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Let the War Games Begin: For a Guest Trooper, It's Semper Fi

With his son, a civilian dad achieves his dream of testing his mettle with the U.S. Marine Corps.

September 24, 2000|From Washington Post

It starts with suitably twisted Marine Corps humor.

As a nervous civilian prepares to launch a rifle grenade toward an old tank, a shout comes from Sgt. Raoul Wilkins: "Heads up! Somebody secure that golden retriever!"

Then Col. John Allen, commanding officer of the two dozen Marines gathered around the civilian, chimes in with rib-digging encouragement: "You know, there really is nothing quite like blowing something up."

The tension broken, civilian Richard Castanet pumps the 40mm grenade at the tank's rusted hulk at Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia.

A flash of yellow beneath the smoke signals a direct hit. Castanet answers yells of "Oorah!" from the warriors with a quick grin, and the clock is running on a 60-minute odyssey that will be the Perfect Moment of his life.

Castanet, 47, has had his share of Big Moments--the births of his two children, winning the first of his two black belts in martial arts. But that recent hour was poetically perfect: his dream realized, his politics vindicated, his demons vanquished, all at once.

The son and nephew of World War II combat soldiers, Castanet in 1974 broke family ranks by choosing a career in industry. So in May, when the Defense Department announced its promotional "Yahoo! Fantasy Careers in Today's Military Contest," Castanet applied for five days of leadership training with the Marines.

He won the contest--aimed at promoting recruitment via the Internet--with an essay on how he made a mistake in not serving with the Corps and how he needed this opportunity to feel complete as a man, to find out whether he could indeed have done it.

This sentiment struck the Marines' cerebral pleasure center so squarely they agreed to dump the prize parameters and let Castanet's son, Chris, 17, join him for the training.

Now, on Day One, Chris fires shot for shot with his father at the range, blazing away an astonishing amount of ordnance from a weapons buffet that includes M-16s and M-240 machine guns, M-2 .50-caliber cannons and MK-19 grenade launchers, and AT4 antitank rockets.

Chris is hitting the targets--rusted tanks arranged on three hills--twice as often as his dad, a member of the National Rifle Assn.

When Castanet finally gets his light machine gun on target, he hangs on to the trigger for such an extended burst, the barrel starts glowing red, prompting disbelieving comments of "Oh, man, he's cookin' that weapon" from the gallery of Marines and, finally, a man hustling over to spray coolant on the gun, sending up a cloud of steam.

But Castanet, now reeking of cordite and striding over to an even larger gun, is ecstatic: "This is everybody's dream! This is much, much more than I expected!"

The officers watch their guests with conspiratorial grins of the "cool, huh?" variety. But as the Castanets make pretty patterns with their red tracer rounds from guns they won't have to clean, some noncommissioned officers raise their eyebrows. Says one: "We have to study these weapons for a whole day before they let us even touch them. There are guys who work on the range who have never got to shoot off the kind of ordnance these guys are shooting."

Castanet is unrepentant: "As much money as Uncle Sam is spending here, I'm enjoying every bit of this! I'm already in the 39.4% tax bracket--this is the best way to get it back." He dances half a jig step as he skips away.

But the spell breaks when father and son get a five-minute briefing on firing the big MK-19 grenade launcher.

An instructor tells them: "I want you to pay close attention to the misfire procedures on the 19, since we are dealing with high explosives here. You must count off 10 seconds in case it hang-fires; if it doesn't, you may have to use this steel rod to pry the grenade out of the breech and catch it before it strikes the ground. If you don't, you could lose your legs."

Chris stares at his father. Castanet stares at the instructor.

After five long seconds, Castanet says softly, "Can we get some help on that?"

But everyone agrees the two are doing incredibly well, especially compared with the gaffes other civilians at the exercise have made.

Then, the session's climax: the antitank rockets, huge, armor-piercing warheads propelled by jets of flame. (More Marine humor: "These weapons are used mainly for deer hunting.") Afforded just one live shot each, the Castanets receive 20 minutes of intensive training for the bazooka-like weapon.

Castanet takes the first shot but flinches a millisecond after pulling the trigger, directing the warhead into the ground 20 yards in front of the target tank.

Chris hits it dead center, causing chunks of rusted armor to fly above the explosion.

The Marines applaud spontaneously, and Castanet's Perfect Moment becomes complete. "Well, no one can critique my effort there, not even my NRA peers, since I don't know anyone who's ever fired one of these," says Castanet. Then, in a choked voice, he points to his son and adds, "No siree, no one can critique that--no one except him."

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