I needed to get in shape for an annual hiking trip with buddies, this time to Glacier National Park.
So, I loaded up my backpack with 30 pounds of water and headed up “Big Blue” in Canton, Massachusetts, to do eight miles of trails and multiple uphill hikes to get 900 feet of steep vertical on the northwest “Blue” trail.
It was a hot day in the mid-80’s and humidity in the 90-percent range. Close to the top, I had to stop and rest on a large rock. I saw a young couple whiz by me without breathing hard.
There was a time when I could do the same.
I bowed my head. As sweat dripped from my forehead and splashed on my boots, my thoughts went back in time.
I was a platoon lieutenant and had a new Captain, my third Company Commander in four months, and he told me to lead half of Bravo Company on a march through the mountains and rivers of the jungles along the Laotian border. It was going to be a 6-8 hour trek through tough terrain.
For months, we had been doing combat patrols in the mountains. We would seek out the enemy, set ambushes and make contact. Our platoon alone was responsible for killing dozens of the NVA enemy.
Fortunately, I had always done well in land navigation with Army training in Panama. We, of course, had no cell phones, GPS, tablets or electronic positioning devices. I simply used a map and “lensatic compass.”
Early the next morning, my platoon started out on point.
With over 50 soldiers following behind in single file, we “humped” for hours. My olive-drab jungle fatigues were soaked and beads of sweat ran down from my “boonie hat.” I walked fourth in the line of march to stay close to the front, but my eyes were glued to the map and compass.
There were no landmarks, just thick jungle. I studied the contours on the map confirming changing azimuths.
After four-brutal hours, we took a much needed rest. I asked myself why the Captain never checked with me on the direction. I wondered if he knew I was going in the right direction or not.
Big Blue is a great place to hike, I got my lazy butt up and continued to the Watch Tower and down the other side and on to Hancock Hill. Up and down I went. It was discouraging me as the humidity sapped my energy.
Then the rains came. A tropical downpour that lasted an hour. I pushed on.
My platoon pushed on as I got more and more anxious. We came upon a stream that we needed to follow and, hopefully, hook up with the remaining platoons of the company. Walking slowly in the stream meant a perfect ambush scenario.
When my point man motioned that he saw a U.S. soldier ahead, a powerful feeling of relief came over me. I got them to the right spot, with no ambushes and no injuries.
We got organized with the other units and continued to our objective. Soon, we went up a gradual, long incline to the top of a ridgeline out of the jungle. It dropped off abruptly, so we followed animal trails at an angle downward through 10-foot-high grass to the bottom where it was lightly wooded and flat.
This is where the new Captain issued the order to set up a night position.
I looked at him strangely and started to walk away.
Turning around, I told the Captain that I was worried about an ambush or attack from the high ground while we were all positioned below.
I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, from the day’s march. Even so, I asked to check out the area along the top of the ridge overlooking our position.
He gave half-hearted approval, thinking it was unnecessary.
I tried to dry my arms, covered by jungle rot at the elbows, and dropped my 60-plus-pound pack. I decided to take two bandoliers of ammo with my M-16 and web gear with water.
I led the way with two very unhappy soldiers and made our way back up the ridge. After about 250 feet up the ridge, I saw movement. I turned and said, “Move fast!”
We charged up the hill and exchanged fire with a couple of enemy soldiers who were following us. I emptied my M-16 as they ran into the jungle as fast as their feet could carry them.
Immediately, the Captain put guards in position for the night. He said nothing more to me.
Thankfully, no attack came that night. I wondered if we thwarted a surprise attack. A sniper had killed my platoon’s Medic weeks earlier.
What I did know is that I cannot rest and that I had to be alert every second of every day until I could go home.
Three hours later, looking up the trail at Big Blue, I was exhausted. Should I hike up the backside about 350 feet or go the easier, long way around?
I went the hard way.
Sometimes, there is no easy way to go home.
— John Shoemaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.