The U.S. Navy SEAL motto is: “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.” I have to add: “And Tomorrow Could be Worse – Much Worse.”
Australian Special Air Service (SAS) Captain Dean Pye – administrative commander of SEAL Team One – and I spotted the four-engine C-130 just above the horizon, screaming low and dodging desert hills at the 500-foot elevation – U.S. Navy SEAL team combat jump elevation.
Pye grabbed the radio, and in a loud Aussie tone shouted, “Hey mates. Mighty breezy down here, with 25 mile an hour winds. You see the power lines, right? You don’t want to jump here. I think you’re a bit off course. Check your computer! Look out the window! Lots better places than this, and better times, when the wind dies down. We need to relocate the drop zone.”
“Ahh… Give us, ahh… your, ahh…location on the ground,” the terse, broken, crackling radio reply from the C-130 jumpmaster came back.
Pye threw out a red flare indicating our location, also indicating that the wind was too high at ground level for a jump. It also, hopefully, drew the eyes of the air crew to the high intensity “big electricity” power lines that hummed just beneath them, right along their line of flight.
“They must see the power lines!” I said to Pye.
A Metal Monster
The metal monster boomed over us and arced up and away to the south. I couldn’t believe how agile this monstrous machine was, skimming the desert floor like some out-of-this-world alien buzzard. But then again, it was almost empty, carrying only 13 passengers – a U.S. Navy SEAL team, ready to hop and pop out for a five-day, live-fire desert training operation, pitting them against a company of bad-ass U.S. Marines. This exercise followed a five-day desert survival course I had conducted the previous week, getting the team ready for deployment to the Middle East.
Captain Pye turned to me and sighed with relief. “I knew they’d figure out they were in the wrong place.” Then, to our wide-eyed surprise, the big bird circled around and headed back in our direction.
“Don’t tell me.” Pye looked up in amazement. He radioed the plane again, telling them the wind was high and asked if they saw the power lines. This time, there was no reply. The C-130 dropped down to jump elevation again, right over the lines.
Somehow, communication between us on the ground, the airplane computer, the pilots and the jumpmaster got tangled up in the fog of war training. A huge cargo door swung down from the belly of the beast as it screamed overhead. Thirteen camouflaged blobs hurtled out with T-10 parachutes attached to them, resembling puffs of green smoke with little dolls dangling below, floating just upwind from the only power lines in this part of the Lower Colorado River Desert.
This desert area was a no-man’s land that spread out about 30 miles on either side of the Lower Colorado River and received less than three inches of rainfall a year (the hottest and driest landscape in the U.S., similar to many areas of the Middle East).
The T-10s were barely maneuverable in the winds, especially with 80–100+ pounds of weapons, ammunition, water, survival gear and radios dangling underneath each warrior. The troops grabbed their chute risers, squirming and twisting, trying desperately to steer clear of the deadly, sizzling power. They had jumped too close. Some would miss the lines. Some wouldn’t.
The first jumper, unlucky number one, couldn’t evade the surging, humming, electric catastrophe. He crashed into the lines and immediately grabbed hold of the thick wire, a reflex action taken out of fear of falling 25 feet to the ground.
Captain Pye and I were stunned into immobility. The power lines were 100 yards from us. Rick was swinging back and forth like a drunken robin. Following him into the lines was the team executive officer, his chute oscillating wildly, the shrouds swirling around the hot lines. This yanked him to a stop, 10 feet below the humming current. He hung there for a moment, then looked up and grabbed the risers, shaking them furiously. He fell to the ground in short, jerking movements. He wasn’t hurt, just shook up. He rushed over, directly below his swinging team mate, shouting up at the flailing trooper. “Let go Rick, let go!”
Rick looked down, not sure what to do, then, buzzzzz…snap, crack – a fiery burst of billowing white and orange flames engulfed the dangling man and his chute.
“He got electrocuted. He’s burning up. A dead man for sure,” went through my mind. The fiery ball snapped Captain Pye and me out of our numbness. We dashed for the power lines, Pye screaming into the radio to base operations back at Camp Kerry: “Command, command. Emergency, emergency. Send a chopper and doctor – now!”
The young SEAL went limp and let go of the power lines. He fell in slow, swirling, burning circles to the ground. The shook-up executive officer took a stance under Rick, bracing himself for the descending, on-fire body. He broke the man’s fall and they both crashed into the desert dirt. The exec ripped his own shirt off and, with his bare hands, smothered his teammate’s burning flesh.
I said to myself, “Jesus, we haven’t even started the mission yet. I’m sure glad that ‘yesterday’ was easier than ‘today’.” What I didn’t realize was that this temporary interruption of the operation was only the first of many Murphys to come on this training mission from hell.
When we reached Rick, he was in shock, still alive, barely conscious. He had 2nd and 3rd degree burns over his right arm, chest and back. The smell of burning flesh and clothing made me retch.
Tony, a trained emergency medical technician, who had survived the parachute drop with back injuries, rushed over to us. He wrapped Rick’s arm and chest, stabilizing him with IV’s.
One by one, other jumpers appeared, some limping, others dazed: “What the hell happened? Did you see those goddam wires? What the hell was the jumpmaster thinking?”
When the men hit the hard desert floor, they slammed into their ammunition laden packs at the average neighborhood, 25 mile-per-hour, vehicle speed limit. The resulting controlled crash caused various sprains, contusions, concussions and different states of consciousness among the teammates.
In addition to Rick, two other men were severely injured on the jump. Chief K-Bar had been dragged through a line of Cholla cactus plants. He was covered from head to heel with needle-thin spines. He was stripped on the spot and, one by one, barbed spears were pulled out of his flesh, leaving microscopically thin poisonous sheaths inside his body at each bloody removal point. They would itch and cause pain for days.
Again, to myself, “Are these just everyday happenings in the SEAL team world?”
Another man limped into the gathering point with sprains, possible broken bones, and a concussion.
An administrative halt was called to the operation, and ground team commander Lieutenant Thomas, who had jumped with the men, ordered Rick, K-Bar and the other injured man evacuated and sent to the base hospital. That left the team with 10 SEALs to complete the mission.
The central command back in San Diego wanted to abort the operation. “Too dangerous.” But Mr. Thomas would hear nothing of it.
“SEALs don’t quit when this kind of thing happens. We still have enough men to hit the target. We’re going!” (Mr. Thomas had earned the second highest award in the U.S. military, the Navy Cross, in Vietnam. He had survived a shot-down helicopter crash, and with a bullet-caused broken back, pulled other men to safety, then held off the approaching enemy with a .45 caliber pistol until he and the others were rescued.)
The ammunition and demolition gear of the three evacuated men was divided up among the rest of the team, increasing the weight for each man. It was at this point that I was recruited from being a tag-along observer and evaluator to a team member, and given mortar shells and other ammunition to add to my personal field gear and water. As Mr. Thomas crammed the heavy mortar shells into my pack, the load got to 80 pounds, pushing my boots an inch down into the sand. I went from 5’10” to 5’8”.
“Sooo, Mr. Ganci, you want to see what it’s like to go on a real SEAL team mission? Now’s your chance. Welcome to the team. Oh, and here’s an unloaded M-14 rifle to make it more realistic.”
Now I was just getting a small taste of what SEALs go through, and why their training is so intense. I had done my share of night desert humping before, but not with an 80-pound pack. My load was the lightest, the others humping 90–100+ pounds of dead weight, consisting mostly of the heavy metal that would be hurled with deadly force at the enemy target – a simulated desert air strip, complete with scrap aircraft and vehicle and barracks shells.
Evacuation of the three injured SEALs delayed our departure until early evening. That was okay with me, because it would be cooler on the march. The midday temperature was 120° F.
In the unforgiving desert environment, our night movement avoided the searing sun, the hot blowing wind, the radiating rays from the light ground surface and the ground temperatures, which can be 20–40 degrees hotter than the surrounding air temperature. Our desert camouflage was extremely hard to see. We had the element of surprise and carried night vision gear. We were hoping the enemy – a company of U.S. Marines – wouldn’t be that alert, nor expecting unfriendly visitors at 3 a.m.
Human Coyotes in the Desert
For me, it was an immense honor to be humping along in the sand with this elite band of human “coyotes,” who were bent on causing mayhem and destruction to the simulated enemy airfield site, on the darkest of a no-moon night, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the summer, in July.
The SEALs really are the “coyote packs” of desert special warfare operations, in that they are adaptable, cunning, wily, motivated, committed and focused on their mission, and can adapt to a wide variety of environments. They depend on stealth, surprise, mobility, speed and individual excellence to “hit like lightning,” then disappear, just like wild coyotes – the top dog of all canines in its craftiness and cunning. An old rancher once told me: “Hell, them kiyots are the smartest critters out there. One ‘a them damn canine varmints with one leg gone and half his brains shot out is smarter than any ranch dog I ever had.” The old rancher could have been describing what we would become, as we would lose the legs and brain power of five more men along the route to the target due to the many real world “No Easy Day” episodes that were waiting for us. But, then again, the SEALs like it when the odds are against them. Mr. Thomas reveled in it.
We humped nine miles in silence that first night. There was no conversation except in whispers and Mr. Thomas didn’t even like that. The only rest breaks were water breaks, when Thomas put up his hand. This happened with increasing frequency. The men were beginning to realize they would need more water than they had anticipated. They were carrying at least three gallons apiece, but that would not be enough.
As a contracted desert survival instructor for the U.S. Special Warfare Command, I had advised them about the team’s great need for water the team, if conducting this type of clandestine, unsupported ground operation in Middle East deserts. I had spent a lot of days and nights in the deserts of the southwest on long distance climbing, running and trekking escapades and had underestimated my water needs enough times to learn this. In addition, I was studying heat, dehydration and fatigue stress at Arizona State University.
When the Navy hired me, I tried to convince them that “Water should be considered a tactical weapon – the same priority as ammunition. Water is a biological imperative down to the cellular level. The enemy will be 100 percent hydrated. The SEALs should be as close to that as possible.”
“Show us,” the command responded. So, that’s what I did on the pre-exercise survival courses. But a real, live-fire operation with men carrying 100-pound loads is quite different than a simple worse case survival course – a lot different. Most of the potential hazards on the controlled course were addressed ahead of time. Not so on a real operation like this one, when conditions change due to enemy action, limits on tactical decisions, bad parachute jumps, pissed off desert gods and… honey bees. Did I say honey bees? Oh yes, as we shall see.
The heavy night-humping, water-consuming trek went on until a couple of hours before dawn, when we found a seven-foot high, north-facing arroyo bank that would provide us with all-day shade during the first heat-numbing, 12-hour hole-up. Since the ground at the base of the bank was always in the shade, we dug down six inches into the soil where it was as much as 10–15 degrees cooler, and a bit damper. That made the sitting, sweating, 120-degree, daytime bivouac more bearable, allowing a bit of rest, interspersed with cat naps. Ever mindful that the enemy U.S. Marines were on the prowl, looking for us, we alternated watches on the edge of the wash, keeping conversation to a whisper.
Desert Wildlife Have More Sense Than SEALS
We watched shadows slowly move across the sand toward the much desired evening time when the searing sand, oven-hot wind and blue-blank skies would cool off, when we would cool off, when we would make our next move.
The relentless desert day heat baked all life on the mostly featureless, brown, black and yellow landscape. Just sitting there, covered in desert camouflage, we soaked up enough heat to sweat all day, losing precious water by the minute. I felt like a biscuit baking in an oven. But SEALs are trained for this kind of suffering boredom, as I labeled it. As they always said: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.”
Our only distraction was observing local wildlife and how they adapted to the desert. We watched a thin, scraggly, yellow-eyed coyote escape the heat by slinking into his cool den up on the hill across from us. He glanced down at us briefly, as if to say: “Dudes, you should crawl into a hole, like me. A lot cooler in here.”
A desert jackrabbit dug down into the dirt and burrowed in under a creosote bush, sliding sideway as it followed the shade of the bush from east to west, his huge ears extended, dissipating heat to the desert air. We watched a kangaroo rat scrape out a hole along the side of another bush, kicking the sand away with its uncommonly huge back legs. He, too, disappeared into his cool den. We saw spiders and all manner of creepy, crawlies dashing down tiny dirt holes as the sun leaned over them.
It became apparent that these desert critters, like so many others, didn’t work during the day. They sought environments that were 20–30 degrees cooler than the desert surface. Daytime was siesta time. Most of them were waiting until night to do their hunting, just like we were. We envied the critter-miners and their underground escapes. A cave would have been the best location for us to coil up in, too, the coolest place in the desert. The only problem would be the probability that other coiled, slithering creatures had the same idea, some of them able to strike faster than the SEALs.
There was some whispering among us regarding the jackrabbit and what a nice Brer Rabbit stew he would make. But that would require water we couldn’t afford to lose, and we would have to talk Mr. Thomas into it. No chance.
As we had learned on the desert survival course, food is a low priority when water is in short supply. Food has weight, as well as requiring extra water to digest it. We learned that four days on minimum rations had little effect on the team’s efficiency. The SEALs were always in Iron Man physical condition, anyway.
Hunger? Sure, but the body transitions onto its reserves of fat and other nutrients to keep body efficiency up for that short amount of time. That hunger increases sight, sound and smell sense awareness – valuable attributes when dodging, or looking for bad guys.
At dusk, as if to signal it was time to go to work, the wiry desert dog came out of his den just as we were getting ready to make our move. He moved faster than we – much faster. But he didn’t have to heft heavy loads on his back and crunch along dry washes for another nine-mile hump, sweating all night and draining water canteens. He knew where the water was. We didn’t. We were beginning to wish we did.
When the team decided to jump into the desert with three gallons of water in their packs, I told the command the men would need twice that amount – or more – on this type of mission, in this temperature. They would need to find a cache or well somewhere. Of course, both of those options would increase the chance of detection. The command decided that the SEALs should try to accomplish the mission with what they could carry. Big Problem! Many of the water containers broke on the high-impact jump, narrowing down the chances of completing the mission without a resupply – a warning of things to come.
We picked up the sounds of Marine jeeps as they groaned around the sand flats, vainly searching for evidence of our night moves. Those groans led us to the location of the simulated airfield target, around midnight. We found another good arroyo lay-up spot about a mile from the target and burrowed into the dirt like our friend, Brer Rabbit.
Mobile “Big Eye” Unit
Mr.Thomas sent two, two-man recon teams slithering along the sand to survey the objective, getting as close a look as possible with night vision scopes, avoiding the Marines’ security patrols. It would be a huge feather in the Marines’ helmets if they compromised the elite SEALs before we even hit the target. We were not going to let that happen.
Mr. Thomas, himself, would be part of one recon team. Like many SEAL Team leaders, he led from the front to gather his own intelligence and make first hand decisions regarding the strike. Thomas would determine the route we would follow the next night, when we would crawl to within 200 yards of the base, the effective range of the “little weapons of mass destruction” we carried.
Andy and Tom made up the second recon team, approaching the target from a different direction while the rest of us stayed back in the wash, on constant alert in case either recon team was spotted. What we didn’t know was that the Marines had what was called “The Big Eye,” large night vision screens that covered a much wider area than simple goggles. That’s what compromised Tom and Andy as they crept up on the small airfield.
A mobile “Big Eye” unit spotted their movement, went ballistic and lit them up with spots and started firing at them (blanks, of course). Tom and Andy immediately transitioned into the escape and evade mode, running and jumping over berms, dodging through washes, keeping low and avoiding the patrol. They headed for a pre-planned hiding spot, away from our position, so as not to lead the pursuers close to us.
The rules of the game said that because they were spotted, they were dead. This put them out of the mission and reduced our assault team to nine warriors, myself included.
When Mr. Thomas crawled back to us, he was furious that the two men had let themselves be seen and let us all know this in his customary cursing and fist-pounding way. We cringed under the verbal onslaught, but this would be one of many “No Easy Day” events that drew his outcries on this operation. The lecture was over quickly and we dropped back into the cat-napping and water sipping mode, sipping from our last canteen. Three gallons goes fast on this kind of hike.
I dozed off and remember waking up to a faint buzzing sound, like a faraway chain saw. It was first light, that in-between night and day time when one is most relaxed and wanting more sleep. The buzzing got louder and flew past my face. I pried open my eyes and caught sight of two honey bees streaking back and forth along the row of dozing SEALs… Ah, yes the bees.
The two disappeared over the arroyo bank and I fell back into that half sleep, half awake state of dream time. I was pouring a gallon of ice tea down my throat and all over my body, when Big Buzzing woke me up again, this time much louder and stronger. I popped awake to the realization that we were being attacked by a swarm. The two earlier visitors had been recon bees, doing just what we were doing, scouting a target. After their scout, they brought back the full attack elements from their hidden hive, armed with loaded stingers. “SEAL bees,” I called them.
Attack of the Bees
The rest of the team woke up with a jump, realizing they were under siege from zooming, buzzing, ferocious, yellow and black flying machines who were searching for, guess what? Water, water, water – liquid, moisture. The bees, like us, were victims of a record drought year, even less rainfall than the three-inch average. All critters and plants in this desert were desperate for water, just like we were to become, and anything that provided it was fair game. We were that fair game this day – this harder day than yesterday?
Bees landed on us with wild abandon, on hands, face, noses, ears, neck, head, searching for anything wet. Brushing them away was fruitless and resulted in multiple stings. We grabbed our packs and pulled out head netting, throwing it over our faces, tucking it down into our shirts. It didn’t matter. The bees were all over the netting, searching for a way to get to face moisture. When we reached for our canteens, they swarmed around the canteen neck, trying to get in. We had to slip the canteens under the netting, quickly slosh down water, put the cap back on and then slam the canteen back in the pack. Some of the little bastards were waiting for that and zipped under the netting. That required us to sit perfectly still while tiny bee-feet tip-toed across sweaty bare noses, mouths and ears. It was maddening. Everyone got stung – multiple times. The worst case scenario was when we had to pee. The bees followed the urine stream right back up into our pants. We developed a patented technique of peeing on the run, where we would trot down the wash, urinating and swatting bees as we ran, trying to out-maneuver them, to no avail. Team executive officer, Mr. Lindsey, lost his cool and went running down the wash, screaming and cursing and swatting, giving the rest of us a much needed laugh and reason for good-natured verbal harassing of the frustrated exec.
Two men fell victim to venom poisoning – nausea, headaches, swelling, dizziness – one man getting 17 stings. Once again, the command called an administrative halt to the mission. For the second time, they wanted to cancel the training mission. For the second time, Mr. Thomas informed them that “failure was not an option” and that we were going to finish this play, even with half the actors gone. Thomas did not understand the word “no” – he was a Navy SEAL!
The two bee-poisoned men were evacuated, along with Tony, the team medic, who was suffering from the lingering back injury he had sustained on the parachute jump.
“God, what irony!” I thought to myself. I envisioned headlines: “U.S. Navy SEAL Team compromised by honey bees.” I could only imagine what the mainstream media would do with this kind of story. But then I realized the SEALs and other developing U.S. military special warfare units were still classified and the media hadn’t discovered them yet.
This left us with six men to hit the target, less than half the original team. We were also out of water now. A water cache was brought in with the evacuation vehicles. Once again, the need for adequate water planning for this type of mission became evident – “Nobody can walk through the wall of dehydration. Not even Navy SEALs.
We would now become that rancher’s damn “kiyote.” Only now, we had two legs gone and more than half our brains shot away!
At dusk, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the damn bees left. We licked our wounds, literally, and made final plans for the night attack. We napped on and off until midnight, keeping scope vision on the Marines and their movements.
We wanted to be on target about 3 a.m., deep-sleep time for the Marines. We would fire up the target, escape and evade to the foothills another half mile away, and then melt into the desert mountains, where we would hole up the next day, eluding the trackers and, hopefully, the bees.
At the midnight hour, we tightened up sleeves and pant cuffs, slipped on protective gloves, buttoned our desert fatigues up to the neck, and slipped over the bank to become one with the desert – one with Wile E. Coyote, sneaking up on the elusive Roadrunner.
“RED, RED, RED” Attack
Thomas led our low crawl along shallow creek beds, stopping intermittently to listen and scope the target. The only sound was the rasping and scraping of desert camouflage uniforms and packs sliding against sand, rock, dirt, cactus spines, critter droppings and dust, lots of dust. No coughing, spitting, blowing noses, and for God’s sake, no sneezing allowed on this snake-slither. When we heard search vehicles, we curled up like armadillos. Then, foot by foot, we crept along, at lizard elevation, eating dirt until Mr. Thomas put up his hand – we were there. We had made it without detection. This was a major victory and we all silently shook our fists. Yeah, it’s showtime, folks. Marines? What Marines?
It was time to direct our heavy metal at the simulated air base. Thomas called in the “RED, RED, RED” attack signal that we had humped all this miserable way to hear. The Marines had 30 minutes to evacuate the area and get into protected underground bunkers. We loaded our LAWs and M-14 rifles and set up the 60mm mortar. I couldn’t wait to pull that first white phosphorous mortar round out of my pack. It would light up the enemy compound like a circus, giving us easy visual targets. Then the real home-wrecker mortar rounds would follow, arcing up, across and down, spraying deadly steel on the old, salvage aircraft, vehicle skeletons and temporarily constructed barracks that made up the target.
Thirty minutes were up and we got the signal to begin the assault. I dropped the first round into the firing tube. I wanted 4th of July fireworks, my reward for humping the damn rounds 20-plus miles… “Thump,” nothing. It didn’t detonate. I tried a second one: “Thump.”
Chris sounded off. “Damn! Must have damaged the firing pin in the mortar tube on the parachute drop. Son of a bitch.”
I thought to myself: “The Gods must be pimping us. They must be thinking up Murphys to throw at us.” They had to be saying: “Let’s hurl all the lightning bolts at these SEALs. After all, isn’t their motto: ‘The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday?’ Well, it’s today. We’ll make it one they won’t forget. Let’s see what they really got.”
But the Gods had never reckoned with the indomitable Mr. Thomas. “OK,” he shouted. “We’ll light up the target with the 40 millimeter illumination rifle rounds. “That’s your job, Mr. Ganci.”
I braced the M-14 rifle butt on my leg and shot off the rounds, each recoil wreaking havoc with my thigh muscles. They exploded above the base in small white clusters, giving us just enough light to aim the LAWs, grenades and M-14 rounds right at the nose cones. The sky lit up. The desert lit up. We lit up. The nose cones got scrambled. The accessory sheds got scrambled. The main, temporarily constructed shelters survived because we couldn’t drop the big mortars on them. Two out of three ain’t bad. We had done enough damage to call the mission successful.
The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote
When all the ammo was used up, Thomas radioed the bunkered Marines that the attack was over. But it really wasn’t. Now we had to blend into the desert night, evade the searching Marines for another day and half and find our way to the safety of the extraction point – escape and evasion in its finest form.
The Marines would give us 30 minutes for reaction time before launching their jeeps, trackers and main company of foot soldiers, searching for us and our foot prints. We would now become the Roadrunner. They would become Wile E. Coyote.
We grabbed our packs and ran for cover and concealment in the low hills about a mile and a half away. We figured the hills would hide us long enough for a quick break and then we would penetrate farther into the Chocolate Mountains.
We collapsed into the first line of foothills just before daybreak, zoned out and dehydrated. We decided to snooze briefly in the soft sand, behind some boulders.
“We need a cat nap,” I heard someone say. That was enough for me. I blanked out, dreaming of ice tea, filet mignon and pecan pie.
We nodded off with our packs still shouldered, so we could jump up and run in an instant. Pure exhaustion turned cat naps into short-term, deep recovery sleep. It was a deadly mistake. We didn’t see ‘em comin’.
Chris was on sentry duty. He saw the Marine company coming over a rise, not far from our spot. They had picked up our tracks. What Chris didn’t notice was the scout tracking patrol, barreling along ahead of the full company, full of excitement, energy, food, water and the anticipation of hunting down the Navy SEALs. They cut our boot prints that led away from the target. That told them which way we were headed, so they jumped into high gear, zooming our way. The full company of jar-heads was not far behind the trackers, loading up their grenade and M-14 blanks while the jeeps roared across the flat desert, heading our way, just like Wile E. We had minimum cover and concealment on the bare desert floor, and our location was spotted by the trackers.
By the time Chris realized they were upon us, the Marines scouts were shooting blanks and throwing grenade simulators. “Boom, Bang, Boom!” Explosions brought us up screaming and shouting from our deep-sleep cat naps. “What the hell, what the hell!” More booms, shouting and cursing.
Fight or Flight Time
This was “fight or flight” time: Do we stand and shoot blanks and throw grenade simulators back at them or do we take flight into the mountains? Are you kidding? Mr. Thomas didn’t like taking flight from anything. We threw simulators back at them, shot blanks and hollered obscenities. Then, as we broke contact with the Marines, I looked over my shoulder and saw the sun silhouette of Thomas shaking his fist at the enemy scouts and challenging them all to a fist fight.
The rules of the game were that if we got compromised, the Marines would dig in at that location, give us another half hour to escape, then come looking for us again. They didn’t know where the extraction point was, so they would have to track us once more.
Because the extraction point was another hard day and night’s trek away, we would have to hump hard and fast in the heat of the day to stay away from the Bad Guys. We couldn’t hole up in the shade now and wait to make night moves.
The Marines would be using vehicles again, making sounds that traveled a long way across open desert. We would know where they were most of the time. We also knew that when the vehicles stopped, the trackers would be out on the ground, searching for boot prints. If the vehicles didn’t start up again, we knew they had found something and would be on foot patrol. Tracking us now in the low mountains would be difficult. We trekked along rock edges and over desert hardpan whenever we could, minimizing prints as we went.
Water – once again – became our main concern, water and heat. We were headed into the dehydration and heat stress danger zone, with dry throats, thick spit, sluggish movements, drying eyes, headaches, nausea, short tempers, bodies heating up, mind slowing down. But, we were Navy SEALs, and SEALs don’t quit. We had the option of calling in an administrative water supply drop, but that would give the Marines a moral victory. Mr. Thomas had other ideas.
There was a buried water cache between us and the extraction point. We would have to find it and dodge the Marines at the same time. That meant waiting until nighttime. We had map coordinates for the cache site, but there were no distinguishing landmarks by it. It was about a mile and half away, out in the flats, where the enemy was skirting the low mountains, looking for Roadrunner tracks. It would be a risky, one-shot deal, with a high chance of being detected.
Mr. Lindsay, the exec, and Chris took the challenge. They studied the coordinates, made distance calculations and disappeared into the night. The other four of us were laying low, jack-rabbiting the hot soil and requesting special favors from the Gods – water – cool, clear water. We were dry.
It had been a long four days. The stresses were catching up to us: little sleep, extreme heat, little or no food, dehydration and hard desert humpin’ taking its toll on the best of us. The SEALs are the best of us. We needed that water!
Chris and Lindsay thought they had found the right spot. But, without any kind of landmark, like a dead cactus, rock pile or arroyo, they were stymied. They frantically dug around the area and had just about given up when Chris hit a metal container with his custom K-Bar knife. It was the cache.
“Hooyah, I found it,” he whispered to Lindsay. “Sweet Jesus, I hope this isn’t another Murphy. There damn well better be water in here.” He pulled open the hinged lid of the 50mm ammo can and gave a thumbs up. The dull, starlight-reflected plastic containers were full of the most precious stuff in the desert. Chris and Lindsay humped six gallons back to our hole-up spot and we gulped the liquid gold like it was the last water on the planet. For us it was.
Per our earlier training on the desert survival course, we drank until we thought we would puke. We filled our bellies till they sloshed. Then we waited for 20 minutes while excess liquid filled our bladders and had to be eliminated. This would be the clear urine that told us we were as hydrated as we would ever be. Then we gurgled down one more quart, using our stomachs as an extra canteen, giving us another four hours of hydration. It would be uncomfortable for another 15 minutes, but well worth it in the long run. This allowed us to speed up our extraction, even though the exertion would increase our sweat rate.
We could hear the Bad Guys, as they were following the edge of the foothills in the same direction we were going. They had evidently had found some tracks. The jeep sounds got closer, but stayed on the desert floor. They couldn’t find a reasonable vehicle route into the rugged terrain. We kept our distance. It would have been another huge feather in the Marines’ helmets if they had found us again. Mr. Thomas would have gone ballistic. I imagined him turning into the Incredible SEAL Hulk and smashing Jeeps to pieces with his bare hands.
The SEALs Were Here
Around midnight, vehicle noise stopped and we figured the Marines were going to hole-up until daylight. The six of us were getting into that giddy mood when extreme fatigue starts to make all the stresses humorous. We decided to one-up the Marines and pay them back for their earlier compromising rush into our bivouac. We snuck up on their encampment, using our night vision goggles to scout for lookouts. There weren’t any. After all, nobody was chasing them – they thought. But they had no idea whom they were dealing with in Mr.Thomas. Even in our strung-out condition, we were going to be audacious enough to hunt them back. Audacious, audacious, audacious. Those were the by-words of General George Patton in his tank march across Europe in World War II. Those were also SEAL team words.
LaConte came up with the idea. He would creep up to the edge of their camp and see if they were all sleeping. If they were, he would crawl up to the closest vehicle and leave a note on it saying that the SEALs had been there. Mr. Thomas loved it. I’m pretty sure he was still hand-to-hand fighting the Marine Company in his mind. He gave LaConte a go-ahead and we watched him slink along the desert floor like a hungry rattlesnake, seeking his prey. He disappeared into the foothills. An hour later we heard scratching sounds and saw Dave ‘The Snake’ slithering back along the desert floor, waving his fist in the air. We smiled through cracked and dry lips. HOOYAH! This time, Wile E. Coyote – 1, Roadrunner – 0!
We spent the rest of the night humping away from the Marine encampment toward our extraction point, reaching it the next morning, laughing to ourselves and joking all the way about the sign on the jeep that read ‘THE SEALS WERE HERE.’
By J.D. “Desert Dog” Ganci, from the January 2014 issue of SOF
This story is dedicated to the memory of Korean War combat veteran Mr. Jim Smalley (Doctor Magdex) ‘We Trained the Best, By Special Request. Your Dues Have Been Paid, Your Mark Has Been Made.’ Trang Out.