OKINAWA, Japan --
Waking up at 4:30 in the morning (or zero-four-thirty, as it's known in the military) isn't an especially new sensation for me coming from a ship.
Everything that came afterward, however, is not only new, but completely unexpected.
The Marine Corps has a base on the northern part of the island called Camp Gonsalves where the Marines go through the Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC or "J-dub"). Essentially, the Marines are training one another how to survive and fight in a jungle environment. The first couple of days were everything you'd expect it to be; classes covering everything from how to patrol in the jungle to ensuring that you don't touch the snakes you might come across while patrolling the jungle. Incidentally, you don't have to worry too much about touching the Golden Habu. If you violate their space, not only will they let you know, but they'll chase you until you realize how very wrong you were.
Everything was massively fun. Marines from 3/1 taught me how to navigate my way through thick jungle, they taught me how to use a rope to "hasty rappel" down a steep, clay hill (you basically put a rope underneath your armpits and pray you don't slip) and how to tie knots that will help you cross any number of obstacles. What they don't tell you in these classes is how miserable your last day will be.
They call it the Endurance Course. Some teams have finished it in four hours (the record is somewhere in the area of three and a half hours); the team I was with finished in just short of six hours.
That's respectable. Right?
It started raining 30 minutes before we began the course. Rain helped break up the heat and humidity, but it made the clay hills impossibly slippery. India Company Marines flew down the first hill like professionals; I was happy there was a rope to keep me from falling the entire 70 feet to the ground.
The next obstacle taught me the importance of paying attention during the knot-tying class. We crossed a three-wire bridge that hung at least 100 feet above the ground and immediately crossed over the same valley with only two wires. Following that, we practiced hasty repelling down rain-soaked clay hills 13 times. Every other obstacle had an increasingly more difficult hill to go down and 13 opportunities for Marines to prove their gusto while I managed to slip and slide my way down almost every one.
A ten-foot wall, a crawl underneath a rope, a crawl on top of a rope, a crawl on my elbows and knees through what felt like a mile of muddy water and a running up at least four hills later, we came to what other Marines had called "peanut butter mud."
Here's the scenario: one of the Marines is (theoretically) hurt. It also, just so happens, that the hurt guy is COINCIDENTLY the heaviest guy in the squad. My squad has to put together a stretcher out of our “cammie” blouses and bamboo sticks. In order to help this (super heavy) Marine, my squad has to cross over three hills. In between the hills are paths of peanut butter mud that pull the boots off your feet when you step in it without carrying another guy and pull your feet off of your legs when you are carrying another guy.
The first hill: not so awful. The peanut butter mud is manageable.
The second hill is a definite struggle, but certainly not impossible.
The third hill… show stopper. We had been making exceptional time until we hit the third hill. The third hill was almost entirely clay and had only a few trees to anchor onto. The India Company Commander (who is normally a regular sized guy, but was exceptionally heavy all of a sudden) was the "victim" and not only was he not allowed to touch the ground, but he was slipping out of our makeshift stretcher. After 45 minutes of working him up our human ladder, we finally and valiantly got him to the top of the hill.
None of us had any energy left in our arms, but the Marines exhibited extraordinary strength in running him the last 100 meters to the end of the course. It took a fire hose to clean off the mud caked on our faces, but I walked away from the Endurance Course knowing two things:
I hate clay hills and Marines love climbing up impossibly slick clay hills.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Paco Ramirez is a Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer (NGLO) attached to BLT 3/1 India Co from HQ 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines. His years on a ship have not prepared him for this, his first experience with infantry Marines.