Chapter 5: Boot Camp
"AAATEN-HUT," thundered through the room, and four hundred Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and even a few members of Air Force Special Operations Command snapped to their feet, and came to attention.
Brigadier General Benjamin Handel, Commanding General of the Marine Air Ground Combat Center, strode to the center of the stage and barked, "At ease. Sit." He waited until the rustling ceased before saying, "The four hundred men in this room have each volunteered for this program. Just so we are clear, this program is so highly classified, that I don't even know the program's details or goals, beyond logistical support. None of you will learn what they are either, except for the forty members that are finally selected. Do not speculate, or if you do, keep it to yourself. My command will provide facilities and infrastructure for your training. The training cadre is led by Major Connor. I will turn you over to him, and see you again in two weeks."
The General turned on his heel, while a Master Sergeant on the stage thundered again, " AAATEN-HUT."
The General marched off the stage, and Major Caleb Conner marched on. Caleb's face was grim. He still wasn't happy about being in this position, but couldn't name anyone else that he would trust with such an important mission, either.
His rank of Captain had been transferred from the state rolls to the federal rolls. Then Scotty had insisted on promoting him, so he would have a little more clout in the Army hierarchy. Scotty had insisted on adjusting Singer's and Flan's ranks as well, when they were reactivated. Caleb hadn't noticed any advantage to the rank, yet. In his experience, respect and leadership had very little to do with a person's rank.
"At ease," Caleb snapped. "Sit."
He waited a moment, then said, "I am Major Caleb Connor. On my left is Master Chief Manheim from the Navy Seals. On my right is Master Sergeant Flanagan from Army Special Operations. We are your training cadre. This course will last two weeks. Upon being released, today, you will go to the barracks immediately east of this auditorium. Find the rack with your name on it. You will find a complete lead-out, including uniforms from your skivvies out, and a white box. Your uniform, and everything else you brought, goes in the white box. It is preaddressed, and bar-coded for you. The clothes in your lead-out should fit, according to your records. If you desire, you may keep your boots, since you will be doing a lot of walking. The Master Chief or Master Sergeant must inspect them before you will be allowed to keep them. The white boxes will be staged at the front of the barracks before 1800 today. The training schedule begins tomorrow morning at 0400. You will fall in, at 0400, in front of the barracks, with full gear, carrying your packs. Everything in your load-out will be in your pack. You will see the barracks again at the end of two weeks, unless you are dropped from the program. We will march to our initial CP. If we can get on the road by 0500, we should arrive at our destination by 1800. Do I have any questions so far?"
One hand was raised, and Caleb gestured towards it, saying, "Stand, give us your particulars, and ask your question."
"Sir, Gunnery Sergeant Bindle, USMC Force Recon Snipers. Can we know what the selection criteria are for this program?"
"Good question, Gunny," Caleb answered. "The answer, like so many in the military, is 'sort of.' I can assure you that one of the traits will be endurance."
An obligatory chuckle rippled through the men.
"First of all, each of you were specifically selected for this course. Many more volunteered for this pilot program. The four hundred in this room were selected from a pool of over three thousand volunteers, as being the most likely to successfully complete this course. We hope to be able to keep a platoon of forty men at the end of two weeks, but that is not guaranteed."
"I am serious about endurance. By tomorrow evening, we will be thirty miles from here. Every day, your endurance will be tested. Every day, your self-control will be tested. The physical side of this course will be challenging, but nothing everyone here hasn't done before. The physical challenges are secondary qualifiers. Teamwork is a qualifier, ranking slightly higher than the physical portion."
"Every evening, you will be given a test. They will not be difficult, and at times will seem nonsensical. The tests are designed to establish a psychological profile while under stress. You see, your psychological profile is the first criteria for selection for this program. If you fail the physical portion of the test, there is a possibility that you can still be selected. If you fail the psychological profile, you will not be selected."
"That being said, we are looking for perfect matches for the pilot platoon. Imperfect matches, requiring more training, may be retained for subsequent platoons. Just because someone may not fit the profile we're looking for now, doesn't mean that you won't be invited back for a more leisurely course, with a later platoon."
"Did that answer your question, Gunny?" Caleb asked.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," the Gunny replied before sitting.
"While we are on the subject of being pulled from the program," Caleb said, "Be advised that you will not be given the reason for being dropped. You will simply be told that you are out, and you will leave. Each morning, transportation will be provided to return the dropped contingent to the barracks. Dropped personnel will receive immediate orders returning them to their original unit, or placing them in a holding platoon for further training."
"Any of you can quit, simply by getting on the truck. No questions asked. There will not be a derogatory entry in your jackets, if you quit, or are dropped. In fact, each of you are receiving a meritorious letter for attempting to complete this course. The number of days you completed of the course will be added if you don't make it to the final cut. Are there any additional questions before I get into the training schedule?"
No one stirred.
"Very well, on to training," Caleb announced. "The physical challenges will primarily be marching with a heavy load, and traversing terrain obstacles. Training will include stealth techniques, hand-to-hand combat, both defensive and offensive, and several other field-craft skills. Language, specifically a Farsi derivative, will be taught. During week one, all commands and instruction will be given in English, followed by its Farsi equivalent. Farsi will be the only language used by the training cadre, and by you, during the second week. Everyone in this room already speaks some dialect of an Arabic language. Upon completion of this course, the selected platoon will all speak the same dialect. It will be an archaic dialect, but that is necessary! Everyone in this room is already highly trained. Some of you may have a better method in field craft. Let your team know. One of us will ask about any proposed changes. When we do, explain it to us. We will listen. On the other hand, if you have a better idea for every little thing we do, you will either be dropped, or placed in charge of the program, depending on your psychological profile."
Laughter rippled through the room, and Caleb could hear comments about the probabilities of some members surviving the course. He waited until the laughter died on its own, before he continued.
"The next subject is two issues concerning environment," Caleb announced. "You may have noticed that we're in the desert. Your load-out includes a camelback, and two extra canteens to carry water. You will also have salt tablets. Team leaders, you will visually ensure that each man in your team drinks water, and takes his salt tablets. Gentlemen, it is 0900 in April, and it's already over one hundred degrees out there. That heat can kill you! Each of you has operated in the desert before. Remember what you learned. Just because we're stateside doesn't mean the desert is any friendlier. You are in a desert! Don't get careless just because you don't have anyone shooting at you. We will not have ready medical evacuation hovering over us! You could die before a chopper gets to us."
"The second issue concerning environment is more complex. We will be operating as if we are in a hostile environment. We don't want the enemy to know we're there. That's kind of hard to do with four hundred men, but we're going to try. That means, you don't eat pogey bait and throw the wrapper on the ground. If you smoke, you bury your butts, and hide the hole. If you chew, you spit in a hole, then cover it, and hide the hole. When you defecate, or urinate, use a hole, then hide the hole. You do not disturb the vegetation in bivouac areas. We can't do anything about tracks with this many men, but even that will be minimized as the program progresses."
Caleb looked around the room, meeting the eyes of the men facing him, before saying, "The final issue that I want to talk about today is security. The security for this project will probably be tighter than anything you have ever been associated with. If you keep your boots, they will be physically inspected, and then degaussed to destroy any electronics that may be hidden in them. Your boots are the only personal item that you will have. Watches, chains around your necks, rings, even wedding rings, will be left behind."
"During the next two weeks you may have a face to face with support personnel performing various duties. They have been instructed not to speak to you, if they see you. I am now ordering you not to speak to them, if you see them. For the next two weeks, you will not speak to anyone or communicate in any way, other than with the gentlemen in this room. If you do, and are caught, you will go to jail until this program is terminated. If you are dropped from the program, you will not speak to anyone about any aspect of this program. If pressed by anyone of any rank for details, you will immediately report it, and refer them to me. Individuals dropped from the program will be tested from time to time, to ensure security is maintained. Gentlemen, lives depend on maintaining security. I will NOT lose even one man because someone wanted to brag, or violated security in any way. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Sir," four hundred men thundered in response.
"How the hell did they have enough strength to run those last five miles," Staff Sergeant Allen Baker gasped, as he collapsed and leaned back on his pack.
"I don't know," Sergeant Mike Hooker gasped in reply. "All three of them have the same packs and load-out that we have."
"That Major didn't even look like he was breathing hard," Petty Officer First Class Sam Diego panted, a note of foreboding in his voice.
"I think ... I'm pretty sure this will be a very long two weeks," Gunnery Sergeant Charles (Chuck) Devereux observed, as he fought for breath. "I think that maybe ... I might be a little too old for this shit. I was forty last month. I'm an old man. You three, though, you may have been dying, but you didn't let it show at all. Oh, to be young again."
The four men had been assigned together as a fire team, and Mrs. Devereux's little boy was supposed to be running this team. His training and temperament dictated that he must do everything in his power to ensure all of them made it through. Charles' compliment had just laid the groundwork to ensure none of them would stop before he did. He didn't plan on stopping.
Chuck was sure the time would come, in the next two weeks, that yelling and threats would be necessary. Chuck had learned, early in his career, that yelling and screaming were simply tools. They were tools that lost their edge if used too often, but were very effective when used judiciously.
He didn't know anything about the psychological profiles the Major had mentioned. Since it wasn't something he could do anything about, he would push any concern about it to the back of his mind. Two weeks wasn't long enough to change someone's mental outlook, like the process used in boot camp. The team's psychological profiles would either be acceptable, or they wouldn't. So, next subject!
"How old do you think the Major is?" GySgt Devereux asked, as his breathing became a little more controlled.
"He doesn't look that old, Gunny," PO First Class Diego said, looking towards the command group, with his brow furrowed. "He looks familiar, though."
"Yeah, he looks familiar to me too, but I don't know from where," SSgt Barker mused, as he rolled out of his pack straps.
"He looks like that guy that was always around President McGowan," Sgt Hooker muttered. "My little brother was one of the President's campaign workers, so I read up on him, and everyone close to him. I didn't want my little brother to get scammed. The guy that's around the President all the time is named Caleb Conner, too. But this can't be him. The President's guy is forty-eight. This guy doesn't move like any forty-eight year old."
"You can't get much higher in the chain of command than the president. The Base Commanding General didn't even know what we're doing, so this program had to be sanctioned at a very high level," GySgt Devereux quietly speculated. "I don't think we want to know anything about the Major, other than what the Major wants to tell us. Let's get these tents up. It'll be dark in half an hour, and we don't know what else they have planned for us tonight."
The bivouac area was a shallow valley with a mix of grease-wood and stunted mesquite trees. The only things that made the valley different from the dozen other desert valleys they had walked through were the two vehicles parked to one side. A HumVee with an M-149 (a four hundred gallon 'water buffalo') attached, and an M35 (better known as a deuce and a half), also with a water buffalo attached, were waiting for them. An antenna reported the presence of a radio, but the vehicle drivers were conspicuously absent. Apparently, the HumVee and truck had been left for them. The truck also carried rations for the next day, which were distributed.
Low, two-man tents were arranged in team clusters, throughout the little valley. They were arranged in such a way as to blend into the desert. If a stranger walked through the camp, there was a good chance he wouldn't even notice the tents. Very little desert fauna was disturbed by the bivouac. The odor of food was the only evidence of the men heating 'Meals Ready to Eat, ' or MREs. Every man was a professional, and they acted like it.
Caleb, Singer, and Flan moved among the teams. Each had a computer tablet, which they used to give each man a brief five question test. Each man was identified by his thumb print before taking the test. The questions were innocuous.
Did you question your ability to complete today's run? Did you notify mail delivery that you would be gone for two weeks? In what age range did you get your first job? What age range were you when you fired your first weapon? Do you enjoy reading?
The questions really didn't matter. The hardest part of the plan had been to come up with a way to ensure physical contact between Caleb, Singer, or Flan, and each of the four-hundred men vying for a position on the first platoon. Individual testing was the best solution they could devise. Then the problem was creating a series of questions that didn't sound completely nuts.
Host/Companions could quickly read the character of a man, once they were able to make physical contact to read the man's mental signature. The physical contact was all the Companions needed to collect their memories, too.
Cats scratch, dogs dig, and Companions collected memories. Those memories were seldom shared with their hosts, unless the information was pertinent to the hosts goals or safety.
Caleb and the team spent most of the night linked with other hosts while their Companions were in a meld. It was the most efficient way they had found to manage large amounts of information. They had perfected the process during the last election cycle.
Forty-one men from the four hundred were ordered to the vehicles, the next morning, and sent back to the barracks. As soon as the vehicles were out of sight, the remaining men were reconsolidated into teams. Then they shouldered their packs and weapons and began another day.