I lay on a pile of cow crap and nettles, peering uselessly through weeds growing on a wire fence. I am unable to see more than 12 feet into an open field. Prone, my neck and shoulders hurt as I crane hoping to see far enough so that I can have some warning of advancing forces. I am sweating out buckets, soaking my Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), boonie hat and underwear as thoroughly as if I had been caught in a thunderstorm. My neck is developing a sunburn because, like an idiot, I failed to put sunblock into my kit. Baking in the sun, unable to see anything, feeling hot, bored and useless, I remember why I left the Army . . .
Rewind a few months. I am very concerned about the lawful lawlessness of Federal State and local governments. Legislation and regulation seem to me to be oriented to favoring the fortunes of politically connected persons and groups rather than the general benefit of all citizens. What they do is legal, but it is immoral.
The dustup between Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management really focused my attention as it made an abstract argument for overbearing government concrete. On one hand, it is clear that Bundy has dug his heels in and is ignoring the rulings of the authorities – he is on the wrong side of the law. On the other hand Bundy is the only rancher in the area left after years of management by the BLM – an agency supposedly empowered to manage land for the benefit of everyone, even ranchers. I think the Feds are morally wrong and the fines and penalties unjust. Unjust laws ought not be complied with.
Even so, I am glad nobody went home limping that day when citizens, joined by militia groups, confronted the BLM agents posting an armed guard on a fence between Bundy and his property. To my eyes, an armed revolt against the Feds is a kind of abyss. In the US, our experience with revolution is mixed. If there is another revolt, I am not sure that what replaces the government will be any better. The track record is sketchy at best.
Further, my impression of self-styled militia groups and their leadership has been pretty low. In the runup to a recent election, I ran into someone at a gun show all decked out in a set of woodland BDU fatigues with patches and a name tape. She growled about how rotten the Federal government is, but when I asked her who she is supporting in an upcoming race, she was ignorant of the candidates. I guess their plan was to walk around dressed up like GI Joe and grumble.
I found another self-styled patriot remnant dedicated to restoring freedom’s light to America equally unimpressive. Bedecked in everything you can buy for 200 bucks at a military surplus store, these guys were unprepared for a cold April night. Most who had supposedly gathered for “training” shuffled around uninterested in the disaster preparedness lessons I was offering. It was clear to me that a set of fatigues and Kevlar helmet did not an effective warrior make.
As the Bundy incident unfolded, I checked the website of the Missouri Militia. I discovered that, by statute, I was already a member of the Missouri Militia being that I was an able-bodied citizen between the age of 18 and 64. I found the contact information for the local unit, the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the Missouri Militia.
In my reading, research and discussion with folks on the topic, I learned that there are other groups that call themselves militias in Missouri. The 3/2 was an element of what I believe is the largest organized militia group in the Show-Me state. Using the contact information on the website, I got in touch with Major Y.
On the phone, Y is genial, and informs me that there is an ad-hoc meeting at Denny’s in St. Charles. I make plans to attend in a few days. On the evening of the meeting, I meet Major Y along with several other men interested in signing up.
Y has a sturdy build. He sports a light grey horseshoe mustache that makes me think of a biker. His grey hair is not long, but it is not exactly high and tight, either (you vets know what I mean). I could not tell you what I was expecting from the commander of a whole battalion of the Missouri Militia, but I was pleasantly surprised. Even though the Major had an easygoing manner he exuded a workman’s competence.
I order some fried mozzarella sticks and listened as Y describes the history and mission of the Missouri Militia. Among the tasks the Missouri Militia takes on are search operations and disaster relief. Missouri Militia members voluntarily take land navigation instruction, a handy skill if someone wanders off into the woods in rural Missouri – the last thing you want are well-intentioned searchers getting lost, compounding the local Sheriff’s problem of a missing person.
As I anticipated, many of the assembled men are old fat white guys. I even scope out some familiar faces, given that I am well within the OFWG orbit of guns and gun politics. Major Y answers questions, and promises to get us applications if we are interested.
I, along with a number of other folks who had been attending informational meetings, are invited to attend a Joint Training Exercise (JTX) in July. It looked to me to be an ambitious weekend schedule.
Among the training blocks on tap are:
- Nighttime land navigation
- First aid
- Hand to hand combat
- Early warning devices
- Small unit maneuvers, specifically “movement to contact.” We are instructed to secure 40 rounds of blanks chambered for our rifles and a blank adapter.
The three-day, two-night event seemed like a good chance to see the Missouri Militia in action and take their measure. So far, nobody involved struck me as a kook and lacked the deficiencies noted in encounters with other groups. I made arrangements to attend, including painstakingly filing a weld off the ring protecting the threads of my AK-47 barrel. The ring had probably been tack-welded as part of some import restrictions, (damn you, California!) as it rendered the bayonet lug unusable. I needed to do the gun surgery so I could install a threaded blank adapter.
Candidly my expectations were fairly low. I anticipated a bunch of grumbling, discontented OFWGs (myself among them) who were all kit and no grit. In the week before the big JTX I attended a local training lead by Lieutenant H who showed about a half dozen men and women basics of small unit movement in the field. H was tall, pleasant and somewhat reserved, but in the course of the training demonstrated knowledge and competence. He and his son would be at the event.
The weekend for the JTX arrives, and I catch a ride from another non-member “guest.” J is a pleasant young man in his late twenties. We chat and get to know each other. Our 2 ½ hour ride is filled with discussions ranging from the recent documentary America, to politics, history, a rasher of theology (it is hard for me to not include my faith in a conversation, not that I try) and culture.
We arrive while there is still plenty of daylight. The sun is hot and the swampiness of rural Missouri hangs over the mowed pasture outside of Springfield where the “Forward Operating Base” is set up. J and I check in with the Major who is loping up and down the line of tents welcoming people and lending help and advice. We empty the chamber of our sidearms in his presence. Concealed carry permit holders are asked to keep an empty chamber in our pistols. We then begin setting up gear in our tents.
In minutes, I am sweating. My home state is not known for its pleasant July weather, though the first three days of the week lulled me into a false hope for low 80s temperatures and low humidity. I am clammy and uncomfortable, but that hardly surprises me.
Chow is called shortly after we are finished setting up. We gather around and I first meet the state commander, Colonel S. S has the easy manner of a rural Missourian. He answers questions and gives direction in a cadence that is collaborative rather than authoritarian. It is clear to me that the man has earned the respect of the men and women he knows and who know him. S asks for a volunteer to say Grace over our meal. I offer, and we all fall into the chow line.
J forgot his mess kit, so I lend him the lid to my cook-pot. It is easy to fall into neighborly habits, everyone is open and friendly. I’ve been in churches that are less welcoming. The food is tasty and the company pleasant. I meet men and women from all over Missouri, as well as members of the Illinois state militia who have joined Missouri’s militia for training. Everyone I talk to are liberty-minded. Most express concern for the welfare of the United States. Most see our nation’s politics lurching toward something alien to the vision of liberty embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
After chow, there are a series of briefings, and we line up to have our weapons checked. The rules are empty rifles and an empty magazine. Attendees have been asked to leave live rifle ammo at home. We line up to walk through a weapons check where our magazines are checked, chambers cleared and blue tape is wrapped around the base of our magazine. We are instructed to not load any blanks until the next day and to keep the blue-tape magazine empty.
The guard roster is posted, the Illinois team is going to perform the duty for that evening so that the next night they can rest for the longer trip back home. J and I get into our bunks. I no longer camp, though I have plenty of camping gear. Most of my stuff is showing its age. I lay down on my Craigslist aluminum cot and slowly slip into a fitful night’s sleep, my extremities laying uncomfortably on the too-short frame.
Camp is rousted shortly after sunrise. I pull my “uniform” out of its pack, BDU trousers, and jacket along with a GI belt and tan boots. I don my boonie hat and report to formation. Even though it has been decades since I wore a uniform, I begin to check that all my pockets are buttoned and that my collar is straight.
The formation slowly comes together, with direction from the colonel who is at the flagpole facing the parade field. We all jostle around and eventually form tidy files and ranks. We are called to attention and the colors are posted. At rest, I look around and note that we as a group are attentive and more or less uniform. We recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We listen to the day’s announcements, and the schedule is described. Among the announcements is an encouragement to be active in our communities and to vote. Contrary to the anti-government moniker pinned on Militia groups the Colonel described thoughtful participation in civic life as the most effective weapon against the challenges facing America.
A man in his mid 30s takes over the formation and leads us in “light PT” which, in the acronym-crazed world of any military-ish organization means physical training. I know know my nemesis no matter what it is called. Curse you exercise, you have found me! We stretch and flex, ending with a warmup of jumping jacks. Nothing strenuous, just a warmup, which makes sense given that any PT oriented toward conditioning would be pointless.
Breakfast comes, beginning with thick French toast with syrup or blueberries. The cooks had a tasty pile of “Ramadan ham”, a dish of sliced ham fried up and seasoned with a gracious helping of political incorrectness. I resist the urge to take a photo of my meal and post it to Facebook. There is a lot of information to cover, and so the Colonel and subordinate leaders hop to it and keep a tight schedule. Like clockwork we are sent off to the classes of our interest. These classes are taught by people who know what they are doing. A medical doctor is teaching the first aid class, a lifetime ham radio operator teaches communications (he has a big antenna set up by his tent, just in case.) I am not sure what the experience of the warrant officer teaching early warning devices is, but I can tell you having been an Army engineer, his noisemakers meant to alert us to interlopers are by the numbers.
I attend the small unit maneuvers class. It begins with about an hour of classroom instruction. A young man by the name of Staff Sergeant F gives an energetic presentation on terms and tactics for moving infantry formations in the field. He described vanguard versus reserve, different types of reconnaissance and reacting to contact. Soon he is directing us in the cow pasture to practice these techniques in “shoulder drills” in which we move in a variety of formations.
Before long I notice that even though I am a bit thirsty and tired, I am not particularly bored. The training on a level where any person of normal intelligence can participate, but is not so dumbed-down so as to be dull. Unskilled trainers can make make even something as inherently interesting as running and gunning a yawner. Ssgt F combines energy, good humor and knowledge into the class. Soon I am out in the field as a “team leader”, responsible for half a squad of eight. We practice moving as a unit and reacting to various challenges, such as coming upon a small group of opponents while looking for a larger group of opponents.
Safety is emphasized, but it is common sense safety, not overweening nanny safety like the kind you might find at a state-run gun range. We are encouraged to drink regularly, and are reminded to maintain good finger discipline while drilling with our empty rifles.
Shortly after the basics, we begin the process of loading blanks. Each and every blank is inspected by a team leader to make sure it is in fact a blank. One by one, I examine .223 and .762 blanks to make sure they are just noisy and not able to punch holes. We load up and move out as the sun reaches its glory.
We have been split into two groups and sent to opposite sides of a very large field, well out of sight of one another. Lt. H and his son are made squad leader and patrol leader respectively. Our “mission” is to secure a cow pond. We will engage an assaulting force. Our lieutenant is responsible for deploying his force to accomplish the mission.
Lacking a fancy system like the military Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES – even the acronym sounds expensive), we have to determine simulated life and death with a simpler method. Each combatant is fitted with color tape on their arms. If you see someone in the field and choose to shoot, you have to call out the color of the taped armband of the person at whom you are shooting. Referees are on hand to pass judgement on whether or not a casualty has been inflicted. It is an imperfect system, essentially a backyard game of cowboys and indians with louder cap guns – but the basics of movement and recon are being effectively practiced even as marksmanship obviously cannot.
So, I am on the fence line, slowly stewing in my own sweat. I begin reflecting on lifestyle choices. Would it really kill me to hit the gym from time to time? Maybe cookies really SHOULD be “sometimes food.” I scan the limited horizon. I recognize that life as a grunt is rough.
In the distance a shot rings out, then a long gap of nothing. As a leader, I cannot kill or be killed, I have to use the men and women of my two fire teams as my weapons. On orders from Lt. H’s son, I move myself and another grunt into deeper cover, mercifully in the shade. There is a large walnut tree and blackberry bushes. I am tempted to snack, but decide instead to position my shooter in the thicket. I will observe and call out targets, taking advantage of my invincible but harmless condition.
Horses move up on my left. They are looking at something. Then they run away. I see hats popping up over the treeline. I cannot make out the armband color, so I whisper a warning to my shooter, and move to signal the patrol leader. A volley of shots ring out in the distance, and the heads I am observing drop back down. A young man with pink armbands moves up, appearing out of nowhere. I point my rifle and yell bang. He shoots a blank at me, and exclaims “You don’t have an armband!” Moving my body to conceal my shooter, I acknowledge his observation. “No I do not.” In the heat of the game my coy answer is meant to give my opponent a brain cramp while my shooter moves in for the “kill.” The kid runs off before being eliminated.
My position revealed, I call out shots to my shooter “Yellow armband, just over the ridge – get ‘em!” My shooter, a wiry man from Illinois, shoots and calls out the color. Dutifully, the man with the yellow armband removes his cap and leaves the field. A few more shots, and soon the referee who is observing us calls out “Endex!” This is a command to cease, clear our weapons and bring it all in to see our commander.
Our team had set up two listening posts, both of which were able to stay largely concealed until the advancing elements had come into easy range of being assaulted. I did not observe those movements, being in the reserve element securing the objective, but I understand the clobbering was pretty bad for the other side.
After a lunch of Meals Ready to Eat, we are back in the field, this time maneuvering through wooded terrain. This time the clobbering was ours to receive as our platoon, split into three elements, were pinned down. We were wiped out as we fumbled a simple road crossing. Someone had a 50 cal they were touching off, and the umpires recognized the mercilessness of that gun. I lost contact with all three leaders in our unit and had no idea what to do. Even though I could see movement along a fenceline, I did not feel free to reveal my position, and my one shooter had a rifle jam. My team is further decimated retreating. Our unit was completely unable to move a meaningful support force, pinned down as we were. We were attritted down to a broken force.
The final engagement was a bit more even. We thought we were being thrown into an ambush, but in the “fog of war” we were able to give as good as we got.
Hot, soaked in sweat and a bit sunburned, nevertheless I found being a grunt engaging, if not fun. The day passed quickly enough. The old farts in the group were able to more or less keep up. I managed to keep my chow down despite doing a few wind sprints (OK who am I kidding, I was doing “breeze sprints.”) The youngsters looked to have a grand time working through the terrain and clashing. Even a middle-aged woman, a compact lady with a merry heart, kept up with the rest of the grunts while lugging a Mini 14 rifle.
Chow, a meal rendered magnificent by both our exertion and the exceptional efforts by our mess team, is pork steak, a massive baked potato and beans. My new battle buddy J thoughtfully grabs my camp chair and puts it near a table and we eat. I tuck in slowly, my fatigue catching up to me, but the tastiness of the meal induces me to eat almost all of it. Any army’s stomach could do worse than the men running mess for the Missouri Militia. I learned that Missouri Militia planning and training starts with meals, and their goal is to be able to support a both a Militia unit deployed in a disaster and a large body of others.
Our team is back out in the field by 10:00 PM, navigating in the dark by compass, finding tent stakes driven in the cow pasture by following an azimuth and counting paces. Our little group does well, each of us taking turns shooting the azimuth while Lt. H, whose pace count proves to be EXTREMELY accurate, steps off the distances. In both the Boy Scouts and in the Army, I have been given instruction on land navigation (the Scouts called it “Orienteering”) but I never did quite “get” it. Watching it done so seamlessly was very interesting and well worth the effort.
I had guard duty from 12:00 to 1:00, so I took in a 30 minute nap. I walked my post, and an hour later, I collapsed into my cot, resting a little better than the night before.
Sore and tired the next morning, light PT worked out a few kinks. Chow was followed by a brief religious service that was offered, but not mandatory. Prayer was offered at each meal, and morning formations included prayers for peace, safety and camaraderie. The only mandatory gestures of reverence were the removal of caps during communal prayer, but those gathered at the JTX were all familiar and comfortable with the traditions of Christianity. One need not be a Christian to be in the Missouri Militia, but if one is actively hostile to traditional expressions of Christian faith, they might find themselves vexed.
Shortly afterward we had hand to hand training. We men of a certain age paired up and grappled like little old ladies, practicing moves at “demonstration speed”, judiciously avoiding hurting one another. The younger guys and some older guys in better shape than I wrestle like tiger cubs. It was actually fun to watch. The instructors were from Illinois, and proved to be patient, pleasant and above all, grown-up.
Overall, that is how I would describe the whole experience. The Missouri Militia is run by grown-ups. Nobody is posing, flexing or fronting. Some are bearded, but I met no one seeking “the bubble reputation.” From the commanding officer Colonel S down to the the lowest squaddie, folks are grown-up about being a militia.
People who have not been in a “disciplined” organization like the military or the Scouts may not fully appreciate what discipline in this context means. Discipline is power under control. Discipline is an answer to chaos. A culture of good discipline actually liberates the participants in that culture from the headaches and drama brought about by people thoughtlessly pursuing their own gripes and agendas.
I am reminded of a revealing incident. After our final force on force engagement we were ordered back to camp. As we marched, I noticed that my team was chatting enthusiastically about the simulated fight. I turned back to the column and said “We are still outside the FOB, let’s maintain noise discipline until we are safely back inside the wire.” It was a small thing. We are in a cow pasture for Pete’s sake, but then again, we were here to practice being a combat unit. I was curious how they would respond. Rather than rolled eyes and snickers, everyone acknowledged the “order” and immediately fell silent. That’s what I mean by grown-up. They had invested the time and effort to gather together and train, and were willing to do so even to the last fiddling detail.
Conversations with members and leaders paint a picture of a militia focused on “training trainers”, to produce leaders who could be ready to support their neighborhood in time of trouble. In my neighborhood are at least a half dozen good men with stout hearts whom I know I could rely upon in a disaster, but I do not know what their competencies are. If there were an emergency, who would fill in the gaps of their knowledge? Among the goals of the FTX was to give each member the knowledge to in turn bring a neighbor or group of neighbors up to speed on things like clearing out a house looking for survivors, or basic first aid. In the great flood of 1993, a single 18 year old kid in ROTC was able to direct the work of building a sandbag dyke in a threatened subdivision. I naturally reported to him and got to work. One need not get into fight with the Feds to see the value of a well-regulated group of men and women. Once upon a time, we called it civil defense.
I have to admit that I felt a bit ridiculous slogging around a cow pasture toting a rifle wearing fatigues that were designed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. I am also chagrined that I feel we actually need a militia for reasons beyond civil defense. I am old, and out of shape. Candidly, I did my time in uniform. It pisses me off that I feel that such a militia is necessary, like chafing at the cost of insurance. One only really appreciates insurance in the event of a loss.
We have a wonderful country, and a wonderful way of life if we choose to embrace it. The freedom we enjoy in this country is rare within the warp and weave of human history. Quite the contrary, it seems we humans will choose tyranny and misery 99 times out of 100 over making the effort of ordered liberty. Our “leave it to the professionals” method of civil defense and protection of liberties has not worked out as hoped.
The common culture has little respect for organizations like the Militia. I feel like admitting I went to a two-day militia training event is a lot like admitting I went to a strip club. Hollywood would readily make a man like Colonel S the villain in a movie even though he and the rest of the cadre are quite decent, the kind of folk who are good friends and neighbors. They carry within their heads useful, practical skills and in their hearts a willingness to serve their community.
Football, baseball and basketball teams all suit up to look alike and train to do tasks together. We accept that teamwork and sportsmanship are valuable. The Boy Scouts are styled after the military, and Scouts pursue skills and knowledge useful in life. Being a Boy Scout made me a better soldier. That a militia member wears a uniform is not necessarily any more odd than a uniform being worn by a soccer player.
A well regulated militia is necessary for a free state. Even though the numbers are small, there is great potential for good in the Missouri Militia in a time of crisis. I think they can be effective well beyond their weight class. By my estimation, my home state indeed has a well regulated militia, as does Illinois. Good men and women of Missouri and Illinois need not be shy in taking part.