I sat in the dirt, the components of my M-16 rifle carefully laid out on the OD green handkerchief beside me. I was nineteen, and I was pissed. Scowling and cursing to myself, I wiped the sweat from my eyes and swabbed at the bolt receiver with a Q-tip.
Every soldier understands there is little more important than a clean and functional rifle. Your life depends on your weapon. Your buddies depend on you. Your unit depends on your buddies. And your country depends on your unit. It’s quite a quaint, yet crystal-clear alignment.
Yet, few 19 year old Privates understand why on Earth one needs to spend quite so much time on rifle maintenance. It’s truly a never-ending process, whether deployed and actually on a mission or just in training. In fact, maintaining your weapon during a real-life mission is rarely questioned. In training, however, it’s a different story…..or so I convinced myself as I applied another coat of light oil to the bolt.
You see, it was the fourth week of a deployment to the Panamanian jungle, and we were once again cleaning our rifles for a two-hour period. Perhaps I should mention that we had just spent two hours the day before making them spotless, and our rifles had sat overnight in the armory. No one had touched them. They hadn’t been exposed to the elements. In reality, I doubted anyone had so much as breathed on them. So, yes, I was pissed. Send me on patrol. Put me in a forward observation post (OP). Heck, assign me to a forced road march. Just don’t make me clean this damned weapon anymore!
Now, as a full believer in authenticity, I have rarely been accused of withholding my thoughts and beliefs (a topic that could fill the pages of several tomes, to be sure). And it wasn’t long before Sergeant First Class Al Axford caught wind of my less than positive attitude.
“What’s the problem, Nagle?” His patient approach was ambushed by the exhausted look in his eyes.
Against better judgement, and with my fellow Scouts shaking their heads and rolling their eyes around me, I began. “It makes no sense at all that we’re cleaning our rifles again, Sarge.”
He just nodded his head and stared back at me. “Is that so, Private?”
“Yep,” I continued, noticing that my buddies were slowly inching away from me. “My skills as an infantry scout are being totally wasted,” I complained.
He nodded again. “And what is a scout’s most valuable tool, Private Nagle?”
I knew where he was going with this. So, I sighed, “My rifle, Sergeant.”
I squinted up at him.
He shook his head and continued, “If you can tell me all about the physics and chemistry behind the operation of your rifle, then you, Private Nagle, can be done with cleaning your rifle for the day.”
Of course, I failed. I did know how to shoot. In fact, I had been certified the best marksman in my battalion just a few weeks before. I knew how to zero my weapon. I knew how to take aim. I had mastered the art of controlling my breathing and refocusing on the sight post, rather than the target. I was deadly with my rifle. Yet, I didn’t know the first time about the specifics of my weapon, the why it worked as it did, what caused the minute explosion within the casing of the round, how the expanding pressures forced the slug down the barrel, and how the gas operation of the automatic ejector flung the expended brass from the bolt carrier.
I had to hand it to him. For the next 30 minutes, he patiently schooled me on everything imaginable about the workings of my M-16. I remember that lesson more than twenty years later, in vivid detail and exquisite detail.
As he finished the lesson and stood up from the dirt, Sergeant Axford leaned down to me. “Private Nagle, your most valuable tool as an infantry scout is not your rifle. It is your knowledge and intelligence,” he informed me, grinning. “Now, get back to learning about your weapon.”