But two days out from Guam, the MEU's certification exercise - CERTEX - kicked off for real, with the MRF leading the way. CERTEX began with two back-to-back VBSS rehearsals for the MRF, where we practiced our
ship-boarding skills on the USNS Alan Shepard (I don't recall if I've mentioned VBSS before, so in case I haven't, it stands for Visit Board Search and Seizure, which is a fancy way of saying boarding a ship and
making it go where we want it to. For reference look up the 15th MEU's recent VBSS on the Magellan Star off Somalia). Things went okay the first time, but those damn pirates came back overnight and we had to go
aboard again the next day. By then, the ARG was established off the coast of Guam, and the MEU started launching out its various raid packages.
I didn't go ashore with the first wave of raids; as the MRF we got special treatment and didn't go ashore until our foothold was established and the airfield we were to operate out of secured. So bright and early the next morning we assembled in the hangar bay and loaded up on a section of mighty CH-53s for our turn on dry land. It was good to feel solid ground under my feet for the first time in almost three weeks, though that elation was quickly sobered by the realization that Guam was virtually identical to Okinawa, except smaller. And it was identical in all the less desirable qualities: hot, humid, no wind, jungle terrain, and sudden, soaking monsoons throughout the day. But, I was outside, breathing fresh air, and could see the sun all day long,
which almost - almost - made up for it. We set up our CP in an abandoned MOUT structure, but in an effort to prove that I was as hard as the grunts I was operating with, I decided to set up my lodgings in the tree line with the rest of them. I'd packed the gear that the security platoon commander had authorized for all his boys, which meant that my only defense from the elements was my poncho and whatever creative hooch-building skills I could dredge up from my time back at TBS and the Boy Scouts. Building a make-shift tent seemed to me to be largely a matter of common sense, so, breaking out my poncho and some 550 cord, I went to work and ended up with a somewhat asymmetrical but apparently sturdy shelter under which I stashed all my gear. We
wouldn't get the order for our mission until the next morning, so after an MRE and a few more improvements to my tent, I rolled out my poncho liner and tried to sleep. And that night, my hooch-making skills were
put to the test.
Never mind the heinous humidity, stagnant air, and mosquitoes; the biggest challenge that night was trying not to get washed away by the massive thunder-shitstorm that exploded around 2400. We could all see
the squall building to our south during evening chow, complete with flashes of lightning, and anticipated that a downpour was not far away. However, a few hours went by and the storm showed no desire to come closer, so I went to bed confident that I'd wake up dry the next morning. The storm had other plans. Around midnight, I awoke to the sound of gusting winds whipping through our encampment, and before I was fully awake, the heavens opened and unleashed their fury on us. For the next two hours we were pounded by wind, lightning, and rain, and as the winds grew stronger the small patch of dry ground I'd managed to preserve grew smaller and smaller. I spent most of those two hours holding down the one crucial corner of my poncho that was the only thing separating me from complete inundation. Finally the rain slackened and the winds died down, and I surveyed the damage. Remarkably, my hooch had stayed where it was, the drainage ditches I'd dug on either side had generally done their job, and the only rain that got in was blown in my winds beyond my control. Determined to defend my remaining dry square of ground, I then spent the next hour in the dark improving my defensive position, re-arranging drainage angles on the poncho, tying down extra corners, and reinforcing my tie-downs with sandbags. By 0300 I was done and certain that, should the storm return, its rage would be wasted on my sturdy fortress. The next morning I walked around the bivouac area to see how the rest of the platoon had fared, believing that, since a mere pilot had managed to pass the night with only mild discomfort,
these hardy, field-tested grunts would barely have batted an eye during the maelstrom. I soon learned that being a 29 Palms Marine has its drawbacks; namely, that in a place where it never rains, no one is forced to learn how to protect himself from rain. These guys were experts at desert and hot-weather survival, but had met their match against the rainy season. The collection of lean-tos they'd constructed, while certainly creative and vaguely reminiscent of post-modern abstract art, were no match for the wrath of heaven. I
don't think one of them woke up dry the next morning. I'll admit, I felt a little smug as the platoon commander asked his platoon why a pilot who hadn't been to the field for seven years could build a better tent than an infantryman.
To be continued ...