCT, we just had to put mind over matter. They didn’t mind and we didn’t matter.
It also didn’t matter that the Drill Sergeant was not carrying a full ruck sack, like we were. So being a sharp soldier who was in great athletic shape, he was comfortable running much of the way on those back roads in Ft. Sill Oklahoma… on that cool crisp autumn morning. The first few miles were not so bad. I was psyched and as ready as could be. We loaded up on carbs in the mess hall that morning, a full breakfast that included pancakes with lots of syrup for energy that would be needed later.
I hung with the group pretty well until about the halfway point. Then I began to fall back a little here and there. As quickly as I would fall back, I would muster up a burst of energy to catch up for a short time. But it would be short-lived. I fell back further and further each time, and found it more difficult to catch up. But somehow, some way, I kept finding ways to get that burst of energy that I so desperately needed to get back with the rest of the men.
Several were trailing back further than me and I witnessed a few just give up, completely exhausted, and unable or unwilling to complete the march. One of the deuce and a half trucks would pick them up and a medic would attend to them. Their fate was a either a ticket home or recycling to another training unit behind us in the cycle, which usually meant two weeks added onto the time.
Around mile 9 or 10, I began to consider doing that. Falling back was easier and catching up was getting far more difficult than I could describe. My feet were so sore. My legs felt numb and I had no idea how I was going to be able to complete this march. I was winded and at times staggering, but still pushing forward with an occasional burst that got me back to within a reasonable distance of the main body of the platoon, most of which were scattered out further by now.
I began to think about how if I could just lay down in the grass, I could stop the pain and misery. I thought about how I gave up my own room at home, going to college, and doing what a lot of 18 year-olds did in their spare time. I began to feel like maybe laying down and throwing in the towel was the best thing for me, maybe I wasn’t cut out for this Army crap. The voice in my head was telling me to lay down and quit, and the truck would pick me up so that I could rest. Each time that voice told me to lay down, I remembered another voice in my head. It was almost at war with the other voice telling me to quit.
Before I left for BCT, my Dad (who was a Korean and Vietnam War Veteran and a POW in Korea) was telling me he didn’t think I had the guts to make it through Basic. He told me I couldn’t hack it, I would either quit or get kicked out. He said I was a wimp and had been made soft by all the comforts that had been afforded to me in my life growing up.
Yeah, he had been drinking a little that night and I later learned he did that on purpose, to motivate me. He was like that. He knew that voice would be playing over and over in my head, at various points during the training cycle and knew I was a stubborn little puke who would use it to show him a thing or two. And he was right. That was the voice that won the war in my head that day. As that voice began to take over, I got more determined despite the fact that my body was giving out.
We were marching to the rifle range that day. Once we got there, we would fire our weapons for the final time to qualify and that would be the last time there, before graduation. And once we finally got sight of the range, I suddenly began to catch a second wind. I saw the destination, I saw the goal. I had marched all that way…. on what I did not know, but once I caught a glimpse of where I was going I was able to muster up everything I had inside me to burst toward the front of the pack.
I hung around up there for a few and drifted back toward the middle. Once we got there it was a very long field that was between the road and the range. The Drill Sergeant looked back and saw how scattered and strung out the platoon was. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy and made everyone drop to the grass and low crawl the rest of the way. But, he had a change of heart for those of us who were in the front half. He walked back to right behind where I was laying in the grass, squirming toward the range, and he told everyone from this point on can get up and walk the rest of the way. Everyone behind that point was to keep low crawling in. My boots were the dividing line.
So I made it. I dug down into the deepest recesses of my heart, soul, and spirit and I found the strength, the energy, and the courage to make it.
I am older now and am on another road march called life. Lately, it’s been tough. There have been many times in the last couple of years where I have just wanted to lay down. There are times when I have thought that I cannot make it much longer.
I fall back, but I still catch back up. I do not lay down, I keep marching.
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with a disease called Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). It’s not as bad as the acute form (ALL) and doesn’t overtake you as fast. But it does not get any better without treatment. For awhile, we watched my counts hover. The symptoms were not good but they were manageable. Bone aches and pains in the bone marrow where the lymphocytes are made, and a generalized fatigue and malaise have been my biggest enemies. But now my counts are going up and I am tired of fighting through the misery of eating Ibuprofen and Vicodin, tired of not having the energy I once had.
My hematologist and my wife want me to start chemotherapy and I have agreed to do this. There is not a good chemo, but it is not the extremely harsh kind. I will not lose my hair and with some pre-medication, I should not experience a lot of nausea except maybe a little during the infusion. It will be two consecutive days per month, for six months. My prognosis is good, I could fight this for years and die from something else. The actress Jill Clayburgh fought this for 20 years and recently succumbed to it.
Although right now I feel like laying down, I assure you all that I will not lay down. I will seek that next burst of strength and energy to complete this march called life, for I am not at the rifle range yet. I may need more than one round later on, as this will not last me forever. But I will keep marching and writing blog posts as I do. And I hope you keep reading.