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 – a rough measure of IQ – in the high 130s). He had more leadership ability than most of them, too; more on that later. Oh, sure, he’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 they’d even paid him an utterly inadequate amount of money for his travails. And then he’d joined the Army, as he’d always wanted to. He’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 didn’t get along for beans, in part because Richt was considerably brighter than said platoon sergeant, in part because he was a smart ass – which is different from being smart – 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 – I have no idea how he did it – a ring of about a hundred dog tags, all with the proper data, to wear around his neck by the next morning’s inspection. This didn’t endear him to that platoon sergeant, either.
But he didn’t do a damned thing to cause the trouble-magnetism; that just happened. Even he didn’t know why, though he knew that it did. Once, he offered to demonstrate to that initial platoon sergeant that, dammit, it wasn’t his fault, by showing the platoon sergeant what would happen if he went to the enlisted man’s club. Sure as Hell, he’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 – 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 – each of them – more ammunition, 4.2” 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 battalion….oh, in modern terms…maybe…oh, say, eight million dollars a year, between them, in under-the-table ammunition (repeat after me: “Expended as issued, Lieutenant, and you can keep a field ammunition supply point open indefinitely, if you must.”) And that wasn’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 brigade’s truck company (the slackers). Almost all my drivers came to me from being hurt but – luck of the draw, I suppose – 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. I’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? That’s strong). I knew he was more or less fearless – sometimes idiotically so – from the time he’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: “Oh, shit!”) I didn’t really know his quality, though, until a couple of months after he’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 – claymore mines, LAWs (Light Anti-armor Weapons), hand grenades, Stinger air defense missiles, and such. E-6? Staff Sergeant? He couldn’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. I’d sent my jeep back to the platoon sergeant so he could go coordinate transportation so I was stuck, too. “Oh, the MPs are coming.” “They’ll be there in a few minutes.” “It’s already laid on.” And, of course, “And I won’t come in your mouth.”
So Richt gets to the motor pool, and he’s pretty much it. He already knows there’s an alert on; at least we’ve got that much going for us, but he’s never been involved in one before. He sits down, reads the plan, and says to himself, “Self,” he says, “I’m just a freakin’ Private First Class and I’m the only one around to do either a platoon sergeant’s or officer’s job. Jesus, help me, because I’m going to try.”
I can’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: “Richt, I think I know why you took your shirt off but tell me why you did it anyway.” “So they wouldn’t know I was just a PFC, sir. I needed them to listen to me.” “Yep. Good man. Carry on.”)
The brains, presence, strength, and charisma, however, weren’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 wasn’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.
“Platoon Sergeant, what has Richt been up to? I haven’t seen him since ___day.”
“Didn’t I tell you, sir?”
“No, you didn’t tell me. Tell me what?”
“He’s in the hospital.”
“Jeez, I’m sorry, sir; I could have sworn I told you; yesterday morning, I thought. Hmm…maybe not. I was…no excuse, sir. It happened two days ago. I…”
“Can it; we’ll talk about that later. You won’t like it. How is he and what happened?”
“He’s cut up pretty badly, but he’s going to make a full recovery.”
“Six Panamanians with knives jumped him around Chorrillo.” (Chorrillo was/is a bad neighborhood in Panama City, Panama.)
“Four of the Panamanians are dead; he killed them with his bare hands.”
“Of course he did. And?”
“The other two will be quadriplegics for the rest of their lives.”
“Any charges pressed from the Panamanian side?”
“No, I think the local police were happy to see the last of those six.”
“Have you seen him yet?”
“No, sir; I was going to go this morning.”
“Oh, good; we can go together and have our little chat.”
(The chat wasn’t really that bad. He knew he’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 wouldn’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, you’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 isn’t a complete cluster f**k. One is if it isn’t really a surprise because either a) you’ve been informed its coming or b) you do it so much, so damned frequently, that you really can’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 weren’t caught by surprise.
Don’t miss last week’s article: Great Enlisted Men: Determination
Photo by 3dan3/iStock-Getty Images
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 People’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.
Note: If you follow the retail links in this post and make purchases on the site(s), Defy Media may receive a share of the proceeds from your sale through the retailer’s affiliate program.
Don’t miss Tom Kratman’s other Lines of Departure columns. Click through the gallery below to read more.
Social JusticeDon't miss this three-part series on our social justice armed forces.
Photo by zabelin/Getty Images
Women in the MilitaryShould women be required to register for the draft? Step right up, ladies!
Photo by Getty Images
The KurdsTom Kratman sounds off on our gallant allies, the Kurds, and other fairy tales.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Sorry RodneyTom Kratman explores Islam and why we just can't get along. Read Part I, II and III of this series.
Photo by Retrovizor/Getty Images
Service Guarantees CitizenshipRead this three-part series from Tom Kratman, inspired by Starship Troopers: Part I, II and III.
Photo by Marko Marcello/Getty Images
ImmigrationTom Kratman explores why immigration doesn't work like it used to.
Gun-Free ZonesTom Kratman discusses military gun-free zones and the ill-logic of the Left.
Dear GermanyRead this open letter to Germany regarding the "refugee" crisis.
Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images