A Nation of Heroes: A Soldier’s Tale

A slice of my epic semi-autobiographical war book…



The time came for a day of fun with gloves.  In our fighting circles we met outside in the field by the barracks for a little boxing.  Young, the blonde, drawling southerner went right up to me, the quieter New Yorker and he placed his hand on my shoulder.

“We’re figthin’,” he said.

Now Young had some biceps and a fairly muscular heavy-set build.  He’d always bragged of the scrapes he’d had in the south.  But he was slow, dumb and apparently failed to realize that I was a southpaw.

Our senior Drill Instructor then, Drill Sergeant Elswick, the high-pitched anal-retentive voice, refereed.  I moved into the center with my gloves up.  I hovered over, ever so slightly, and all in one motion popped Young on the nose just with a jab, but he crumbled unbelievably.  This was my right jab, mind you.  Drill Sergeant Elswick had to help him up.  He got up and I knocked him down again and they called it.  Took about 30 seconds.  I wanted to fight again but Drill Sergeant Elswick said, “You go over there, you, sit with your buddy.”

30 seconds.  That’s about the time it took to knock out Young and about all it takes me to remember Drill Sergeant Elswick.  This guy had an elongated pinky fingernail, brusque, hairy, virile features – but not overly Macho, not Drill Sergeant Barron – just extremely functional to the violent level – the type the government loves — and I think he liked me.  “Stay with me numb nuts!  With me!” he’d scream, as I was the leader of the right side of a long road march and you had to practically run to keep up with Drill Sergeant Elswick’s 50-pound-ruck-laden walk.

Time came for new BDU’s – (Battle Dress Uniform, they don’t use them anymore, ‘cept maybe for Op 4) and we all stood in formation under the concrete pavilion, ranks open for inspection.  Drill Sergeant Elswick came up to me.  He took one quick look, scouring every imperfection and then snapped out his pocket knife.  Standing at attention Drill Sergeant Elswick cut off my loose threads on my new BDU uniform as fast as a buddy would run to save another in combat, the flickering blade swiping all over the contours of my presence, sharpening my uniform.

Drill Sergeant Barron, although he was Second Platoon’s Drill Sergeant and not mine, he would fuck with everybody.  “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”  he’d yell, silencing the company in an instant at any given time.

After the range at ammo inspection he chopped his thick mitts into my chest so hard I had to break stance for a moment to catch my balance.  Then he’d check my pulled out pockets for live ammo, just in case I had a round in there to go Section 8 with later.

Time came for urban combat training: Military Operations on Urban Terrain, or MOUT.  Drill Sergeant Barron stood before us in the bay before heading to the field that day.  “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” he boomed as usual and we did.  And he said, “Now privates, when you’re doing the MOUT, your adrenaline’s pumpin,’ you’ve got enemies all over the place – it’s like WICKED WILD – it’s like you’re on crystal meth!”

We looked around at each other.

The Drill Sergeant confirmed: “Privates, who here has done drugs, raise your hands!  Now, privates, I’ve snorted, smoked, shot up every damned drug known to man and I can tell you when you’re doing the MOUT it’s like you’re on crystal-fucking-meth!”

Elswick though: “My name is Drill Sergeant Elswick!  I’ll be your senior Drill Instructor,” he pronounced in high-pitched extreme anal retention.  “You pukes will call me Drill Sergeant at all times, do you understand!”

“Yes Drill Sergeant!” we screamed.

And that’s Drill Sergeant Elswick for you: the referee who told me to sit with my bloodied fallen buddy after my first boxing bout.  The man who answered the phone when they lost my leave paper work later: “Browning – he’s a good boy!” he said as fast as possible to my Dad over the phone.

But back to the fight.  After knocking out Young I advanced to the championship round.  Stradtler massaged my shoulders.  I was to fight Harding from 2nd Platoon, a hard block of a man with a square head.  The circle widened in the boot-trampled field as the entire company looked on.  I warmed up in my corner with my platoon members cheering me on.  This warm-up of mine, boxing the air and running in place, became my signature move.  The Jamaican Drill Sergeant called us in to battle and I shuffled out like an Irish fighter.  The crowd of screaming faces faded out into the background as I hurled back my left.  One blow to the face was all I needed now.  I’d realized the power of my upper body, my torso swinging into the punch.  But Harding saw it all too plainly and dodged, sidestepping.  Then he flanked me and nailed me a few good ones.  I felt my head from the inside ringing, consciousness sloshing around.  But my legs stayed bent during these blows, bent and firm from all the running, marching — as though on iron stilts I stood my ground.

“Browning’s hard to get down,” I heard in the mix.

A force within snapped me back to and I connected a left and broke old Harding’s nose, blood spattering at the center of his head protection.  I hit him again and again but he too would not go down.  It was a slug-fest.  All in all, a good ninety seconds.  No man fell.  The Jamaican Drill Sergeant, short and stocky and violent who’d snatched my un-cleared weapon from my hands that first day on the practice range, he came in and raised Harding’s hand.  After all, Harding was from his platoon.  So I was eliminated early.  But all my boys from 3rd platoon said I’d won, punch for punch.

Harding I talked to.

“You hit pretty hard,” he said.  “Broke my fucking nose.”

We went in for chow and bedded down and I lay in bed thinking about what I’d done and how quickly I had thrown myself to the Belly of the State only to find myself enthralled in unbreakable camaraderie and violent bursts of freedom.

“Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever had sex with a woman?” Wentworth, the Georgian on the lower bunk next to me started this line of inquiry which echoed around the hushed barracks of men in their bunks.

“A gas station in Brazil,” I posited after a while.

“A gas station—who said that?” reverberated the room.

But I was quiet.


When it came time to qualify on our weapons, I made the error of putting my barrel to close to that red Georgian dirt.  I was repositioning myself and the sandbags, getting the perfect lean into the targets from the foxhole, when I accidentally plunged my barrel into the dirt.  Drill Sergeant Harris, a tall more humanistic Drill Sergeant with a sense of humor, saw it.  He came over and stuffed a rod up the barrel and cleared it out in a heartbeat.  Then I was back capping targets.  Killed 31 out of 40: Sharpshooter, not bad.  After all, I sucked pre-qual.  (Still left 9 guys to kill me though, so Drill Sergeant Baron informed me.)   Ranges.  I’d always tighten my bicep instead of being loose, but I got the hang of it.  It is actually quite therapeutic, especially once you get it down so you can put a tight shot group on target.

After qualifying, and after Drill Sergeant Barron plunged my chest in with his bear mitts checking for ammo, I found myself among my peers on the bleachers lying down looking up at the stars.  Some stragglers where given extra time to qualify.  We even qualified at night with the Pac 4 (a device for laser-tagging targets at nighttime.)  During this qual., Drill Sergeant Elswick moderated my station.  I approached with my night vision goggles down over my eyes and jumped into the hole.  Had a little trouble getting familiar with the technology at first and I lost my magazine in the dark.

“By your knee,” Drill Sergeant Elswick said.

“Your fucking other knee!” Drill Sergeant Elswick instructed.

I finally found that loaded metal magazine in the dark and slapped it in.  I reached out down the barrel of my gun to where the Pac 4 device was.  I pressed the button and finally saw the tag.  As targets popped and fell in the green glow of the night vision Drill Sergeant Elswick soothed in his nasally high-strung  governmental voice, “Thata girl…”

I then returned to the bleachers and passed out.  I woke up what seemed like seconds later to screaming and flares in the night.  I popped up and started to run to formation at the will and vocal behest of the Drill Sergeants.  We had a long cattle car ride back to barracks.  But my legs gave under.  They’d been hanging over the edge of the bleachers and had fallen dormant, drained of blood.  Willard and Vern, two of my battle buddies grabbed me up, slung one arm over each of their shoulders and they carried me through the bursting night haze of the flares, just like in battle.

Similarly, the gas chamber training came included with a little surprise attack of tear gas while we were all wandering around the field jacking our jaws.  They knew how to get us:  Drill Sergeant Barron, he came over when I was having my initial trouble with my rifle and he pumped my left bicep with his mitt of a hand and he said, “Yeah, this one’s all fucked up – gotta relax your arms, son!”

I presented him with my targets that day and he said, “Private give me your pen.”

As per standard uniform we had to have a pen, notebook and a shaving razor on us at all times.  My razor and my pen where in my breast pocket.  I reached in for the pen as fast as I could and caught my razor on my fingernail.  Holding my bleeding hand behind my back I gave the Drill Sergeant my pen so he could jot down some notes on the results of target practice that day.  He noticed the blood dripping from behind my back but he didn’t say a word, just nodded and looked back down, the bill of his hat hardly shading his chiseled jaw.  Later I heard him booming inspirational advice to some of the privates who couldn’t initially shoot so well: “Privates you’re gonna shoot, you’re gonna lock ‘n load: locking, loading, chambering, aiming, firing, extracting, reloading!”  (They repeated after him)  “You’re gonna shoot until your fingers bleed!” he shouted.

I had been a source of inspiration for the men.

At FTX (the final field training exercise) we stood before Drill Sergeant Elswick in formation.  Drill Sergeant Elswick walked through, told Stevens to take off that bandana.  Then he noticed the huge crack in my BCGs (Army issued Birth Control Glasses).

“Browning what happened to your glasses?” he said.

“They got stepped on Drill Sergeant!” I explained..

“Musta been WORKIN HARD!” he screamed, walking through the ranks.

“Yes, Drill Sergeant!” I responded.

We departed and marched and I rested on the side of the road; fell asleep only to find my buddy Martinez, who could put you to sleep in about 2 seconds with his legs.  He gave me a banana and I took a drink from my canteen and we drove on.  Rock steady we drove on.  All the way to the finish where we found ourselves formed around an American flag.  Huge and uplifted, framed in torchlight, the flag, bigger than any billboard, spread out before us, fiery torch light dancing off its luster.  We all pulled out our canteen cups and dipped them in the basin of red mystery liquid (Gatorade).  We toasted to our courage and our triumph and our dedication to the flag platoon by platoon.  When it got to 3rd platoon, Drill Sergeant Elswick said sharply: “Here, here: to the Army!”  And we raised our tin containers.

This was a good choice, I thought.  Yet I planned early on just a stint with these guys, these brothers of mine, for I was due back in that insufferable college sometime.  I knew this to be true.  To finish what I started.  But first I had to wake and finish another day and then 6 more and a wake up till graduation, then I was due for my unit which turned out to be Germany – the Fatherland.  The European unit everyone knew would deploy to Iraq.


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