August 30th, 1988
Mojave Desert, California
“Hey man, Sergeant Thomas says you’re a road guard.”
Silence came from the two-man tent. The Marine unzipped the front flap of the tent and strained to adjust his eyes to the darkness emitting from inside.
The lump laying on top of a dark green sleeping bag didn’t budge, so the Marine gave the bottom of the lump a swift kick with his dusty boot. The lump began to stir and moan angrily. The irritated messenger repeated himself.
“You’re road guard, Rother. Thomas said you’ve been slowing everyone down this entire exercise so he’s putting you on as road guard. The night op starts at 2000. Grab Key and be at the seven-ton at 1900.”
Rother grumbled and flipped over on his sleeping bag, falling back asleep before the Marine had even left the tent. He had spent the day humping through the ranges, conducting live fire exercises that required “I’m up, they see me, I’m down” movements. These combat movements required Rother and the rest of his fire team to leap-frog each other through the sand, quickly getting up and running rapidly forward for a few feet before launching themselves onto the ground to prevent getting shot. Then they would have to provide cover fire as the other members of the fire team ran forward. It was exhausting work, and each man was only given a single three-quart canteen of water to last the entire day. Rother was exhausted as he lay in his tent…and dehydrated.
The sun was setting as Lance Corporal Jason Rother made his way to the line of green seven-ton vehicles parked at the edge of the range. He filled up his canteen at the resupply water buffaloes that had finally shown up while he was asleep. About two dozen Marines were milling about, smoking and shit talking, waiting for the convoy commander to begin the briefing. One group of Marines were throwing rocks at a beer can that was perched on an unlucky private first class’ head.
Everyone grouped around the first seven-ton, where a lieutenant was sitting on the passenger seat, casually spitting dip down the eight foot drop into the sand.
“Marines, you’ll be placed in pairs about 100 yards apart on the road through the desert and leading to the mountains. Each of you will use the red lens on your flashlight and you will direct the vehicles for 1st Battalion and 10th Battalion as they conduct their night operations. Do you understand?”
Shouts of “rah” filled the air as the Marines acknowledged their understanding of Lieutenant Lawson’s words.
“The last seven-ton through will pick you up at the end of the op. Mount up!”
The boys began climbing into the backs of the seven-tons. Darkness fell as the trucks rolled out and started dropping off the road guards in two-man teams at predetermined coordinates on the 21 mile motorized hump through the desert. Key and Rother were in the back of Lt. Lawson’s seven ton.
“Alright, Rother, get out, this is your post.”
“But sir, isn’t Key coming too? I am supposed to have someone else with me.”
“Negative, Marine, we don’t have enough of you to give two-man coverage at every post. Get out.”
Rother hopped down from the seven-ton and gave Key a wave with his red flash light. The seven-ton drove away…leaving Rother alone in the dark, awaiting the convoy’s arrival.
Dust filled the air as seven-tons full of 1200 Marines and sailors drove by. Rother’s face was covered in sand and dust, his lips were dried out and chapped from the sun exposure of the last three days. He waved the trucks through with his red-beamed flashlight as the hours went by…each company of trucks coming through about five minutes apart. When there was a lull in the convey and silence on the road, he and Key flashed their lights at each other in the darkness.
Around 10 pm, Rother realized it had been more than a few minutes since a truck had passed. He strained his eyes to see where Key was supposed to be…looking for Key’s red light. He could see nothing…He rubbed his eyes vigorously. He was so tired still; maybe his vision was weak from the strain of looking at such blindingly white sand all day.
Rother took a swig of water from his canteen and realized he was already out of water. He had been so thirsty from the operations during the day. Licking the dust from his lips, the sand crunched in his mouth.
After an hour went by, Rother realized something was wrong. He should have been picked up by now. Panicking, he understood he only had about five hours before the unforgiving desert sun would rise and his lack of water would become a dire problem. He took off his backpack and placed it on the ground. Then he took off his green and black flak jacket and placed it on top of his backpack. Lastly, he unstrapped the helmet from his head and placed it neatly on top of his flak jacket. Then he gathered a few rocks and fashioned an arrow from them, pointing it in the direction where he thought the highway was…he thought it was about ten miles away from his location. But Marines don’t leave each other behind. Someone would be along for him; he knew it. Gazing around one last time to make sure he couldn’t see the dust from a truck heading in his direction, Rother started walking towards civilization.
The Marine’s legs had been cramping for hours. The sun was hot, so hot….His dry tongue scrapped over the cracks in his lips, his skin breaking open from the rough contact. The moistness from the blood as it poured from the cuts on his lips made him thirstier. He sucked on the blood for painful relief until the blood stopped flowing.
He could see something glimmering ahead of him. Filled with sudden elation and relief, Rother stepped forward towards the vehicles in the distance…
Jason Rother died one mile from the highway. His body was found by the San Bernadino Sheriff’s Department three months after he went missing. His command was relieved of their duties and court-martialed for not reporting him missing for over 44 hours. Rother had died before anyone thought to look for him.
This story was influenced by the tales that I was told as a Junior Marine who went to combat training in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA, the same location as Rother, just twenty years later. During a discussion of desert survival, I was a smart-ass who thought I could survive in the desert with a “woobie”, the really cozy blanket we are issued, propped up against a cactus to provide shade.
“You fucking idiot…you would microwave yourself.” My leadership did not mince words. We were told about this kid who had done the exact thing I suggested…and died. I found his name and story…and decided to write a story based on the real events that took place. The facts and names are correct in this story; the words and perceived last actions are of my own imagination.