PFC Richt (again, not his real name, but close enough) was the nicest, most polite young soldier one could ask for. To the extent standardized testing is valid, he was smarter than most officers in the battalion (GT â€“ a rough measure of IQ â€“ in the high 130s). He had more leadership ability than most of them, too; more on that later. Oh, sure, heâ€™d done a year and a half in the state pen, for Murder II, starting at age seventeen, but another witness had been found or come forward to prove self-defense, so his conviction had been quashed and theyâ€™d even paid him an utterly inadequate amount of money for his travails. And then heâ€™d joined the Army, as heâ€™d always wanted to. Heâ€™d gone to jump school after basic and AIT and then been assigned to Panama as a forward observer, supporting A Company (Airborne) 3rd Battalion, 5th Infantry.
He and his first platoon sergeant didnâ€™t get along for beans, in part because Richt was considerably brighter than said platoon sergeant, in part because he was a smart ass â€“ which is different from being smart â€“ and in part because he was a trouble magnet. Because he was smart, and, like many smart people, easily bored, you had to be brighter than he was, even much brighter, to keep him gainfully employed at important work, lest he get bored, and from bored find his way into trouble. Trouble? When dinged once for failure to wear his dog tags one morning, at inspection, it was probably unwise for him to have assembled â€“ I have no idea how he did it â€“ a ring of about a hundred dog tags, all with the proper data, to wear around his neck by the next morningâ€™s inspection. This didnâ€™t endear him to that platoon sergeant, either.
But he didnâ€™t do a damned thing to cause the trouble-magnetism; that just happened. Even he didnâ€™t know why, though he knew that it did. Once, he offered to demonstrate to that initial platoon sergeant that, dammit, it wasnâ€™t his fault, by showing the platoon sergeant what would happen if he went to the enlisted manâ€™s club. Sure as Hell, heâ€™s sitting their quietly and calmly with the platoon sergeant, the two of them minding their own business over a couple of beers, when some idiot picked a fight with him. Idiot? Oh, you have no idea; but, soon, very soon, you will.
So the boy got hurt on a jump â€“ and ended up transferred to me to drive a truck in Support (Read: Supply and Transport) Platoon. That sounds like a nothing much job for a grunt. Forgive me this digression.
A nothing much job? Uh, uh; even leaving aside that, everything tallied up, it was a company-sized job1, for varying reasons that battalion, all the battalions in Panama at that time, used â€“ each of them â€“ more ammunition, 4.2â€ť mortar and below, than the entire 82nd Airborne Division. Yeah, the companies and platoons in the brigade were live firing, as a general rule, thirteen times a month. I think that was probably more even than the Ranger Battalions were doing, and they were the ones providing each battalionâ€¦.oh, in modern termsâ€¦maybeâ€¦oh, say, eight million dollars a year, between them, in under-the-table ammunition (repeat after me: â€śExpended as issued, Lieutenant, and you can keep a field ammunition supply point open indefinitely, if you must.â€ť) And that wasnâ€™t even a majority of what we used. And we were moving that mountain of explody goodness over an area of about five hundred square and mostly badly-roaded or unroaded jungle miles with eight old deuce and a halfs, one five-ton long bed, a jeep with trailer, plus some occasional grudging support from the brigadeâ€™s truck company (the slackers). Almost all my drivers came to me from being hurt but â€“ luck of the draw, I suppose â€“ their average GT (again, an IQ cognate) was in the medium to high 120s. The job would have been impossible otherwise.
In any case, I had an opening for an ammo handler to help the Ammunition Sergeant move and account for all that stuff. Richt filled it.
I knew he was smart; that was on the paperwork. Iâ€™d seen he was hard working and frightfully strong (someone who can carry a .50 caliber machine gun and tripod on his own shoulders for miles through the jungle? Thatâ€™s strong). I knew he was more or less fearless â€“ sometimes idiotically so â€“ from the time heâ€™d picked up a dud 106mm recoilless rifle warhead and tossed it off the side of the road while we were setting up a machine gun range. (Yeah, Boom. Me, a couple of hundred meters away: â€śOh, shit!â€ť) I didnâ€™t really know his quality, though, until a couple of months after heâ€™d been assigned to us, when we had a no notice alert (and surprisingly, it really was a surprise2) to load the battalion out as if to move by air. There was a plan for it, up at battalion, and we had our part in a bookcase, but the plan was a little out of date. For one thing, my platoon sergeant (for the truck and ammo parts of the job) was supposed to be an E-7. He was, in fact, a very capable E-6 trucker. Sadly for the plan, it took an E-7 or higher to sign for the self-contained and sensitive munitions â€“ claymore mines, LAWs (Light Anti-armor Weapons), hand grenades, Stinger air defense missiles, and such. E-6? Staff Sergeant? He couldnâ€™t. I had to. My platoon sergeant, instead, had to go do my planned job, which was coordinate transportation.
That would have all been all right, except for one thing that spiraled. In order to move self-contained munitions, and ammunition in that quantity, in Panama, at that time, you needed an MP escort. No, being a sneaky sort and trying to move it one truck at a time was right out. We had the necessary trucks with a basic load of ammunition all loaded, but then we sat there. And sat there. And sat there some more. Iâ€™d sent my jeep back to the platoon sergeant so he could go coordinate transportation so I was stuck, too. â€śOh, the MPs are coming.â€ť â€śTheyâ€™ll be there in a few minutes.â€ť â€śItâ€™s already laid on.â€ť And, of course, â€śAnd I wonâ€™t come in your mouth.â€ť
So Richt gets to the motor pool, and heâ€™s pretty much it. He already knows thereâ€™s an alert on; at least weâ€™ve got that much going for us, but heâ€™s never been involved in one before. He sits down, reads the plan, and says to himself, â€śSelf,â€ť he says, â€śIâ€™m just a freakinâ€™ Private First Class and Iâ€™m the only one around to do either a platoon sergeantâ€™s or officerâ€™s job. Jesus, help me, because Iâ€™m going to try.â€ť
I canâ€™t fill you in on the details of what happened between that moment and when, finally, after the MPs showed up, I got back to the motor pool where the loads for the aircraft were being assembled on pallets. I can tell you what I saw when I got there. What I saw was PFC Richt, with his jungle fatigue shirt off, the battalion heavy mortar platoon standing in front of him, at parade rest, in a semicircle, while he gave orders to three dozen people, almost all of whom outranked him, as clear and concise and to the point as any I have ever seen or, when I got close enough, heard. (Later on I said/asked: â€śRicht, I think I know why you took your shirt off but tell me why you did it anyway.â€ť â€śSo they wouldnâ€™t know I was just a PFC, sir. I needed them to listen to me.â€ť â€śYep. Good man. Carry on.â€ť)
The brains, presence, strength, and charisma, however, werenâ€™t the really significant things about Richt. The really significant thing was his sheer ferocity.
You may surmise, and correctly, that the platoon was always being pulled in a hundred different directions. Thus, it wasnâ€™t unusual to not see either my ammo sergeant or Richt for a couple of days at a time. Three days, however, that was a little unusual. That conversation went like this.
â€śPlatoon Sergeant, what has Richt been up to? I havenâ€™t seen him since ___day.â€ť
â€śDidnâ€™t I tell you, sir?â€ť
â€śNo, you didnâ€™t tell me. Tell me what?â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s in the hospital.â€ť
â€śJeez, Iâ€™m sorry, sir; I could have sworn I told you; yesterday morning, I thought. Hmmâ€¦maybe not. I wasâ€¦no excuse, sir. It happened two days ago. Iâ€¦â€ť
â€śCan it; weâ€™ll talk about that later. You wonâ€™t like it. How is he and what happened?â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s cut up pretty badly, but heâ€™s going to make a full recovery.â€ť
â€śSix Panamanians with knives jumped him around Chorrillo.â€ť (Chorrillo was/is a bad neighborhood in Panama City, Panama.)
â€śFour of the Panamanians are dead; he killed them with his bare hands.â€ť
â€śOf course he did. And?â€ť
â€śThe other two will be quadriplegics for the rest of their lives.â€ť
â€śAny charges pressed from the Panamanian side?â€ť
â€śNo, I think the local police were happy to see the last of those six.â€ť
â€śHave you seen him yet?â€ť
â€śNo, sir; I was going to go this morning.â€ť
â€śOh, good; we can go together and have our little chat.â€ť
(The chat wasnâ€™t really that bad. He knew heâ€™d screwed up but I knew it was more a function of the kind of unit and the circumstances. I just wanted to make sure it wouldnâ€™t happen, nor anything like it, again.)
Those were not the only Panamanians Richt killed with his bare hands over the year or so he worked for me. I think the total was seven dead and five paralyzed in three distinct incidents, including that one. That was, however, the only time he actually got a mark on him, and that time only because of the odds. A mere two or three or four he could dispense with without breaking a sweat, let alone shedding his own blood.
Martial artist? Black belt, Tae-Ju-Ken-Koto-Fu, infinite dan? None of those things. He was just strong, quick, fearless, and, if attacked, utterly ferocious.
Now who would like to face an army of those?
1 Any time you have four platoon sergeants, one of them a master sergeant, working for you, each with a platoon, working for him, Bubba, youâ€™re commanding a company by any other name. Which was, ya know, kinda neat as a newly promoted first lieutenant.
2 There are only two ways a surprise alert isnâ€™t a complete cluster f**k. One is if it isnâ€™t really a surprise because either a) youâ€™ve been informed its coming or b) you do it so much, so damned frequently, that you really canâ€™t do anything else but load up to move. Fighting once you get there? Not so much. The other way is if someone else is doing all the hard parts for you and they werenâ€™t caught by surprise.
Don’t miss last week’s article: Great Enlisted Men: Determination
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Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the Peopleâ€™s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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