Of the many opportunities available to military personnel, the authorization to operate multiple tons of sexy, deadly combat vehicles often appears to be a good selling point for recruiters. Pictures and videos showing Marines performing awesome feats of high-precision military excellence in millions of dollars’ worth of ground equipment are showered upon young prospects and poolees, convincing them that they will soon get the chance to do donuts in their LAV while shooting bad guys and blowing up enemy tanks before hitting a sweet ramp and crashing through the front door of (contemporary evil dictator)’s fortified compound and delivering a case of good old American Whoop Ass right in his evil, terrorist face. That is not quite how it works. Most Marines never get to drive an HMMWV.
To operate a vehicle owned by the Marine Corps, the driver will need a license. There is a license for every vehicle and there are multiple stamps or qualifications needed for the various configurations of the same equipment. For example: AAV Repairmen (2141) earn a Shop license for the three basic models of the AAV (P7, C7, R7). The Shop license permits them to operate the vehicles within the confines of the maintenance areas only. AAV Crewmen (1833) earn a Road license that permits them to operate the vehicle in every other condition (roadways, beaches, combat, etc.) Tank and LAV operators/repairmen are similar, separating their licenses by MOS. For Motor Transport and Heavy Equipment MOS’s, there are several licenses that the operators and mechanics must receive, as their jobs are more versatile and often require them to be competent at operating (for Motor T) HMMWV’s, 7-tons, LVS’s, and (for H.E.) Bulldozers, cranes, and forklifts. There are Shop and Road licenses for these as well. While overseas, additional licenses or certifications may be required to operate vehicles on foreign roadways. Marines from an MOS that does not work with these vehicles on a daily basis can get a license to operate, but they must first gain their command’s approval, which can be easy depending on their command’s need for operators, or it’s heinous ulterior motives.
What was the first piece of advice given to young people by older veterans? Never volunteer for anything, right? Regardless of the opinion on their current mental state, that is the most useful advice anyone can give you in regards to daily life in the United States Marine Corps. That advice should especially be taken into account when one mistakenly believes that a license could improve their professional image and importance to their current chain of command.
I was one of those Marines dumb enough to forget such sage-like advice.
A month into my first year on Okinawa I noticed that some of the Lcpls seemed to never stand barracks duty. Our battalion had a policy of allowing Marines with an HMMWV road license to be exempt from frequent Barracks Duty in exchange for the hardship of monthly Driver Duty and the possibility of being called upon to randomly serve as Duty Driver if someone fell (deathly) ill. After standing Barracks Duty with a good number of shithead NCO’s until I was deemed “worthy” of a license (read: was promoted to Lcpl) I was allowed the opportunity to get that golden ticket to the skating rink.
One of our Sergeants and a couple of other Lcpls were getting their licenses, too. Normally, this would be an awful ordeal due to three Lances having to put up with some dickhead NCO. Luckily for us this particular NCO was Sgt. Skate. He was close to his EAS and gave absolutely zero fucks under certain conditions. Those conditions being; away from staff, officers, and motards.
The first week was all on Foster, which meant we had to take the first Green Line to get there and had to miss PT. Short classes with plenty of breaks because the instructors didn’t want to be there any more than we did, like most classes in the Fleet that are outside of your parent unit. Lunches were 1100-1300. Some times the classes would get out around 1500 and we would be done for the day. Field day? Sorry Corporal, Sgt. Skate is coming through to inspect at 2000 because we have to be up for PT formation at 0530 with the company then catch the Green Line at 0700 and we are required to get a minimum of eight hours of sleep or we can’t get drive and get our licenses and that would make our unit look bad wouldn’t it, Corporal? The second week was extra sweet because all we had to do was get up, check out a vehicle, then drive it around all day. On base the first three days, off base the last two.
Not having driven anything for almost a year wasn’t the difficult part. Adapting to driving on the other side of the road whilst avoiding suicidal civilians that lose their minds at the sight of any military vehicle was. Few things in this world are more entertaining than the look on an unsuspecting Japanese businessman’s face as over 5,000 pounds of ugly, cheap, lowest-bidder garbage comes screeching to a halt within inches of his panicked, guilt-stricken, red-light-running teeth.
The privilege of being Duty Driver had its perks: I spent way less days on duty and none on barracks duty. It usually meant getting off work at 1100 to hang out at the Battalion building and run the admin guys to IPAC or wherever they felt like skating. It meant 8 hours of “guaranteed, uninterrupted” sleep the night before (bahaha…yeah, I’ll get to that). For once it was a chance to not have to walk everywhere like a bloody savage. It was also a great learning experience. “Supervising” the Marines on restriction that were cleaning the building usually consisted of leaning against a wall and earning my J.D. in Barracks Law. Sometimes the OOD or SDO would be a raging motard and would insist that their Duty Lcpl and driver either clean, do MCI’s, or read something on the Commandant’s Reading List. I would usually insist on practicing MCMAP with the A-Duty, but this only worked once. Most of the time however, the OOD or SDO was just as bored and pissed at having to stand duty as everyone and they’d let us watch movies or sleep until he was ready to rack out.
The best SNCO’s to drive for were the ones who remembered being a young Marine. They did their tours of the barracks by trusting the Duty NCO’s report and leaving instead of insisting on inspecting every lounge, hallway, and unlocked room. They did what all men do when they are bored, they talked. They reminisced about their days as a young idiot on Okinawa and how they got away with what they got away with. They spilled the beans on why some staff and officers will never be promoted, and why others will. Best of all, they would listen. Not all, but some. A fifteen year Staff Sergeant whom obviously has felt the ripping force of the Corps’ horned phallus tends to call “bullshit” when he sees it. That new Platoon Sergeant abusing his authority? Don’t worry, devil dog, he’s got this shit. Your paperwork got “misplaced” in your company office somewhere? Its cool, he’s got a couple buddies at IPAC (calls one on the spot). Even if they aren’t in your CoC, they can fix problems.
Driving an HMMWV wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. It had it’s drawbacks. That “8 hours of sleep” thing? It was more of a suggestion. Hearing an NCO hiss “I don’t give a fuck if you have duty, you’re not sleeping til I say your room is clean. I’ll be back at 01” was very common. Four hours of sleep is definitely not the same as eight, and being exhausted on duty just plain sucks. Being the battalion Duty Driver wasn’t the only responsibility, however.
Having the off-base stamp on my license made me into a transportation asset to my command, and they exploited the shit out of that fact, especially when it came to training. Our well-intentioned SNCO’s decided that Marines from my section were in need of some proper MOS training on AAV’s instead of just rebuilding the engines and transmissions all day, so they would schedule a Friday here and there for us to go up to another camp and work on their Amtracs. This meant going to Motor T by 0430 to check out a vehicle and be at PT formation at 0530, then loading up everyone but the two Cpls and one Sgt that are LAV mechanics and no not one goddamned thing about AAV’s but insist upon making us wait until they can convince the Platoon Sergeant that five non-NCO’s cannot be trusted, then driving through heavy traffic slower than every other car on the road for a couple of hours while ignoring the wrong directions being screamed at my by Cpl Literallycannotreadaroadmap. The training usually consisted of looking busy with the other mechanics while the LAV NCO’s walked around and did the exact same thing. The drives back were usually peaceful because everyone would be asleep or too tired to give a shit about what anyone had to say. This quiet, exhausted state sometimes led to me almost nodding off, which could have been extremely dangerous and has been known to happen to many Marines. Nothing was learned and no amount of training was accomplished by anyone. Not on purpose, at least.
I learned how to fix HMMWV’s by accident. Let us not forget that as awesome as these vehicles may appear, they are only as effective as their maintainers allow them to be. Let us also not forget that the people who maintain said vehicles are United States Marines. On one trip up north, I had a fully loaded soft-back and was on the main highway when someone taps me on the shoulder and yells, “HEY I THINK YOU JUST LOST A BOLT.” Confused, I keep driving and pay closer attention to see if I could feel any vibration, thumping, grinding, or other sign of possible failure, but heard and felt nothing. A couple of OHSHITs later and another tap on my shoulder, accompanied by a car flying past me on the right, confirmed that my vehicle was, in fact, dropping bolts onto the highway and bouncing them towards traffic. I pull over, unload everyone, and set up the plastic “move over asshole there is a wreck or something up there” cones (the furthest of which was promptly destroyed by a speeding civilian the second I stepped away), and begin inspecting the HMMWV’s underside. Two bolts were holding the differential cover on. Two. This was in 2004 when cell phones were popular but not everyone had one. Not everyone meaning, in this instance, none of us. We ended up stripping that truck for the better part of an hour before finding a couple of loose bolts that looked good enough to work for now, then duct-taped around them until they fit and pounded them into place, securing them with more duct tape. Did it hold?
We got to a gas station just in time for the last bit of gear oil to drain out, and would later find out that three people reported us for going inside in uniform. When we eventually arrived at the camp we were supposed to be going to, their Motor T laughed it off as if it were normal. They couldn’t trade us vehicles, but they did manage to scrounge up enough replacement bolts to secure the cover. I had to make the seal. It wasn’t the fist time I would have to produce a field expedient replacement part.
I was once ordered to drive a boot from Kinser to Hansen to retrieve his issued gear from the barracks of the MEU detachment he had just returned from. We were at a red light, about to pass one of the Kadena Air Base gates, when the passenger side of the windshield turned a light yellowish-green color and a thick cloud of sweet heat obscured everything in view. My first thought: Aliens. It wasn’t aliens. The coolant hose had burst and was diarrhea farting steam and antifreeze everywhere. On our vehicle, on the ground, and on the cars around me. Thinking it best to get off the road, I turned toward the Air Base and approached the guards. It went something like this:
Air Force Guard: What’s up?
Me: Sup. Where’s your Motor T?
AFG: (bewildered expression)
Me: (Fuck) I’m leaking antifreeze, where do you keep your hummers and trucks?
AFG: Oh. Um. Let me grab…hold on.
-Second AFG appears-
AFG2: Uh, what’s going on?
Me: This vehicle is broken. I need to get to where you keep your vehicles so that I can fix it and continue my mission.
AFG2: Oh. Uh, let me call someone real quick.
Me: Wait, I have-
AFG2: I’ll be right back.
-Several minutes and levels of pissed later-
AFG1: I don’t think they can help. Sorry.
Me: Whatever, can I at least use the phone in the security hut to call my command and explain the situation?
AFG1: Ah, well, um, ah, you see, uh, we’re not allowed to let anyone use the phone. It’s for official guard stuff only.
Me: Are you fucking serious? Like, seriously, are you fucking with me right now?
AFG1: Nah, sorry man.
Me: This is official business, though. We are on our way to Hansen to transport important equipment. I need to use your phone to call my command so that they can send another vehicle for us.
AFG1: No, Gate Guard business. If it doesn’t have anything to do with us, we can’t let you use the phone.
Me: Could you call my command and tell them what is going on then? You are a gate guard, and I am at your gate seeking assistance.
AFG1: (looks at other guard in air-conditioned booth) No I don’t think we can do that. It’s not an emergency.
Me: A broken down vehicle IS an emergency.
AFG1: Ok. I have to go.
Dealing with those dickheads took so long the vehicle was almost cooled down enough to work on, so we started looting every crack and crevice for something that we could use to repair the split coolant tube. There was a small tool kit in a plastic box, but there was nothing inside of use. The duct tape holding that kit shut turned out to be the only thing we could find that might work, but it was old and mostly dried out and definitely would not work on its own. I had a bunch of zip ties for…um…some reason…and decided to test my hypothesis that if I tightened them down enough around the edges of the tape-wrap, it would be watertight. There was no way to test this without filling the reservoir first, but alas, there was no hose to be found. This problem was solved by filling my camel-bak in the security booth’s bathroom sink then carefully pouring it in. Many times. All while these two Air Force douche bags sat in their air-conditioned booth giggling like school girls and refusing to help a brother out.
Fuck it, it worked. We got to Hansen in the late afternoon, grabbed his gear, called our command and bitched about how utterly useless the Air Force is and how goddamned awful our Motor T was, then ran to Taco Bell. I figured the least I could do for this poor guy having to go through that shit on his first day back was buy him a burrito. The trip back took longer than expected. Much longer.
I’ll be completely honest here and admit that I fucked up. It was my responsibility to triple-check the map to make sure my A-Driver didn’t give me wrong directions, and I fucked up. Literally, right from the start. I turned left out of Hansen instead of right. The countryside looked quite different going back, but we didn’t realize why until we got to Schwab. Realizing how far gone we were, I pulled a U turn and headed back. Maybe it was dusk settling, maybe it was exhaustion. Hell, it was probably lack of attention to detail. It doesn’t matter, we missed the turn. Okinawa has a major highway that goes all the way around the island, 58. English is everywhere on Okinawa, but not so much on street signs. It is easy to stay on 58, though, as numbers are universal. We followed 58 all the way around the bottom of the island and ended up stuck in traffic for over an hour twice. We pulled into our battalion Motor T at around 1955ish. The sergeant on duty was extremely pissed, but eventually calmed down enough to read the notes his staff left him about the Air Force guys being dicks and his piece of shit humvee being released while having maintenance issues and gave us no further trouble.
That license did not make me more important to my unit, it made me yet another checked box on a clipboard and allowed them to take an awesome training opportunity and turn it into a big old bag of shredded taints.