We have a lot of posts geared toward the younger troops heading to the Selection courses and later the Qualification courses. I was having a conversation online with a former Delta Force operator, George Hand. If any of you know Geo on social media, he’s a great dude and a talented one. He’s always posting stuff that will make you think, laugh, or both. But he said something that jogged my memory. And while I made a joke of it in responding to him, it was a teaching point. Especially for me, so thanks, Geo.

So, this little story is one of the oldest and a time-honored mantra in the military, “Never do the Rucksack Flop.” Breaking that rule in a combat situation will get you dead in a hurry. Doing it during a training activity, especially in a school environment, will get your ass chewed out and/or written up.

Never in a million years in a non-tactical situation would you think that the rucksack flop could cost yourself a serious and possibly fatal injury. Yet it nearly did. And the last thing you’d think about was being attacked by an animal. And yet it happened. But I digress, first a little background.

After several years as an NCO in the 7th SFG, I had applied for the SF Warrant Program. So several of us from the different groups went to Ft. Rucker for the wonderful fun and games that passed for the Warrant Officer Candidate Course. After leaving Rucker, we caught up to our Officer Class in SERE Training.

Back then in the late 1980s, we didn’t have a true SF Warrant Course. We were thrown in with the SF Captains in the Detachment Officer’s Course. Some of the instructors and instructions were outstanding, others not so much. We had an eclectic group of American officers and Allies including Arabs and Israelis. It doesn’t get any better than that. One of the Israeli dudes was a Special Ops guy who was a physical animal. We did a timed 12-miler and he took it running like it was a two-mile PT Test. He finished long before any of us pulled in.

At the end of the Officer’s Course, before Robin Sage, was a final test called Officer’s Stakes. I don’t know if they do it any longer but it was a challenge. It was a long-distance land navigation cross-country smoker. The points were ridiculously easy to find as they were at major road intersections or churches in the Uwharrie National Forest. But they were all a minimum of 12 km apart. Each officer was issued several map sheets.

Special Forces NCOs manned the points and the instructors manned the exercise HQs and patrolled the roads in vehicles looking for officers either traveling on the roads or too close to them. If they saw a student, even a couple of hundred meters off the road, they’d lay on the horn and the student would be taken back to their last point. It was MFer to get within a click of a point and have an instructor scoop you up and take you back 10-12 clicks. (The guys detailed to man the points were guys from the SF groups and other SWC (Special Warfare Center) instructors who were off-cycle for classes.)

I had worked the stakes twice in manning a point: the first time I was detailed from 7th SFG and the other while I was a cadre member at SWC. So I was very familiar with how the operation ran, which was an advantage I would use for my benefit.

Once, I manned a point at a beautiful small place called Calicut’s Church. The old farmer who lived down the road would come up every morning with coffee and his dog and we’d talk for about an hour. He turned on and hooked up a garden hose for me at the side of the church.

When students would come in, we’d call them in to exercise HQs and give them their next point off of a master sheet. When they’d leave we’d call that in as well as the roadrunners would immediately know where he was and where he was going next.

One thing that I learned from my time out there was that the instructors in the vehicles (the road runners) all knocked off between 2-5 a.m. Exercise control would have a vehicle that could respond to any point or spot on the course during that time, but it stayed onsite at the HQs.

special forces ruck march
A U.S. Army Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), participates in a ruck march in which participants were required to carry a minimum of 40 pounds through an 18-mile course. Participants were allowed a maximum of 4.5 hours to complete the course which took place on May 23, 2019, in Boeblingen, Germany. (Photo by Jason Johnston/U.S. Army)

It was late fall/early winter when we got out there for our Officer’s Stakes. The noted thick vegetation that we’d encountered there before was gone, but its absence also gave the cadre a much clearer look into the woodline. During daylight hours I stayed as far off the roads as I could, running the ridgelines. I had the advantage of traveling through an area that some of the locals, who supported us in the past, lived. (We had done a big UW exercise in 7th SFG up there and the local guys went everywhere on their ATVs on trails that weren’t on the map.)

I saved about four-five hours one day by blasting across two large ridgelines on what was essentially an ATV highway. I got to the point in no time. Thankfully my next point took me nearly back the same way: I raced down those trails and crossed over one of the major roads well ahead of what would be a normal time. I’d walk until 5-6 a.m. before knocking off for one or two hours’ nap inside my sleeping bag, eating something quick, and heading back out. Those extra few hours at night were well used. At about 2 a.m. I had about 15 clicks to go to the next point. You guessed it: I railed along the side of the road and booked that distance easily getting there by 5 a.m.

Exhausted I pulled in and, finding a tent, set up I called the sergeant out, only to see a very good friend of mine, Art Ebbinger from 7th SFG. He was just getting up and had a big bowl of beef stew on his stove. As soon as he recognized me, he gave me the bowl and said that I needed it more than he did. I think that it was the best bowl of stew that I’ve ever had.

That was the formula I used for days. I just had a final point to reach which was my exfil point. I had to check-in at my exfil point at 1300 hrs on a certain day. I was about 300 meters away from there and could see it from my vantage point in the woods a full 26 hours ahead of schedule. I was quite friggin’ pleased with myself. I was tired as hell and hungry but in 26 hours I would hit my exfil window and get a ride back to the farmhouse that was the exercise HQs. Checking in early or later than my window entailed walking another 16 clicks back… I’d take the ride.

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I planned on sleeping for about 12 of those 26 hours right off the bat. Picking out a spot, I did the old rucksack flop behind a small ridge, my rucksack going into a tiny depression. A big sigh of relief: this would be home for about the next day or so and I took a big pull out of my rapidly dwindling supply of water. I pulled off my gloves and leaned my head back catching some of the bright sun that was nice and warm out of the wind. All was right in the world, right? Wrong…

After a few seconds, I heard a twig snap to my front, and just coming into view was a big red chow-chow dog. His big ruffs of fur on its face — which gave the breed the name “lion dog” in Asia — were covered with mud as if it’d been digging around in something. He crested the small ridge and was only about 8-10 feet away. Right away, I sensed all the wrong body language. He dropped its head in a classic aggressive move. “Oh shit!”, I thought. The chow-chow was far too close for me to roll over and get up with a ruck on. The comfortable little depression that flopped in now made that rucksack weigh a ton.

The dog launched itself right at my face. I grabbed two fistfuls of that ruff to keep its teeth off me, while I was kicking it with my feet. It didn’t stop and was thrashing about. Using its own feet, it clawed at my hands with its front paws. Things weren’t going well at all. We tussled for what seemed like an hour but was in actuality no more than a few seconds. Finally, I got a hard kick under its ribs which made it yelp in pain.

special forces ruck march
U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), participates in a ruck march. (Photo by Jason Johnston/U.S. Army)

It toppled over and this gave me just enough time to get out of those damned rucksack straps and back to my feet. My rifle, which was still by my side, was now used in a bayonet thrust. The chow-chow scampered backward and a butt stroke missed, but in a sequence, I brought the barrel down square on its big ass head as hard as I could. The dog screamed in pain. It staggered away and took off in the direction it had come.

Staying was no longer an option. My hands were ripped to shreds from that fat fucker’s front paws, I didn’t have enough water to clean them properly. I hoped that the SF guy at my exfil point was an SF Medic. Picking up my gear, I quickly hoofed the 300 meters over to the point.

As I walked up the SF NCO was digging something out of his ruck by his small campsite. “You don’t happen to be a medic, do you?” I asked. “Nope, engineer, why?” he asked and then turned to look at me. without turning to look at me. He asked me what had happened and I relayed my story. He reached into his rucksack and pulled out a Glock. “We aren’t supposed to have these here but I won’t tell if you don’t,” he said. “But if that fucker comes back, we won’t dick around.”

He gave me his five-gallon jug of water to clean up my hands. He had a basic first aid kit and helped me clean up the gashes on my hands, which were now after the adrenaline rush had worn off, painful as all creation. I told him my timetable for exfil and he replied: “Just go behind the tent and flop down, we’ll worry about that tomorrow.” I did so and pulled out my sleeping bag. In about 30 seconds I was out like a light.

The sergeant thought about it and was worried that the dog might have been rabid and called it in. The two nearest road runners were there in about 20 minutes. Having talked with the medic at the farmhouse, they decided I should get back asap. Since I was already at my exfil point, I’d get a ride anyway. As I got in the back of the truck, one of the sergeants looked at my rifle and laughed. It was bent a great deal by striking that dog’s head. How the chow ran away is beyond me. 

After an even more painful debriding by the medics at the farmhouse, they asked me if I wanted rabies shots. I was fairly certain that his teeth never touched me, so I declined.

I had a barn with a big hay pile as my bed for the next day. One by one the other officers were pulling in and we shared experiences and shot the breeze until the last ones staggered in. A couple of guys hit the time limit to finish the course with just minutes to spare. We had all made it. For the captains, it was on to Robin Sage, for the warrants, we were back to Bragg to get pinned and move on to Panama.

A couple of valuable lessons were learned that day. Never again would I do the rucksack flop without automatically thinking of that damned dog. And never ever would I relax. Because that is when karma can bite you on the ass.


This article was originally published in September 2020. It has been edited for republication.