On this Veterans day, I thought it appropriate to post a Pete Russey Army adventure. This is an excerpt from one of my Common Man Adventure series books, “Choice and Consequence/the adventures of a common man”. It is a different kind of adventure.
The military, regardless of branch of service, builds character. I spent seven years in the Army and developed many lasting friendships and had many adventures. Some were enjoyable. Some were humorous. All character builders. Here is a personal lesson in judgement of character among many other obvious lessons.
I had enlisted into the United States Army in early January of 1973, just one month after completing my last class at college. Eight weeks later, Basic Training was complete.
In late March I was going through Advanced Individual Training (AIT). I was training to be a personnel management specialist. Of course, the Army thought I needed to be in extraordinarily good physical condition and be able to take orders without question. To me it seemed there was more importance put into learning to take orders than into learning how to manage Army personnel.
One day we were to have field maneuvers after PT was over. It was going to be an exercise in what to do if captured by the enemy. This was 1973. The Vietnam conflict had been called to an end a month earlier. As far as I was concerned there was no reason to practice being a hostage. I was convinced no more soldiers would be sent there. The war was over. So why were we doing this?…. Because we were told to do so, that’s why. And that was all we needed to know.
About 1 pm, my entire company was loaded up into transport vehicles and taken somewhere in the middle of nowhere and dropped off. Some sergeant lectured us about how to evade capture and what we were to do in the event we were stupid enough to get captured.
After the “field training”, we were organized into patrols and assigned a partner. In this exercise we were escaping from a prison camp. In groups of two, we were to make our way to a predetermined area called a “safe zone”. (Think Great Escape, here. I probably thought I was Steve McQueen’s character, but without the motorcycle and leather jacket. Honestly, I don‘t remember if he wore a leather jacket in that movie or not. That was my escape and that was the way I saw me in it.)
Every trainee in the company was giving the location of the “safe zone” and an assigned time to begin his trip through the woods to the “safe zone”. By the time this exercise started it was totally dark and the only equipment we had was on our back. And that was only our uniform. Everything else was taken from us.
It was very cold. The snow was getting deep. And it was my birthday. Playing in the snow and the dark was not my idea of birthday fun.
I was not the least bit worried about being captured. I was an Eagle Scout. Boy Scouts don’t get lost in the woods. I had also graduated from college a couple of months before enlisting. I was much too smart to get lost.
I was assigned Howard as my partner. Although Howard was in my patrol, I really didn’t know much about him. He was short, muscular, talked loud, and appeared to be a know-it-all.
We escaped from our prison at the pre-determined time.
About 1 min into the woods, Howard told me he knew how to do this escaping thing. “This is a piece of cake. Before I joined, I used to hunt game for our family’s food. I can follow any kind of a track.”
Even though this training exercise happened over forty years ago, I still remember thinking, “HUHH! We’re escaping from a Vietnamese prison camp, you moron. What kind of track is going to be left for us by our human captors? We’re not following animal tracks. Boy! We’re in trouble.”
I was twenty three, a recent college graduate, and proud of my Eagle Scout status. I still, though, did not have enough confidence in my own abilities. The guy was extremely confident of his abilities. So I followed his lead. The comforting thought was that I knew this was only a game and not the real thing.
When we were told about the “safe zone” we were also told it would take about ninety minutes to get there.
Don’t forget, I envisioned myself as the very macho Steve McQueen. Or at least I tried to do so. I conveniently forgot, though, he was recaptured in the movie. And like Steve McQueen, I and Howard were both captured and returned to our prison environment. It really wasn’t a prison. It was just the tent from which we started. We were the first to arrive and had to wait there for the end of the game.
When the exercise finally ended, our patrol was informed that Howard & I had accomplished something special that day. We broke a long standing record by fifteen minutes. We were captured after only five minutes in the field. An accomplishment I am not particularly proud of.
It’s funny what one remembers, even after almost forty years. I remember that in this exercise there was a young man in our squad we all considered the weakest link. I think we named him “Bean”. He was scrawny, tall, and struggled with the PT exercises. He was always being screamed at.
We all knew he would get captured quickly and say all the wrong things when interrogated by his captors. You see, we all told that no matter what your captors said or did to you, the only information we were to provide was “name, rank, and serial number”.
Bean was going to be the first to be captured and he was going to spill his guts. ….Or so we all thought.
Obviously, he was not the first captured. He was captured about five minutes after Howard and me. Bean was brought up to the front of the company after the exercise was over and identified to all of us as the exemplary soldier. We all were stunned. The training officers told us that Bean did everything right as an example of a captured soldier. They told us the information some of us provided the captors. But they said Bean only provided “name, rank, and serial number”, no matter what they did to him. This included putting him in a barrel and banging on it.
We were proud of him. He was from our platoon. He made us look good.
That was clearly an example of why one should not judge a book by its cover. A lesson I learned from the US Army.