GORUCK Normandy HTL AAR, Part 2
“You mother fucker” is what I said out loud, but quietly, as the guy in front of me dumped out his grocery bag. It was a ruck, but the thing was full of loose food and candy that scattered across the cement when the cadre ordered us to empty our rucks. “That son of a bitch just got us punished big time,” I said to Hotspot. He just shook his head in reply. There’s no way the cadre is going to give him all day to get that mess back together.
The event was led by four cadre. Cadre Dan is in the Army Special Forces and is one of the most intense cadre I had experienced previously; rarely seen without a cigarette and a Monster energy drink. He led the Greenville event that I nearly dropped from because I was so sick. I got home and had a temp of 102. I hated every minute with Dan. It’s also noteworthy that he created the Heavy event. Cadre Heath, also in the Army Special Forces, led our Myrtle Beach event, which was the hardest ass-whooping I’ve had to date. Despite kicking my teeth in, he’s my favorite cadre I’ve had because he took a lot of time to tell us amazing stories in between our beatings. Also joining was Cadre Mickey, a force recon Marine and Cadre Mocha Mike, Army Special Forces. This was my first event with both. Cadres Dan and Mickey led the first half of the event while Heath and Mocha Mike led the last half.
We started with admin. The cadre introduced themselves and took roll. Then they made us empty out our rucks and hold up our weight, water, id/money individually. We were given 30 seconds to get our rucks back together. Yeah, I called that one.
Obviously the grocer didn’t get his ruck back together, along with a few other unorganized Blue Falcons, a military term meaning “buddy fucker.” It’s what we call a guy who screws over a teammate or the entire team. Most of the time it’s unintentional like the grocer. He didn’t mean to and I’m sure he felt like an ass. But there’s also the common “gray man” who tries to blend in and not be seen so that he/she doesn’t have to carry heavy shit.
We were told to sprint, with rucks, across a field. Wanting to prove myself right out of the gate, I quickly took the lead and got back to our position before anyone else. I’m definitely not the strongest but I could be the fastest. There aren’t many opportunities to prove that. We were given 30 more seconds to get rucks put together and then another run. Rinse and repeat three more times and finally everyone got their shit together. We grabbed our flags and our coupons (a few sandbags) and headed to the Higgins boat monument.
Long story short, the Higgins boat is the one you’ve seen in all the pictures taking men to shore. Built in New Orleans, it was the workhorse in numerous WWII theaters. These boats became an important theme in all three events.
Next it was to the beach where Cadre Dan drew out a sand map and explained how the Normandy invasion went down. I won’t go into detail here because it would require a few more pages of writing. For now just know that we were on Utah Beach where things went a little better for the American forces and we would spend most of the evening concentrating on the airborne rangers who parachuted in with the 82nd and 101st.
At this point I was really hoping for a PT test which they did last year. It’s a five mile run in forty-five minutes and as many push-ups and sit-ups as possible in two minutes. None of that’s a problem for me and I would probably lead the pack on the run. But luck was not on my side. It was straight to all the shit I hate.
We spent the next forever bounding and doing high crawls, low crawls, buddy bear crawls, buddy drags and fireman carries across the beach like we were being shot at. The low crawls particularly sucked because we weren’t allowed to lift our heads off the sand, at all. For the first workout in years I actually threw up but caught it in my mouth and swallowed quickly. “Oh shit! It’s way too early for this,” I said to myself. I’m not sure if Eric, who was also attempting the HTL, saw the hard swallow, but he obviously saw my face because he started pushing me hard as our faces dug into the sand. I needed it.
“You have 30 seconds to line up according to height,” Cadre Dan yelled. Then he put us in the shape of Higgins boats and told us to face the water. Here we go. The part I’ve been dreading for weeks. We went in up to our waists and started bobbing up and down as the cadre splashed freezing water on us. The door dropped, so to speak, and we stormed the beach, dropping to high crawl position as we hit the water line. My 50 pound ruck suddenly felt like 100 while full of water. I crawled and crawled and crawled. “Damn, thank God that’s over,” I said to someone. Yeah, right. Rinse and repeat a couple more times, but with low crawls, face straight in the mud.
Just when we thought we were done we were told to high crawl through this makeshift obstacle course up and down dunes for what seemed like forever. Not gonna lie. I was struggling at this point and pulling up the rear. I couldn’t stop shaking and I honestly thought I had hypothermia. Maybe I did, but I just kept going anyway.
Sometime before we left the beach we filled up a big duffle bag with sand. It was strapped down to a litter with no poles so that four people could carry it at a time. This “pig”‘would become my worst enemy later in the event. For now I grabbed a sandbag and took the first steps in our 40-mile trek.
This is a good time to tell you that the order of events here could be wrong. Believe it or not, they didn’t give us time to take notes. Also, I’m not going to tell you every single stop we made and exercise we did. There’s just too much to remember and after about 20 hours my brain took a long ride on the struggle bus.
The first stop was just a couple miles down the road to the momentum of Major Dick Winters. I was very pumped about this one because I had just watched HBO’s Band of Brothers and he was the lead character, the pipe-hitting badass in charge of Easy Company that parachuted into Normandy on D-day. Their exploits are legendary.
Let’s talk about the airborne for a minute because for the purpose of knowing how our night went, you need to know two things. First off, they were scattered all over the place. It was a major D-day fuck up. The bad weather caused a low cover.
Also, there were a ton of pilots who had no combat experience. The result was a bunch of freaked out pilots who flew too high, flew too low and flew too fast without being able to see shit except explosions. That meant our airborne operation was almost a complete failure. Secondly, the airborne were charged, in part, with taking infrastructure. The little towns, roads and bridges meant supply flow. The Nazi’s couldn’t send reinforcements without infrastructure and we couldn’t get inland without infrastructure. So guess what we did? We visited a whole lot of little towns, bridges and roads. And by visited, I mean we walked hours with a ton of heavy shit. When we arrived, we did exercises that taught us military movements. Frankly, it was badass as hell, but I don’t remember them all.
What I do remember:
- We only missed one time hack and was punished with PT in Ste-Marie-du-Mont.
- We stopped in Vierville, Come-du-Mont, Carentan (furthest south and half way point) and Chef-du-Pont.
- We stopped at three extremely important bridges where we practiced how to take the bridges and parachute landings. I wish I could remember them but I was mentally cooked. I was just trying to do what I was told without screwing up.
Those three points I just glazed over took well over fifteen hours and totaled over 30 miles, so yeah, it was absolutely brutal. My feet became blistered and fatigue set in numerous times. I caught my second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth winds, only to be defeated by the 60 pound sandbag I almost never let go. Throughout the night I tried to just meditate while walking and remove my mind from the situation. Many times my teammates tried taking my sandbag, commenting that my eyes said I was done. The truth is I was trying to zone out.
My back held up better than expected, given my years of trouble after a fun night in a Dallas hospital. My feet were my biggest enemy. At every opportunity I dropped to my hands and knees just to get a few seconds off my feet. “Are you okay?” I was asked all night long. I was fine. I just need 10 seconds, any seconds, off my damn feet.
We marched through towns, by beautiful churches, on roads, on trails and beside fields where so many paratroopers landed. They walked right here. They fought right here. They killed right here. Many died right here. Every single time I felt pain I just looked out and thought how this land in which I walk was stained with the blood of heroes. They were just normal American boys, like me, from every corner of America. Somehow they ended up across an ocean to liberate a continent from an evil regime. One day they were just being American teenagers and then they were jumping out of airplanes while getting shot at. Never have I realized how absolutely fucking entitled we are until I looked out across those fields. In just 70 years we’ve gone from the greatest generation to the crybaby generation.
I carried my sandbag all night, eventually getting into rotations with Hotspot and others so I could get short two-minute breaks. Every so often I ran up to the front and got on the pig. We carried it half the event “farmer style,” letting our forearms do the work. Eventually the team found two long sticks and ran them through the litter, allowing us to carry the pig on our shoulders. With somewhere around six hours left in the event, I decided it was time to up my game and to leave it all out on the field. I got on that pig and really never got off for the rest of the Heavy. We had a rotation with two teams, four men on each team. One team would carry for a few minutes, on their shoulders, and then the other team would jump on. It worked well and we were moving like a well-oiled machine. Everyone hurt like hell but we weren’t missing any more time hacks.
Eventually we made it to a field outside of Ste- Mere- Eglise where we took a short break at the Airborne monument. Here we had to take everything we were taught and blow up a bridge with our explosives, also known as our coupons. Oh, I forgot to tell you that coupons are all the heavy shit we had to carry all night. We got into our squads and low crawled beside the hedges for cover. Our teammates provided cover fire as we dragged our explosives into position. As I said, that pig was mine, so I and three others got that heavy son of a bitch to the bridge. The entire team got back into position behind a hill and we set off the explosives with a huge BOOM. Mission accomplished. Those damn Nazi tanks aren’t coming this way.
We put all the coupons, except for the flags, into the cadre’s car and then took the 2-mile trek into Ste- Mere-Eglise where we stopped at the church were John Steele parachuted in, got stuck on the steeple and played dead for hours despite being shot. A statue with parachute now hangs from the church to commemorate Steele’s badassery. We were given a few minutes to explore the church. I stared up at the stained glass window showcasing the paratroopers. I sat in a church pew and thanked God for allowing me to finish my first Heavy. I asked for strength to get me through the next two events. “Please God, help me get back out of bed,” I prayed. Just a few minutes earlier, before entering the church, I saw Elizabeth and Harlowe waiting for me. My eyes filled with tears.
We got back into formation outside the church where we were quizzed about what we were taught. Wrong answers resulted in push-ups and flutter kicks. Huge American military planes preformed flyovers above the church while we did PT. I cried again.
I was given my patch and a hug by all four cadre. I walked over to Elizabeth and said, “I earned every single stitch of this patch.” I did. I performed well. I was a great teammate. I carried my load. And I hurt like hell. 24 hours and 40 miles. It was less PT than I would have thought. It was also more mileage and a lot more heavy shit than I would have imagined. It was painful, but the history lessons and just being in Normandy occupied my mind so that I didn’t just concentrate on the pain. Also, our team really gelled together and I found myself really enjoying their company. Only two people dropped. They were a couple, who I believe were Dutch. They were the only people I’ve ever seen smoke during an event, aside from Cadre Dan, and if you would have forced me to pick two people who would drop, it would have been them.
“I know this wasn’t the plan, but Hotspot and I need a hot shower. Please get us home as fast as possible.” My amazing wife had lunch waiting for us in the car. It was the best sandwich and chips I had ever had. Aside from my wife, my flip flops were the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Elizabeth rushed us 40 minutes down the road back to Bayeux. We only had three hours until the next event on Omaha Beach. We took hot showers and then got into the bed with alarms set to wake us up in one hour. I fell immediately to sleep. “The hardest part of a HTL is showing back up for the Tough,” we were told by everyone.