Saturday, February 13, 2010



Cunningham. Gunnery Sergeant, USMC. I don’t remember, or I never knew, his first name, but Erwin or Walter, or something like that is stuck in my mind. If I featured him as a character in the film of my memory, I’d cast a big man, James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano, in the role. I’ll tell Gandolfini he has to lose 50 pounds and transform himself into a lean, mean, fighting slab of quick-twitch muscle if he wants to be my Gunny.

Cunningham was the original and, until my arrival, the only member of the newly-formed Delta Battery, 3rd LAAM (Light Anti Aircraft Missile) Battalion. My orders were to report to Delta Battery, my first duty assignment, at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry point, North Carolina. I arrived at the main gate and gave over my orders. The OD (Officer on Duty) made a phone call and told me to cool my heels. In a few minutes a jeep roared up, screeched angrily to a halt. Can jeeps screech angrily? This one did. The jeep’s only occupant sat there for a minute shaking his head and muttering to himself, then swung out of the driver’s seat and looked around.

I got a first look at the man who would become my private tormentor. Cunningham was a spit and polish Marine, every inch of his 6’2” frame shined and glittered. The creases in his uniform were so sharp you could shave with them. There were enough colorful campaign ribbons on his blouse to make a tropical salad. His eyes were piggy and mean, his face pock-marked and scarred from some childhood malady. He was terrifying.

His eyes landed on me. His jaw jutted out as he scowled. And from that moment, all of Cunningham’s elegant malice was concentrated on me. There was nothing about me, absolutely nothing, that Cunningham liked, not my hair cut, my uniform, my college boy vocabulary, or my face. He was Old Corps Infantry, transferred unwillingly to the Air Wing. He hated everything about his re-assignment, particularly me, Jenkins, Private (not even PFC Private First Class), lowest of the low.

His first words of greeting:

“Looking at you makes me want to puke. If I had to be around you for more than a day, I’d shoot myself in the head. But don't worry, Private Shitpie, I’ve got big plans for you.”

That’s how, the next day, I found myself on mess duty for one interminable, miserable month, a tour of frustration that climaxed when I dumped a full pan of hot pork-chops-in-gravy across the legs of four high-ranking BAMs (women Marines) who declared, for all to hear, that they would have my balls nailed to the door of the mass hall. Well, I still have them, my balls I mean, so somebody must have interceded on my behalf. Certainly not Cunningham. He would have watched the castration and cheered.

As the other members of Delta Battery began to arrive, I hoped Cunningham’s gaze would move along to some new sacrificial sap. Not a chance. Cunningham still had his “prize pupil” to pick on. Me. Every disgusting detail, arduous, spine-cracking, footsore humping, motherfucking, pissant crap job landed on yours truly.

Cunningham reserved his Special Jenkins Show for the PRT, the Marine Corps Physical Readiness Test, the highlight of which was Jenkins’ Fireman Carry. Step right up and pay your nickel, you won’t want to miss this.

Strolling to the other end of the field, Gunny would wail:

“Jenkins, Oh Jenkins, stinking shitpie, your beloved Gunnery Sergeant is sorely wounded. Would you be so kind as to come and save his beautiful Marine Corps body from grievous harm?”

He would then drop to the ground in a slow motion, melodramatic display, clutching his chest and screaming. The other men would laugh. Gunny was just SO funny. When he was picking on someone else.

I would race down the field where Cunningham was sprawled on his stomach, chewing a piece of grass, “grievous wounded,” and I would attempt to hoist him up on my shoulders and race back down the “battlefield” to deliver him into the loving care of the medics.

Or try. I weighed about 170 pounds. Like I inferred, Gunny was a big man, probably 225 pounds. He was also floppy (goddamn you Cunningham) dead weight which is the heaviest weight there is. The correct Fireman Carry technique is to roll the “wounded” on to his back, grab him by the front of his shirt, and smoothly lift him up and across your shoulders, get him balanced, and then run like hell. Or waddle. Or stagger. But, YOU WILL NOT LEAVE HIM BEHIND.

I pulled Cunningham up to his waist.

“Oh, oh it hurts.”

I got him up to his knees, him melting and limp.

“Save me, Jenkins, I don’t want to die.”

I squatted and wrapped my arms around his chest, we were cheek to cheek.

“Are you going to kiss me?”

I stood up, hugging him, his knees were buckling. Now I had most of his weight. What now?

“Are you going to carry me or fuck me?”

I tried to get under him, my right arm between his legs, but I lost control and he flopped back onto the ground.

“You’re killing me? Why is Jenkins trying to kill his Good ol’ Gunny?

I tried again and again and again, getting tired and more tired, exhausted. I could not get him on my shoulders. I was bent over, hands on my knees, panting. Gunny got up and bellowed at me.

“You fail, Jenkins! You fail the fucking PRT! You will take it again tomorrow and every day after that for the rest of your fucking life until you pass it!”

“Yes, Gunny, but . . .”

“You have something useful to say?”

“I passed the PRT in boot camp.”

“How the fuck did you do that?”

“The guy I had to carry was my own size.”

“Oh, well then, that explains everything. I am so sorry I ever doubted you.”

(Shit. Me and my big mouth.)

“You are saying that everything will be A-OK as long as the other Marines are just your size, but if some Marine bigger than you gets hurt, you will just leave him on the fucking ground? YOU WILL LEAVE THAT MARINE BEHIND?”

(What can you say to that?)

“I’ll do better next time, Gunny.”

He gave me a look of utter distain, and turned to the other men.

“Tomorrow, Jenkins here, and these other three shitpies will take the PRT all over again, while you . . . real Marines will stand at attention in this beautiful North Carolina sunshine until they get it right. Dismissed.”

“Except you, Jenkins, I’m not through with you.”

The rest of the Battery walked away shooting me dirty looks. Cunningham turned to me.

“Come here.”

I followed him back down the field.

“There’s a technique to the Fireman Carry that you got to get down if you have to lift somebody a lot bigger than you are. Lay down.”

I got down on the ground.

(What the hell was he doing?)

“Pull your man up to the waist. You did that part fine. Then, get him up to the knees. OK, so far, but that’s where you lost it. He’s nothing but floppy meat, he’s going to sag at the waist, and he’s not going to stay upright while you get ready for the next step. Understand?”

“Yes, Gunny.”

“So, first, your feet can’t be spread apart parallel to you shoulders, they have to be angled with your strong leg slightly in front, and in between his feet.”

He demonstrated.

“Now here’s the secret. You can take a second to rest after you pull him up to his waist, take a deep breath, and then you CAN NOT STOP AGAIN until he his across your shoulders. You pull him up, you squat low, you twist your strong side into him, get your shoulder under his center of gravity, and push up with your strong leg, ALL IN ONE MOTION. If you hesitate, you will lose him.”

Gunny squatted down over me, jerked me up to sitting position, then pulled me up to the knees and kept going. In a second I was across his shoulders, my upper torso and head hanging down behind him.”

“Take a moment to bounce him into balance.”

He bounced me.

“Get your Marine to safety.”

He ran a few steps, then dumped me, hard, on to the ground.

“Now, you do it.”

I tried. I tried. I was getting him a little higher, but I was also getting tired and frazzled.

“This time, I’m going to help you a little bit with my legs, so you can get a feel for it.”

I tried again. I could feel him give a last little shove off with his legs, just a tad, but enough for me to get him up and over my shoulders. Whew.

“OK, you got the feeling. Do it again. This time, no help. DO NOT HESITATE!”

Suck it up, Marine. He got on the ground. I pulled him up to the waist. Squatted low. Took a deep breath (OK you sonofabitch), ducked down, twisted, pushed up with my legs, and smoothly he was across my shoulders. I bounced him into balance and took off running.

“That’s enough. Put me down.”

I shrugged him off my shoulder and dropped him on his back. Not a sound. Not a smile. Not a word of encouragement or congratulations.


The next morning Gunny ordered me and the other three failures out to formation 30 minutes early.

“Private Jenkins will teach you fuckwads the correct technique for the Fireman Carry. You better not screw it up.”

For a half hour I taught the tricks and secrets of the Fireman Carry, and by the time the rest of the Battery formed up, the Sad Sack Trio were prepared. Gunny announced that we losers were going to forego the early elements of the PRT and go directly to the Fireman Carry.

“Delta Battery, TEN HUT!” (Attention!)

The men snapped to attention.

“At Ease!”

The Marines relaxed but stayed in position in formation. Gunny must have got laid last night, he was in a “kindly” mood, or else he wanted the men to be able to watch and enjoy the show.

We four “performers” paired up. One rescuer, one wounded. The rescuer picked up the wounded, delivered him across the field, then switched roles, and the same pair executed the carry and run back across the field. All four of us were successful, we had passed the PRT. Thank God, that’s over.

No, it’s not.

Gunny trotted down the field, way down the field.

“Jenkins, Oh Jenkins, your beloved Gunnery Sergeant is hurt and bleeding.”

(Please, dear Lord, let it be true, bleed to death.)

“If it’s not too much trouble, would you run down here and save my sweet young self?”

Now I was pissed. I ran down that field, jerked him to his waist, then ducked, twisted, lifted, bounced, and ran back toward the men of Delta Battery with Cunningham on my shoulder. When I got back to the formation, I didn’t stop, I ran right through the formation, Cunningham bouncing up and down. Let me tell you that performing the Fireman Carry is tough, but being the wounded man banging around on that carnival ride is no fun either. Cunningham didn’t make a sound. He could have pushed himself off my shoulder at any time, but he endured the punishment as I ran beyond the parade deck, across the street to the unit barracks, to a little patch of grass, where I finally stopped, and dropped him on his ass.

The Marines whistled and cheered. Gunny didn’t even look at me. He just walked back to his place in front of the formation and took control. I knew I was probably going to be in some kind of fix for the “extra effort” I put in to my little demonstration. But I didn’t get in trouble. In fact, a few days later I got my promotion to PFC, and, glory, glory, Cunningham found new recruits to torture.

A year later, you can imagine my unease finding myself, once again, the NFG, this time in actual combat. I had arrived, early and unexpected, at Bravo battery, Chu Lai, Viet Nam, to find waiting for me, once again, Cunningham. Last night, at the E Club he gave me that nasty smirk.

What was Gunny up to this time?

At morning formation, my first formation in my new unit, I was mildly hung over, but looked more or less presentable, thanks to the generosity my hooch mates. Cunningham slammed out of headquarters hooch. A squad leader yelled, “Ten Hut!”

Gunny was adorned in a T-Shirt, cut-offs, combat boots, his salty, weathered fatigue cap, and a stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth.

He spoke about the soiled reputation of the unit and how he was going to clean us up or kill us. He announced that we were going to devote the first two hours of this sweltering, humid, steaming day in beautiful Chu Lai, VET Nam (that’s VET Nam not VIET Nam) to one of our favorite Marine Corps entertainments . . . the Physical Readiness Test.

Oh, Sweet Jesus. I knew what was coming.

We worked through the early events, the push ups, pull ups, and sit ups. Now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for, you got it, the Fireman Carry. I already knew the script, so I just waited in the rear of the formation until everybody else had their turn. Cunningham walked down to the far end of the encampment.


“I’m coming, Gunny”

I ran down to him and stood over him.

“Are you wounded, Gunny?”


“Would you like my assistance?”

“If it wouldn’t be too much inconvenience.”

“Not at all.”

I hoisted him up into the Carry in one clean motion, settled his balance, and ran back down to the men. I rolled him carefully, precisely, to his feet in the exact spot where he gave orders in front of the formation. Again, he didn’t look at me or say a word.

“Get your weapons, and fall out for the run.”

At that time, the standard rifle for the Marine Corps was the M-14, a beautiful, reliable, and robust piece of ordinance. If you ever ran out of ammunition, you could beat somebody to death with it. But you really don’t want to run long distances with the M-14, long distances such as the 3 mile Physical Readiness Test run, under the tropical sun.

We formed up, rifles across our chests, and launched the PRT run, the entire battery, about one hundred Marines, in step, down the red dust road, out the gate, and into VET Nam.

“I don’t know but I’ve been told”


“Russian pussy is mighty cold.”


Everybody we passed looked at us like we were out of our minds, running, chanting, with rifles, in the heat and dust. But you know what? It was fun, really a kick in the pants, the raw sound of a Marine unit running, two hundred boots, slamming down in perfect unison. It always gave me a thrill, and it still does.

We finished our run and returned to the camp, our rifles filthy, ourselves, golems of red dirt and sweat, each of us about two swaggering inches taller.

Gunny wasn’t quite through.

“We are ordered to provide one Marine for a temporary assignment to Vietnamese language school at Camp Sukiran. They want someone who still has a full tour in front of him, and they want a volunteer. Jenkins!”


“You’re going to volunteer for this assignment.”

“But Gunny . . .”

“Did you hear what I said, you are going to FUCKINGVOLUNTEER! The rest of you, take what’s left of the morning to clean up. After chow, report to your section leaders at thirteen hundred hours (1 o’clock in the afternoon). Sergeant, dismiss the men.”


I followed Gunny back to his hooch.

“You got something on your mind?”

“Gunny, what the fuck is going on? I just got here yesterday. I haven’t even unpacked or washed my clothes. Why are you still on my ass? Why are you sending me away?”

He looked at me for a moment, figuring how to respond.

“For the next month, maybe more, this place is going to be crawling with every JAG investigator, every Colonel’s flunky, for all I know the God Almighty IG (Inspector General) himself. You don’t want to be caught up in this pile of vomit, and some how, Jenkins, you will manage to get the stink of this fragging thing on you. I know you. Your big mouth always leads you into the exact middle of every shit storm that blows in. But, you don’t need this. You don’t deserve to be a part of it. I’m putting you out of sight where you may, I say “may,” be able to keep your nose clean. And if you do keep your head down and stay out of sight, I’ll have use for you when you get back. You get me?”

“I guess so.”


“How long is the assignment?”

“Five or six weeks.”

“Where is the school?”


“OKINAWA! I just left Okinawa a few days ago. I hate Okinawa.”

“Oh, Boo Hoo. Need a hankie?”


“When do I leave?”

“This afternoon. Get your gear together. See Crisp for your orders. He’ll take you to the strip to get your flight.”

(deep breath)

“Aye, Aye, Gunny.”

As I walked back to my hooch to clean up and pack, it started coming together. I had completely misinterpreted Gunny’s plan for me, the tough assignments, the glare of his spotlight, the endless ass-busting. I actually was one of his “prize pupils.” Saving my balls from the wrath of the BAMs? The promotion to PFC that followed so closely my triumph with the Fireman Carry? All of it, Gunny! It had to be. Even this morning’s reprise of the Jenkins PRT was Gunny’s way of showing me off in a way that established my credibility with the other Marines.

“Did you see Jenkins snatch that bastard right off his hard ass and trot him back down the hill?”

Now, Gunny was putting me out of harm’s way, protecting me from the stench of the impending investigation. His whole strategy came into focus, it all fit together. I understood something, something I have carried with me for the rest of my life.

You have to be toughest on the ones you love most.

That’s the way it works.


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