“Brass to Grass”

Mistaking ignorance for idiocy

When it comes to instructions that may one day determine whether you’ll live or die, you must ensure that your entire unit understands their equipment. As such, Army training often caters to the lowest common denominator. The guidelines on an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) advise one to lean the heater on a “rock or something,” the business end of a Claymore mine reads “Front Toward Enemy”, and the AT4 (an anti-tank weapon) is adorned with a childlike illustration of a soldier captioned “fire like this.” As it turns out, these illustrations and guidelines that I had until recently considered comical were designed for fools like me.

During our first day of summer field training, my squad was made weapons squad. For the uninitiated among you, a weapons squad is responsible for the maintenance, operation, and transportation of their platoon’s machine guns. The M240B, the machine gun that was soon to become my friend, is a large, bulky weapon than proves rather uncomfortable to carry regardless of how you hold it. Your typical weapons squad is comprised of your platoon’s most experienced enlisted soldiers, not some random square from Harvard. Nevertheless, the powers that be love laughing at my expense, and so after an hour-long weapons familiarization course, I found myself holding a machine gun for the first two days of field missions.

However, the M240B is a crew-served weapon, meaning I had two wonderful accomplices to share in my suffering. The first was a salty gentleman from Tennessee who had already deployed to Afghanistan twice. His 27-year-old mind was not pleased with having to spend 32 days training with college kids, and he boasted a tendency to ruthlessly roast those he deemed annoying. My second accomplice was a young cadet from Virginia Tech, who—despite his polite nature—had a pair of crazed eyes that made me uncomfortable. All in all, I feared incurring their wrath and hoped to avoid disaster for as long as possible. Less than 24 hours later, I failed.

I am not the most relatable cadet; I have a habit of sadistically laughing at my own misery, which unnerves my peers. I am also prone to rambling, which—unsurprisingly—mixes poorly with sleep-deprived, dehydrated cadets. However, I decided to spare my gun team and do the impossible: remain silent for the entirety of our first mission. Oddly enough, the day I kept quiet, the universe decided to get loud on my behalf.

As our team neared our objective, the opposing force opened fire on our forward element (for clarification, we were firing blanks). Immediately, my compatriot from Tennessee sprang into action and bolted towards the sound of gunfire. I—in all my wisdom—stared at him blankly before realizing that, as the one with the machine gun, I needed to follow him; after all, he was the one carrying our ammunition. I stood up, ran-face first into a tree, gathered my senses, and followed my ammo bearer into the Kentucky underbrush.


When we had finally reached a decent position from which to suppress our cadet adversaries, my ammo bearer handed me our first belt of ammunition (I had foolishly forgotten to have a starter belt ready). As I opened the feed tray and prepared to load our weapon, my ammo bearer gave me a look of absolute horror. “Brass to grass,” he yelled, “Brass to grass!” I had no idea what he meant; I saw neither grass nor brass nearby. Dumbfounded, I stared right back at him, taking my eyes off the enemy as they neared our position. In frustration, he loaded and snatched the machine gun and commenced firing himself. Only then it struck me that I had almost loaded the belt upside down, the Army equivalent of sticking a fork in a toaster. “Brass to grass” was a mnemonic device, my ammo bearer’s frustrated attempt to help me recall that the yellow side of the belt faces the ground when loading.

And so there I sat, completely useless, waiting around as someone else did my job. I felt ashamed and frustrated. “You had one job,” I thought to myself. Moreover, my squad knew that I attended Harvard, and I feared the inevitable torrent of snarky comments to follow. And yet, those comments never came. Once the exercise had ended, my ammo bearer took the time to pull me aside and answered my questions regarding our weapon system. A few missions later, my inexperience gave way to comfort, and although I was by no means an expert gunner by that point, I would walk with pride (and exhaustion) whenever I carried the M240B.

Cadets and students alike tend to mistake inexperience and ignorance for incompetence. I’ve seen cadets mock their peers for otherwise minor mishaps. Likewise, I’ve witnessed entire classrooms spend an eternity tearing a single student’s comment to pieces, each speaker eager to make their peer’s folly known. My ammo bearer had every right to mock me; had he not stopped me, I would have likely injured myself and broken our incredibly expensive weapon in the process. And yet, he did something else entirely; he taught me how to properly handle my gear.

It’s easy to laugh at seemingly stupid people. Doing so makes us feel smarter and secure as we confirm to ourselves that we’re not the village idiot. However, what I ask is that you do something harder and far less entertaining: give the alleged fools in your life the benefit of the doubt. Teach them. Mentor them. Help them. And just maybe, they’ll one day return the favor and help you keep your “brass to the grass.”

Nathan L. Williams '’18 is a Government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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