This is part 2 of a 3 part series about the D-Day GORUCK Heavy that took place in Charleston on June 1st and 2nd. Part 1 will describe the GORUCK Heavy and rucking in general, Part 2 will lay out what we did, and Part 3 will give lessons learned.
After getting in formation to take roll call and check gear it was time to get started. I was excited and nervous, but ready to GET AFTER IT!
We started with a PT (physical training) test. A 2 mile run, max pushups in 1 minute, then max sit ups in 1 minute. Our Cadre wanted to know how hard we’d trained leading up to the event. Who was ready? More importantly, who wasn’t? For some this was an ‘Oh Shit’ moment. A quick glance into the eyes of my compatriots made it easy to tell which of us had done our homework.
After that, we were on the move, we had no idea where we were headed, nor did we know how long it would take us to get there (or what time it was, they stripped everyone of their watches before we left). We rucked for about a mile around the windy paths on Patriots Point to get to a water taxi, our brief reprieve before things really got rolling.
The water taxi took us to a small beach next to James Island Yacht Club. This particular GORUCK Heavy was in remembrance of D-Day, and it was time for us to storm the beaches of Normandy. To be clear, obviously nothing we went through could EVER compare to the sacrifices made by the brave men at Utah, Omaha, or any of the beaches we took at Operation Overlord. That said, we definitely did some work at that little beach, and left some blood and sweat there in the sand. We ran in and out of the water over and over again. We took ‘casualties’ and had to drag limp bodies out of the water and up the beach. We crawled, rolled, swam and ran until it was dark. Then it was time to get moving again, this time guided by the red light of our headlamps.
At this point we were each carrying our Rucks, plus we had some items to bring with us as a team. We had a stretcher loaded with about 100 pounds of gear and food (one wrench they had thrown us was that everyone had to dump all the food they’d brought into 2 sandbags, your food was now the team’s food and you could only eat when approved by the Cadre), a sea kayak with some more gear in it, a 50# team weight made from fire house, and of course an American flag. Each of us rotated through carrying the additional load until we tired out, at which point we called for a replacement.
We went on like this for about 11 miles until we reached Folly Beach. It must have been a little past midnight when we arrived to the main strip. I only know this because there were hoards of drunk men and women ripping butts, pounding beers, and cheering us on as the flag marched past them. It was a tease and a pick me up all at the same time.
At this point the morale was still fairly high and most were in good spirits. It was a tough journey, don’t get me wrong. In fact we had already lost a handful of those we started with, our 40 man team was now a 35 man team.
Then, SHIT GOT REAL.
The Cadre began briefing us on the next leg of our journey, a timed Ruck. We were to perform this task in buddy teams, with just the rucksack we’d brought- no extra gear, no excuses. We had 3 hours and 30 minutes to make it 12 miles in the sand on Folly Beach, with 45# on our backs.
The night was beautiful. The moon was massive and just shy of being full, giving us just enough light to navigate the puddles created from the retreating tide. There was a light breeze helping to cool us off as we strided and shuffled as quickly as we could. The tide was out, giving us some harder sand under foot, making each step just a little more bearable.
Even with those ideal conditions 12 miles felt like an eternity. About 3 hours and 10 minutes later my buddy and I finished our journey in the first ¼ of the people on our team. That meant we had about 30 minutes to refuel, refill water, and take care of our feet while everyone else finished up (it pays to be a winner). So we dug into the sandbag full of snacks and ate as much as we could as fast as we could. Then we refilled our hydration bladders using the spicket you’d typically spray off your feet with when leaving the beach, and began the process of caring for our feet.
At this point some pretty big blisters had already begun to show on most of our feet. Anyone who’s ever been in the military knows that on missions like these, problems with your feet can be the beginning of the end. So we got to the tedious and uncomfortable task of brushing off caked on sand, sanitizing with alcohol wipes, popping blisters with a pocket knife, and covering hot spots with moleskin; A thick felt like material that has adhesive on one side designed to help stop blisters from getting any bigger.
For anyone walking by the building at the Folly pier that early morning it must have looked as if the zombie apocalypse had arrived. There were bodies sprawled across the ground and laying on picnic tables. People were ravenous and eating like they’d been on a desert island with only coconuts for 3 months. Our eyes were glassy and our expressions weary.
Finally, as we geared up to get moving again, the birds began to chirp. Dawn was approaching. I stood up to get my ruck on my back and nearly fell over. My legs had taken a beating during that 3 hour journey (I’m sure all the stuff we did before didn’t help either) and 30 minutes of rest gave everything a chance to tighten up.
After I gave my legs a stern talking to we were on the move again. We didn’t make it very far though, it was time for a little more PT on the beach. We all linked arms in rows of 3 and waded our way out to chest deep water, the flag held high overhead. That mental image, the flag towering over the crashing waves, the smell of sweat and salt water, the feeling of linked arms as we stood in solidarity, will be burned into my brain for a long time. All I could think about was some of the greatest Americans of all time storming the beaches of Normandy. What we were going through was NOTHING comparatively. It’s amazing how much of a ‘pick me up’ it is when you simply reframe a situation. Changing your mindset changes everything.
On our way back out of the water it was time for some maneuver under fire. We moved in buddy teams bounding up the beach. One man laying covering fire while the other moves forward, only to drop to his belly as quickly as possible and begin the cycle again. Constantly saying the diddy in your head: “I’m up, he sees me, I’m down”. Run forward any longer than it takes to say that and you’re swiss cheese.
Once we made our way back to the beach it was time for a period of instruction. We talked for roughly an hour about the events leading up to D-Day, what happened on that fateful day on June 6, 1944, the sacrifices that took place, the shit that went really wrong, and how it was the beginning of the end for one of the worst evils this world has ever seen. My writing is sub par at best and I could never give the events that day the description they deserve, so I’ll leave it at this: those men are HARD, and it’s our duty to honor and remember them. Do your part.
Even after an hour of sitting on the beach, technically giving our legs a ‘break’, the morale was much lower now than it was when we arrived at Folly. The Cadre let us know that now the hard part was about to start. If you’re thinking about quitting, now was the time. Our 35 man team (we’d already lost 5 if you remember) was now 26.
THEN SHIT GOT REAL(ER).
The Cadre were NOT fucking around. It was time to start the long journey back to where we started. However, at this point, we added some (read a ‘shit ton’) of extra weight. There were 26 of us left, and I believe we now had between 25 and 30 additional pieces of gear to carry. To add insult to injury, many of them were sandbags and ammo cans…that we were instructed to go fill on the beach.
The items ranged in weight from 30 pounds up to about 100 pounds. There were the aforementioned sandbags and ammo cans, but we also had a stretcher loaded with a 100 pound sapper box, water jugs, our 50# firehose team weight, even the flag pole had been switched to one made from a solid cylinder of metal weighing in at about 50 pounds. Keep in mind we still have our 45# rucks on our backs as well.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing an ammo can, it’s a rectangular solid with a handle on the top made entirely from metal. You’d think the handle would make carrying these things easier…but you’d think wrong. Your grip gives way faster within the first 3 minutes so you wind up constantly fumbling about, doing anything you can to find a spot to put this metal box of death that isn’t completely miserable in that moment. Sharp metal corners digging into your shoulders and back gets old fast, believe that. The bright side was the ammo cans only weighed about 30 pounds, so it was on the lighter end of the spectrum giving your legs a brief rest.
The sandbags ranged in size and weight from about 40 pounds up to 80 pounds. The 40 pound bags were manageable, miserable when combined with the 45# on your back already, but manageable. The 80 pounders made everything hurt, at that point you were laden with nearly 130 pounds. Each step was like walking through plouffe mud, it was a slow trudge, fighting to pull your foot away from the ground with each step.
After we had assembled everything required for the trek back towards our starting point we got in formation for our mission brief. There were 4 rows of 6 men and women with a team leader and assistant team leader standing in front of us. The cadre informed us we had 1.5 hours to make it 3 miles with our nearly 1300 pounds of extra gear. And time started…NOW. If we missed our time goal the team would take a casualty and we’d be carrying one of our team members in addition to all the gear. That was not an option.
So we began the arduous journey back up Folly Road, one trudgingly slow step at a time. Now that it was day time many passing cars would give us a little toot, thinking their display would serve as a pick me up. It didn’t, we were too far down the rabbit hole. Even worse, after a couple beeps the cadre told us “they’re not beeping for you, they’re beeping for the flag, so every time they beep, you scream ,USA, USA, USA’ as loud as you can”. Let me tell you, summoning enough oxygen to yell when you’ve got 100 pounds on your back is no easy task.
But, we made the 3 miles under our time cap. And by the grace of god the cadre let us ditch 1 piece of gear, so we said goodbye to one of those miserable 80 pound sandbags (the sapper was required). We did this same thing 4 or 5 more times up Folly Road. Move 3 miles in an hour and a half, make it and lose a piece of gear, miss and carry a team member for the next leg. Someone was looking out for us, because we somehow made it under the required time on each and every leg of the journey. Thank God.
6 or 7 hours later we had finally made it off Folly road. We stopped briefly for some more PT, more buddy drags, more casualties, but I can only describe that in an interesting way via text so many times. Just know we worked our asses off for a while before we started moving again. Then we headed over the Ashley River bridge back to the downtown peninsula. We all thought we were going to cross the peninsula, come over the Ravenel bridge and finish back at Patriots point within the next couple hours. We thought wrong.
We still had about 5 hours in front of us. We stopped at Brittlebank park and performed a training exercise. We had to secure a bride then fire ‘rockets’ to destroy it. Then we stopped at the Citadel for another training exercise. This time there was a sniper in the bell tower of the chapel. I’d go into more detail here, but at this point I was basically blacked out. Everything in my memory is hazy and I have very little recollection of the details.
While at the citadel we went to the war memorial there for every Cadet who had given their lives in every war since the founding of the Citadel in 1842. It’s made of black stone, etched almost everywhere with too many names to count. I say almost because there were a few walls that were still empty, a solemn reminder that as long as there are humans there will be war. There will be more brave men and women who will lay down their lives for the betterment of our great country.
Then, finally, we began the last leg of our journey. We had to make it from the Citadel, across the downtown peninsula, over the Ravenel Bridge, and back to the cold war memorial at Patriot’s Point. We had 2.5 hours to make it happen. We still had the majority of the extra gear with us at that point. My feet felt like hamburger, and EVERYTHING hurt.
We of course eventually made it back to the grassy reprieve of Patriot’s Point. We remembered those who went before us, we drank a beer, and we revelled in the glory of having finished. The harder the journey the greater the feeling upon completion. This was an amazing feeling.
When we got to the top of the Ravenel Bridge it was like a switch flipped in my brain. I was all of a sudden totally refreshed, like those were the first steps I had taken. That was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized we’re all capable of so much more than we think we are…if we can just get out of our own head.
That’s what the next (much shorter) post will cover, the mental side of this journey and the massive takeaways I got from it. When we finished I felt like a piece of me I’d been missing for a while had been returned. I was able to reflect deeply and come up with some pretty cool lessons learned that reach far outside the realm of GORUCK, these are principles for life.
But we’ll get to those next time… To be continued.