Monday, June 23, 2014

GORUCK Challenge Lehigh Valley AAR (after action report), ***this is a "spoiler" for GORUCK Challenge Events***

8:15 PM, Bethlehem, PA, On a beautiful June night, low 70s low humidity. 31 people, many of whom have never met, congregated at the start point, the parking lot across from the start point or what is more commonly known as the "Celticfest field" in the city's historic district.

With our rucks packed down with bricks, around 40lbs each, our team weight, a 31lb I-beam, a weight for the fallen, another 30lb I-beam, an American flag the has flown in Afghanistan and over the Capitol Building and a GORUCK Tough flag. We were immediately under the watchful eye of the Bethlehem Police who were interested in our activity. Upon learning what we we doing it seemed as if we became of bit of entertainment for the current on duty officers as we got multiple visits including the horse mounted division throughout of initial "Welcome Party" with little more then a chant over the loud speaker of one of the officers, "GORUCK!"

A light meet and greet continued into the twilight of the late sunset on the eve of the Summer solstice. At around 9PM, our start time, one of the shadows (volunteer photographers) noticed our Cadre, Cadre Matt, standing in the field in the distance opposite the lot in the field. We all grabbed our gear and moved over to him. We were given our introduction. The Cadre let us know what to expect. The statements, "I know you've read a lot online about this event... It gets much worse..." and"All it takes is all you got." being the definitive standouts. Matt told us about himself, a Recon Marine who has had multiple tours in Iraq and and a round in Afghanistan. He told us he would be adding in his own interjections of things you don't hear on the news and would be trying to bridge the gap between the military and civilian aspects of the most recent wars. He had us go around and introduce ourselves and state why we were here. A very interesting exercise. A gear check was conducted to make sure we had enough weight and water. Our instructions of never putting your rucks down unless told, the team weights and flags to move with us on every movement were put down. The buddy system was emphasized and would be strictly enforced regardless of what you had to. If one goes, two go. Then the good livin' began...

As the last remainder of light departed into the darkness of night, a nasty welcome party was conducted for over an hour and a half.  The 100 yard long field was fully utilized. Our activities consisted  of a back-and-forth on the field; ruck weighted lunges, push ups, 100 yard low crawls, bear crawls,
inch worms, elephant crawls, monkey f*ckers, flutter kicks, ruck 
thrusters, and more. This included moving the team weights and flags with us as we went. I think this worried a few as to the severity of the event as this was no joke of a workout. A little "break" of ten minutes was given to learn everyone's name under threat of more weighted pushups on some already pretty smoked triceps. We failed once, figured out a system and succeeded on our second go around.

Then came the stairs. The Hill to Hill bridge stairs consisting of two long flights of stairs which gained about 60-70 ft leading onto the bridge deck above was used for ruck weighted sprints, bear crawls and crab walks. After, we were again led to the middle of field. Our first "physical fun" time was handed down. Cadre made us line up in two ranks facing each other. We were to lay down alternating head/toe with the opposite rank. We had to "crowd surf" each member from the one end as they place their pack on their stomach and laid back onto the column, only to be crowd surfed to the other end. This was interesting as the different weights and other physical attributes were passed over the column and many a comment was made creating many smiles.

We were formed up and read our orders for the evening. While much of it which was notably lost in Marine/military nomenclature, I think we all got the point. Our movements would be in the spirit of actual missions to create purpose behind our action, even though we would obviously not be in danger at any point.
We are to act as a unit being deployed to assist a local force with their efforts against an unwanted aggressor. We were to train for preinsertion, (the welcome party we just experienced) then assist the group to help them drive out the enemy. Our first mission was to deliver building materials and ammunition to help rebuild a foot bridge that will assist the local military contingent to resupply their forces. We'd move 4.3 mis to deliver these materials to a destroyed bridge down to the west on the D&L trail and had 1 hr and 40 mins to get there. This meant, coupons...

Cadre Matt introduced us to our initial coupons, a couple of 15lb ammo cans. After a quick water fill via the hose outside the Wooden Match restaurant, we were led over to collect our building materials across the street. This ended up being 4,  8ft Rail road ties. With teams of three to four these were picked up and included with all the other items we were already carrying including our rucks.

Now around somewhere around 11:30, we began moving down the pitch black trail with our headlamps on and with the Lehigh Canal on one side, the Lehigh River on the other and the sounds of trains moving slowly past us to our right in the rails yards. Rotating on the railroad ties as the carriers got tired. There were more then a few stops to realign ourselves and get the right personnel under the rails. We worked to keep the team together as some rails fell behind at times. It was our first lesson in teamwork and staying together. As we moved on in the darkness, stopping from time to time the distance became noticeable. It was hard to gauge how far we'd gone but it fell like a long way. It was kind of like walking in a tunnel. There were few visual targets to differentiate your surroundings. The rail's square corners started digging in and you could really start to feel the weight. Then we heard Cadre's alarm go off. He stopped us at what seemed to be a parking area along the trail and reminded us with a nasty set of flutter kicks and other PT, that making time hacks was critical. He also told us we were only .2 miles short of the objective. Probably one of the stops we made to regroup had made the difference. We picked up our "building materials" and delivered them to a parking area under a bridge crossing the Lehigh and received our next orders.

We were to test the river bottom so that we could be sure that the construction would hold the bridge, aka a reason to put us in the water. In the darkness headlamps shining about, we proceeded down a pretty steep hill through some tall grass to the 20ft high river embankment. shuffled down the steep embankment to the waters edge and given orders on how we would proceed into the water. One by one we all trekked out into the pretty cool but not freezing Lehigh River behind a small curved breakwater in the river. It was cold enough to make you notice, as it was almost waste deep. The cadre had us do some squats and thrusters, dipping our rucks in the water on each rep. Then before we were ordered to low crawl it out of the water and up the embankment to the parking area we were made to fully submerge ourselves into the tasty Lehigh River water just down river from Allentown's treatment plant. Once we were all back up the hill, we stopped so the Cadre could address us with some stories about certain experiences that I'll leave for those that attended the event as I feel that these insights are a special part of the experience and sometimes mean a little less when outside the suckzone that is the GORUCK Challenge. A little breeze had kicked up in the 57 degree air, enough to make you feel a little cold, but more then enough that there were a few showing a little shake. We were given our next task...

Our next task was to deliver medical supplies to our sister unit 4 miles away who were just put under attack. We had to get to their fall back position (Salisbury High School). We'd cross the Hamilton St. Bridge and head South. Additional orders were that we could only carry our rucks by the top handle in a farmers walk fashion. This sucked. 40lb alternating one arm farmers walk for 4 miles. Yuck. Approaching mile 3, everyone was feeling their grip start to give. We did get a short break to reload water as we passed a watering location. The last mile was pretty bad as some hills got thrown into the mix, but we made it to the rendezvous with time to spare as the sun was just coming up over the horizon. It was nice to be in the light. It gave a sense that we were making progress. The cadre addressed us again with more stories that made the suck go away when you put the event in perspective as he did.  Google "Major Douglas Alexander Zembiec" for a bit more on what was said. 

Next we were to head to Laubach Park to assist our local companion unit as they had made contact with enemy forces and needed assistance.  Off we went up a hill and over to the park over a couple miles to we set up under a goal post of a football field as Cadre disappeared with a few team members into a wooded area with a pavilion. As they returned we could see they were carrying three large 3-4ft cuts of telephone pole. Our mission was to deliver artillery ammunition to our companion unit. This was simulated via a relay race consisting of carrying the log around the opposite goal post and back. We were split into three teams and competed. A nice little cardio session on top of the anaerobic hell we've been enduring.  After the competition we were given our next assignment.

We were to proceed to the enemy fuel depot and destroy it. This happened to be the Hess station at rt 378 and Black River rd. Another wrench in the mix was we had to carry our bags in a purse carry fashion on our forearms. Half would have to do it until the Cadre told us to switch then the other half would do it. A true bicep smashing. This was a slow trudge up and down some nasty hills, it felt like were were lost but we weren't, just lost in the hope we were close to the objective. We finally came upon that objective and the cadre informed us that we had made it by a small 26 second margin. There were some celebratory yells and the sense of accomplishment after what seems to be a long hike. As we sat there getting a quick rest, all the while under the stare of the impending reality of what we still had to do. South Mountain was between us and home, we had to go over it someway. We were given a small break to regroup, then came the next set of orders.

We were to proceed to the Slovak Cemetary on Williams street on the opposite end of South Mountain to pick up a person of interest about 4 miles away. We had a tight time hack, there would be no quirks, just us, our rucks and the team weights,but we had to MOVE. Off we went down Blackriver Rd up Bingen Rd. and into the open fields of Lehigh's Goodman Campus.  At this point it seemed we hit a bit of a morale low. The toll of the mileage started to pile on our team as we were unknowingly about 18-19mi in. Injuries became more apparent. Some needed to be carried or supported a bit, others just needed to be talked to, maybe with a joke, just to keep there minds right. We proceeded past Lehigh's football stadium out to College Dr. and up the side of South Mountain on one last horrible uphil push to the Cemetery. Upon arriving we were given a little break to get ourselves together. Then Cadre Matt told us the story of Sgt. Walter Geldon, who was a steel worker at the Bethlehem Steel that was gunned down on Omaha Beach on D-day  June 6th,1944, his wedding anniversary. His body was moved back to Bethlehem after his wife died and was buried next to her in the the cemetery by which we sat. A pretty real moment for the event. 

The Last Push. 
We new it was getting late and we were well past 12 hours. Cadre Matt gave us orders to proceed back to the start point passing the blast furnaces and across the Fehy Bridge.  This seemed to go on forever. Down the hill we went and onto 4th st down daly ave and onto 3rd st. past the blast furnaces of the former Bethlehem Steel. It's seemed like the slowest movement of the day as it probably was. We had people barely able to walk and there was no way we were letting them drop at this point. We trudged on, some took on packs of the struggling or injured as needed. We eventually got to the bridge for the last uphill of the bridge span. Across we went and after reaching the opposite side we turned left toward the start point down Lehigh St. Once we got across, about 1/3 of a mile left to the start point, there it was..."STOP! You, you, you and you. You are casualties." barked Cadre Matt. That meant buddy carries. A little F you to finish the event. No one really blinked. We were too close. Up the casualties went onto 4 GORUCK Veterans shoulders and they were moved forward with a few stops every 100ft or so.  We got to the start point passing a motorcycle group across the street who ended up being some thankful veterans, all of who were paying close attention to what we were doing adding to awesomeness of the inevitable finish.  We were told to form up. "Front lean rest!" (push up position). 10 or 15 more, I can't remember, "Down, UP!, Down, UP!..." just to add icing on the cake.  "On your feet!" Cadre Matt gave us some closing words which again I'll leave for your own experience as it can't have the same effect outside of just having finished this. He called the GORUCK Challenge "veterans" over and told them he likes to have them give the new GRC finishers their patch. This was a pretty cool moment as the patches were handed out. Emotions ran high. Joy, relief, pride, it's tough to explain.

The Cadre had us gather around and he said he normally gives one last talk but a member of our group had asked to. John from our group went up and called his girlfriend Michelle over, who had just completed the Challenge. He dug around in his bag, said a few words after collecting himself form the emotion of the moment. This included, "I would carry you around the world if I had to." then he asked her to marry him. All but the few that knew this was going to happen were shocked and there was more then one tear shed in excitement by the group. A great ending to a great event. One for the books.

Off to the Wooden Match cigar bar across the street for some much need fuel and ACRT, (Advanced Cellular Recovery Technology) aka.... Beer.

A new team was formed. I don't think it could have gone much better. This was the essence of the GORUCK Challenge.

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