By: Andrew McKenna; Transformations Client Services Rep., Veteran Marine
Night Land-Navigation Test, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia
“Get your stinkin’ ass up Marine and go navigate!” My barracks roommate Martin, a wise-guy from New Jersey, was standing over me, totally messing with me—a big grin on his face. I had fallen asleep on my rack, trying to get a few winks before it was time to step-off.
The night land-navigation test at Quantico was a daunting experience for me as a new Marine. Walking from one designated point in the woods to another designated point in the woods, and recording a number written on a box, should not be that difficult. After all, skilled instructors give you a map, a compass, and a protractor; they even teach you how to do it. It should not be that difficult. But it was for me, a mere city boy with no sense of direction.
People picture Marines as young hard-chargers who, when handed a task, just magically know how to master it. Marines are expected to just get things done, to accomplish the mission. Expectations, a tall order indeed.
I always put incredible pressure on myself to succeed. To me, failure seemed worse than death; later in life, I would realize this line of thinking was disastrous for me. Finding emotional balance is what saved me from myself. Anyhow, failing tonight ultimately meant going home.
The pressure was on. My roommates, Martin and McCrea, gave me a nice send-off. Both had passed the first time, so they were in the barracks getting hammered and saying things like, “We rented you a seeing-eye dog to use,” and “Here’s a bag of bread crumbs so you can find your way back.” All jokes these two.
After plotting the heading and distance to my objective, I stepped off from my starting point. It was a rainy November in Quantico and the temperature was 30 degrees. Oh, and no moon—I could not see my frozen hand in front of my frozen face.
My first leg of navigation included having to cross a rushing stream. When I entered the ice-cold stream, I sank down chest-deep. The fast current took me at least 30 meters downstream, to my right. Most people would have said to the east, but my sense of direction is so bad, I just say to my right. When I emerged, my whole orientation to the objective was off by what I guessed was a country mile. This is going to suck.
Trying to accurately guess my exact location and re-plotting my heading seemed impossible. I started to go into panic mode—thinking of how bad this would be if I failed again. The career consequences were real after all, not to mention the embarrassment, shame, and looking like a fool. Everything started to hit me at once. I needed an escape. I need a beer.
I literally prayed to God at that moment to help me survive this. I am not a deeply religious person, so this was more of a foxhole prayer—a Hail Mary. I clawed my way up the bank, secured my stuff, and kept moving.
I somehow completed my first three challenges by trudging through 4,000 meters of dense brush and steep terrain, ending up near boxes with numbers on them–hoping they were the right ones; I wouldn’t know until I turned my test card in at the end for grading. On to the final objective. I can do this.
With one confident frozen foot in front of the other, I took about 30 steps. Suddenly, I lost my footing and fell down a steep embankment, hitting every stump and rock as I flew out of control down the 150-foot drop, gear flying everywhere in the darkness. My body came to rest on a log, the breath knocked out of me. I stared up at the dark sky and squeezed out the words: “Really God? Come on,” my voice sounding exactly like Marlon Brando in the Godfather.
The back pain from the fall was excruciating, I had heard a crack when I landed. Tears ran down my face and froze in place. The combination of pain and frustration and fear of screwing this up again was too much for my brain to comprehend. Feelings, never physical injuries, always created the most pain for me.
Something inside of me—probably my ever-present fear of failure—shot to the surface. You are a Marine, Andrew. Are you going to quit? Give-up? My legs moved forward—without a compass, without a map, virtually nothing left in the tank. The negative self-talk was relentless, rapidly firing darts at my soul.
Then something miraculous happened. Without any conscious sense of time or space, I came to the edge of a small clearing. A few feet away a metal pole stood, waist-high. Fastened on top was an old ammo can, stenciled A-17. Was this my spot? The last leg of the night land navigation test at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia? A-17. I had lost my writing stick, so I couldn’t record it on my card. I just muttered A-17 and headed right, hoping to find a road. I emerged from the woods and saw a HUMVEE parked 50 feet away. A Marine Captain emerged. “Where the F have you been McKenna? We almost sent out the dogs for you.”
I looked at him, handed him the test card.
“You’re missing one,” he grunted.
I mumbled A-17.
“You passed, McKenna.”
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