22. FUEL BOMBS AND THE MYSTERY GRENADE
The army has some shitty ideas when it comes to having fun: mandatory unit functions like Christmas parties, barbecues, and various other things they can think of to force you into spending time with people you generally dislike. Kind of like a holiday at your in-laws. Only with guns and little bottles of dip spit lying all over the place.
When you’re deployed, they really can’t make you spend any more time with the people that, in all probability, you hate more than the Taliban. So, of course, they encourage you to go out to the gun range. The only problem was, we didn’t have one. We would have to find one.
Camp Spartan was the size of a basketball court. It didn’t have a washing machine let alone the facilities to build a gun range. So we did the most American thing we could think of: found on a map a random mountainside that looked uninhabited. We decided that it was going to be our range.
I was never a huge fan of going out to the range. It required loading up hundreds to thousands of rounds of ammo, waiting hours upon hours in the hot sun for your turn to shoot, and then spending even more time cleaning your weapon than you ever did firing it. That hatred probably had a lot to do with why I wasn’t a splendid marksman.
I was always able to qualify on the army’s marksmanship test, but only just. I had never fired a gun until I enlisted at seventeen. Before then, they were some mystical thing I got to play with in video games or something that killed bad guys in action movies.
Once I actually got to use one, I didn’t think it was as awesome as all the movies made it seem. The army never convinced me that shooting guns was fun. I always just saw it as part of my job. Kind of like how I had to stand around in pointless formations or tuck my pants into my boots.
We set out through the city with the backs of our trucks loaded down with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Because of the MATV’s horrible design with no covered trunk area, it was all bouncing around completely unsecured.
We drove out of the city, off the roads, and into the winding mountain trails. The roads were crumbling, narrow, and in a lot of places totally unfit for the vehicles we were driving.
“Why do you look like someone killed your dog?” Slim turned and asked me.
“Our one day since we’ve been in this country that we don’t have a mission planned, we have to go out and shoot for no reason,” I complained.
“Sorry, am I cutting into your valuable jerk-off time?” Slim smiled.
“You know damn well you’re cutting into the whole squad’s.” I feigned outrage.
Our mission tempo had been insane since we’d gotten to Spartan Base. Everyone was running around like maniacs trying to keep the simmering, boiling, cauldron of rage that was Kandahar under control and we were failing miserably. To get a day off was incredibly rare. So Slim, of course, volunteered us to go out and shoot at a damn mountainside.
“Cheer up, asshole! It’s fun!” Slim smiled.
“People keep telling me that,” I said under my breath.
“Look at the bright side, we get to fire off the mystery grenade!”
The legend of the mystery grenade started when we moved out of the Reserve. Slim found a strange unmarked white grenade in a busted up box when we were moving. Normally, there are only a few types of grenades we can fire from our mounted grenade launchers. We knew what they all looked like even without the markings. But none of us had seen anything like the mystery grenade before.
We asked around Grizzly Base and Dealer Base, but no one recognized it. We used our limited internet abilities to try to find it online but failed. We really had no idea what it did.
Slim had carried it in his truck ever since he found it.
“Consider my day brightened.” I smiled.
We pulled up to a desolate mountainside that, despite minutes of diligent planning, clearly had a village on the other side of it. No one seemed to care, and we started unloading boxes of ammunition. We gathered around behind Slim’s truck, and Gunny started giving us some quick rules for our impromptu range.
“Don’t be stupid. You guys know how to use your weapons,” he said and wandered off. Gunny was always a man of few words, but that was surprising. Back when he was our company operations NCO, he was a serious hardass.
He was strictly by the book and would absolutely never falter from it. Even once he became our platoon sergeant, he would never bend the rules. He used to yell at me for not wearing kneepads to my tower guard shifts. Yet here he was, surrounded by thousands of rounds of ammunition and explosives, and he was telling us to just do whatever we wanted. As long as we didn’t accidently kill ourselves.
I loaded up my M240B machine gun. It was a big, hulking machine gun that we would both mount on our trucks and carry with us on patrol. It was one of the only weapons that I would qualify regularly with at an above average level. It was also one of the only weapons in the army I really had fun with while shooting.
Grandpa, Slim, and Perro all began to fire off grenades from their launchers. They impacted the dirt about one hundred meters away with a dull thump and a puff of dust and smoke. Hand grenades were probably the most disappointing weapon I ever used.
Being an ignorant kid who played a lot of Call of Duty, I thought they made some big impressive explosion and a fireball. In reality, they were kind of loud and just kicked up some dust. They would kill and wound everyone within a few feet, but they just weren’t impressive to watch in action.
Cali started firing off rounds from his rifle, and Guapo followed suit. There wasn’t really any method to anything anyone was doing. They were just randomly firing off guns at a mountainside. We didn’t even have any targets set up. That quickly got boring for everyone so Slim got an idea. I knew from experience that was never a good thing.
“I bet you can’t fire the two-forty from your shoulder,” he wagered.
The M240B is supposed to be fired lying down or when the gun is mounted on a vehicle. I was the biggest guy in our entire platoon and one of the largest in the company. This was mostly a byproduct of having no social life and spending all my time either lifting weights in a gym or punching people in bars.
“Dude, I won’t just shoot it standing up. I’ll fire it while running forward,” I said.
“You won’t do it!” Perro called out.
I picked up the heavy weapon and waited for everyone else to stop firing. I pulled back its stubby little charging handle. I shouldered the big bastard and let her rip.
It kicked like a damn mule, and I lowered my shoulder and ran forward as fast as I could. The machine gun slammed against my shoulder the whole way. I didn’t stop firing until my belt ran dry and the entire barrel was burning. It coughed out acrid smoke. My body still vibrated for a few seconds after my gun went silent.
“Suck it!” I cheered back at them. “I think I even hit the mountain once or twice.” I laughed. I was careful carrying the weapon back to the trucks as the barrel had become red hot. Gunny was laughing along with us. Slim took that as permission to come up with even worse ideas. Slim jumped into the back of one of our trucks and pulled out a five-gallon fuel can. It had recently been filled to the brim just in case we had to bribe any Afghan police.
Slim ran out toward the mountain, dropped the can of fuel on the ground, and ran back. “Let’s blow this mother fucker up!” He laughed.
“I don’t think that’ll work like that, man,” I said.
“It will if we use tracers,” Slim said. He had obviously thought this through a little bit. A tracer round is a special round that is tipped with a tiny pyrotechnic charge so that when fired you can see it glow as it flies through the air. Everyone loaded up magazines full of tracer rounds and prepared to fire at the little tan fuel can sitting out in the distance.
Slim started taking pot shots at the can. He hit it and sent it spinning around on one of its corners. Nothing happened.
“I told you, man. This shit isn’t like an action movie,” I chided Slim.
We were all kind of disappointed, but not too surprised. We showed our disappointment the only way soldiers know how: by unloading on the poor defenseless little fuel can. The ground around the can exploded with gunfire as we shot without aiming. The can was hit and danced around in every which direction. Then it happened: the fuel can exploded in flames.
We all cheered and shot at it even more. The fireball kept climbing into the air. Our firing tore the can into shreds, and the fireball vanished as fast as it came.
We were quickly running out of dangerous ways to entertain ourselves, so Slim pulled out the mystery grenade.
I felt nervous. It wasn’t the same kind of nervous I had felt before getting shot at, or the same nervous feeling you get before taking a test. It was different, like that feeling you get as you make a move on a girl. It could either be incredibly awesome or totally disappointing.
Slim loaded the grenade into his launcher. He held his rifle at about waist height and fired the grenade into the distance. We waited with thundering hearts and abated breath. It felt like forever for that little white bastard to sail through the air and hit something. There was a quiet poof noise, and white smoke drifted into the air. After all that waiting and suspense, it was a fucking smoke grenade.
“Are you fucking serious? That was more disappointing than a Korean hooker,” Slim yelled at the smoke.
“You need to find better hookers,” Perro nodded.
“Well, ain’t that a bitch.” I shook my head.
Before I saw what was happening, Slim loaded another grenade into his launcher. His aim crept dangerously close to the ground right in front of us. He fired. The grenade landed maybe fifteen feet out in front of us and exploded. The shock wave shook me to my bones. I felt the shrapnel and rocks from the explosion whistle past my ears. Everyone ducked and ran for cover a bit too late.
“What the fuck was that, asshole?” I screamed at Slim. My ears were ringing and my heart racing from nearly being murdered via grenade by my own squad leader.
“I was trying to skip the grenade across the ground.” Slim looked surprised that it didn’t work.
“It arms after ten feet, you mother fucker!” Grandpa yelled at him.
“More impressive than the mystery grenade.” Slim smiled.
“Though less impressive than your mom,” I joked. The guy almost killed me, but the asshole was still one of my best friends.
We all laughed it off, even Gunny. Our hard-bitten platoon sergeant didn’t seem to care that four of his soldiers almost accidently killed themselves. Slim had broken the only real rule that Gunny had laid out for us.
After our near-death experience, we decided to call it a day. We never told anyone else about the mystery grenade. Or about how grenades do not skip across the ground like stones on water when fired out of a grenade launcher. Like that was something we had to do fucking research on.
Surprisingly, Gunny never brought any of that up again. It was probably because he knew he was an accessory to most of what we did and he would get in almost as much trouble as the rest of us. Gunny may not have gotten any of us in trouble, but that was the last random mountainside gun range for the Hooligans.