ALICE pack pain was coming my way in the hot desert town of Niland where the Naval Special Warfare Desert training compound is located.
Niland is the kind of shite-hole desert town you see in movies like No Country for Old Men or maybe a twisted Tarantino film about meth tweakers in hot sands.
There I was, a Navy SEAL trainee, it was summer and hotter than hell, hitting 115°F most days. It sometimes got so hot out there that we couldn’t put explosive blasting caps in the ground in our demolition exercises, because the heat of the ground would set them off.
What Is an ALICE Pack?
It is another acronym created by the military to simplify things. It stands for, All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment or (ALICE) pack.
The ALICE pack system has the following components:
- Cover, Field Pack
- Field Pack with liners
- Metal Frame
- Shelf with pockets for Cargo Support
- Lower back strap
- Waist strap
- Shoulder straps with quick release
It is basically the father of the MOLLE pack system that would explode post-2001.
The ALICE Pack was standard military issue since 1973. If you can believe it, it is still in use today!
In all fairness, it’s a quality little pack and quite useful. But it can also be a tool used for punishment as you will see below.
Bring on the Pain, ALICE Pack!
They put us through our paces in land nav and land warfare exercises, simulated drills where we’d come up against enemy contact and have to fight our way out of it. We also did some advanced demolition work there as part of an assault package: we’d go into a mock village, stage a prisoner snatch, shoot up the place, then set our C-4 charges everywhere and pull smoke on those charges—and we’d have fifteen minutes to get out of there before it all blew.
At Niland we were introduced to some of the heavier machine guns, the .50 caliber, and .60 caliber, and we also got some practice on the Carl Gustav, an 84 mm recoilless rifle handheld rocket launcher, and got to fire some LAW (light antitank weapon) rockets. Although we mostly used live fire, for some exercises we used a laser setup called Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), which fires blanks, a little like playing paintball. We used this system when we went up against each other in teams in OppFor (Oppositional Force) exercises. The focus, though, was not on that kind of force-on-force situation. Going in en masse and taking down a known force, like charging a machine-gun nest, is not a typical SEAL mission. We’re not the marines. Our preferred methodology is to insert ourselves in the middle of the night when no one’s looking, hit them, and get out. We’re not really there to fight; we’re there to tip the scales. At Niland, our focus was on demolition — and on getting a taste of what it takes to survive in the most godawful, inhumanly hot conditions imaginable.
Near the end of our time at Niland, they took us out in the desert a little before noon for a six-hour land nav course. It was miserable out, August in the Niland desert. We spent the day roaming about that burned-Mars landscape like post-apocalyptic scavengers, following the preset course and racking up points, finally arriving back at camp exhausted and dehydrated.
“Drink some water, guys,” the instructors told us, “and get some rest. In a few hours, we’re doing a little run.”
Turned out it wasn’t just a “little run.” It was a 12-mile timed run with weapons and full rucksack loaded with 50 pounds of gear. We started in after dinner, about eight in the evening, running along an aqueduct road. Running, not walking. The time we had to beat was no joke, and in Niland in August, eight o’clock is still damned hot.
Some of the guys were really good runners, and they were out in front right away. I’m a middling runner, not the best and not the worst; I was more or less in the middle of the pack. We got to mile 3, then mile 4, and I expected we would soon start seeing our fastest guys coming back the other way after hitting the 6-mile turnaround point. But we saw nobody. We hit mile five. Still no one coming the other way.
Then finally we saw one, and then a few more — but only a few. Something’s wrong, I thought. There should be more guys coming back.
We soon found out what was wrong: Our guys were dropping in their tracks right on the road, and the medics were pulling them off to the side (where we wouldn’t see them) and getting IV bags into them. On torture runs like this, I had learned, you need to drink water nonstop. I was pounding the stuff down. I was not going to get dehydrated.
I reached the turnaround point, and there was Disco Stella, my BUD/S classmate, and Team Three teammate. He looked bad, and I could tell he was hurting. Stella was a faster runner than me, but right now he was slowing down. We set off on the return leg, running together.
“I’m hurting, man,” he panted. I start to worry about whether he was going to make it. Normally he would be way out ahead of me, but he was clearly dehydrated and not doing well. Almost immediately, he started drifting back. He never caught up again.
After a few miles, I stopped at a water station to grab more water — and the moment I stopped moving, both my legs seized up. I started falling backward. There was nothing I could do about it. I grabbed my gun and just fell out, right on the ground. A guy I’d just met recently, Glen Doherty, was there as part of the support staff, manning the water station. Glen saw me drop to the ground and ran over to me. “Hey,” he said, “you okay?”
“Yeah,” I managed. “I’ll be fine,” hoping that maybe saying it would make it true. I spent the next few minutes massaging and hitting my legs, putting everything I had into it, trying to get the muscles to let go just enough so I could stand up. Finally, I managed to get back onto my feet. Guys were starting to trickle into the station, telling us about who had dropped out. Glen and I were both flabbergasted. There were some real studs in the group who weren’t running anymore. That did it for me. I finished my water and got back on the road.
I was not going fast, but I was near the top of the pack. As I got to the 10-mile mark, 2 miles short of the finish, a Humvee pulled up beside me with a medic and another guy. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw who it was. Dan Oldwell was not only a true stud, he was Honor Man in our BUD/S class. Honor Man is something like the class valedictorian, the guy who never quits, the most outstanding guy in the class, the one whose example inspires everyone else. Now here was our Honor Man — riding in a Humvee. He had quit.
“Hey, Webb,” said Oldwell, “we’re just letting you know, the instructors sent us out to tell everyone. People are dropping from massive heat exhaustion. They’re calling it. Hop in.”
It was twilight, and I could see the lights of our base camp on the horizon. I did not run 11 miles and put myself through all that misery to quit a mile from the gate. I looked up at Oldwell. “Thanks,” I said, “but no thanks. You’re not putting me in that car. No fucking way.”
I turned back and kept going.
A few minutes later I reached the camp gate. I stood there panting, feeling the pain coursing through my legs, feeling like a wreck, but it was a good feeling. “Good job, Webb,” I heard someone say.
Just then an instructor walked up to me and said, “Hey, why is your weapon dirty?”
I looked down at my weapon. The guy had a point. Some dirt had gotten on my gun when I fell over at the water station. It’s a code they had pounded into us: You take care of the team’s gear first, then you help your buddy, and once all that’s done, then you take care of yourself. You always make sure all your team’s shit is squared away before you go hop in the shower. It’s a code I believe in. I think it’s a great value to have.
I looked up at the guy and didn’t say a word, just gave him a look that said, Fuck you. He nodded and walked away.
It felt really good to finish that run. Out of a class of some eighty guys, some of them truly elite athletes, only Chris Osman and I and four others had done it. My stock was going up, and these things get back to the teams. It’s a little like an NFL draft: The teams are always looking for new guys, and they keep their ears to the ground. Every community is by definition a small community, and the SEALs are no exception. Tests, points, grades, certification — they all matter, but nothing counts like reputation.