The Winter Soldiers

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After graduating high school in Wilkes County, NC and starting college on a football scholarship at Elon College, I transferred to Appalachian State University in Boone, NC with the intention of playing football, after meeting with their coaching staff. That would not happen. I Instead enlisted in the US Army as The Gulf War started up In the Middle East. After first enlisting for military intelligence with an airborne contract and going through the testing and background checks, I told my recruiter and the personnel at the MEPS (where you go to be shipped off to the Army) I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger……” whatever that is”.

After waiting for several hours for a slot to become available, I was shown a video on the newly re-formed 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry). It looked pretty similar to the Ranger video, but without the parachutes, and with snow. Lots of snow. When mocked by a SFC at the MEPS station for “giving up an easy job” to become infantry, I replied “I’m leaving college…. I don’t want anything academic. I want to blow shit up.” He shook his head and replied “I hope you like walking”. I had no idea what he really meant. But it wouldn’t take long to find out.

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about basic training and infantry school, it isn’t that interesting in the overall story here. About the most interesting thing about basic training aside from the lifelong friends I met, I was struck by a drill sergeant and promptly struck him back. He did a few calculations in his head, turned and walked away. Yeah, I could have been a b!tch and squealed to someone, but the two of us handled it our way and it was never mentioned again. The Army still then allowed men to settle differences and establish dominance the old-fashioned way. Not officially, of course. But it happened a lot and no one complained.

Upon arrival at Ft. Benning, GA, I was placed with a COHORT in 1st Platoon, A CO 1-19th Infantry.  A COHORT meant that most of us would go through basic training and to our unit (the 10th Mountain) as a group. Here I would meet the guys I would eventually spend the next three years and go on several deployments with.

Eric L Smith was assigned as my “Battle Buddy”, the guy who would be my reciprocal shadow throughout basic and advanced training. We had a lot in common having both been football players. I was from Wilkesboro, NC…he was from Wilkes Barre, PA. We were approximate the same height and weight, and were pretty much twins at 6’3”/6’4” and 230lbs. Though he had a much better tan.

Another of the more memorable guys in my platoon was a relatively quiet Texan named Roland Carrizales and his buddy Ramirez. Carrizales was an instantly likeable guy, though I had no idea at the time how important he would come to be in my life over the next 25+ years. Not that none of the others haven’t been important, but his role would be much more pronounced.

Basic Training wasn’t as rough as I had thought it would be, and was apparently much rougher than others had anticipated. A guy among the latter pissed his pants and quit on our first day “down range”, really setting the tone for the next 4 months.

By 6 March, 1992, we graduated from basic and Infantry training and headed to Fort Drum, NY. I remember feeling like “wow….so now I’m an infantryman. That wasn’t so bad.” Yeah. No. The real training was just about to begin.

After reporting to Ft. Drum in several feet of snow and being escorted to A CO 1-87 IN (Infantry), I was taken to meet my squad leader, SGT Brian Szulwach (pronounced SCHUL-VACH). SGT Szulwach was as hard as they come. Ranger qualified and relatively new in the 10th having come from the 25th Infantry out of Hawaii, there was nothing ambiguous about him. You were either right or you were wrong, you were in or you were out. And it was up to you where you fell in that spectrum. In other words, take responsibility for yourself, you know your sh*t, do your job, and he’ll take care of the rest.

I was first put into a room with Terrance Eaddy, who had a bit of a reputation of a guy you don’t mess with. I wasn’t so different. Also like me, Eaddy didn’t have a problem with you unless you created one. After numerous warnings before going into the room, I walked in and was immediately offered a beer. No drama. Leading up to Somalia, he was one of my greatest mentors along with the other M60 gunner, Morris, who’s place I would take.

Roderick Forde, George Perez (Chico), Tom Corey and Richard Hughes would be some of the Specialists or more senior privates in the platoon, with Corey and Hughes coming with the cohort just prior to ours. SGT Wasik was one of the team leaders in the platoon who would also make a big impact on me and eventually become my squad leader in Somalia. CPL McClelland, CPL Laing and CPL Schmidt were upcoming team leaders in the company and 1st Platoon. SGT Perez and SSG Pippen were the other two squad leaders in our platoon.

I then met the rest of 2nd squad of 1st Platoon.  SGT Douglas SGT Ruddick were the team leaders, both were a couple of country boys, both were great soldiers and fit well with SGT Szulwach. The rest of the squad was from my cohort at Fort Benning: Spaceboy, Steve Mangold, Rick Beem, Tracy Briggs, Christopher Grish and myself. I think the rest of the platoon kind of made fun of this squad of “cherries” at first, but Szulwach would make sure that didn’t last long.

Our A CO medics were Docs Busbin, Cooke, Davis and Estes. Being a line medic in light infantry unit was tough and took a special kind of character. These guys were great medics and soldiers who never complained and never let us down.

SFC Gary Mason was our platoon sergeant at the time. A Vietnam era vet who was close to retirement, he had a lot to offer us young soldiers. And man could he hump (walk with a rucksack).

2nd LT Bill Shomento was our platoon leader. He was a ranger qualified hard charger who I felt showed little regard for the men under his command (at times). I could easily say that of a lot of Jr. officers, it’s not an uncommon trait when officers are young. But overall, I felt he was a great infantry officer and set a good standard for being hard and training hard. His favorite thing to do was to take us on 5 mile “indian runs”….and they were grueling. Shomento leaned heavily on SGT Szulwach and our squad as the go to squad.

1LT Tom Ditamasso was our company XO. I believe he was from Rhoade Island and was without a doubt one of the finest infantry officers I had the pleasure to serve with. By the time we would deploy to Somalia, LT Ditamasso had PCS’d (transferred duty station) to the 3rd Ranger Battalion where he would earn a silver star for gallantry in action during the Battle of Mogadishu, while fighting alongside the very battalion where he’d started his military career, 1-87th Infantry.

Our company commander was CPT Parks. CPT Parks was an outstanding infantry officer, and he loved to run. A lot. In the snow. Our first company run with him was approximately 20 miles in negative temperatures and 2 feet of snow. I did not know I could run that far.  CPT Parks would also leave our company to become a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment before Somalia.

You cannot talk about an infantry company without talking about the man who really runs the show: The First Sergeant (1SG). And there has never been a finer 1SG than 1SG Bill Poe. The man stood about my height and had a piercing gaze that let you know you better square your shit away, because he would be watching. He was a Vietnam era vet who’s combat experience was on the DMZ in Korea, something I was never aware of. Apparently, the communists in the north had several firefights and battles with American troops, knowing America was committed in Vietnam.

Prior to coming to A CO, 1SG Poe served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, in 2-75th RGR. He was then the NCOIC of the swamp phase in Florida for ranger school, and finally, as acting SGM of the entire Ranger Training Brigade (4th RTB). Just about everyone walking around 1-87 IN in those days who wore a Ranger tab, and there were a lot of them, knew him as the Ranger Instructor (RI) from Florida phase. For sure every single officer in the battalion under the rank of major that had a Ranger tab went through Ranger School under his piercing scowl. He was the epitome of everything Infantry, everything Ranger. Under his leadership, everyone carried the Ranger Handbook and every squad leader was personally accountable to him. The Ranger Handbook would be our bible and our training doctrine. Small unit tactics would be the core of our training (Ambushes, Raids, infiltrations, etc.).

Our Battalion command consisted of LTC Joseph Praesic (sp) and CMS Eddie Deyampert. CSM Deyampert, who is distinguished member of the “Old Guard”, was a Vietnam Veteran who did 3 tours in Vietnam. When he walked, his boots made an unmistakable clicking sound, something he insisted in wearing long after departing the Old Guard.

Since we arrived in early March, I wasn’t expecting the conditions we met during our first training exercise, which was a two-week event. After a SNAFU (f*ck up) getting my gear, I was transported to the field to join the company in the middle of the night. I am not sure if this was done on purpose or what, but I learned a lot about sleeping in the snow that night. Remember, at this point I had no training in it….this would be my introduction. I was told it was -22 F that night. When I woke up at 0’Dark-thirty, my canteens were frozen, my boots were frozen, and I had a sheet of ice across my skull cap because my sleeping bag had a broken zipper.

SGT Szulwach seemed to expect to find me in this condition and gave me an impromptu lesson in cold weather survival, something that we would continue over the next two weeks. First and foremost, learned from that 1st night, sleep with your boots and canteens in the bottom of your sleeping bag, your body heat will keep them from freezing.

Another interesting aspect of field training with SGT Szulwach was that we would do PT (Physical Training) using things readily available in nature, such as logs, boulders and whatever else we could find. We never had an idle moment aside from laying in ambushes all night wearing our winter white camouflage in several feet of snow. Our “free” time was spent tying knots, reciting things from the Ranger Handbook such as the Principles of Patrolling, and learning everything he had to teach us.

After spending two weeks pulling an ahkio (sled) full of gear we never got to use (a tent and stove) through the snow while wearing snow shoes and dawning winter white camouflage, and doing some cross-country skiing, I got my first two official nicknames: Big Country (BC) and Mountain Man. SSG Pippen had named me Big Country after I chopped a tree down with a machete and built a fire to prevent hypothermia and frost bite our last night in the field. SFC Mason then called asked me “Kill anything today, Mountain Man?” as we did a 15 mile march back to the barracks…..but Big Country was the name that stuck.

We trained non-stop through the winter, which ended in June. (It actually snowed in July). We did trench live fire exercises, squad live fires, MOUT (Urban warfare) training using the WWII buildings on the old post, and weapons training and qualification on a wide array of weapons systems (M249, M16, M203,M60, AT-4’s and LAWs). Sleeping in the snow became our “normal”. I didn’t know how to be cold anymore. We also took a company outing and did some downhill skiing at a nearby civilian ski lodge.

Competition was constant. There was always a drive to be the best soldier, the best fire team, the best squad, the best platoon, the best everything. We brought out the best in each other and built strong teams.

The next most memorable event from our first 9 months was our squad competitions. It was comprised of a week of events for time and qualifications (weapons). From what I remember we first did what we called the “Ranger Swim Test”….you get shoved off the high dive in full uniform and boots after being spun around blindfolded, jump in with full gear and rucksack for the gear ditch, and finally, swim the length of the pool in boots with your rifle (above our heads was the standard in my squad). We did 3 mile runs for time (18 minutes and 30 seconds for me), Bayonet course for time (basically an obstacle course where you stab everything and sprint for about 2-300 meters), 12-mile road march for time with full rucksack and weapon (1 hour and 53 minutes for our squad), weapons qualifications (Expert) and a few other things that escape me at the moment.

The most memorable event in the squad competition was the road march. We were told “Army Standard is 4 hours. Infantry standard is 3 hours. But our standard is Ranger Standard”. Ranger Standard meant balls to the wall for 12 miles, leaving no one behind. And our time was amazing, 1 hour 53 minutes. The time the last soldier in the squad crossed the finished line. That soldier was “Spaceboy”….being kicked, drug and carried by SGT Douglass. It was beautiful. One guy in the company finished in 1 hour and 43 minutes. Truly impressive….except….”where is the rest of your squad, numb nut?” Szulwach asked him. Great question. And good point.

Next for A CO 1-87 IN came NTC (National Training Center) in Ft Irwin, CA…Death Valley to be specific. It is here where we’d learn desert warfare and survival. It was part of 1-87 Infantry’s “train up” rotation. Panama for jungle training (JOTC), NTC for desert, Ft. Bragg, NC for MOUT (Urban warfare) and Ft. Polk, Louisiana for JRTC…. Swamps and whatever you want to call training in hell. 1-87 IN did jungle training Panama in 91, 95 and 96, JRTC in 94, and NTC in 91 and 92 and 93. As an opposition force (OPFOR) in NTC, A CO 1-87 IN set a record for tank kills. You might think Light Infantry doesn’t fair well against tanks, but we did quite well. The opposing force was the “Big Red One”, or 1st Infantry Division.

In NTC we would typically dig in during the day and walk all night (“patrolling”). During the rest of our 30 days in the desert, we would set up armor ambushes, live fire exercises, do recons and just bake our a$$es off in general. My favorite memory of this training was doing an Air Assault with TF-160, the Army Special Operations Aviators known as the “Night Stalkers”. If you know anything about America’s story in Somalia, you know that this unit of aviators had a big role to play there as well.

What was most memorable about that air assault was that we flew NAP of the Earth, which is a type of tactical flying at a low altitude using terrain features to hide your location. We flew fast, and so close to the mountains that it looked as though you could reach out the door and pick up rocks off the side of them. This was right as the sun was setting.

Then it was completely dark and we started false insertions, where the helicopters would land in various locations to confuse the enemy as to where you actually landed. During our last false insertion, LT Ditamasso exclaimed “Fuck this shit!” and jumped out and ran across the desert on his own. I wish I had followed him because what happened next was totally nuts. After we were finally inserted, it became immediately apparent that we had just been set down in the middle of an Armored company or battalion. Bradleys and tanks immediately opened fire in every direction. I died hiding behind a shrub from a .50 cal, firing on a Bradley with a 5.56 SAW. Basically I was throwing rocks at a tank. And it was throwing car sized boulders back. Lucky this was all training and only blanks and lasers were used. I think maybe 4 soldiers survived the assault. LT Ditamasso was one of them. He and 1LT Scott Walker (our Fire Support Officer) ran around killing tanks during the chaos. And did quite well.

After NTC, SSG Daniel Ferrerio joined our platoon having come from Germany. As SGT Szulwach prepared for Special Forces Selection, SSG Ferrerio became our new squad leader. That also came with a new PSG, SFC Alton Jones. After first performing a military funeral for a WWII Navy veteran, we ended up in Homestead, FL immediately following Hurricane Andrew, along with the rest of the 18th Airborne Corps. They then restructured the platoon making SFC Jones the Platoon Leader and SSG Ferrerio the Platoon Sergeant. We would spend about 2 months in Florida for the hurricane relief effort.

Almost immediately after returning from Florida, we were sent to Ft. Bragg, NC for MOUT (urban warfare) training for approximately 3-4 weeks. Here I did something I am famously remembered for…. good or bad I am not sure, but the DoD captured the entire thing on video. During an assault, several members of A CO “died” trying to get a grenade through a third story window. Our new 1SG, 1SG Rodriguez, called on me, the last guy standing to try. Except, I had forgot that I had injured my elbow the night before (My arm was black from my elbow to my wrist), and when I threw the grenade, I immediately knew I was in trouble. The grenade hit just below the window, fell back towards me, and I did what any rational person would do: I caught it. And I immediately though it back through the window, where it exploded the instant it entered the room. It was then I heard a loud cheer like I was at a football game where I turned to see a bunch of brass and a guy holding a camera who said “Holy shit! I got that on film!” To which I gave a nervous smile and a thumb’s up.

We got back to Fort Drum around December 1st, 1992 and I had probably slept in a bed a total of two weeks since March. I was then promoted to E4 and made the other M60 gunner in 1st platoon as Morris was preparing to ETS (Exit the Service). By December 3rd, our lives would change forever.

Copyright© 2019 by Steve Slane / Bravo Charles and Behind The Gun

2 thoughts on “The Winter Soldiers

  1. Great story! I’m from Caldwell county (we probably got chased by the same cops) and joined the Army in August of 1990. Arrived in AK in 91 after basic, abn, and Ranger school. Enjoyed reading about your experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

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