Hell’s Gate: A Short Story
Brian J. Pehrson
Night infiltration course, better known as Hell's Gate, my first real test as a Soldier. One hundred and fifty meters of barbed wire, dugout fighting position, hidden artillery simulators, and continuous M60 machine gun bullets flying just feet over our heads. To make it all better we just completed a forced 8-mile ruck march carrying 50lbs of gear and it is 2300 at night. Drill Sergeant Thorpe says that tonight at least one of his 75 privates will die a glorious death on the simulated battlefield by gunfire or explosions if they are lucky. I think he is just full of it though. At least I hope he is full of it. I am not too sure sometimes with him. He always has flashbacks to someplace called Kyrgyzstan fighting an unknown enemy there.
I have two others in my team for this exercise. The first kid's name is Randouphus Porter, Rudy for short. Rudy is 5'11 and 180lbs of pure muscle. If any of us are going to make it in the Army, it is him. He grew up in the countryside of Michigan hunting and fishing his whole life so he has an unfair advantage here. All that time in the woods by himself has let him really hone in his skills in hunting and how to move quickly and quietly. Next, there is Jimmy Eugenue Bartcho; we call him Jeb for short. Jeb grew up in the middle of Tennessee and could literally be a walking stereotype for why to not mate with your extended family. Great guy though, do not get me wrong. He would give the shirt off his back to help a friend. Just do not ask him to think for himself, make plans, or even wake up on time! If anyone is going to be blown up, it is him.
Finally, there is me, the self-proclaimed leader of this group of misfits. My name is Nova Castillo. I am a 5'5" badass of a female Soldier. Growing up in rural North Carolina had its benefits I guess. When I was a kid, I rode dirt bikes and played basketball. A typical rural kid upbringing really. My time riding dirt bikes and playing basketball really developed my hand and eye coordination; which is probably why I shoot expert on the M4. Unfortunately, like most in my training class, I did not have rich parents to pay for college and there is no way I could get enough scholarships to pay for it. So I joined the Army! And so far this was a great idea! I have been in basic training now for four weeks kicking butt and not looking back. Drill sergeant Thorpe actually thinks I am going to be promoted very quickly in the Army as long as I graduate.
When we got to the hells gate we all broke off into our squads and teams to prepare for this training. Rudy, Jeb, and I dropped our rucks in line and filled up our water canteens on our load-bearing vests. We then started to prepare ourselves for the hell that was about to come. That is when Drill Sergeant Thorpe came around and threw some simulation gear at us. "Go ahead and put this simulation gear on your helmets, body armor, and weapons. These last few pieces go on your M4's just behind the front sight post and act as your lasers firing back at us professionals behind the M60's", he said. That is when the blank adaptors came flying out of the darkness to our left and pegged Jeb in the back. Drill Sergeant Culper had been standing there the entire time just three feet away. "What did I tell you three about messing around and not checking your surroundings?" he said from the darkness. I started to respond but knew he was right, we all knew he was right. Drill Sergeant Culper had been in some kind of specialized unit where he learned to blend in with any surrounding and sneak up on anyone, it was terrifying sometimes.
Once the drill sergeants were gone, we all started to out the lasers' sensors and systems on our gear. This was not the first time we have seen this stuff or used it so we knew how to tie it down using 550 cord. Of course, Jeb was having problems. Rudy had to go over and help him because Jeb was trying to tie his rifle laser onto his helmet again. Rudy said, "Jeb, I am not sure what you think you're doing here but you know the rifle laser system does not go on your helmet. You have to mount it to the front of your M4 barrel just behind the front sight post. That way when you fire a blank the recoil and gas cause the laser system to register and fire a laser." Jeb, God bless his heart, just looked at Rudy and said "hey mhan lookky here. I am going to put this on my helmet so every time I bump my head on something out there it registers and I get a free shot. See I am starting to think like you and Nova. Becoming a master planner I am." "Is that why Drills Sergeant Thorpe caught you jacking it in the porta-potty fifteen minutes ago?" I asked. "Jeb we love you but man you are more like a frequent Master baiter than a master planner right now." All three of us laughed at my inside joke and got the normal stare of confusion from the other teams.
We all eventually got our gear ready and blank rounds loaded. We all felt like really Soldiers about to go into battle, and then we heard our 1SG yell "circle up you freaking dirt eaters for your safety brief." 1SG Peterson looked and sounded like an old grizzly bear who ate two Soldiers and decided to wear their uniform around. As the company formed a circle around him, he read us the mission, gave us a safety brief, and put the company into five chalks to run through hells gate at 20-minute intervals. As always, Rudy paid close attention, Jeb was busy talking to some other kid about the merits of eating possum, and I...well I was lost in a fantasy world of kicking in doors and shooting bad people in the face!
Finally, it was the team's time to start Hell's Gate. We lined up behind a wall and stacked like the rookies we were. Rudy was in the front followed by Jeb and then me. On the count of three, we all sprinted around the corner to rush into Hells Gate and immediately froze in shock. The gate was fifteen feet across and twelve feet high made of twisted and destroyed metal. On the archway at the top, the metal had literally been twisted into the words "Hell's Gate" and it was on fire! Once we passed thru the gate, dripping bits of fire on us nonetheless, we saw a literal mess of a simulated battlefield. There were destroyed buildings, burning cars, and hundreds of combat dummies covered in blood. Adding to the scene all we could smell was burning piles of trash, gasoline, and a ton of burnt carbon from bullets and simulated grenades. In our hesitation though we missed 1SG Peterson walking up behind us and literally kicked us in the backs and yelling at us to get going before he made Hell's Gate look like a picnic. Once we recovered from his kicking, we rushed to the first broken destroyed wall we could see to group and make a plan. The wall was more than half destroyed and we had to stand on a few feet of the ruble.
We slammed against the wall breathing heavily and questioned what we got ourselves into. Jeb, surprising, was the first to say something, unfortunately, his plan was horrible. "Well tickle me pink guys, let's just run right up da middle like we are chasing a wounded deer!" Rudy and I just stared at each other and both smacked him on the head at the same time. Rudy yelled that it was a horrible idea and we should really think about this before we go any farther. Unfortunately, that is when the grenade simulator landed at our feet. We all looked down and shouted holy shhii…… just as it went off. The sound was deafening so close and disorientated us greatly. At the same time, Drill Sergeant Thorpe found us on the field and started shooting the M60 with tracers just above our location sending building debris down on us as well. Nova, Jeb, and Rudy, completely confused and disorientated tried to run to a nearby burned-out car about 20 meters away. Unfortunately, Nova triggered a tripwire that was attached to an artillery simulator just after leaving the destroyed building. When the simulator went off it immediately signaled their position to the gunners who all trained on their position.
Slamming their backs against the wall at the car Rudy started yelling for them to be more careful and to do a self-check for injuries. All Jeb and Nova saw was his mouth moving though and he seemed strangely mad at them. Slowly their hearing started to come back to a loud high-pitched eeeeeee sound and they could hear Rudy say "...how the hell did you not see that tripwire you damn fool! You could have gotten one of us really hurt, it was so obviously there!" Nova snapped back at Rudy and thought about butt stroking him for good measure but she decided that first, they had to make it out of Hell's Gate. Rudy Nova and Jeb started to make a plan for the rest of the 120 meters they had to go. The plan seemed simple, Rudy would take point and get us moving in the best direction, Jeb would follow and I would bring up the rear to make sure Jeb did not get lost.
Again, 1SG Peterson came up behind us through the smoke of the artillery simulator I set off. Looked like a damn movie when the good guy walks out of the smoke from an explosion. Yet again, he tossed a grenade simulator at us. "Not again" Nova yelled as she kicked the simulator away from the group. The grenade sim bounced off a rusty piece of metal debris and exploded in midair about 13 feet away. The group then took off at a five-second sprint up the field and slid to a stop at a ditch in the area. The gunners saw them run and started firing more rounds over their heads and even threw a few more artillery simulators in the direction to scare us. It worked. We only had about 70 meters to go at this point with lots of cover and concealment. The whole area was still a massive assault on our senses though. The smoke was getting thicker and the smell of carbon and phosphorus was heavy in the air.
The next 50 meters went smooth as chunky peanut butter. The smoke was thick so visibility was nearly nothing. We used that opportunity to move in small increments returning blank fire at the gunners up on the ledge. Jeb claims to have shot and hit Drill Sergeant Thorpe but Rudy and I did not have the heart to tell him his laser adapter had fallen off a while back. Rudy and I did hit a few other Drill Sergeants and saw the display of absolute shock that they had actually been hit. Of course, though they just reset their gear with the master keys and continued firing at anything they could see. The three of us moved from cover to cover with only a few hiccups here and there. The best part was that Rudy led the group away from 1SG Peterson and his never-ending supply of simulated grenades! The gunners shooting above our heads even seemed to lose us. That or they started focusing on the other teams going through. Either way, we took that as a win and made our way up to this point.
Twenty meters to go until the end and all three of us were lying prone on our backs panting heavily and covered in the dirt behind a three-foot-high mound. Our uniforms were ripped in multiple places and Jeb somehow had lost one of his boots. I looked over at him and asked "Jeb….where in the hell is your left boot? How did you even lose that?" "Ya, I lost that boot a while back when I tripped over the car door. Ripped my boot clean down the side. I think it would fit on my brother's car back home, he is missing a door in all." Rudy and I just started laughing uncontrollably at our good-hearted friend. Whom even in the middle of Hell's Gate, dodging tracer bullets artillery and grenade simulators thought about taking a car door to his brother? "How would you even get that door to him? Throw it in the mail for Drill Sergeant Thorpe to take to the post office?" laughed Rudy. "Nah man I was going to hold it in my walk locker until we are done with this training." That is when the artillery simulator landed right in the middle of us with a loud thunk! Time seemed to stop at that exact moment. I distinctly remember the terrified looks on Rudy and Jeb's face. I am sure my face looked the same. In those few seconds before it exploded it seemed like all my senses were on fire. The smell of carbon and phosphorus was stronger than ever, I could taste my own sweat and blood on my lips. The salty copper taste seemed to almost overwhelm my taste buds. I saw a wolf spider hanging in midair from a jump off Jeb's legs. It was just hanging there. The bullets flying over the other teams in Hell's Gate seemed to slow to nearly a standstill. Everything, just so peacefully at that moment, like time had stopped. It is a moment I will never forget.
Then Rudy trying to be the hero he thinks is ruined that moment. Rudy was in the middle of us three and was the closest to the simulator. He pushed Jeb away and into a depression near us in the open to save him from it all. With what seemed like superhuman speed and strength he grabbed me and yanked me up on my feet pulling me up onto the top of the dirt and literally threw me forward. That is when the artillery simulator went off. The explosion propelled me just a little bit forward. Although I could not really tell from the force of Rudy's throw. He turned and tried to block his face from the little bit of shrapnel and pressure wave with his arm. The only thing that did though sent him flying forward near me. He landed with an incredible thud a few feet away. Nearly immediately could hear 1SG Peterson and Drill Sergeant Thorpe yell for a cease-fire and the lights to be turned on.
When the massive floodlights came on it was blinding bright light all over. Such a contrast to the battlefield we thought we were in. I could see that Hell's Gate was not as long as we thought it to be and very clearly replicated what it must be like in a battle-hardened area. The weird part was a few feet away from where I was there was a fence and pristine clean grass and trees. It seemed so out of place there considering the mixture of destroyed buildings, cars, explosions, and fire we just navigated through. I could hear 1SG yelling for the medics to get their asses over here. I was not sure why yet. I felt fine. Jeb was even standing back up and running to me. I was not hurt in, other than my pride of being thrown so hard and far by Rudy. Crap Rudy! I have to check on him.
I crawled over to him and saw his face was covered in dirt and spots of fresh red blood were starting to appear. His uniform on his arm was torn to shreds and there was more red blood flowing down from all over it. I do not know what happened but I just panicked and stopped. I could not move for a few seconds. All I could see was one of my best friends here really hurt and bleeding after he had thrown me to safety first. My mind struggled with what had happened and why he threw me instead of jumping with me. I was so mad at him for doing that. "Always trying to be the hero Rudy you stubborn fool! We know you are going to be a Hero! What did you not jump with me?" Nova yelled at him. As I yelled, I smacked him across the face to try to wake him up. Jeb got to us and saw Rudy bleeding from his arm and immediately took off his belt and tied it tight on Rudy's arm to stop the bleeding. I took my canteen out and poured water on his face and arm to try to clean it off some. It just made the blood and dirt mix more. I did not know what to do our training on first aide was a joke and we were told to just yell for a medic if you ever needed help. So I just sat there until the medics arrived...I did not move a muscle for what seemed like forever. The medics and 1SG arrived at some point. I do not really know when I was not really there. I was trying to process what happened and why still. I do not; remember much in the next few hours but I remember an uncharacteristic display of concern from 1SG, this massive grizzly bear of a warrior actually cared about people. I remember him talking to me and telling me it was going to be ok and that accidents happen and that good Soldiers move on from them, they learn from them so they never do that again.
Five days Later Jeb and I were allowed to go to the hospital to see Rudy. He was lying in bed watching TV complaining that there were no good ghost hunting shows on. He had bandages covering his arm and part of his face. He was in a fairly good mood considering he could only see out of one eye at the moment. "Hey, guys! How are you guys doing? Check out my awesome battle wounds!" 1SG even gave me a Soldier's medal for what happened! Check it out." He rolled over and showed us the medal case with the ribbon and medal in it. OF course, he gets a medal for what he did, Jeb said. Always like him to go all independence day on us." Rudy and I just looked and Jeb in confusion. "You know how that guy in the movie went all hero and nearly blew himself up saving the world and whatnot. Reminds me of when my uncle Jeff pushed his kid out of the way when the mountain lion tried to attack him a few years back in his kitchen. "Jeb….you are one weird guy." Nova said while shaking her head. We all laughed again and was glad that Rudy was ok. Things seemed like they were before. But I don't think I can ever look at Rudy the same again. He was a legitimate hero now; 1SG even said they are going to add this to the safety brief at Hells' gate. To be added to a safety brief in the Army for something you did was one of the highest honors a Soldier can get in our opinion.
After about twenty minutes of laughing and talking the nurses told us we needed to leave and that someone named Drill Sergeant Thorpe was waiting for us and he did not look happy. Jeb and I said our goodbyes to Rudy and started walking out of the room. On the way, we bumped into a Soldier in their dress uniform. He was a Sergeant First Class about six feet tall. The way he carried himself and the Special Forces tab on his shoulder made it obvious he was some kind of badass that we could only hope to be one day. He went into Rudy's room and as the door was closing, I heard him say "Private Porter! I am SFC Willis with a local special force recruiting team. Can I have a moment of your time?" As the door closed, I saw Rudy's face light up in excitement. I never saw him again after that. He never came back to training; he was never even mentioned by the Drill Sergeants again. It was as if he disappeared from the Army. I asked Drill Sergeant Thorpe what happened to him probably a hundred times and the only answer I ever got was. "Private Nova, sometimes some Soldiers are meant to be more and do more for the Army and their country than others. Private Porter has moved on to a more complex and larger world that he is needed in. Maybe one day you will see him again but I doubt it."
About the author
I am a 38 year old retired Army Military Police Officer. I am married to my absolute best friend and the most amazing, supportive and intelligent woman I know. We have three children and currently live in Virginia.