by Luis Perez
The time is 1845, and you’re more than seventy-two hours into a week-long, continuous training exercise. You’ve slept fewer than six hours since it started. Though precipitation is rare where you’re training, you just happen to be here the one week the rain is unrelenting. Nothing and no man is dry, everything is doubly heavy due to the water it has absorbed, and you struggle to get from place to place in the ankle-deep mud. The fog is so thick you can’t see the next hillside over, and the temporary relief provided by the sun during the short December days has been replaced by a bone-penetrating chill. You’ve received orders to move out, but all the trucks and tents are stuck, and most of the men have predictably gone internal, save for a few hard-chargers who somehow manage to pull strength from a deep inner reservoir of fortitude. Where this determination comes from, I’ll never know, but these few undefeatable men manage to keep pushing those around them forward—one slow, sloshing step at a time—through forceful commands and by steady example. You, my friend, are experiencing a time-honored tradition that every military man in history has endured; you are in the middle of just one of myriad possible compilations of circumstances known as life in the field.
The field is a unique place, both familiar and unknown. The emotions you experience are hard-wired from previous visits, and you know exactly what you’re in for even though you haven’t yet lived it. No man wants to go to the field, though he fully recognizes the importance of the endeavor, for going to the field means leaving everything behind: your family, your comfortable bed at home, your predictable daily routine.
Life in the field means discomfort, and every man prepares for this differently. Some joke about it, while others pretend it’s not going to happen. Some embrace it and confront it head-on, while others try to soften the blow by bringing as many creature comforts with them as possible; no matter how heavy their packs may get, this group simply cannot survive the field without their beef jerky, instant noodles, gourmet coffee, excessive cans of dipping tobacco, camp stoves, fold-out chairs. Some are so busy with final coordination that they don’t have time to think about the upcoming discomfort, and a handful don’t yet know what they’re in for. Regardless of how each man prepares, all return from this encounter a little more hardened. All are equally relieved it’s over.
The field lets you — forces you — to identify with your inner animal. Socially-induced propriety gets put on hold. Clothing is still important, but primarily to protect you from the elements, rather than to maintain decency. Since the field requires each man to do whatever it takes to maintain the bare minimum level of personal hygiene, it is not shocking to see a man completely naked, stealing a precious bath from a lukewarm “solar” shower bag, changing into cleaner or dryer clothes, or letting body crevices air out for a little while. Your surroundings become your commode. You focus more on survival — adequate food, water, and shelter—than you do on being clean, upholding good table manners, or maintaining a healthy diet. The field has its own way of making you feel alive.
You bond with the earth, the flora, and the fauna. You sleep on the ground. The stars become your roof at night, unless you’re unlucky enough for it to be rain instead. It’s up to you to adjust to your new habitat. You must respect the force of nature around you, lest you become subject to some unlikely, yet catastrophic, collision with it. Dangerous animals are found far too frequently for comfort. One can only hope that they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. Nevertheless, men always seem to find a way to tempt chance by amusing themselves with deadly snakes, scorpions, and spiders. The threat of fire is abated for now, but in the dry season you can never let down your guard entirely, and one careless cooking fire or unextinguished cigarette could create havoc in an instant. Trees offer shade, yet at the same time hide many critters; some dangerous, some simply a nuisance. It’s not hard to find your place in the field, but you still breathe a sigh of relief when life goes on after this very personal encounter.
The smells. The smells are what really let you know that you’re in the field. The first one to hit your nostrils is the familiar scent of field rations: the vapors rising from an activated chemical heater, a whiff of peanut butter being squeezed onto a cracker, and the artificiality of processed cheese. You’re also sure to experience the pungent odor of a porta-john utilized just one time too many. You may sense the aroma of a recent fire, the carbon of a spent cartridge, or the piercing fragrance of burning petroleum, precious in that it keeps everything running in the field. Always, there is the overwhelming bouquet of a man who’s seen too many days since his last shower. This particular smell is everywhere and slowly grows stronger with each passing day.
Sleep matters in the field, yet valuable time is squandered during the day, leaving staff officers to scramble throughout the night.
It is easy for a man to succumb to his vices in the field: tobacco, caffeine, cakes and candy, cards. There is reading—a good military professional always has something meaningful to read available—but in the field, it is surprisingly difficult to put all else aside and simply read; though the distractions are fewer in the field, and the hours more abundant, it is difficult to avoid gathering with other men. There is satisfaction—which exists, I think, primarily for evolutionary reasons—in sharing with other men in the field: whether sharing laughter or misery; arduous assignments across miles of treacherous terrain or instances of idleness before the next task; intense dialogue or peaceful silence; a picturesque scene at sunset or a destitute landscape of nothingness; late-night planning sessions or early-morning mission rehearsals; a plentiful hot group-ration meal or a small sip of lukewarm instant coffee; gorgeous sunshine or harsh weather; or simply the reality that you’re all experiencing life in the field together. For better or worse, camaraderie is a certainty in the field. The good leaders know how to harness this into action, the less ambitious into friendship.
And at night, when it all slows down, you have time to ponder, to absorb the vastness of the immeasurable, yet stunning, universe gazing down at you. With normal day-to-day distractions on mute for the moment, you can truly appreciate your existential place in life. Your mind inevitably wanders, usually to somewhere, something, or someone other than the field. This is a welcome change of pace, as the field is ubiquitous. At minimum, you’ll think of what you’ll do when you leave the field. You’ll picture your first meal, your first drink, your first shower. Never before have you so craved your wife’s homemade chicken dish, or so clearly pictured the juicy ribeye at your local steakhouse. Never before have you been so eager to feel the refreshing splash of ice cold hops and malted barley colliding with your taste buds. You’re certain that, regardless of brand, flavor, or size, your first beer after a stint in the field will be the best damn beer you’ve ever had. If you’re lucky, you’ll think of those you love; you’ll endeavor to remember fond memories as vividly as possible; and you’ll imagine brilliant new experiences to be had. Simple, everyday pleasures seem so fulfilling now that you’ve spent quality time in the field, and the important things in life have now come clearly into focus.
The field brings with it emotional highs and lows, feelings of yearning and reflection, and, almost by definition, a change to the status quo.
But invariably, if you look in the right places, it brings with it new-found appreciation for life outside the field. It is both a curse and a blessing, and we are both cursed and lucky to live it.
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)