Range Fire

by Steven Miller


As I trudged through the thigh-high prairie grass watching the grasshoppers scatter ahead of me, ever vigilant for snakes, tarantulas and other such creatures, my mind wandered back to early June when I sat with my friends at Nick’s English Hut in Bloomington, enjoying a cheeseburger and cold beer to celebrate the completion of our junior year at Indiana University. I was sure that those guys, who had elected to take their chances with the Draft Board rather than pursue the ROTC route, were sitting around a swimming pool back home and enjoying the warm Indiana summer.

Instead, I was in the final two weeks an eight-week ROTC Summer Camp at Fort Riley, Kansas, in the dry heat of late July, 1969. In this field training exercise, meant to provide us future Army officers with the basics of infantry battlefield tactics, our company was spread out across the prairie, and moving forward on a coordinated attack on some distant objective. Each man carried his web gear which consisted of a canteen and poncho, plus his M-14 rifle and extra ammunition magazine, loaded with blanks. We were sweltering under our steel pots and our sweat-soaked fatigues. I felt lucky that I had not been designated the radio-telephone operator (RTO) which would have meant also carrying the PRC-25, a heavy radio that the RTO carried on his back like a backpack. I had enjoyed that experience the day before.

Heeding the advice from one of my buddies who was a year older than I and had completed summer camp the year before, I had tried to get myself in shape ahead of time. I ran the steps of the old 10th Street Stadium in my combat boots, did plenty of pushups and sit-ups. Still, nothing could really prepare me for the blistering sun on the treeless Kansas prairie.

However, as we had progressed through the prior six weeks, it had become evident that a few of our fellow cadets had not been prepared and were suffering physically as a result. One of them, who I’ll call Frank Stimson, showed up overweight and had apparently never experienced a day of vigorous physical exertion in his life. On at least one march to and from the training area, his fellow cadets carried his web gear or rifle, carefully keeping him in the inner column and hidden from the drill instructor (DI).

On this day and in this formation, however, there was no covering for Stimson, and he was visibly suffering. As we moved forward, we encountered a dry drainage ditch, about eight feet deep and ten feet across, with near vertical sides. Getting to the other side meant sliding down the near side and helping each other climb the far side. This was accomplished by two men holding a rifle between them. One man would step up onto the rifle and be lifted high enough to crawl over the top. He would them help the man behind him. Stimson was a problem. He was able to step up onto the rifle but did not have the strength to pull himself up far enough to climb over the top. Two of the guys at the top had to drag him up. They then turned their attention to helping the rest of the guys. The last man in the ditch took the magazine out of his M14, grabbed the muzzle and pushed the rifle up. The guys on top grabbed the stock and pulled him up.

As we regrouped and prepared to continue the advance, we noticed that Stimson was not getting onto his feet. In fact, he wasn’t doing anything, just lying on his side. We gathered around him. His breathing was shallow and even stranger, he wasn’t sweating.

The cadet who had been designated squad leader for the day moved in close. “Stimson!” he said. “What’s wrong? You okay?” A couple of guys helped him to a sitting position. He sat there and stared blankly. He didn’t seem to know where he was. The squad leader waved at the DI who was about a hundred yards away with one of the other platoons. “What’s the problem?” he barked when he got to us.

“It’s Stimson, Sergeant. Something’s wrong with him.”

The DI knelt in front of him. “Cadet Stimson!” he said. “Look at me!” Stimson just stared blankly at him. The DI stood quickly. “This man has heat stroke,” he said. “I’ll call for a medivac. In the meantime, you men pour some water down his back. Try to cool off the back of his neck!”

We all took out our canteens and began to pour the water down his neck. The DI grabbed the handset on the PRC-25 and called for a chopper to pick him up. One of the guys had unrolled his poncho and, using our rifles as poles, fashioned a tarp to provide a bit of shade for Frank.

In a few minutes, we saw a helicopter appear on the horizon, a mile of two north of us. The DI unholstered and fired a flare gun to signal our location. We all watched the red flare, with its trail of smoke, rise into the air. And we all watched it fall slowly to the ground. And we all knew what would happen next. As soon as the flare hit the ground, the grass around it began to burn. I’m sure the DI knew as soon as he fired the flare that it was a mistake. We were about to have a prairie fire on our hands.

“You men!” he shouted. “Get over there and beat that fire out with your ponchos! ASAP!” We all raced to the spot, yanked our ponchos from our belts, and began beating frantically at the flames. The chopper landed in a huge cloud of dust, and the crew loaded up Stimson. We didn’t see him again. I heard he was “recycled”, which meant he would have to return for all of this the next summer.

At the moment, we had our own problems, beating down the grass fire. Fortunately for us, there was absolutely no wind that day, which was unusual for Kansas. After about a half hour, we were able get the last of the flames put out.

In the back of my mind, I had hoped that, due to the circumstances, we may get to rest for a while. No such luck. “Okay, let’s go!”, the DI said. “You have some catching up to do.” We picked up our rifles, reset our battle formation and moved out at double time through the heat. Having poured all our water on Stimson, not a one of us had a drop left in our canteens.

After another hour, we crested a rise and saw the objective, an abandoned old sharecropper’s house. The other platoons had already launched the “attack” using carefully planned fire-and-maneuver tactics. We joined the attack, and eventually, a DI blew a whistle. We gathered in front of the house and were critiqued everything we’d done wrong. My concentration, however, was on the water tank hooked to the back of a truck parked in the shade of the only tree in sight. I don’t think I’d ever been so thirsty.

One of the supposed benefits of the ROTC program was that we would be allowed to state our preferences for which branch of the Army we wished to join. And this experience convinced me that I definitely would not be requesting infantry.

Finally, ordered to stand down for thirty minutes, we made a dash for the water tank.

Tepid water never tasted so good.