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Real Men... Learn About Life from the Kill Zone

Posted in Features on February 1, 2013
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Contributors: Andrew Schuth

Only three installments into this series and Andrew has already begun asking when he’ll be getting a Real Woman.

It’s my own fault. I had stupidly relayed a conversation I’d had with Cappa about some cool upcoming “Are You a Real Man?” concepts and that the call had ended with him saying, “This Andrew guy has to be pretty stoked. If he can’t land a piece of ass after all this, he’ll need a sex change.”

It was a good sign that Andrew was ready to get back in the game. But I had to remind him that part of why he had agreed to do these Real Man stories was that he’d really wanted to try to become a better man by looking outward at the lives of Real Men so that he could look inward and become real too. Doing that would also help him with the deeper questions he’d been unable to answer about himself, including why he hasn’t been successful in relationships or found the right person yet.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s all still true,” he said. “And I’ve already learned a lot about myself from building fire with sticks and jumping a truck. But New Year’s Eve is coming and I don’t like watching balls drop at midnight all alone.”

It was still early in the Man-ifesto, but I decided to go ahead and attempt to gauge his progress. Based on the topic at hand, I suggested he make a list of things he believed women were looking for in a man. It took him all of 30 seconds to write:

“Husband. Money. Sex. Kids. (Not necessarily in that order.)”

Then I asked him what he thought the key was to a successful marriage. It took him all of 30 seconds to write:


I had my own thoughts on what he was doing wrong with this line of thinking, but since Andrew is supposed to be learning from Real Men, the advice had to come from one. My dad and stepmother are just shy of their 30th wedding anniversary, so I asked the secret to their enduring marriage. “For me, it has been due to the training I got in the Army,” my dad told me. He had run the motorpool in what was then called the 305th Chemical Company, which dealt with chemical, biological, and radiological warfare. There were only two units of that kind in the world at the time; the other was disseminating Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“What it takes to win the war is also what it takes to keep the peace.”

I couldn’t quite make the connection between blistered skin and eternal happiness.

“Well, in the Army, I learned how to receive orders without arguing,” he elaborated. “Sure, it’s hard when they’re stupid, but you learn respect and to not question command orders.” It translated into marriage as listening to his wife and letting her be right—even when she wasn’t.

That got me thinking: If Real Men in this series are preparing Andrew for life, would they by default also prepare him for a wife? Regardless, that list made it clear he needed some basic training, especially after he interpreted my dad’s advice to mean marital bliss lies in atomic decontamination.

But then Andrew said, “I’m not cut out for the military. I’m kind of a control freak, so it’s a problem if someone is telling me to run up the hill when I know that when I run up the hill I’m going to be shot. I would question the orders. I would also probably think I could do a better job at leading.”

And that’s the thing: I’d noticed while doing our previous Real Man stories about surviving Doomsday and learning to race from Ivan Stewart that Andrew doesn’t really like being told what to do and prefers working through things on his own. So, were we on to something bigger here about why his relationships weren’t working out? Was he unable to compromise? Was he too focused on his own interests? I couldn’t say for sure, but even he admitted there was some kind of a cycle he needed to break. I figured, if the military can make a boy a man, it could probably also make a man a Real Man.

And with that, we pointed a vehicle of Real Men, a ’12 Toyota Tundra, toward the Mojave Desert, home of the Army’s National Training Center (NTC) and Fort Irwin. It’s where ground and air combat teams train for war. The training center was activated in 1980, but after 9/11 it became the epicenter for training the Army’s soldiers nationwide for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. The NTC has even built a perfect replica of Afghan towns, with identical buildings and roads. Training allows soldiers to experience the authentic sights, sounds, and languages they could encounter in order to expose them to the unknown before it’s known. Hired civilians and soldiers role-play as villagers—and as terrorists. There’s also live-fire training. They experience taking RPGs, getting hit from multiple angles, and dealing with mass casualties, all the while learning how to organize and stay strong as a unit in the midst of chaos and hardship.

As odd as it sounded on paper, metaphorically those seemed like the same things we’re exposed to in relationships.

We arrived on a day in which the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, from Fort Bliss, Texas, was there for its combat training. “The units that come through here are mainly task fleet proficient, but now we’re taking it to the next level,” explained Captain Patrick Tabin, an Observer/Controller Trainer with Scorpion Team Operations Group, a unit at the NTC. “It’s really intended to stress the systems.”

Andrew replied, “That’s what she said.” Then he laughed. Capt. Tabin did not.

Maybe this idea wasn’t so great after all.

There would be two training iterations for the brigade that day, each followed by an evaluation so the unit could discuss its strengths and weaknesses during the training exercise in an effort to not repeat the failures in the second iteration—or in the real world. “There are so many different units that come through here, and there can be some where they work perfectly as a unit, and that should be the Army’s TTP [tactics, techniques, and procedures], but then you move along to another unit and it just doesn’t work for them. It’s because of personalities, leadership, and equipment,” Capt. Tabin said. “I’m here to get these guys in the best position for when they go down range.”

“That’s what she…” I elbowed him before he could finish.

“We’re just trying to refresh them back to the basics of movement techniques,” explained Sergeant Michael Harper, with Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron 11th Armored Calvary Regiment. “We give them as much training as we can to prepare them for deployment. So, we’ve got a suicide-vest bomber, a couple snipers….” He was dressed as an insurgent while explaining this to us. So, what makes the soldiers Real Men? “You’ve got to be above average to do the kind of stuff we do, that is all I can say,” Sgt. Harper said. Soldiers can’t completely mentally prepare for their life ahead; they just have to take it as it comes and adjust as they go.

As we walked away, Andrew said, “I can’t believe some of the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard came from an insurgent.”

And then the training exercise began. The mission was to go into the village and establish security and make contact with a village elder. But not long after the soldiers got into the town, a mock IED exploded, powerful and real enough to rattle our teeth. Villagers began running around screaming in the soldiers’ faces. Bloodied role-playing soldiers/villagers stumbled down the training lane carrying their own severed limbs, flesh hanging off the bones. American and Afghan bodies dropped and formed pools of blood. The special effects rivaled “Saving Private Ryan.” So did the disorder.

“Machine gun, 12 o’clock!”

“We’ve got one KIA!”

“We’ve got an enemy down!”

You’re the f*cking team leader—take charge!”

“What’s wrong with him?” “He’s dead, dude.”

“This reminds me so much of the last dinner with my ex,” Andrew whispered.

No, this was now a kill zone.

Once the initial panic was over and the sounds of gunfire let up, the atmosphere seemed far too casual from our vantage point. Some soldiers crossed the lane without guns drawn. Others seemed to be hiding in a building, which appeared to make them an easy target. It didn’t take long for the control freak in Andrew to turn to Captain Daniel Cross and suggest the orders he himself would have given to the unit. “I mean, the Strykers didn’t even bring in any Strykers,” he said. Capt. Cross is with the Goldminer Team, Operations Group; he’s the officer in charge of the training lane. “It sounds really easy. But we’re trying to represent their worst day in Afghanistan, and this is a kill zone,” he told us.

“Right now they’re trying to figure out whether the commander of the company has any kind of command and control so he can make his next decision because he knows he’s got casualties,” he continued. “Does he have situational awareness going on? I don’t know. But I agree with how you’d have handled it. They have overwhelming firepower. I would have brought those vehicles down here, too. What’s the risk? We have to sacrifice Strykers more than soldiers.”

He paused, then noted a common problem they break soldiers of during training: “They’re getting fixated on defeating the enemy instead of neutralizing the enemy.”

Andrew and I also wondered to ourselves whether part of the “inaction,” as Capt. Cross called it, was that for many, this was their first true glimpse at the overwhelming realities of what may lie ahead—111-degree heat, carrying 80 pounds of gear while being shot at, watching comrades go down, hearing the injured scream in agony to be saved, all the while trying to focus on their specific job. It probably scared the hell out of some of them.

“You know what scares the hell out of me about war?” Andrew quietly asked me. “That I could die.”

His words lingered in the air like the smoke bomb a soldier had just set off to provide a purple cloud of visual protection for two soldiers dragging another to safety. Another soldier carried an injured member of his team in his arms. We could see others talking to the role-players portraying Afghan friendlies; the look of resentment on one soldier’s face suggested that sometimes you can’t hide your real feelings even during make-believe.

We talked to one particular soldier with the Stryker brigade about how being a Real Man translates in their world. “We’ve been at war for 10 years now, so we see a lot of things down range. A lot of guys lose their best friends, and we see a lot of terrible things,” he explained. “Actions like this today let soldiers see what the situation will be like when they actually get there. Seeing that now, I don’t want to say desensitizes them to it, but it’s a stressful environment and they’re amped up and it helps them to focus on the matter at hand.”

It all got us worried about whether we were treating what they were going through that day too lightly and maybe there wasn’t a correlation between battle training and relationship training. Maybe we were looking for parallels that didn’t exist. We’d gone there trying to train Andrew to love in the same way as these Real Men live, but the harsh reality was some would not live to love.

A couple weeks later, I was talking about this to my friend Slayer. He’d been in the Special Forces and I told him about going through the Army’s urban warfare training. I asked whether trying to improve Andrew military style had been an off-the-rails approach. “In the SF we learned to focus even during moments of great duress, acting even though fear was a factor. Even the training is dangerous, but you fight like you train,” he said. He was very soft-spoken and thoughtful in his selection of words. “But, combat situations galvanize you within personal relationships.”

In a sense, it took Slayer going through losing members of his team as well as having a mission to kill to develop the Real Man attributes he has today: He learned how to trust. He knows how to put others before himself. He allows himself to put his life in someone else’s hands. And he sometimes has to let go of control. These were things the Stryker brigade also had seemed to embrace on their second training iteration. “They used communication a lot better. Their movements were a lot better. They did a real good job of avoiding the kill zone,” Capt. Cross told us later.

Was it actually possible that my dad and Slayer and the soldiers we met that day were proving there were actually parallels? Like, combat is scary, but falling in love can be, too. Communication is integral to unity. Take pride in who you are and know that you are making a difference in someone’s life. And boot camp and combat training are how you practice getting better at what you do, just as every time you date someone, it’s like practice at getting closer to finding the person you’re supposed to be with for the rest of your life.

And maybe the Real Men of the military teach us the greatest lesson of all when it comes to a strong relationship: What it takes to win the war is also what it takes to keep the peace.

Capt. Cross told us about how one day a few of them had gone out to a firing range. The area had a lot of mineshafts and was a hot spot during the Gold Rush. It was also home to a pack of wild donkeys that had escaped, and their offspring still lived there. On that particular day, some donkeys walked into the impact area. Unlike deer, donkeys don’t get easily spooked and keep on moving. It meant Capt. Cross and the others had to stop firing and wait for three hours because they couldn’t go check for unexploded ordnances. They kind of had to just hang out and breathe. The story was a moment of levity we needed that day.

Capt. Cross and the other Real Men had left an indelible imprint on us. But that Stryker team member I mentioned earlier who talked about losing best friends may have had the most impact. It wasn’t because we thought he was too young to be responsible for so many lives, or that he talked about the resiliency he’d had to develop in order to do his job.

It was because Andrew and I discovered later that we had separately both thought he was the only person we met who wasn’t coming home. We felt it in our souls, and the thought of his loss took our breath away.

When Slayer later told me Strykers “are notorious targets,” I found myself robbed of breath again.

And then Andrew reminded me about how when he broke up with that ex, he turned to yoga. His teacher would always say, “f*cking breathe” in order to feel a sense of calm and focus.

To “f*cking breathe” allows for a certain peace to not always worry about what our future holds, whether it’s when thinking about if love will find us or being the midst of war, “if we all just stop firing for a while,” Andrew said.

And sometimes getting to a place of peace is simply about putting one foot in front of the other, and not always in military formation.

“When I was in the infantry, a lot of the training they tried to make black and white, so you were...I won’t say a machine,” Slayer said. “But you felt a purpose about what you were doing. You realized you were capable of anything.” The Stryker soldier we were worried about had told us that his training built the warrior ethos in him: I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Those should be life ethos, too.

After spending the day with those Real Men, I suggested Andrew make a new list of things he now believed women were looking for in a man. It took him 30 seconds to only write:

“What Slayer said: a sense of purpose.”

Maybe he truly was moving toward becoming a Real Man and would indeed find his Real Woman soon. Because the old Andrew would probably have taken 30 seconds to write:

“Women are looking for a man who knows where to find a wild donkey.”

Road Testing a Stryker
“It’s not like a tank. A lot of people look at it like it is. It gets us to the fight and provides us with fire support. It’s not designed to take a massive beating. It does have armor that can withstand different types of ammunition, but…” And that pretty much sums up a road test of a Stryker from the guys who are living in one of those things. Andrew and I had an opportunity to tool around the desert in one—and were told we were the first reporters to ever get to do that with one of the teams out at the NTC. In this case, it was the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, from Fort Bliss, Texas.

The Stryker model joined the Army in 2002 and comes in two styles: Mobile Gun System and Infantry Carrier Vehicle (the most common Stryker), and there are around nine configurations. Some may be light on seats and heavy on radios, while others, like fire support, may not have too much weaponry.

We spent time in an ICV named Sloth. The 8x8 normally drives around as a 4x8 (back four push, front four steer). In the setup we saw, there was seating for eight plus the gunner, squad leader, and driver. The hierarchy for exiting the vehicle varies by squad, so it might be Alpha followed by Bravo—or whomever is closest to the door. The guys describe it as “a little cramped inside, especially when you’re in full kit.”

A Caterpillar turbodiesel is hooked to an Allison transmission and it feels super torquey, convenient for the approximately 22 tons a Stryker weighs, depending on how much additional armor it has. Horsepower is around 420. There’s an air suspension, two 13-gallon fuel tanks, air brakes, and run flats. The rubber weighs 350 pounds each, and not easy to change either. The Stryker can be driven with up to three blown-out tires. Specs: 142 inches tall, 302 inches long, and 123 inches wide.

There’s also A/C, but nobody can really feel it unless they’re sitting right next to it. The driver can’t feel it at all.

In fact, the driver gets hosed a lot. They say the most difficult thing about driving a Stryker is that there’s only about 30 degrees of visibility when the hatch is closed, causing nearly complete blindness on the right side because of the engine placement. The squad leader and air guards become the eyes: “It was interesting to watch him say ‘go faster’ and ‘do a hard right’ and ‘give it gas,’” said Andrew, who rode literal shotgun; he took the gunner seat for the ride. The gun system has two cameras—thermal and regular—so the gunner can scan around and see everything safely from inside the vehicle; in fact, everything the gunner does is from inside, save for having to hop up and load. “It’s pretty amazing. When you’re sitting, you have a 360 view. I steered the gun with a joystick that was very sensitive, just like a video game.” Andrew also noticed an idiot light on the dash was on, signifying “low ammo.”

What breaks most on this thing? Hubs and diffs, mainly because of the hard driving and rough terrain it sees, although the intense heat thins out the oil causing both to wear out.

There didn’t used to be a governor, so in those days the Stryker could hit 80-85 mph. But as you might guess, at 80 mph, it was all over the road. Max speed now is around 62 mph. Some told us that rolling over in one of these is pretty gnarly because unlike a car or truck that tears apart in the process, a Stryker stays solid, causing all the damage to happen inside. Therefore, they’re diligent about tying everything down. They have rollover drills, although that pretty much boils down to bracing and then holding on for dear life. The Stryker also can get really rocky because they’re top heavy, but extra armor helps lower the center of gravity and fix that.

They all agreed that driving a Stryker takes a lot of practice and patience, although one guy told us, “The gas pedal’s on the right, the brake pedal’s on the left…you just can’t be scared.”

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