My involvement with the US Army began at a time that had been billed as the Summer of Love. For me the summer hadn't lived up to its billing. I had just graduated from college in June and had lost my Class II-S student draft deferment (click to view Rules of Deferment). Effective August 21, 1967, I was Class I-A, prime cannon fodder. I spent most of the summer fretting about and waiting for the inevitable call to arms. It hadn't come by late September when a Vette-head buddy suggested that we play out a Todd and Buzz Route 66 fantasy and drive around the country in his 1965 Stingray. He was in the same predicament that I was in: no job - no future - no deferment. So we added no destination and took off for points unknown. After a month of close living and viewing every spectacular natural wonder America had to offer, we couldn't stand each other's company any longer. We plotted a direct course back to New Jersey. It was waiting for me on my bedroom dresser when I got home. GREETING: YOU ARE HEREBY ORDERED FOR INDUCTION INTO THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES, etcetera, etcetera.
It wasn't that I was afraid of going into the Army, I had spent two official years participating in a Reserve Officer Training Course, plus an additional off-the-record year avoiding daily theology class in favor of the ROTC marching band at Jesuit operated Seton Hall University. I had even spent one of those years in a lifer orientated ROTC honor society, which had put huge dents in my spare time. The Army just wasn't for me.
Well, my concerns had all been academic, I got my notice and my friends and neighbors on Local Board No. 42 sent me off to the United States Army Training Center - Infantry at Fort Dix, New Jersey (click to view information concerning Fort Dix). The Army called it THE HOME OF THE ULTIMATE WEAPON. I called it crappy, a strange mixture of old wooden buildings with coal stoves on each floor requiring round-the-clock fire watches and contemporary brick and metal buildings with central heating and cooling. I soon learned that heating was very important at Fort Dix. My eight weeks Basic Combat Training (click to view subjects taught in BCT) to transform me from a civilian into an ultimate weapon had occurred between November 1967 and January 1968, very cold months back in 1960s New Jersey.
Some good fortune did warm my life. My otherwise useless ROTC training and sometimes useful physical size (in this instance slightly larger than the other trainees) got me an on-the-spot promotion to Platoon Guide, which amongst other things entitled me to wear corporal's snap-on-stripes on the epaulettes of my Class A dress uniform (or Greens) and an pin-on armband on my fatigues. It did bestow a shred of dignity upon my ego in what was, essentially, a highly abusive environment. The goal of Army training doctrine of the era was to psychologically reduce a trainee's pride and temperament to the level of excrement and then rebuild him in desired Army fashion. Being a Platoon Guide coupled a micron of dignity with a ton of responsibility. I functioned as liaison between the unreasonable and the oppressed. I quickly learned the value of information and the subtleties of leadership. One had to deftly play both ends of the stick, so to speak. But best of all, my position entitled me to a bunk in one of the toasty-warm, new, brick barracks. Being close to the source of power definitely had its advantages in the Army.
Eight weeks of BCT seemed like an eternity. Although the Army had prepared a nice Thanksgiving dinner for trainees and their guests and had also permitted those living in New Jersey and nearby out-of-state localities a Christmas leave, it had added two weeks to the training schedule - which extended my time at frigid Fort Dix well into the third week of January 1968! In spite of the cold and several days spent in the base hospital after a near lethal injection of Penicillin for a URI (upper respiratory infection - an Army acronym for influenza) that an eagled-eyed Army doctor administered (he failed to notice the bold red ALLERGIC TO PENICILLIN stamped on my medical records), I graduated with my class on January 18, 1968.
The last administrative step before out processing from Fort Dix was a meeting with what can only be described as a military guidance counselor called a personnel management specialist, in this instance a Specialist Four. He asked me what I wanted to do in the Army. I initially thought that he was joking - but he wasn't. Had I known that I had a choice, I would have given it some thought. I, instead, blurted out that I had always wanted to learn how to type. After four years of college I was still using two fingers. He said fine and trundled me off to clerk-typist Advance Individual Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The place was in the Ozark Mountains and gave one a new appreciation of the word C-O-L-D. There the daily winter temperatures ranged from -20 to +20 degrees. It was one of the few postings within the continental United States where non-standards headgear with fur-lined flaps was issued along with heavy greatcoats. Had you pinned a red star to the front flap of my cap, I could have passed for a North Korean, or maybe even a Cossack.
Most of Fort Leonard Wood was dedicated to Advanced Individual Training in Combat Engineering. The clerical school and billet area were confined to an old complex of wooden buildings, interconnected by drafty enclosed walkways, that used to be the base hospital. All the classrooms were accessible through the walkways except for the typing school, which was a brisk walk in the cold away. Although the Army had their own typing instructors, this class was taught by a civilian who looked and sounded like Burl Ives. He was a local fellow and, undoubtedly, appealed to the Army for his quasi-military style of instruction. All right class, sit up, take a deep breathe, and begin typing. And ah one, and ah two, and ah three, and ah… Other than his Oakie from Fanoakie backwoods Ozark style and his repeated use of the term All Rightee, he wasn't a bad teacher or person. Although I tried, I just couldn't get the rhythm of typing that he used to set the pace in class. The Army tolerated three strikeovers (no erasures permitted!) per page. I couldn't type a sentence without making a mistake. I think the syncopation of all those typewriter keys striking in unison clashed with my musical background. Perhaps had I been a drummer I would have fared better. I barely passed the typing exam. Another fellow and I, however, did ace the written test (the clerk part of being a clerk-typist) so the Army sent both of us to the US Army Adjutant General School at Fort Benjamin Harrison (click to view information concerning Fort Benjamin Harrison), Indiana, for individual training in personnel management. We traveled by bus and arrived on March 24, 1968. It was snowing.
Of all the different bases the Army has sent me, and it has been a few - Fort Benjamin Harrison was the place to be. The fort didn't even look like an Army base. Military decorum and courtesy were downplayed. Uniforms were worn only for ceremonies. Trainees from all branches of service were treated like students regardless of their rank. Our job was to learn. My roommate was a full colonel from Liberia. We got along fine. There were plenty of women students at Fort Benjamin Harrison, too. The Army called them WACs (meaning Women's Army Corps). Although we all attended classes together, the males were under orders not to mess with the female troops. That didn't bother many of us, the base was overrun with civilian ladies looking to earn a night's pay or meet an officer. They hung out at the different Army clubs: Officer, NCO, and EM. With all of the free time the Army let us have, we all eventually got a shot at female companionship - even my high-ranking, wife-back-at-home, foreign roommate. I was beginning to think that this was what the recruiting posters meant by the NEW ACTION ARMY and not that old grumpy one I had left behind, the one that unreasonably disparaged your ancestors, humiliated you in public, and then gave you unpleasant work details.
Needless to say, the weeks I spent in Indiana passed quickly. I graduated a full-fledged 71H30 personnel management specialist on April 23, 1968, and received an accelerated promotion to Specialist Four in acknowledgement of academic achievement. By the end of May 1968 I was still at Fort Benjamin Harrison awaiting receipt of the inevitable orders sending me to Vietnam. The suspense of the delay in my posting was maddening. When my orders finally arrived, I didn't get Vietnam after all. Instead I received orders assigning me to the Flight Training Center at Fort Stewart (click to view information concerning Fort Stewart), Georgia. I had spent the last seven months in training. In the Army duty assignments typically lasted a year. For the first time since being a sophomore in high school I felt that, perhaps, I was not going to end up in Vietnam. It was a good feeling.
Fort Stewart, fondly referred to as Camp Swampy by locals, was alleged to have been the setting of the Beetle Bailey comic strip series. I wouldn't argue that plausibility. Fort Stewart exuded a primordial back in the swamp aura. The chronic stench of decaying vegetation and the vile odors released by nearby wood turpentine distillers could bring tears to a pig farmer's eyes. This aura was enhanced by a predominant military architectural style that could best be defined as Tobacco Road haute de Coeur - a preponderance of creaky, old, wooden, temporary buildings resting on elevated pilings. A contemporary barracks and mess hall rose in stark contrast to the overall atmosphere. Fort Stewart had been an Old Deep South installation that had been established during an earlier war to serve the needs of an earlier brown shoe army. Back in 1968 it had been the personification of a less-than-elite stateside posting. The permanent garrison had been small, which generated a military intimacy amongst the cadre. We went through the motions of being soldiers. Each day we didn't go on duty, we went to work. The obligatory six month physical proficiency test that could ruin soldiers' careers in the Army was a sham of its creator's intent. The test was taken, beer in hand, with predetermined scores. There were no Air-Borne Rangers at Fort Stewart, just a lot of Vietnam returnees running out their remaining time in service, lifers who needed a rest, and a few draftees - lucky bastards - like me.
Although not an idyllic posting (Fort Benjamin Harrison had been idyllic), Fort Stewart was a nice place for a middle-class kid from New Jersey to honorably avoid serving in Vietnam. I purchased an automobile and several items of domestic comfort. There had been plenty of spare time to enjoy the sights and antiquity of Savannah and the beauty of Georgia's many beaches. I was impatient to complete my active tour in the Army and get on with my life. I got bored waiting for my ETS (estimated time of separation). I auditioned for the 80th Army Band that was stationed at Fort Stewart. They made me a TDY (temporary duty entitling a soldier to extra pay each time he performs this extra duty) bugler with the US Third Army Funeral Detail covering the state of Florida. I though nothing of the base's mock Vietnam village, which I occasionally spent an evening guarding (my TDY assignment as bugler got me out of all work details except guard duty). My full-time job was to administrate the records of Fort Stewart's senior enlisted cadre (above the rank of E-5) and not deal with transients on their way to Vietnam. I was proudly permanent, or so I had thought.
At the very end of September 1968 the Army sent me to Fort Benning, Georgia, (the US Army HOME OF THE INFANTRY - I am the Infantry, Queen of Battle…) to attend the 1968 Service Rifle and Service Pistol Instructor Clinic. In civilian life I had participated on a police target pistol team and it had been noted as a hobby in my 201 File (this is a soldier's personnel file and follows him from assignment to assignment). I traveled to Fort Benning with a captain of artillery. He had just returned from a tour in Vietnam and was still adjusting to being back in The World. We drove in his personal car and had plenty of time to chat. After we had established some rapport he ordered me to call him Charles (but only in private). He then gushed that Vietnam was a real mess and that something was very wrong with the way we were fighting the war. All of this meant nothing to me. I listened and nodded at the appropriate times but paid little attention. The Army had been HIS career choice. I didn't even know where Vietnam was. If the lifers had messed up the war, it wasn't my problem. There was no war or hardship in the USA, other than the stuff reported in the news and the occasional crap from hippie war protestors. I had just returned from a funeral detail in Jacksonville, Florida, for the other kind of Vietnam returnee. Despite their grief that Vietnam returnee's family was proud that their son had offered his life for our country. At this point I didn't want to hear how the war was all messed up. A lot of people believed in what we were doing there and a lot of people were paying a high price for their beliefs. I viewed Vietnam as some kind of horrific training exercise invented by politicians and promulgated by the Pentagon. Rendering last honors for our dead brought it all home to reality. Although the war was a great career boost for lifers, from the perspective of this middle-class college kid from Jersey, Vietnam sucked.
Orders for my assignment to the USARV - United States Army, Vietnam - came on November 1, 1968. I had been in the Army exactly one year to the day!
Background Sound: "I Got You Babe" - Sonny and Cher 1965
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