Marooned in the Mojave
Here I was, just where they’d warned me not to end up. I was stranded on foot in the middle of the Mojave Desert in August in the dead of summer. I was at the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California. NTC was desert warfare school. We were there for two months of training in the daily 115 degree sun. We were preached to long and hard about the number of soldiers who died training at NTC.
Our division Command Sergeant Major came to our company to brief us. The Sergeant Major threw down a body bag as he yelled loudly, “People will die!” The reaction was typical. The young privates jumped while the older sergeants rolled their eyes.
The command sergeant major identified a group of paratroopers from the 82nd airborne being dragged to death while parachuting during a sand storm. He covered in painstakingly detail how a soldier was crushed to death in his tent by a M1 Abrams tank backing over him. The command sergeant major’s last story caught my eye. It was about a military policemen dying from exposure after being left out in the desert after directing convoy traffic. The last story got everyone’s attention as we were the First Military Police (MP) Company.
The First MP Company went to NTC with minimal injury and accident from July to August. We survived the week in tent city just outside the Fort Irwin main post preparing for life in the desert. We had a couple of our guys banged up rolling jeeps, but nothing more serious than a broken pelvis. My lieutenant was in a foul mood after getting shot by the OPFOR. The OPFOR was the acronym for opposing forces, the bad guys. Back then the bad guys were the Russians. The opposing forces were soldiers assigned to Fort Irwin, who played the role of the enemy. They wore red stars, desert uniforms, and they knew the terrain. My lieutenant was shot by an OPFOR sniper while we were driving through a slot canyon.
We knew he was shot by the loud buzzing alarm coming from the MILES gear. The buzzing sound was to let you know you were dead, which always struck me as very Pavlovian. MILES was the military acronym for multiple integrated laser engagement system. MILES was a set of straps with targeting disks on them almost like a pair of suspenders. The laser from a weapon would set the disk alarm off. The lieutenant was so pissed that he had me drive up the mountain until the jeep could go no further due to the steep incline. Then, we jogged up the mountain looking for the sniper. We found the sniper’s hiding spot atop the mountain peak, but no sniper. The lieutenant had me take the batteries out of his MILES gear to shut off the buzzing sound. This was a breach of protocol. My lieutenant was a wild man.
After the sniper attack, we drove to a secret meeting with the First Infantry Division command in the middle of nowhere. I loved the fact it was a “secret” meeting. That only meant that a few hundred people knew about it. The meeting location was so isolated it took us fifty miles of back country driving and several hours to find the location in the desert. I got the jeep stuck twice in loose playa sand several times. The playa sand or dust was from a dried up giant 100 plus acre lake bed that filled once or twice a year.
I remember thinking, "This would be a hell of a place to break down they would never find your bones."
The tactical operation meeting was long and boring. All the officers’ drivers stayed outside and smoked cigarettes. I was not so lucky. I got to attend the meeting to take notes and keep the lieutenant awake. We were the second to the last jeep to leave. Our jeep overheated due to a radiator leak in the cool evening one hundred plus degree heat. We emptied our canteens in the radiator, and then peed in the radiator. The added liquid allowed the jeep to go another mile or two before overheating a second time. The last jeep leaving the meeting passed by and stopped.
A captain asked, “Do you guys need a ride?”
My lieutenant said, "Sergeant you stay with the jeep, I'll go for help." He said it like he was going for coffee and donuts and would be back in a minute, not like he was leaving me stranded in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
So, I remained and guarded the jeep from coyotes, scorpion, and tarantulas. I fell asleep in the waning heat for half an hour. Then I decided to eat something out of boredom. I pulled out my Army Happy Meal, a C-ration. I used my trusty p-38 can opener to open a green can, slowly cutting the green can open. I sat on the sand in front of my jeep leaning back on it as a back rest. I began eating the sweet “John Wayne” bar inside the tin can when the sand between my legs began to move. A seven inch long hairy desert scorpion the size of a pie plate climbed out of the sand and walked across my boots. I was so startled that I grabbed my 45 caliber pistol and fired at the scorpion. The sound of the gunfire echoed off the mountains and across the valley. I blasted the offending scorpion all over my boots. I woke a flock of bats in a nearby abandoned mine shaft that began dive bombing me by the hundreds. I dove under the jeep but not before several dive bombing bats struck me on the head. So much for not wearing my helmet I thought.
I got tired of waiting under the jeep lying in the sand waiting for the dead scorpion’s friends to seek revenge. So, I decided to rescue myself by walking for the water I needed to make my jeep operate. The night sky was brilliant with a thousand falling stars streaking across the sky. The desert was a symphony of coyotes barking, bats squeaking, and the wind blowing. It was quite beautiful. The darkness played tricks on you with lights from a vehicle ten miles away appearing as if right in front of you. I yelled at what I thought was a person to get that flashlight out of my face to only find it was a jeep miles away.
I was glad I had my trusty field jacket as the temperature began to get cooler. The temperature variances were crazy. I walked with my rifle, load bearing equipment, and empty water can. I remembered my daily assignment in the desert driving my jeep across the desert at blinding speeds to report to the brigade commander for daily assignment. I could get the jeep completely airborne. With no seat belt the only thing holding me in the jeep was my hands on the steering wheel. The grip required to keep me in the jeep would result in calluses in the shape of a steering wheel on my hands. Now, I’d just be happy if the jeep worked properly.
The desert was funny how it affected people and how they adapted. We had a corporal, Manny who loved to run. He would stay up till late just so he could get in a 3 mile run. At midnight, it was cool enough to run and not get heat stroke. We had a surfer from Southern California who would lie out and work on his tan whenever possible, but always just outside of the supervisors’ view. Other soldiers would trade, barter, and appropriate ice. You’d see them racing across the desert with a jeep trailer full of big blocks of ice, it was like desert gold.
I thought about how I could use some of that ice as I walked. Three miles later, I came upon a military unit parked in the middle of nowhere in convoy formation with all their vehicles in a crooked row of sorts. I could hear the collective snoring from at least one hundred yards away. The closer I got, the louder they got. Then I started smelling the booze. The entire group was so drunk they were all passed out asleep in their vehicles with empty liquor bottles everywhere. There were no officers or non-commissioned officers with them. How they ended up here was anybody’s guess.
I thought, "A group of drunk drivers and me with no handcuffs, what's an MP to do?"
I tried unsuccessfully to wake them. I could have walked away with all their gear and they would never have known it. They did not have any water, which I needed for my jeep. While searching their vehicles I started hearing the sounds of pots and pans banging nearby. I left the drunken platoon and headed towards the sounds. One mile down the road, I came upon a mess hall unit setup in the middle of nowhere.
I walked in their main tent and asked the big mess hall sergeant, "Hey sarge, can I get some water?"
He jumped three feet before asking in a thick stuttering Texas twang, "Where’d y’all you come from?"
I answered, "Why from the desert, sergeant. My jeep broke down so, I walked until I found you. By the way, why are you setup in the middle of nowhere?”
He said, “We got lost, so we setup here. We figured the hungry soldiers will find us like y’all did.”
I said, “It makes sense, and it worked. Thanks Sarge.”
He gave me some water and I walked back to my jeep passing the still passed out unit along the way. I never even thought about asking the mess hall sergeant for a ride. I remembered what my Father taught me. If I get into a mess, you can get yourself out of it. I walked the five miles back to my jeep and filled the jeep radiator before driving back to my unit as the sun began rising. I got back early the next day to find my entire platoon was gone. I searched the tents until I found a sleeping private.
I asked, "Where is everyone?"
"They're out searching for you Sergeant."
I got on the radio and called my lieutenant and let him know I made it back and to call off the search. I climbed into my sleeping bag after a very long night marooned in the desert.