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Chapter no 56

Spare

IN LATE SUMMER WE were shipped to Wales and put through a punishing exercise called Long Reach. A nonstop march, yomp and run over several days, up and down barren countryside, with a load of gear strapped to our backs, equivalent to the weight of one young teenager. Worse, Europe was suffering a historic heat

wave, and we set out at the crest of the wave, the hottest day of the year.

A Friday. We were told that the exercise would run through Sunday night.

Late Saturday, during our only enforced rest, we slept in bags on a dirt track. After two hours we were awakened by thunder and hard rain. I was in a team of five, and we stood up, held our faces to the rain, drinking the drops. It felt so good. But then we were wet. And it was time to march again.

Sopping wet, in driving rain, marching now became something altogether different. We were grunting, panting, groaning, slipping. Gradually I felt my resolve start to give way.

At a momentary stop, a checkpoint, I felt a burning in my feet. I sat on the ground, pulled off my right boot and sock, and the bottom of my foot peeled away.

Trench foot.

The soldier beside me shook his head. Shit. You can’t go on.

I was gutted. But, I confess, also relieved.

We were on a country road. In a nearby field stood an ambulance. I staggered towards it. As I got close, medics lifted me onto the open tailgate. They examined my feet, said this march was over for me.

I nodded, slumped forward.

My team was getting ready to leave. Goodbye, lads. See you back at camp.

But then one of our color sergeants appeared. Color Sergeant Spence. He asked for a word. I hopped off the tailgate, limped with him over to a nearby tree.

His back to the tree, he spoke to me in a level tone. It was the first time in months he hadn’t shouted at me.

Mr. Wales, you’ve got one last push. You’ve literally got six or eight miles left, that’s all. I know, I know, your feet are shit, but I suggest you don’t quit. I know you can do this. You know you can do this. Push on. You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t.

He walked away.

I limped back to the ambulance, asked for all their zinc oxide tape. I wrapped my feet tightly and rammed them back into my boots.

Uphill, downhill, forward, I went on, trying to think of other things to distract myself from the agony. We neared a stream. The icy water would be a blessing, I thought. But no. All I could feel were the rocks in the bed pressing against the raw flesh.

The last four miles were among the most difficult steps I’ve ever taken on this planet. As we crossed the finish line I began to hyperventilate with relief.

One hour later, back in camp, everyone put on trainers. For the next several days we shuffled about the barracks like old men.

But proud old men.

At some point I limped up to Color Sergeant Spence, thanked him. He gave a little smile and walked away.

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