The Buddy System

Onward, Christian soldier


“Fourth Platoon . . . move out!”

My misery meter was already pegged and we were barely off the asphalt pad. The dreaded 15-mile road march had officially begun. Drill Sergeant Velasquez assured us that by day’s end his female basic trainees would have their tents pitched in the woods, a trench dug around the camp and be crawling on their bellies under barbed wire with live rounds whistling overhead.

Little did we know that the weekend would bring drenching rains, which served as our hygiene for the three-day bivouac. We would discover that canvas tents do not repel water and drip like faucets all night long. And we would return to our barracks with bright red patches of poison ivy from head to toe.

Buried in Camo

August 1988. Fort Dix, New Jersey, was a sweltering pit of humid wretchedness. We marched in formation past the post swimming pool, stealing glances at the children splashing in the cool blue water. The contrast was agonizing: we in our summer-weight BDUs (battle dress uniforms), wool socks and clunky black boots, and the children in their swimsuits and bare feet. I noted the sweat beginning its familiar path down the sides of my face and the small of my back.

Once we left the paved streets and entered a dirt path, we were allowed to break formation and walk at a comfortable pace. Our ALICE packs (all-purpose lightweight individual carrying equipment) bulged with provisions. Canteens, flashlights and trenching tools hung from our web gear. We adjusted our Kevlar helmets and shifted the weight of our M-16 rifles in our hands. I felt grateful that, after weeks of endless marching, my boots finally started to feel less stiff and the soles of my feet no longer burned. I sighed deep within my soul, resigning myself to a very long ordeal.

At 29, I was searching for the stability and structure lacking at home. I was unhappily married to a “chrino”—Christian in name only—and searching desperately for a career that would fill the void in my life. On a whim, I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude exam and soon found myself pledging eight years to the Colorado Army National Guard.

My plan for basic training was simple: bury myself in a sea of camouflage and volunteer for nothing. Wizened veterans back home warned me that show boaters and brown nosers were duly rewarded. That advice frequently saved me from getting stuck with unsavory chores. One day the drill sergeant asked who could “drive a stick,” and all of the eager beavers missing their cars back home waved their hands in the air. I chuckled smugly when those same girls, some barely out of high school, were handed brooms and ordered to sweep the floor while the rest of us happily exited.

Reluctant Leader

My determination to keep a low profile ended on the first day I was assigned to the 4th Training Platoon. Sergeant Velasquez studied the roster and decided since I was the oldest and highest ranking recruit with some college experience, I was assigned to be the platoon guide.

I discovered, to my abject horror, that a platoon guide calls cadence for the troops, marching them to the mess hall, classrooms, running track, rifle range and everywhere else a platoon marches in the course of an 18-hour day. I was apoplectic at the thought of leading all those “I don’t know but I been told” ditties from sun up to o’dark thirty. I never could carry a tune, especially at the top of my lungs.

As a reluctant and resentful leader, I developed a crusty outer shell. I had to enforce the rules and issue orders in an authoritative tone. As the designated buzz kill, I was not very popular with the rank and file. Being 10 years older than most of the other trainees, I found the Gen-X drama utterly exasperating. I had little patience for whining, and I often lashed out at the girls who questioned my decisions.

From day one, Sergeant Velasquez warned us that all of our physical training—sit-ups, push-ups, running and calisthenics—would serve us well on the 15-mile road march. He also dropped less than subtle hints that we were to look after our buddies. We were constantly reminded of our responsibility to show up in formation properly dressed and fully equipped and to check that the soldier next to us was prepared as well.

The Extra Mile

I often found myself alone at the outer edge of the group, so as we settled into a comfortable stride, I mentally tuned away from the chattering around me and escaped into the bubble of my own thoughts. I was preoccupied with finishing training and only occasionally felt the pang of having very few friends.

As the march progressed, a handful of girls began to lag behind. As they slowed, others fell back to encourage them to keep going. Some of the cheerleaders offered to let the laggers hold on to straps dangling from their packs to help the weary ones keep pace. One girl approached me from behind.

“Private Clark, could I hang onto one of your straps for awhile? I’m getting so tired.” I snapped back, “No. Sorry. It’s all I can do to carry my own weight.”

Her countenance fell even further, and she shuffled away to ask someone else to help her. I was surprised at how cold my response seemed even in my own ears, but I kept telling myself that I could not risk getting bogged down by someone who could barely keep up.

As I looked around to see how the helpers were faring, I noticed a curious thing. At first glance, the sight of the slower girls holding on to the straps of the ones striding ahead struck me as comical. But focusing in, I saw that the stronger girls did not seem to bear any undue hardship. The straps were not drawn taut but hanging slack from the hands of the ones in tow.

The laggers appeared to draw strength from that small act of camaraderie. Many of the helpers spontaneously burst into song and cadence to break the monotony of the march. I had to admit that even I was energized by their enthusiasm.

As I walked along, I grew more ashamed of the way I treated the girl who had asked me for help. I knew that those around me had heard the exchange and probably lost any respect they may have had for me. The encouragers demonstrated true leadership. I had failed not only as a leader and a role model but, most importantly, as a witness for Christ.

Roman soldiers in Jesus’ day were accustomed to commandeering civilians (and their mules and oxen) to carry their military gear for a mile at a time. Jesus told His disciples that if they should be pressed into service, to go an extra mile as well. Jesus knew that some resented this obligation, considering it oppressive and unfair. But the lesson He was driving home is that the gospel is more readily accepted in the context of relationship. As Christians walk alongside the people they are serving, there is opportunity to explain why they labor with a cheerful attitude. Seeds are sown for the Kingdom after one mile; all the more after two!

The army pounds away at trainees to learn the buddy system. The lone wolf is never praised for finishing first and leaving his or her buddy behind. Everyone reaches their destination together. There is no first prize; the reward is everyone arrives safely and survives. I missed the whole point of that march, and perhaps the majority of the eight weeks of training: to look after my buddy.

I finished the 15-mile road march deeply humbled but infinitely wiser. My fatigue was quickly forgotten, the poison ivy subsided and the blisters on my feet have long since healed. But I will always remember how I squandered an opportunity to demonstrate servant leadership. Like Peter at the point of realizing he denied the Savior three times, I cringe when I think about the day that I failed to walk the extra mile with a weary traveler.

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