Op-Ed: The Tar Paper Shacks Of Camp Mackall
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The Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) or, informally, the Q Course is the initial formal training program for entry into the United States Army Special Forces. Phase I of the Q Course is Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS), which takes place at Camp Mackall, North Carolina.
October 1987 I entered the Special Forces Qualification Course – SFQC, or simply “the ‘Q’ Course”. They shipped us out to this little piece of Hell known as Camp Mackall where the training cadre met us with grenade simulators, a “smoke session” that involved at least ten thousand pushups right there on the side of the road and a two mile bag drag into the cantonment area.
I remember being tired, hungry and scared shitless. A fellow paratrooper I entered the Q-course with just turned 21 and spent all his money downtown the night before. He didn’t survive Day One.
Back then Camp Mackall only had three buildings; classroom, supply shed and head shed. Everything else was tarpaper shacks or GP medium tents. No heat in the winter, no a/c in the summer, it was a primitive existence. Showering was standing naked outside when it was raining.
I didn’t even have a bunk at first. First time I walked into a tarpaper shack there were only a few folded cots piled on the floor. I grabbed a folded cot, the last one left. It was all torn up and useless. I was so bone-weary, tired on a primal level, I just threw my gear on the floor and slept there.
I remember thinking right before I went to sleep at the end of my first full day out there that this was harder than any day at the ranch where I worked the year before I joined the Army.
Sleep? Let me rephrase that. I was always awake at some level, waiting for the cadre to boot in the door to the hut and roust us out for another day of punishment. I think the only real sleep I got was during Survival Week, when they left us alone to starve in the woods.
There was a method to their madness; the first ten days were basically a ‘gut check’ – to see who really wanted to be there – and to put some miles on our feet, toughen us up for the land navigation and patrolling training to come.
Land Navigation was a Rite of Passage; a twenty-four hour Easter egg hunt over thirty miles of woods and swamp. If you didn’t find all your points, you were out of there. A medic offered me a map with all the land nav points marked on it. I was sorely tempted to take it but had no clue how to conceal it from the cadre. First thing they did when we made it to the cantonment area was go through all our stuff. I’m really glad I didn’t take him up on the offer.
I got infected blisters on the balls of both feet from all that marching. The medic told me he was going to inject Tincture of Benzoin beneath the skin of both feet, to adhere the skin to the raw flesh. I asked if it would hurt? “Like your first night in prison,” he grinned.
I hope to never feel pain like that ever again.
Everybody dreaded early morning wake-up call – a grenade simulator out in the quad – then PT, LOTS and LOTS of PT. It stands for Physical Training but we called it Physical Torture. It didn’t matter rain or shine, we were out there doing it, followed by either a run or a speed march with fifty pound rucks through the ankle-sucking sands of the Carolina Sandhills. My calves scream just thinking about it. I remember doing PT in the rain, then changing uniforms, hanging my wet uniform up to dry. When I returned my uniform was not dry, it was frozen on the line. It remained that way until I left.
Every morning after PT there was a long line of people lining up to quit. They’d play “Another One Bites the Dust” over the loud speakers as folks quit. My best memory was volunteering for garbage detail after we had a hot meal. I got to eat all the scraps others threw away while taking out the trash.
Then there were the Airfield runs, if we eff’d up as a group. Mackall Airfield is a giant equilateral triangle, two miles long on each side.
Running that airfield is PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE – you can see the end of the leg you’re on and it seems like you’ll never get there. Then you turn a corner and do it all over again. You never want to do the airfield twice.
To get rid of the stragglers on rucksack marches and airfield runs they’d close the gates to the cantonment area and anyone dragging ass was bounced out of there, the Bag Drag of Shame. They had this trick were they’d run us through the gate, then straight through the compound and out the BACK gate and down the road – dozens would fall out and quit right then and there. God knows how I managed to hang in there even though I was dying. Smoked hamstrings for breakfast, I remember them well…
I remember all of this like it was yesterday. Bone chilling cold, searing heat, heavy rucksacks and long ruck marches with the straps cutting into our shoulders. Too tired to sleep it seemed, pain and hunger were our constant companions. Hunger, hunger, hunger – how the hell can anyone forget hungry? – and laughing through the pain with the best bunch of crazy guys on Earth.
Looking back I’d do it all over again, if that’s the price to pay to get into the most exclusive fraternity in the world.