By RU Special Guest Dallas Dunn Attending a job fair soon?...
Blackout Drive by Kelly Crigger
“Why don’t Officers drive ‘emselves around?” Specialist Barlow asked, yanking me back across the fine line between consciousness and dreamland.
“What?” I said.
“Hows come ya’ll don’t drive yourselves round? I mean, wouldn’t it free up guys like me to do Army stuff? Don’t seem real ‘fficient now, Sir.”
I was seconds away from dozing as we drove across Eastern Washington state after a training exercise, so it’s probably good that the kid kept talking to me since I was the TC. Besides the fact that he was a top notch troop, Barlow’s Louisiana drawl was entertaining, so I enjoyed his company as my driver. But he had a point. Officers were good enough to drive cars when not in uniform, why couldn’t we drive our own HUMVEE?
The correct answer was Officers needed to concentrate on the things that had a big impact – leading troops, making decisions, communicating intent, and trying to read a map but failing abjectly so guys like Barlow had someone to make fun of. But he didn’t want to hear any of that. He wanted a juicy tidbit of info that only the Battalion XO’s driver would know; an “Area 51” secret that I felt beholden to bestow, so I recalled a story to him to take up some of the long drive that lay ahead.
Even in an open desert, navigating at night is like getting a girl’s bra off when you’re seventeen and too excited to think, much less concentrate, on those tiny damn clips that were designed by a locksmith. At least with a bra you know there’s a reward for your efforts; a veritable pot ‘O gold at the end of the rainbow. For an Observer / Controller (O/C) at the National Training Center, navigating across a desert at night only ends with more work when you finally arrive at your destination.
An O/C was treated as a responsible adult with a great amount of levity. We were expected to be masters of the desert, so we didn’t have any drivers and our vehicles were bereft of windshields or doors. Somehow this was supposed to make us one with the Mojave, but all it really did was constantly expose us to its biting cold winds and soul-crushing oppressive heat. Physically it was challenging, but oh-so-rewarding on every other level.
I was driving my modified HUMMVEE near the whale gap during my second rotation in one of the darkest nights I’d ever seen. A Battalion from the 187th Infantry Regiment (the famed Rakassans) were preparing for an air assault mission on a night that seemed like eight feet up Satan’s ass it was so dark.
The Rakassans were mustered in small clumps over a huge Landing Zone (LZ) preparing to be picked up and I was on my way to their Battalion TOC to observe their battlestaff in operation and offer constructive criticism. I was wearing my AN-PVS 14 Night Vision Goggles, or NODS for short, but they didn’t work very well.
What the fuck is going on with these things? I wondered intermittently. It seemed that every time I switched my lights to blackout drive the NODS would wash out. Blackout drive turned on a small bulb on the front of the vehicle that emitted just enough light so the NODS would pick it up and illuminate the immediate road ahead. It was meant to keep the vehicle tactically concealed while giving the driver enough visibility to avoid anything in the road, like coyotes or rakassans. But for some reason every time I turned blackout drive on, my NODS would get bright and become almost impossible to see through. It was a weird proportional relationship that baffled me.
On a steel bracket in the middle of my truck was a squawk box that monitored two nets-the Battalion command net and the O/C net. With my attention focused solely on driving across a barren desert and not running over troops, I paid little attention to it, though. Some tidbits made it to my brain, like, “Someone doesn’t know his left from his right,” and “looks like we got a newbie.” It wasn’t until I heard my team leader ask, “Which idiot is driving across the LZ right now?” that I got concerned. I immediately stopped and waited.
“Okay, the idiot just stopped,” he said.
He can’t be talking about me, I thought.
“Now that you’ve figured out we’re talking about you…”
Oh shit. He is talking about me.
“Turn them off!”
I don’t know what he means.
“Any day now, cherry,” someone added.
“Don’t these newbies have to take a driving lesson before we put them behind the fucking wheel?” an NCO interjected.
It felt like God and every OC in the desert was staring at me, pointing, laughing, and I had no idea why.
“Blackout drive, shithead!” my boss yelled.
But I am in blackout drive, I thought. My fingers felt the light switch to make sure and I took my NODS off to confirm it. I am in…
And then I saw it-two headlights beamed a supernova of shame across the desert from my HUMMVEE! They shone like gazillion watt coastal lighthouses guiding ships into port as soldiers scurried about in the light like it was buy one whore, get one free night on the Las Vegas strip. It was so bright that bears emerged from their hibernation as a shower of ridicule and obscenity filled my squawk box. In a panic I started flipping switches and pressing buttons to turn them off, which resulted in nothing.
“Top switch goes left, dumbfuck!” Someone commanded as a group of Rakassans crept toward me with bayonets in their mouths to stab my lights out. Their Battalion Chaplain enlightened me to the fact that Jesus Christ’s middle name was “fucking.”
Something clicked under my fingers and the lights went off, earning a chorus of congratulatory remarks over the radio. I sat in the driver’s seat contemplating what to do next and believe me, ‘eat an MRE and don’t move until morning’ was at the top of the list. But I couldn’t because I was still in the middle of a Landing Zone and an air assault was about to begin. I had to move, and now. Don’t be William Wallace, I thought. Just beg for mercy.
Before I could act a voice came over the box.
“You’ve figured out the unlock button, James Bond. Now push the top one to the left.”
I ran my fingers over the confusing light levers. Believe it or not, HUMMVEEs have three levers that protruded from the main switch box. One points up, one points down and left and the third points down and right. It takes a special combination of unlocking the bottom right one and pushing the top one to the RIGHT to turn on the service drive-the bright white headlights that make cockroaches run. Unlocking the bottom right switch while turning the top switch to the LEFT turns on the blackout drive-the tiny bulb that barely emits anything unless the driver is wearing NODS.
Left=blackout drive. Right=service drive.
The realization that you are an idiot is heavy. I wanted to slump my head over the steering wheel like JFK driving through Dallas, but had to put it aside and get off the LZ before a Blackhawk landed on me like the wicked witch of the north. When the voice on the squawk box talked me through how to operate the lights correctly, I discovered the switches were specifically designed to make turning on the service drive easier than turning on the blackout drive. It actually took two hands to turn on blackout drive instead of only one to turn on service drive. I was a moron, but in my defense the vehicle had not been adequately moron-proofed by the manufacturer.
“And that,” I told young Specialist Barlow, “is why Officers don’t drive military vehicles.”