Recently, I reviewed a book manuscript written by an old Solider and mentor. Great story that some publisher or movie screenwriter would be wise to grab hold of. I’m envious. I can’t share details, but the story stirred memories of another time. A time when our country was not in great shape. War protestors were in the streets while Americans were fighting and dying in a place only a few short years earlier most Americans had never heard of. Unfortunately for those in combat, it was a politically managed war. For the Soldier’s part, it was not about politics. It was about the Soldier standing next to them and survival. Thanks for the trip down memory lane my friend.
In September 1971, I was in basic combat training at Fort Ord, California. Monterey, Carmel by the Sea beautiful places. But, I was on Planet Ord known for fog, sand, ice plant and Vietnam Combat Veteran Drill Sergeants. Although the draft era was coming to an end, there were plenty draftees. There were also Reservists and National Guard. It was Regular Army (RA) that seemed the rarity. That was me. During that time, volunteering to serve wasn’t in vogue. The connected managed draft deferments or Reserve unit assignments while others avoided the draft by going to Canada.
At age 16, I was a high school dropout working for minimum wage as an unskilled laborer in a Chicago factory. After a couple of years, I looked around at men twice my age still breaking their backs. I didn’t like that glimpse of my future. A couple of weeks shy of my 19th birthday I walked into the Recruiter’s office on North Clark Street. Two days later I was on an airplane to California.
After a tortuous couple of weeks, I developed a blister on the pinkie toe of my right foot. My Drill Sergeant was quite clear when he told us he wanted to see any blister or other such thing if we had one. I showed him mine. It was very painful. He handed me a half a bag of salt obviously pilfered from mess hall stores. He told me to get a small trash can put hot water and salt in it and soak my foot and that would take care of it. I did. Several days later I was admitted to Fort Ord’s World War II era hospital with a very swollen foot and lower leg. The Doc said it was cellulitis. All I know is that it was throbbing painful and near impossible to stand on.
I was admitted to the surgical ward. It was a large bay with beds on each side. Some of them held medical evacuees from Vietnam. I recall one skinny little troop around my age. He seemed fine except for the metal brace on his left leg that clamped around the bottom of his boot. He said he was a helicopter door gunner when he was wounded and now he was waiting medical discharge. It brought life into focus for me – a two-week old recruit. The hospital kept me for a couple of weeks. When I returned to my unit, my locker was cleaned out and my stuff locked away in the supply room. I was sent to another unit to complete training.
The next unit was odd I thought. There were only three platoons. It did not take long to discover that I was one of only three RA recruits in the company. There was a spattering of draftees (US) and the remainder were in the Army Reserve (AR) or the National Guard (NG). There were some well educated people, a lawyer or two, some athletes. Not typical of those I associated with on the factory floor or expected to find in Army basic training. All had their reasons for being there. The draftees because their number was up, the Reservists and Guardsmen trying to get service commitments behind them so they could get back to already established lives and the RAs just beginning life’s journey. One major difference. The US and RA expected to go to Vietnam following training. At least that is what the Drill Sergeants pounded into our heads. The National Guard, and I believe the Reservists also, still had to qualify with the M-14 because that is what their units had. The National Guard also had to have riot control training.
In the spring of 1972, I completed training. Like others, I expected my first assignment to be Vietnam, but as I would later learn Vietnam was in drawdown. In large numbers, Soldiers were leaving Vietnam. My first assignment was to Korea. In February, I arrived at the replacement depot wearing my winter green uniform via a Military Airlift Command (MAC) Northwest Orient flight out of McChord Air Force Base, Washington to Osan, Air Base, Pyeongtek, Korea. During the few days I spent there, a flight full of Soldiers wearing jungle fatigues arrived from Vietnam. It was not an adequate uniform for February in Korea. Talking to some of them, they were barely on the ground in Vietnam before they were diverted to Korea.
My service career began with I Corps, Camp Red Cloud, Uijeongbu, Korea. No matter where you’ve been – Northeast Asia or Southeast Asia – during that period the description of a town (Village or Vil in GI lingo) could be layered one over the other. The people, the streets, markets, alleyways, the shops and clubs catering to Soldiers were all about the same.
All things considered, for a directionless kid taken under the wing of a Korean War Veteran First Sergeant, it was a second chance on life. I’m thankful it turned out OK.
© 2018 J. D. Pendry J.D. Pendry’s American Journal