Copyright John T. Reed

The media lately has been abuzz about the exaggeration of heroism by Corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and the capture of PFC Jessica Lynch at the beginning of the Iraq war.

Lynch has complained that she was falsely depicted as a female John Rambo blasting away at the enemy until she ran out of ammunition. She says she did not fire a shot. Rather, she went down on her knees praying. Some accounts of the incident say her gun jammed.

I applaud her refusal to accept the false accolades given her by the Army and for her honest account of what happened the day she was captured and her colleagues were killed.

Gun jammed?

Not firing a shot because her gun jammed, however, bothers me a little. I am not sure she claimed that was the reason, but someone did.

I was not there so I cannot say for sure what happened or did not happen.

I am no gun expert.

But I know enough about gun jams to question that.


Guns generally jam because they are very dirty.

How do they get dirty? From external contamination like mud or sand or from internal contamination, namely, explosive and metallic residue from firing the weapon.

Lynch was in the Quartermaster Corps. That’s logistics. In Iraq, she was a supply clerk in a maintenance company. That probably meant she filled out the forms to requisition parts and document their arrival or non-arrival. She was riding in a truck convoy that made a wrong turn and got ambushed by a pleasantly surprised group of enemy.

Not a dirty job

Not to take anything away from clerks or quartermasters or maintenance, these are not the types of activities that cause one’s weapon to fill with grit. They are also the types of activities that give one more than the average infantryman’s opportunities to clean one’s weapon.

A reader in Iraq said that there is so much sand there that a rifle sitting in the barracks can get full of it. If so, the rifles in the barracks obviously need to be sealed inside a plastic bag or some such, or cleaned daily. That would just create another screw-up scenario to explain this situation. Bottom line is a jammed weapon almost always is a reflection of the military person assigned to that weapon not taking the care of it required by the local situation.

Dismantle and reassemble blindfolded

Cleaning the weapon as needed is a responsibility of each soldier and their superiors. Every soldier, including women, are trained for about a week in the cleaning and firing of the weapon during basic training. U.S. weapons are deliberately designed to be simple to take apart and clean. In the past, all U.S. military personnel are required to pass a test in which they disassemble and re-assemble their weapon while blindfolded. We did it in a class at West Point. I believe I have seen it in old World War II movies.

I am told they do not do that anymore in basic training. OK, then squad leaders and platoon leaders need to start doing it. It’s no big deal. Only takes a few minutes. You do it once or twice not blindfolded then do it blindfolded. It is a prudent skill that is sometimes needed in battle because of a jam combined with darkness or smoke and dust. Being able to do it also builds confidence and reduces the chance of panic in battle.

After the last, not before the first

As a general rule, weapons do not jam before you fire the first bullet. Rather, they jam after you fire the last bullet, that is, the bullet whose explosive residue provided the straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to the deposits in the moving parts reducing the necessary tolerances too low to operate.

West Point is an eleven-month-a-year thing, not nine months like most colleges. During the summer months, cadets do a lot of field tactical training, much of which includes firing weapons. I never heard of a cadet’s weapon jamming when I was there—other than mine. I am not saying no one else’s weapon ever jammed, but if they did, it was so rare that I never heard of it. There was probably a good reason why no one else’s ever jammed. We did not fire that much and we had to clean them weekly for inspection—or at least everyone but me did.

Mine was a special case. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I, like every other cadet in my class, was at a place called Camp Buckner. I was my company guidon bearer. That is, I carried the company flag. No honor. I volunteered for it because a guy in the class ahead of me had the job the previous summer and said it was a good deal.

That had advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage was that I had to carry it on long reveille runs when the rest of the company carried nothing because we were running so far. The guidon probably weighed about eight pounds. It was a wooden pole about ten feet long and about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. It had a flag near the top, a brass “hood ornament” on the top, and a metal-covered point on the bottom.

On shorter reveille runs, the other guys had to carry an M-14 rifle that weighed 9 1/2 pounds. I still carried the guidon.

Saturday morning inspection

But the best advantage was that on Saturday mornings, when we were lined up for inspection, my rifle was in my trunk and everyone else had theirs in their hands for inspection by the tac officer. I just stood in the front of the company holding my guidon while everyone else had to endure the white-glove rifle inspection. Many of them got demerits for their rifle not being pristine enough.

I never cleaned mine. Bad boy.

All summer long in field training, I blasted away with my rifle. It never jammed. Then one night, I was firing it and it jammed after several rounds. I tried to take it apart to clean it. It wouldn’t budge. When I got back to the barracks I tried some more. It still wouldn’t budge. It was not only jammed, it was really jammed—frozen solid.

I sent it to maintenance. It came back unjammed, but with a note saying, “Clean this weapon!”

I did. I had learned my lesson. The whole episode scared me regarding the dangers of a dirty weapon as well as fear that the maintenance guys were going to report me to the tac. They apparently did not.

Bunard ‘mad minute’

Years later, I was in Vietnam at a place called Bunard. It was so remote you could only get there by plane. One night, they decided to have what was called a “mad minute.”

A “mad minute” was 60 seconds of blasting away at the jungle around your little base just before sundown. The theory was that if the enemy was just about to attack after sundown, this would stop them. In fact, it was just a bunch of adolescent U.S. military people having fun. I thought it was a waste of ammunition and that the enemy no doubt had observed this behavior before and advised their units that after the mad minute was a better time to attack because of the lowered ammunition status of the unit in question.

I refused to participate in it, but I let the men in my platoon have their fun. Actually it was more like a squad because most of the men in our platoon were at other locations.

'Clean your rifles—now'

After the "mad minute," we went back to our tent area and I ordered my men to immediately clean their M-16s.

"Why?" they whined. I explained that dirty guns are more likely to jam.

"Why now?" they whined. Because the enemy may attack at any minute. If I were them I would prefer to attack now because we were lower on ammo and had just gotten our weapons dirty thereby making them more likely to jam.

They grumbled throughout. When they were done, I inspected each rifle to make sure it was completely clean and bid them good night. "Damned West Pointers," was probably their parting thought for me.

The enemy never attacked us there, although one of the men stationed at that base was killed—shot through his canteen by the enemy—while patrolling around the base.

Hard to jam

All this is by way of illustrating how hard it is to get a U.S. military rifle to jam and to explain why I am skeptical that Lynch’s rifle jammed.

CLP versus Militec
One reader directed me to a TV news report about the gun lubricant used in Iraq. Apparently, the military developed its own gun lubricant: CLP. According to the TV report, CLP sucks in the desert. Sand sticks to it. The troops prefer another civilian lubricant called Militec. Many are asking their parents to buy it and ship it to them.

If she attempted to fire it and it did not fire, here is what I think is a more likely explanation.

Lock and load

To fire an M-16 or M-14 or other military rifle, you must put a magazine of bullets into the bottom of it. That puts 20 or so bullets just below the firing chamber. To fire it, you still have to pull the bolt back. Sliding the bolt back allows the top bullet in the magazine to rise up to the chamber level. When you push the bolt back forward, that pushes the first bullet into the firing chamber. Sliding the bolt back and forward again also cocks the hammer that strikes the back of the bullet to fire it when you pull the trigger. After the first bullet, the others are moved into the chamber and the hammer is cocked using the explosive gasses released by the firing of the previous bullet. In other words, the weapon is semi-automatic, meaning it cocks itself each time after the first bullet is fired. You cock it once but can pull the trigger and fire it thereafter as many times as there are additional bullets in the magazine without cocking it again. You just cock it once at the beginning of each magazine.

If Lynch pulled the trigger and the weapon did not fire, it seems more likely that it was because she had not pulled the bolt back to chamber the first round and cock the hammer. It is even possible that she had no magazine in the rifle at all, although the magazine is of no use until its first round is chambered and the hammer cocked anyway.

'Let's move'

If an experienced soldier pulls the trigger and the weapon does not fire, their first instinct would be to make sure they had a magazine in it, yank the bolt back, and fire again. On TV and in movies, you often see a soldier or cop or gangster cock his weapon dramatically before he heroically says, “Let’s move!” Half the time that happens I wonder what he was planning to do if the shooting had started earlier. In other words, Hollywood people use that macho cocking action as a last-minute dramatic flourish. In the real world, you would cock it before you reached a situation where you might need to fire. Sometimes, in Hollywood stories, I see them cock the gun multiple times without firing in between, as if to say, “Now my gun is really cocked!” Every time you cock it after the first time, you eject the unfired cartridge and bullet that was in the chamber before the unnecessary cocking. One cocking is necessary. Every additional cocking without firing wastes ammunition by ejecting unused ammo from the gun and partly emptying the magazine..

If Lynch never fired her weapon other than during qualifying on it during basic training, she may have failed to check the weapon for a magazine and failed to cock it after it failed to fire.

Another possible explanation is that Lynch never attempted to fire her weapon at all. That would also be consistent with the keystone event of the whole operation: getting lost and taking a wrong turn into virgin enemy territory. This did not sound like a Rambo unit in any way, shape, or form. It sounds more like the sequel to the movie the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight—the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot at All. Did any of them fire their weapons?

'Faith-based intitiatives'

President Bush is fond of advocating “faith-based initiatives.” Private Lynch said that when the shooting started, she went down on her knees and prayed. That would be a faith-based lack of initiative. The more appropriate combination of faith and combat initiative was the one expressed in the World War II chaplain’s quote and song that used the quote as its title: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”

It might not have helped, but it sounded like the enemy did not expect them and had no set ambush. They just saw a target of opportunity, namely a bunch of U.S. Army unarmed vehicles wandering around like lost sheep and took advantage. In many such cases, enough fire from the convoy coupled with reversing direction and getting the heck out of there might have saved lives and/or enabled the whole group or part of it to escape.

There is heroism, normal soldier behavior, and there is inept soldier behavior, like getting lost and not firing at the enemy when attacked. It is clear that the Army exaggerated her performance. But it may also be that whoever told the gun-jam story has done more of the same, albeit far more modestly.

As with the other parts of this military affairs Web site, my interest is less in discussing PFC Lynch or Corporal Tillman than in using the incident as a cautionary tale and a jumping-off point for alerting future soldiers and the public to better ways to handle the situation in question.

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

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