The Cast: Makua Valley (where man began), Myself (ended in Makua).
As the blood streamed across my face, my only thought was, “So… this is how I lose my eye?”
In The Man, The Model, and The Airplane I mentioned how my Marine Corps unit was shipped off to Hawaii for a couple weeks of training. While there, I was able to experience some of the most incredible things, some of which I will pepper throughout this story. So, let us begin, shall we? But, where…? Oh! I know: The rain.
Within a half-hour of our arrival on the island of Oahu, it rained. Fortunately for us, we were in our transportation. Also, it didn’t rain hard. Just a gentle drip. No worries. About an hour later, we were already out in The Field learning all about G.I. radios (fun). While some of us were captivated by the topic, others were amazed by the view. Our Company was set out on a small volcanic ledge that was covered in rich, green foliage, with the ocean on one side, and a volcano towering up to the sky right behind us. It was hard to stay focused on the radio class—even though they were a newer model.
It didn’t take long for someone to notice a wall of water headed our way. See, when the sun is shining, and there’s not a cloud in the sky, when a little darkness occurs, you notice. And notice we did. The cloud formation was about as wide as the island, and they were heavy and black. The formation of sinister water vapor roiled in our direction, some of us quickly realized the few choices available to us: Get out our ponchos or get wet, because we weren’t going anywhere. We had a radio class.
While some began to remove their protective ponchos from their packs, I opted to get wet. While I couldn’t see through the dark wall of rain that was quickly sweeping across the island I had figured that if the local Marines weren’t worried (I knew they weren’t because they didn’t do anything different than what they were already doing), I shouldn’t be either. And, given the early hour of the day—and how much sun we had already had—I could handle getting a little wet and then dry out in no time. See, the Marine that was teaching the radio class was stationed there in Hawaii, so, if he wasn’t worried I wasn’t either.
The black curtain of lightning and rain came and went faster than it took you to read about it. Some Marines had only got their poncho halfway out of their pack before the storm had passed over and dissipated. Plus, the sun’s heat dried us out in less than a minute—despite our being soaked almost to the bone (Hawaiian rain and sun are crazy). And, while it didn’t rain all the time while we were there, it did rain often enough for us to figure out how to deal with it. Then it surprised us.
In the 1994 movie, Forrest Gump, Forrest takes a moment to describe the different rains that he encountered, “One day it started raining, and it didn’t quit for four months. We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin’ rain… and big ol’ fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath. Shoot, it even rained at night…” My mother had taught me all about how terrible tropical/jungle rains can be, and while I believed her, it is one thing to hear about them, and a completely different thing to experience them.
Our Company’s training had been mostly in the Makua Valley region, and while I cannot currently recall for a certainty if the event I am about to tell did or did not occur there, I am fairly certain it did…
It was a dark and stormy night… Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back up a little. Let’s start again.
During one extended stint of training (we were out in the field for several days in a row), we had been moving—in formation—to our new bivouac site for the next few days’ training. Over the past few days, we had been all over Makua Valley and had seen, experienced, done, and learned much. One such lesson was this: Makua Valley mud does NOT wash out—of anything. EVER! It brought a whole new camouflage to our camouflage (including our leather boots). Anyway, when in formation you’ve got bodies on in one column that stager bodies in a second column that is near the first. Two lines with space in between lines and bodies. We were all used to this. What we weren’t used to was the storm that hit us.
As we roamed (with purpose) over the waving terrain, with grasses and other rich, green tropical foliage up to our chests, night had set in and brought with it a darkness that I would only encounter few times in my life. At that moment, it was darker than anything I had ever known before. If the universe was a nothing before God created it, I can only imagine that the darkness before the light was liken unto what I saw—or rather, what I didn’t see—that night.
The darkness came on quickly and enveloped us like a living thing threatening to end our lives. Our inability to see would have been tolerable if it hadn’t been for the fact that night had brought along with it a raging tropical storm. So, it was, in fact, a dark and stormy night.
I have, in the past, worn sunglasses in rainstorms because they will shield my eyes and keep the rain out. The style I would wear during my service time would wrap close to my face, my helmet would act as part of the shielding process and I could keep my eyes open in the worst of weathers. Like looking out a window. Sure there is water splatter all over it, but you can still see. So, when the first drops began to fall, I put my sunglasses on. Too dark.
The blackness of that night was already one of those that made it so you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, so adding a dark tint to it all was no help at alll. I could barely see the cat eyes on the back of Neilson’s helmet, even without the sunglasses. Then the wind picked up.
Within moments we were in the worst tropical rainstorm I have ever experienced—arguably the worst storm I have ever experienced, period. The wind had picked up and was sending the rain directly toward us. It had to fall from the overhead clouds, but it was still hitting us at eye level. It was nuts! It didn’t help that moon had decided to disappear from existence for a few hours. No big deal. The stars were out but somehow provided ZERO illumination—I don’t understand it, I just know what I saw (or didn’t see—which was everything). The Company had become disoriented due to the terrain, darkness, wind, and rain. Oh, yeah, the total lack of familiarity didn’t help at all. The ground was like if you took a piece of paper, crumpled it, laid it back out, and then exaggerated the wrinkles by 1,000%, cover it in chest-high foliage, then, threw in the nothingness-before-the-universe-began for night, added an end-of-the-world level tropical storm that made Marine-intensity level yelling not loud enough to be heard from 5 feet away, with winds that hurled debris (and some people), then you might have an inkling of the Hellish situation we found ourselves in. We needed cover. NOW!
Our formation was one cup of cluster and three cups of something else (this is a family blog). Bodies were trying to just figure out who was next to them. Fire Teams had become hopelessly mixed, squads were dissolving, nobody seemed to know which direction we were to go. Command knew the way, but from what we could see (or couldn’t) it didn’t appear that way.
Then it hit me. Literally. It hit me. A sharp rock—the size of my fist—impacted my right eye and I went blind.
The force was so great that my head was thrown backward and my helmet connected with the helmet of the Marine behind me. He had been keeping his head down to avoid the Forrest Gump rain. I could feel the blood move across my cheek, being pushed about by the wind. I had lost my eye. Terror began to attempt to take a hold of me.
“Neilson, I’m blind! I just lost my eye!” I had grabbed his pack (he being the closest member of my Fire Team), pulled him around, and was trying to get him to help me out, but we couldn’t stop. The formation was moving. We couldn’t lose our place. Everyone had to stick together. In that storm, in that terrain, anyone could have been lost, permanently. We had to keep moving. Both of us tried to ask about for the Corpsman (military medical personnel), but none were near us, and nobody knew where they were. I just held onto him and let him lead the way.
I feel it’s important to help you understand two things. One is: The darkness. Now, I know I have already tried to accurately communicate how dark it was that night, but it was always just different there in Hawaii. Like, there was one night where the treetop canopy blocked out the stars and moon almost completely, but the entire jungle floor was covered in some sort of bioluminescence plant/fungus/stuff that gave off an subtle eerie glow that made whatever we could see look kinda ‘fuzzy’ (for a lack of any better term).
The other thing is: Shrapnel (in this case that rock that hit me in the eye). Once, in Infantry School, during our demolition training, there were some ‘leftovers’. The government doesn’t like ‘leftovers’. Returning ‘leftovers’ is more paperwork and trouble than it is worth, apparently. At any rate, the several quarter-sticks of TNT and remaining det. cord were made into a large disk ‘pizza-like’ shape (seriously, it was about the size of an extra-large pizza, and the TNT caps looked like black pepperonis) and then taken far out to be ‘disposed of’.
The military uses two radiuses. A Kill and a Casualty—they are what they sound like. Within the Kill Radius, you die. Within the Casualty Radius, you might get wounded. One is bigger than the other (guess which). Anyway, those of us in training were sitting in the bleachers of the outdoor open-area main ‘classroom’ awaiting the explosion. For safety, the appropriate calculations were made to determine the minimum safe distance of all that boom-stuff. Then it was taken out farther. It exploded. Dust and debris went everywhere. And, the arm I was using to hold my head up was hit by a rock from that explosion. Minor wound, some blood, and the second explosive close-call of that day for me (the first one is another story altogether).
My point is this: I know what it feels like to be hit by a high-velocity rock. And, that night, out there in Makua Valley, in that storm, I most certainly was hit by a rock, right in the eye. Yeah, I was blind. I couldn’t see out of it. Only a few injuries that I have ever sustained in my entire life have hurt worse than that did—broken bones was not one of them.
After a forever and a half, Fox Company had reached our bivouac site. Neilson and I set up our shelter halves, he reported us in for the headcount, then bolted off to find the Corpsman.
Sitting there in that tiny tent, still in the dark, with a storm raging outside, I pondered what would happen next. How would life be? I reached up to touch the area around my eye socket (trying to avoid possible infection), it was still wet. That’s when the Corpsman peeled back the tent opening, shined his flashlight in, and said, “Alright, let’s see what we got.”
As he poked and prodded about my injury I noticed something I thought I would not have been able to: The light from his flashlight. In my right eye.
“Looks a little swollen and red, but alright. So, what happened exactly?”
I proceeded to explain what had occurred and between the two of us, we figured that what probably happened is that I was hit with a massive raindrop (they were HUGE that night) right square in the eye (it did knock my head backward). The water—there being a lot of it—then spread over the right side of my face like the blood would have in the wind. Because there was rain, and the darkness was already massively disorienting anyway, I wouldn’t have been able to tell if it was blood or just water. And, due to the immediate trauma, I really couldn’t see.
So, it turns out that the whole blindness thing was more situational than circumstantial. And that’s all I have to say about that.
For more on the interesting history of Makua Valley visit here.