Monday, February 2, 2009

And Then The Ships

Three years ago I swore that I would never set foot on a ship again. In hindsight, I should have clarified that I was referring to US Navy vessels, which are renowned for their lavish amenities, high ceilings, and gourmet cuisine. Right. They’re small, filthy, rickety, and they do what boats do on the open ocean – sway.

While I have been lucky enough to fly most places the Marine Corps sent me, I did have the unpleasant experience of “floating” to Iraq for my second of three tours. I would prefer prison. Prison has better food.

To my great displeasure, we were berthed on a Navy LSD-50, which is approximately 300-some feet long – and used primarily for amphibious landings from LCACs (giant, twin jet turbine hovercraft) that deploy from the ship’s bowels. During our pre-deployment training we had invested weeks in practicing getting and off the ship – which struck me as odd. The only thing Marines don’t practice is the one thing that SHOULD practice – combat. But anyway, we’d load all our vehicles onto the LCAC, launch out to sea, land on the beach, and spend the next thirty minutes trying not to drive over each other. Usually we’d get at least one vehicle stuck. Practice didn’t make perfect; it simply gave anybody watching the impression that we’re a bunch of clowns. We had them fooled, though. We weren’t clowns, we were monkeys with guns.

Better put, we know how to drive humvees, so we weren’t the idiots. The idiots were the Marine Corps logistics people that despite extensive training in how to load, unload, plan, and otherwise coordinate a major troop movement, always reek of failure. Unloading the vessel took hours, and loading it back up took even more. When it came time to leave, we were just as unprepared. Weeks of “practice sailing” around the Atlantic, as well as loading and unloading, had produced little more than a massive carbon footprint. We were operating sixteen diesel humvees, though that paled in comparison to the fact that the ship burned about 10,000 gallons of fuel a day. And we broke a lot of things – like our trucks.

The sad fact is that when we did our final load, at least one of our trucks completely broke down as soon as it was parked. Over the course of the next few weeks, it did nothing but sit there and bleed fluids all over the well-deck – which got us screamed at. A mechanic came and looked at it, but couldn’t do much. Rather than put it all back together, he just left a heap of parts in the back seat. The ship was turning into a junk yard.

Between damages already incurred when we got on the ship, and damages that came from having a constant dose of sea salt misting over all our vehicles, the end result was sixteen rusted, barely functional vehicles. Yet we were still considered a battalion asset. Sure.

Part of the problem was that the vehicles were ancient – most of them outbound for their THIRD tour to Iraq, complete with blown up engines, slipping transmission, collapsed suspension, and a host of other problems that manifested as soon as we landed in Kuwait.

The sea takes its toll on metal, and with our hulks already rusted and in sad shape, they were further ruined by sitting immobile for a few weeks on the ocean. Naturally, whatever paint was still on them began to rust, and we were yelled at every two or three days that we needed to all troop down to the well-deck and “bust rust.” Nevermind that you don’t have any tools, find some – ask the Navy guys. They should be nice and loan you some stuff.

So we’d crawl all over the vehicles, trying to remove any rust we found and protect against further damage. Yet nobody had any sealing lubricants, either, so we ended up borrowing a five-gallon bucket of axle grease from the Navy guys and lathering up our trucks with poorly applied smears of goop – which later hardened into a lacquer and looked even more ridiculous. Somebody yelled at us to paint them instead of just coating the rust with grease, but oh yeah, there’s no paint. I mixed a small batch that I borrowed from the Navy, again, but you can’t apply paint to anything that’s been coated in grease – and you can’t take off the grease without solvents – which they also didn’t have. The fact is that they probably DID have all this stuff, but just didn’t want to give it to us. We got yelled at a lot for that, too – constantly asking the Navy for things. Yet we didn’t have anything we needed.

Ship life, however, is all sorts of fun. With the profusion of personnel on the ship cause by our presence, the average wait to eat lunch or dinner was about an hour and forty-five minutes. And then you’d be served some unidentifiable crap that didn’t even fill you. In fact, there were times when the ship ran dangerously low on food – such that hunger fights broke out, specifically when it was obvious that the Navy servers were giving more food to the Navy guys than to the Marines. I’m thankful nobody was detained, because the Marine Corps order still allows for incarcerated troops to be restricted to bread and water. No thanks.

In reality, we shouldn’t have run out of food. We had regularly-scheduled underway replenishments (unreps) where we’d pull up next to another vessel and then haul (by human chain) tons of food into the innards of the ship. But for some reason, they weren’t getting resupplies of food. They got junk food and paint. Paint, because some portion of the ship is always undergoing renovation, and junk food because the snack machine on one deck was emptying three times a day. The fact is that it was being sold out by Marines who were starving to death – and willing to eat anything in there, including the women’s health bars and the pork rinds. It was better than nothing.

With the food shortages, none of us was terribly happy. Couple this with the fact that a good thirty-five men were living in a room the size of a large living room, and we were truly miserable. Fights, altercations, or just impressive yelling matches were a daily occurrence.

With a fair degree of foresight, our berthing areas were designed entirely out of metal. We can’t break metal, they probably thought. Well, we did our best to dent it. Every surface, every locker, ever coffin rack (bunks where we sleep) was covered in punch marks. Even the metal cover over the loudspeaker that always woke us up with irritating whistles – that was smashed in, too. And only about five people in the entire berthing area did all that damage. I was forever hopeful they’d accidentally fall off the ship. I would neglect to report them missing, of course.

At six feet and three inches tall, simply navigating the ship was a challenge. I developed what I feared would be a permanent hunch – just to get through doorways and down ladders. And the rocking made movement itself a chore.

The bigger the ship, the less its vulnerability to waves. Yet ours, being a tiny vessel as these things go, bobbed like a cork – constantly. And when we entered the Straits of Gibraltar, they were at their worst. We’d all be in our little racks trying to get some sleep, and a large wave would list the ship a good 15 to 20 degrees, and people would start rolling out of the racks – even though they had their “seat belts” on. I was only about 5 inches above the floor, so it didn’t bother me, but some guys came close to injuring themselves badly.

One of our guys – already known for being a moron – just fell one day when he was climbing into bed – and broke his wrist. Nobody at all was sympathetic.

During one particularly unpleasant storm, I was up on one of the higher decks, struggling to type an e-mail on a laptop in an office. When we hit an enormous swell, the whole ship rocked hard, I went rolling out the door, trying to grab two laptops before they fell, and a sea chest flew after me. These things happen, I guess.

Some nights, packs and chairs would scoot from one end of the room to the other as we navigated the waves. We’d have to collect everything in the morning and try to re-stow it – with limited success. We had no room. Ever pipe on the ceiling had already become a hanger for something.

So there, in our ape house (that smelled just as bad), we’d try to keep as peaceful as possible – to little avail. Somebody was always yelling, punching something, or otherwise creating a ruckus. When we hit liberty ports, it further complicated matters. To the fray now add drunk people puking into trash cans, other guys crying because they couldn’t understand that their buddies were in sick bay getting restrained and sedated because of alcohol poisoning, and almost everybody had lost something, including their Marine Corps ID card. They never left the ship again.

But even some of that was funny. When the newly-21 guy is hurling into a trash can and crying – as puke comes out his nose. Wailing that he just wants to die. Well, we all just laughed or tried to ignore him.

Most of us would rather be in Iraq than on the ships. And getting back on them to go home was just about as exciting as walking to your own execution.

Sure, they tried to liven things up with programs, classes, and physical training, but that never amounted to much more than an aggravation. No single room was big enough to fit anybody. No computer worked correctly, and nobody want to be there anyway. All we wanted was to be left alone.

When we came back, our greatest desire was simply to not see the same faces again for a LONG time. And when we went on leave, we all got our wish. It’s best summed up by the phone message my friend left for people:

“This is Bobby. If you’re a friend of mine, just leave a message and I’ll call you back. If you’re from my battalion, F**K OFF! I’m on leave.”

Since this time, I have yet to set foot on a ship.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Haha. It's comical, but not so funny at the time, I guess.

  2. Nothing like a tropic cruise to relax.

  3. WHOEVER came up with the name of your sleeping bunks, coffin rack? That alone sends a very dismal message.