Part: The 3rd

Having just evacuated my insides, all I wanted to do was sleep. The same sentiment went for the other two Marines in the tent, as well as (I’m sure) the one Marine—recently left to test his intestinal fortitude—who would be back at any moment. So, when we heard the snowmobile drawing closer, there were only two shared thoughts the three of us Marines had. The first was: “Must be the corpsman stopping in to check on us.” The second: “Why?” We were sick. All we wanted to do was sleep. We knew if we rested, all would be better tomorrow. Then, the yelling began.

The corpsman was shouting something at us, but we couldn’t understand him. The storm raging outside muffled anything he said. The three of us just sort of half laid there, half sat-up in our sleeping bags, waiting. What could he want? And, why wasn’t he coming into the warming tent to let us know? We could hear the snowmobile’s engine, so we knew he was nearby. But, he hadn’t shut it off, so that also meant something urgent. Great. As I began to get out of my sleeping bag, to put on my boots, then find out what was going on, the fourth member of our merry band of unhappy campers walked in.

“Blizzard! We need to get out!”

“What?”

“There’s a terrible storm headed our way, we’re bugging out. We gotta take down this tent, get our gear together, make sure all the other equipment is ready to go, and stand by for transport.”

What do you say to that? Nothin’. There’s nothing to say. In the military, you follow orders. We were not given nice civilian options due to our circumstances. We are Marines. We were given orders, and they needed doing. Now. The only problem was, we were all so very sick.

“Did he give you a time frame?”

“Nope? He just said we gotta get it done yesterday.”

Done yesterday? That was a laugh. Every move hurt—and threatened to initiate another unauthorized, sublevel evac. And we had to take down the tent?! Ugh…

A U.S. military 10-man arctic tent.
photograph courtesy of Billings Army Navy

As quickly as the four of us could, we redressed, and packed our gear. Since one of us had not had a chance to relax, his job was to toss snow onto, and into, the stove, to put out the fire, and cool it down. Grabbing and moving a hot metal box is not one of those items on my ‘Fun Things to Do’ list. Fortunately, packing up didn’t take long and we began to bring down the tent. Unfortunately, all the exerting of pulling poles and holding ropes to lower the bugger caused more than one of us to need to pause and… step off into the woods for a while. This was not going well at all. The storm was already so bad that we could barely see each other, even though we were never more than 20 feet apart, at a given time.

By the time we had the tent dropped and folded up for transport, it arrived. Two 2.5-ton trucks ready to haul the gear away. The truck’s crew helped (I say helped, but really they just ‘did’—once they found out we were the sick bodies) get the tents and other gear into the backs of the trucks. Then, the ‘good’ news. We were to go with them.

See, our normal transport—that would deliver us and pick us up—wasn’t scheduled to arrive until the next morning. So, all we had were the supply trucks. They had enough room to haul the supplies (plus a little extra), but we all needed off that mountain. And, in order to do that, we had to do some shuffling about.

We had enough room in the trucks to get everyone off the mountain, but not the gear. And, the rest of our bodies were just starting to come down off the higher point on the mountain. And, we still needed to get transport from the base of the Uinta Mountains to our base. So, we first had to get the gear to another location—this location should (ideally) be the same location where our transport to our base would pick us up—and drop it off (with guards—us). Then, the two 2.5-tons could go back and collect the rest of the Marines from out of the storm.

I’m gonna take a quick pause here to help you understand just how dire our situation really was. This wasn’t just some silly notion that ‘it was too cold and we wanted out’. No. This was a serious storm. It dropped enough snow, and the winds were strong enough, that during that night, two hikers were killed in an avalanche resulting from that same storm. And if you recall, part of the training involved sleeping in snow caves. Which meant that most (if not all) of my fellow Marines would have been buried alive and died in their sleep. This had become an event of life and death.

Unfortunately for us, Uncle Sam doesn’t always care about your personal comfort. Plus, there wasn’t time to worry about it. The four of us sick-bodies climbed into the back of one of the trucks and we were hauled off to an unknown destination. Which was good, as the temperature was dropping quickly and I wasn’t feeling any better—or warmer.

Eventually, our little recon team found a small gas station that had a carwash with closable garage doors. The guy at the counter let us stash our tents and other gear inside and he closed the doors. Sadly, they couldn’t be locked (for reasons I can’t fully recall—they may have been broken), so we had to set up watch. I got to be first.

The wind howled and rattled the metal doors. It sounded as if they might just get ripped right out of place. I was getting colder. I needed something warm to drink or eat. Maybe there was something inside? When my shift is up, I’ll check it out. I almost couldn’t wait. Between my not warming up, and the smell… (it was like death, and chemicals, and soap—chemical death taking a bath?) Yeah, the smell was bad.

“Hey, Bags!” (my nickname) “Head inside. Get warm.” My relief didn’t have to tell me twice. As I moved, so did my stomach. And, I wasn’t getting warmer. I wasn’t even stabilizing. I was just getting colder. I hadn’t realized—at the time—that I wasn’t warming up, that I was only getting colder, until years later. Once inside that tiny little sordid smell-shop of convenience, I searched about for something warm to ingest. The only thing I found, however, (that appeared palatable) was the hot chocolate. I’m not a coffee drinker, and the hot dogs rolling around in their display could have been the same dogs from three months ago. No, thank you. The $1 hot chocolate should do fine.

It didn’t.

At first, all was well. There was an initial warming sensation that occurred when I took my first sip. That was quickly replaced by something akin to what occurs when baking soda is mixed with vinegar, but throughout my entire insides. A shock went through my nervous system and I did my best to keep it under control. I had a brief physical reaction that elicited legitimate concern from one of the other Marines that came with me. I assured him I was fine. But I knew I wasn’t. Later, I would be informed that I had been in the beginning stages of hypothermia. Between whatever was giving me the body aches (possibly a cold or the flu) and the radical tempuratures my body had delt with that day, it had decided to call it quits and begin the shut-down procedures.

It didn’t take long before my insides wanted outside—again. This time, however, everything wanted to come up to see the world. With each passing minute, it threatened to become a very violent upheaval. This was quickly becoming the worst ‘out of body’ experience I had ever had to deal with. And I had that Thanksgiving Dinner on repeat, once.

After what felt like an eternity, the rest of our almost-snow-stranded company had arrived. As well as the buses. I would shortly find out that my fire team members, Neilson and Draper, had each received a little gift from Jack Frost, on the drive. Each had received a small patch of frostbite. If memory serves me correctly, Neilson got his on the left arm, near the wrist (inner arm). While Draper got his on the right cheek (face, not bum). Understand that due to the extreme emergency of trying to get everyone off the mountain, bodies were almost literally piled into the trucks. This caused Neilson’s sleeve to get pulled down a bit—exposing his wrist—with him unable to fix it. The drive speed, combined with the rapidly dropping temperature, and wind… Frostbite was inevitable.

Now, while I am not 100% certain that Neilson had the frostbite on his right or left wrist, I am certain where Draper got his: On his right cheek. He had turned his head to avoid the direct wind. Both his arms had been pinned by another body, and Draper was unable to adjust his hood to fully cover his face. You never forget seeing a permanent bald spot on someone’s face where beard used to grow. To the best of my knowledge, Draper has never been able to grow a beard in that spot since.

Yeah, so, our transport had arrived, and after loading bodies, equipment, and gear, we had to do one of those things that the military does best: Hurry up, and wait. Meanwhile, the gas station attendant was pretty happy to see us, as now—during a normally quiet time of night—there was a bunch of cold, field-hungry Marines pillaging (we were using money) his store for delights. But, once on our transport, we had to roll call, and final checklists. I was gonna hurl—soon?

“Hey, Sexton. Are leaving soon?” I asked my Squad Leader. I needed to know if I had time to hurl before we left the gas station on not. I had time to try. Entering that dark, seedy, damp, cold, small, dirty, and smelly toilet-room I had two opposing sensations: The first was to vomit. The second was “NOT IN HERE!” There was something about that space, that environment, that my body did not want to be part of. Even if it meant only despatching the unwanted hot cocoa. Then the word came, we were headed out. So, not here.

The trip back to base was uneventful. I didn’t puke. Once there, we got into the staging area and spread out onto the floor. I was unsure if there were to be any alternative training activities that night—given the new location—so, I asked my Platoon Sergeant for permission to puke. He gave me the green light. I could throw up.

While our head was cleaner than the gas station’s, the smell of the wet, cold porcelain turned my stomach. I flopped into a heap in front of the receptacle that would soon hold everything my stomach didn’t want. As I waited, behind me I heard, “Hey, why you hangin’ out in the toilet?” “Leave him alone. That’s Bagnall. He’s sick.” “Oh, sorry man. You take your time.” I don’t know who they were, and it doesn’t matter—it was a kindness I haven’t forgotten. 

I spent the next twenty minutes intermittently hurling my guts out. Once completed, I went to the new bivouac site, curled up in my sleeping bag, and crashed. Hard.

The next morning found me feeling better. Sore all over, but better. And that little incident turned me off hot cocoa and spaghetti for almost two decades. In the last twenty years, I have had a sip of hot chocolate once—that was last year. It took fifteen years before I could even consider spaghetti. After that much time… It was only eaten about once a year. Currently, I have no issues with it.

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