It was Summer 2012, and I was in the Crewman Qualification Training (CQT) phase of the SWCC training pipeline.

Part of CQT included going to Camp Pendleton, CA, to partake in two weeks of weapons training; the first week was dedicated to small arms and the second week to heavy weapons.

The first week went pretty much, as expected, delivering a generous share of beat downs complemented with a healthy dose of sprints up a miniature “mountain,” often with full kits on, in the 100-degree heat. If nothing else, it built character — not like we really needed to build much more “character” at that point.

For the second week, we moved to a heavy weapons range: .50 caliber rounds have a tendency of destroying small arms ranges.

The way this range was designed was that we were on top of a plateau of a hill, the plateau was in the shape of a peninsula surrounded on three sides by a valley down below. At the bottom of this three-sided valley, there was a notable amount of vegetation (hang onto that fact). The weapons mount trailers were lined up on the edge of the plateau. We would be shooting at targets across the valley, to the next hill over. There were 19 of us students, staying in a ‘Nam style tent, at the end of the peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the valley.

One of the shooting ranges of Camp Pendleton.

After arriving at the heavy weapons range, the first day was occupied with setting up the weapons on the trailer mounts. The arsenal included single and double barrel .50 caliber machine guns, single and double barrel M240 machine guns, MK 19 grenade launchers, M79 and M203 grenade launchers, and the GAU-17 aka, the Mini Gun. While that was going on, everyone was also working like the student bitches that we were: unpacking all the ammunition; and attaching the ammo belts together and staging them in cans, so when the time came, we could efficiently start shooting through thousands of rounds.

By about the time the sun was going down, we had wrapped up the bitch work (for the time being) and commenced sending rounds downrange. Mind you, we were students, and historically the most common way for SWCC students to get rolled back in training during CQT was by committing safety violations during weapons training, specifically with heavy weapons. The rule was three strikes, you go home. As a student, you can imagine the instructors were in no mood to show mercy, even at the smallest mistake. Needless to say, we were like a bunch of little Girl Scouts, walking around on rotten eggshells.

The night was uneventful and we capped it off with getting on our hands and knees and picking up the thousands of brass cartridges and steel links that had been dispensed, separating the .50 caliber and 7.62 mm casings, and building more character along the way.

We started early the next morning. The plan was to shoot all day and far into the night. Around 12 pm, after shooting all morning, there was smoke and some visible fire at the valley floor due to all the shooting. Being that we were in California and it was Summertime, this was considered normal and no one seemed to be concerned.

Fast forward a couple of hours: the fire was noticeably growing and moving up our side of the hill, where all the gun trailers were lined up. Every now and then we’d hear a random round pop off due to the heat of the fire.

During heavy weapons training, it is not uncommon for weapons to experience malfunctions, resulting in unspent rounds being ejected from the weapons. Of course, all unspent rounds are supposed to be cleaned up, but you can imagine over the years how many people decided it would be easier just to throw these rounds down the hill; out of sight and out of mind.

The fire was growing, but we continued shooting.

All of a sudden, the wind shifted and all we could see was a wall of flames in front of the gun trailers. Rounds started popping off left and right like we were being shot at by a small army, while 40 mm grenade rounds were harmoniously blowing up from down below. The instructors started screaming “Get down! Find some cover! Get in that ditch!” Pointing in the opposite direction of the flames.

My ass started running, throwing on my kit and ballistic helmet. Once I found some cover, I looked back and saw most of the instructors taking cover behind the trucks. They were balled up like little schoolchildren playing hide and seek. You can’t really shoot back at a fire, unfortunately. But there was one instructor that must’ve drunk his bulletproof juice that morning, he walked out to the edge of the fire and started pouring water bottles on it. I have no idea what he was trying to accomplish: those flames were 14 feet high. I guess he was just giving it the good ole’ college try — kudos. As more rounds and 40 mm grenades continued to go off, he too ran for cover, snuggling up to another instructor behind a truck axle, in an honest attempt to not get his ass shot off. You don’t get Purple Hearts for getting shot by an enemy wildfire.

During the mayhem, one of the grenade explosions down in the valley had rocketed an undetonated 40 mm round up into the air, landing it under a gun table, right next to an instructor. He “dodged a bullet” on that one. Finally, the wind shifted and the fire backed off a little bit.

By about the time we had a chance to actually digest what had happened, the Camp Pendleton Fire Department showed up and told us we were going to have to evacuate the range for a while. We were only too happy to follow their orders.

Stay tuned for the second part.