The Folded Flag – Part 5

The fourth fold. The right triangle was folded straight sideways from right to left, so now it faced the other way. This fold represents our weaker nature.


Something happened that night. I was completing activities that I could barely do when I was wide awake and my body was so sleep deprived I felt like a toy running on low batteries. I was not alone, of course. None of us had received more than a half-hour of sleep, so we were all flagging a little. And flagging is not allowed.

Something changed, though, in my way of thinking that night: Levi Habanero got my respect. I don’t say that he earned my respect, because truth be told, he had earned it the first day we met and had only continued to prove this point over the next five weeks. But I had been holding it back, and on that night, I finally began to give him this deserved respect.

There are two real points to hell night. The first is to, once and for all, weed out those who can’t handle the job from those who really are meant to be pararescuers. I can’t even remember all of the tasks we had to complete that night. I do, however, remember the one that almost ended my career before it started.

I handled most of the tasks without much danger of failure, but as I look back now, I realize Pepper was there the whole time, pushing me on, encouraging me. I didn’t realize at the time the extent to which his support actually helped me get through that night. And it wasn’t just me.

You see, the second real point of hell night is to push the trainees together as a team, to show them that they cannot survive alone. It’s as much a mental test as a physical one. Being a PJ is not a one-man show. You have to know you can count on your buddies, and you have to be willing to admit you need their help. Pepper understood this. And that night, it was mostly by his efforts that we really began to pull together. If one man failed at a task, everyone had to repeat it. Left to our own, most of us would have been more apt to attack a man who failed than anything. We were cold, exhausted to an unhealthy state, hungry and sore, and any man that increased the level of difficulty in our experience was to be viewed as an enemy. Not by Pepper, though. Rather than blaming others, he encouraged them and he challenged us to do the same, so that by the end of the night, we were all succeeding and you could hear our shouts of support.

Our final task was the one that almost broke me: a swim in a reservoir that was so cold it really should have been ice. We were ordered to strip down, and handed wetsuits. We didn’t put them on, however, but rather were told to make our way into the water and dip them in the water before donning them. By the time I managed to climb into the wetsuit, I was shaking so hard I barely had control over my muscles. To my chagrin, my teeth started chattering. Pepper moved over beside me. I expected a word of encouragement from him; he’d been handing them out all night. Instead, he moved very close to me and said quietly,

“Suck it up, Thatcher. This is just a taste of what it’s really going to be like. If you can’t handle this, you should just quit now.” That was the first time I had ever heard Pepper talk like a military man. It would have made me laugh to hear these words from Pepper, if the words themselves did not make me so mad. It was what I needed, though. I straightened and spat a curse word at him. But I stopped shivering as I drew myself up and glared at him. Pepper smiled and nodded. He seemed to realize, though, that I was going to need more support through the whole thing. He swam beside me and every time I would start flagging, he was right there to remind me. At one point he yelled,

“Come on, Thatch. ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!’”

“Stop quoting the Bible at me!” I shouted back, knowing I had heard those words cited as Scripture before. It did the trick, though, and I was able to finish.

Back at the school we immediately headed to a medical terminology class, without any chance to sleep. I knew that that class was going to be harder than just about anything we had already endured, because we were going to be sitting still, and not allowed to nod off. I found myself looking for Pepper, and positioned myself next to him. He gave me a slight look of surprise as I slid into the seat. I just smiled a little awkwardly. I knew that I was going to need his help to make it through the class. And for once, I had no problem admitting it.

– S.D. Bullard


~ by sdbullard on April 19, 2012.

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