There is an aspect of my life I have come to appreciate as I get older. I used to call it the spartan mindset, but that doesn’t sound fun, does it? Lately I have come to call it ruck life. I developed it through years of field problems and missions; we all did. It is how we lived in the field while on mission. Basically, we had to learn how to be comfortable living with what we could carry on our back. We had to learn what was important and what wasn’t. We quickly learned what was truly needed through years of living in the bush, carrying our lives in our 3500-cubic inch “backpack.” In this age of materialistic hedonism, it is rather freeing to live a rucksack life. The ability to let go of the “stuff” we acquired over a lifetime of consumerism is freeing, isn’t it? We are no longer tethered to anything, and we can fight for what we believe in. In other words, we are not slaves. We gain by letting go. In life, we either own our possessions or our possessions own us. If we live the rucksack life, we are free.
Reality is key here. Ruck life has no room for theory or feels. The smart quickly learn that they cannot carry everything; the strong accept this. We must learn the difference between “needs” versus “wants.” Once we know what we can carry effectively, we pack our “needs” and have the faith we will be adaptable and resilient enough to overcome what we feel is missing. This is what success is all about; plan, but have faith that we and our team have the intelligence to overcome the obstacles in front of us.
Rucksack life teaches us how to pack our rucks in a way that is optimal only to the individual. That way, in the pitch black of a moonless night, we can find what we seek by feel alone. It doesn’t matter if we are perched on a rocky outcrop on the side of an Afghanistan mountain, or in the thick green brush along the Euphrates River, because we know exactly where everything is. The illumination of a flashlight can get us killed in those locations. Other people can try to use our rucksacks, but they won’t understand its configuration. I have had Canadian border patrol agents ask me to repack my ruck after they searched it. They couldn’t figure out how I was able to cram so many things into such a small area. Little would they know the hard work that went into perfecting that skill. Simplicity (How much you pack) + Consistency (Where you pack it) = Efficiency (Ease in carrying and fishing out gear).
Basic Training not included (too many stories), my first venture into Rucksack Life occurred when I arrived on Fort Richardson in June 2001. I was seventeen and a proud member of Task Force 1/501. The unit was about to conduct its yearly Expert Infantryman Badge testing. I was excited for the new challenge. I was proud of my recent accomplishments, graduating basic training and Airborne School at the young age of seventeen. While most of my friends were juniors in high school, I was working to become a paratrooper. I really wanted to push myself to be sure I was ready for the final event, a twelve-mile road march with thirty-five pounds, water weight not included.
We had large, olive drab green ALICE rucksacks at the time. At the front of the top flap was our nametape with “cat eyes” (our company markings). The cat eyes were two pieces of luminescent tape cut into various shapes. Mine were rectangular, but other companies used diamonds, circles, or triangles. This had the effect of displaying what company we were in, while also helping soldiers follow each other in low light conditions. The ruck had three pockets in the front where we usually kept four items; two ponchos rolled up in the side pockets and our wet weather gear for the larger center pocket. On one side, attached to the ruck with Alice clips, was an E-tool, or small foldable shovel. On the other side, again attached with Alice clips, was my plastic two-quart canteen and its carrier. The carrier strap ran around the outside of the ruck. It helped compress the ruck, and was there in case of emergency. The only reason my ruck was in that configuration was because it was SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for the Platoon. I was lucky, I joined the Army when they still practiced fieldcraft. Unfortunately, that has been lost over the time I was in.
I remember the senior Specialist in my squad dropping by my room as I was packing my ruck. Peterson, or Petey as everyone called him, seemed like a good guy. He had helped me out when I had gotten lost on the land navigation course. It was a simple error, a cherry mistake; I had used the protractor backwards. I had felt terrible but took my lumps and teasing. I was over it, so I put it behind me. Anybody could have made that mistake. I planned on being perfect from there on out.
“Do you need help packing? There is a certain way to do it which might help you when we’re out there road marching.” He eyed the gear which was lying out around me, his eyes stopping on a flak jacket I had taken out.
“No, I am good. Thanks though.” I responded. I didn’t need help. I had this. This shit was weak.
“Ok, just make sure you stick to the packing list. The route is very hilly, and the footing isn’t too good. It is also supposed to rain, so I wouldn’t wear the treadless soles. I am just going to wear my leg boots. Whatever you wear, make sure that they are broken in.”
I grabbed my waterproof bag. It was still in the plastic bag from CIF. I ripped off the plastic bag and opened it up. It was black on the inside and olive drab green on the outside. I opened it up and put my head inside to show Petey how experienced I was. I had seen my airborne instructor do this when he was inspecting my gear. It smelled like new rubber inside. I liked that smell. I suddenly felt foolish; why was my head in this waterproof bag? I didn’t really know what I was looking for. A clue, maybe? I pulled my head out. Petey had a smirk on his face.
“Did you find it?” he asked. I mumbled something in response.
“Geez brand new, huh? You are lucky, mine was used and had enough holes to sink the Titanic and CIF wouldn’t take ‘em back. Fuck CIF. Ok, good luck with all of this. Just remember to stick to the packing list. These EIB road marches are a bit different than regular ones. Good luck, dude.” He put extra emphasis on that last line, with a hint of sarcasm in it. What did he know. I rolled my eyes as he walked away. He didn’t know me.
I continued packing, making sure I stuck to the packing list. There was probably going to be a layout after or a scale to make sure we weighed enough. The old military adage that you can add to but not take away floated through my mind. I had to be ready for anything. What if I needed something and I didn’t have it? I would be a shitbag. I grabbed the woodland camouflage flak jacket and placed it at the bottom of my ruck. This was a pretty heavy item, probably adding around 20 lbs to the weight. I was excited; this march was really going to challenge me, and I was sure to make weight. I couldn’t wait to get out there. Little did I know I was about to learn a hard lesson in ruck life. Lessons like the importance of where to pack the heavier gear and how to hydrate. There is only one way to learn ruck life and that is through your mistakes.
There is a road on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson called Davis Highway. When you head back to the barracks, you can see Anchorage in the distance. Due to this, you feel like you are a lot closer than you are to the end of the movement. It was here, at mile seven, that the movement became no fun anymore. I was struggling with all the energy I could muster just to keep up. And I had stopped sweating. Not good. At nine miles, I began the catch-up game, where I would fall back and sprint forward. Finally, at mile ten, there was a permanent gap of about ten meters between myself and everyone else. Petey, the man whose advice I had ignored, fell out with me and urged me on. He asked me how much I was carrying, and between gasps, I answered that I thought it was around fifty pounds. He lifted my ruck and laughed. “Jesus, dude. You are carrying way too much. What were you thinking?” I watched as my platoon got further away. I felt like shit. I began to run. I didn’t care if I was going to die. I would not fall back any further.
“Hey, hold on…HOLD ON, DUDE! Let me help you.”
His voice cut through me like an ice knife. “Give me your ruck and you take mine. I am used to the heavier weight.” Petey was a machine gunner in the platoon. Thirty-five pounds dry was a joke to him; he was used to carrying double that with a 27.6-pound machine gun as well. I didn’t know that then, just like I didn’t know to trust people to pick me up. Why would he want to help me? Those were my thoughts at the time. I was sure no one helps without wanting something in return. I was wrong, and over time, I learned to trust in the wolfpack with everything. It is truly amazing how one act of kindness can sit with you for the rest of your career. In that moment, I learned what the life I had just entered was all about. Yes, I was an amusing, dumb, cherry private at one point. We all were. I have an endless number of stories like that. After those, I can start with more as a cherry team leader, squad leader, and platoon sergeant. Then for fun, we can recount stories at the various schools I attended. All have their own cherry moments and learning experiences. I regress. The point of this story is about the weight we carry, how we choose to carry it, and that it is ok to share our weight. This is just as true for our life experiences as it is about what we pack in our ruck.
In the foxhole, ranger grave, patrol base, COP, CHU, we discussed the realities of our lives. We trust our buddies enough to tell them anything. We become our own therapists as we watch our friends go through some horrific life situations. Squad leader is a dick? Kids don’t understand you? Jody got your wife? Sick of seeing dead bodies? Best friend was just horrifically shot or blown up? We were there for each other and would never let slip something told us in confidence. We listened. We listened to take on our buddy’s emotional weight. To share the grief and help carry the load, but mostly because we wanted to. We cared… A LOT. The emotional burden of a soldier is heavier than his ruck and gains more weight each tour. It can’t be found in the civilian world, outside of whatever close friends you might have from kindergarten. Ruck life discussions disappear when you get out of the Army. Vet centers and VFWs are a good attempt to replicate that trust, but in the end, they are a poor substitute.
The truth is, many infantry soldiers come from broken homes. Not all, of course, but a lot more than people like to talk about. People whose self-worth is validated when they are children do not seek out jobs which can get them killed or mutilated for scant pay. They do not seek out jobs where they are smoked endlessly and told, “low crawl through the dirt because you are a piece of shit!”. They will resent you for making them do that, but they will do it anyway. The platoon a soldier ends up in becomes his family because his real family is usually dysfunctional on some level. Once again, not all, but most will come from abusive, drugged up, dead, or simply non-existent, as in, doesn’t give a fuck about him and never gave a fuck about him. For many, the infantry platoon is the only family the person will have, and they become hooked on it because it is the only real connections they have ever had. So, there he will be, living ruck life with his makeshift family.
Late at night, on some mission in the Sunni Triangle of Death, an infantryman, caked in wet moondust from an exhausting day of fighting in the thick brush which follows the Euphrates River, will struggle to stay awake while he pulls his hour-long security shift by himself. Eyes tired but alert, he will look around as he throws in a pinch of Copenhagen Long Cut and smiles despite the windy desert cold which feels like it cuts straight to his bones. He smiles because he will never be more at home than in that moment. He is content, complete despite the mortars, IED’s, and bullets because his real family surrounds him. In spite of everything hurting. That is ruck life. Sharing the weight, not only physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and mentally too. It will never be replaced.