Saturday, May 30, 2009

My time in the U.S. Army

In the last few days I have been thinking about my time in the army. This is a reworked version of a post I made about four year ago.

Drafted- September 1969
I thought I would write about my experiences in the US Army some 40 years ago. In the spring 1969 I graduated from the University of Oregon with a BS in Political Science. My dad brought my draft reclassification notice to my graduation. Some graduation present! A few weeks later I received my "Greetings" letter telling me I was drafted. This is the same summer Bill Clinton received his draft notice. Like Bill I explored the possibility of joining the ROTC while I started Law School. I had been admitted into the University of Oregon School of Law for the fall of 1969: However, there were no draft deferments for law school. The ROTC folks could only guarantee me two years of ROTC before I would have to go into the Army and Law School was three years. So I enlisted in the army a few weeks before I was to go in as a draftee and signed up for Officer Candidate School(OCS) . Because of my political beliefs there was never any thought of not going (ie going to Canada or faking a physical problem). I was a Hawk, but felt we were not fighting the war in Vietnam to win. I left for Basic Training in early September of 1969 .

Basic Training- Fall 1969.
After going through the Armed Forces Examination Station in Portland Oregon I was sent by commercial airlines to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Or as we liked to call it "Fort Lost In the Woods". Basic was not fun for a guy who is not coordinated, short and not an outdoorsy type. I learned to fire an M-16 rifle, throw a grenade, run, march and march. I still remember the night we had to crawl under barbwire while they fired live machine guns over our head. The course had mud as thick as a milk shake and it got into our rifles and down our necks and it was cold. One guy got caught in the barbwire and so they turned on these big light to get him out while the rest of us laid in the mud and all I could think about was going back to the UofO. It took a lot of effort to get the mud out of that rifle. In fact we had to take them into our showers and then oil them down.In, the last few weeks of Basic training, we were given our orders for OCS. There were three possibilities. Infantry OCS at Fort Banning Georgia, Artillery OCS at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and Engineer OCS at Fort Belvoir outside of Washington DC in Virginia. We all knew by then that Infantry and Artillery OCS were quick trips to Vietnam and an infantry platoon in the field either as a Platoon Leader or a Forward Observer for the artillery. However, Engineer OCS, put officers in the other branches of the army like Ordinance, MP's, and Military Intelligence. They took us into a large classroom and handed out the envelopes. My friend from Michigan who sat in front of me got infantry. Luckily my envelope said I was going to Engineer OCS in Virginia. Better yet it was close to Washington DC. Toward the end of basic we got a rare pass one night to go to a nearby PX for some 3.2 beer. I went with this farm kid from Kansas who had just graduated from high school. He wasn't going to OCS but was going to go to Infantry AIT and then he knew he was going on to Vietnam. After a few beers he told me he knew he was going to die over there. The passage of time has erased his name from my memory but I still wonder what happened to that kid from Kansas.

Advanced Individual Training- Fall 1969 & Winter 1970.
After, Basic training,in Missouri the Army sent me and a lot of other guys by chartered bus, to Advanced Individual Training or AIT at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Even though I had orders for Engineer OCS, after AIT, the Army sent me to an Artillery AIT to learn Fire Direction Control. In other words, how to calculate how to elevate artillery pieces so it will hit the target. For a guy who had not taken a math course since his sophomore year of high school it was another case of trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Worse, our unit sergeant was trying to run the program as an "OCS prep school" and there was lots of harassment. Worse yet, our commanding officer was an Oregon State Beaver. While at Fort Sill the draft was changed to a lottery system. I had a low lottery number so it would not have made any difference. This is when Bill Clinton bugged out of ROTC as he had a high lottery number and knew his chances of being drafted were very small.

Officer Candidate School- Winter, Spring & Summer 1970.
(I found this picture on the Internet but it sure looks AND feels like it did then!)
After AIT, I received leave to fly home to Coos Bay/North Bend.On the way home my buddy from Portland and I were delayed in Seattle at SeaTac Airport and a nice man bought us dinner. After leave, I flew to Washington DC and met up with some of my buddies from Basic and AIT. We had a few hours to see the sites in Washington DC.The first place we went was the Lincoln Memorial. The next morning we  took a cab to Fort Belvoir for Officer Candidate School.(Class 24 Bravo 1) There was lots of harassment as they tried to make us into officers that would lead men in combat. To start with we did not have "sidewalk privileges", no coffee and had to eat every meal, except on Sunday, sitting at attention.In my OCS unit there was a group of college guys that had been with me since Basic at Fort Leonard Wood.There was a kid from Massachusetts who was married and explained to me what a "ninfo" was; there was a football player from Kansas State who loved the Saint Louis Blues hockey team; there was a married former Peace Corp member from South Dakota; there was a basketball player from Oklahoma City ;there was a kid from Portland Oregon who walked like John Wayne;there was a kid who wanted to go to medical school who's father was a professor at Oregon State.We tried to help each other through this experience. We all knew if we dropped out of OCS we would get leave and then a ticket to Vietnam.The football player from Kansas State couldn't take the strain and dropped out. I can still remember us saying good bye to him. He had been placed in a unit next to ours and said if he had been with his buddies he could have "made it".I became our companies "Command Information Officer" so I could read the Washington Post and keep the bulletin board updated with news. I got to report to our unit current events such as the incursion into Laos and the Kent State deaths and John Wayne winning an academy award for "True Grit". I worked very hard at building up my muscles and got into the best shape I have ever been in before or since. For the 4th of July we got a rare pass to go into Washington DC. We were required to wear our dress uniforms and every hippy and school kid gave us the "Peace Sign" with their fingers.My friend who walked like John Wayne said he wanted to shoot their fingers off. It was very hot.... We went to the Capitol and an aid for House Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma came over to talk to us as we walked around the outside of the Capitol.We went to Georgetown and then rented a car to drive down into Virgina. On the night of July 4th I watched the fireworks and a nice family invited us to share their blanket and gave us some cookies. During our training our unit was taken to Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia near Fredericksburg by bus for a week of infantry training. We spent the week in the woods training as an Infantry platoon in Vietnam. One night we were required to travel cross country all night to avoid capture by the VC. Well, I was captured and taken to a POW camp and rubbed from head to toe with axle grease because I would only give my name, rank and serial number. I was never able to wear that uniform again no matter how many times it was washed. When we got back to Fort Belvoir they started training us for "riot" duty in Washington DC in the event the "peace" demonstrators got out of hand. Keep in mind this was after the killing at Kent State and the incursion into Laos. Toward the end of our training in the summer of 1970 there was a rumor that the Army was going to offer an "Option" to OCS candidates that if we would forgo our commission, as a Second Lieutenant, the army would give us "state side" duty for one year. We had already been in for one year, and we would then be honorable discharged after two years service. The Army was cutting back in Vietnam and they had too many officers. With about two or three weeks to go before I was to receive my commission, in August of 1970, as a Second Lieutenant the rumor turned out to be true and every OCS candidate at all three of the OCS schools were offered the "Option". It was a very hard choice for me to make! I had been working and training for almost a year to become an officer and a gentleman. I had given it everything I had and was going to make it!I had finally passed the Physical Training (PT) test.I was going to be sent to Korea as an Ordinance Officer. On the other hand, I had been admitted to law school and the admission was only good for two years, as I had been drafted. If I became an officer I would have at least two more years in the army for a total of three. After those three years I would have to reapply to law school. By that time everyone and his dog wanted to go to law school and it was hard to get admission.The night before I had to make my choice I was on CQ duty(Charge of Quarters)and had to stay up all night in the company headquarters office.That night on the radio I heard the Sandpiper's song "Come Saturday Morning" which made me think of my time at the University of Oregon and I then decided my main goal was to become a lawyer.Funny, how a song can cause you to make a major decision. I and about 2/3rds of my unit accepted the "Option" and I became an E-4 enlisted man for the last year I was in the Army.
Fort Carson, Colorado- Fall 1970 & Winter, Spring & Summer 1971

I spent my last year at Fort Carson, Colorado. By this time in 1970/71, and the Army was not a happy place. The draft had ended and the Army was moving toward an all-volunteer Army. Many of the soldiers at Fort Carson had served their tour in Vietnam and just wanted out.Others were waiting for orders to go to Vietnam. Moral was very low. The army didn't know what to do with me. I was sent to an artillery unit. I eventually became a "supply sergeant". At one time I volunteered for permanent KP as I would work one day and get two days off. I worked as a dining room orderly.... ie I cleaned tables. Colorado Springs is a very nice place but it gets very cold on guard duty in the middle of winter and Army pay didn't go very far in those days. Just before I got out I made E-5. In Late August 2001,I got an "early out" for law school. I left after surviving my two-year to go to law school at the University of Oregon. When I got back to the University of Oregon I let my hair grow as a protest to my days in the Army. The GI Bill paid for most of Law School.

In thinking back on my two years in the Army I am glad I served. The Army taught me discipline, organization and how to handle stress that I have used to this day. I didn't like it at the time but the Army made me a better person. Even when you are not in a combat zone overseas there is something about being in the military in time of war. Things stand out in primary colors in your mind. Life was very full and had an edge to it. When I got to law school some of the students couldn't take the strain. I always said as tough as the professors are they can't "grass drill" or run you till you throw up. No one is going to shoot at you. Considering the sacrifice many made in going to Vietnam, my time in the Army was very uneventful, but I met many nice people from all over this country. In those days the Army was truly a melting pot.