Monday, February 28, 2011

Army Years

I guess the best way to get over the Army years is to simply get it done. It is not that I want to gloss over an important period; there were too many who had a much more difficult time than I had, many who gave up their lives. hearts. limbs and psyche. I came close enough to several of these kids (because that is what we were then: kids fresh out of high school or college) to understand the probably permanent damage done to their lives. And I do not mean loss of limbs; these is easily identifiable and corrected. I refer to the damage done to their souls and minds. These areas were not so easily identifiable or dealt with. For many, these msny years later, these are still open wounds.

It is often said that time is the great healer. However, there are some rifts which may take more years than we may have available, before we are able to make some sense from the overall picture. The year of 1967 may be one such time rift. I went from basic training in Ft. Jackson (just went by the old road signs a few days ago when I drove down to Miami) near Columbia, SC, to be sent from there to Ft. Dix in NJ, for the advanced training part of my immersion into army life. I was going to become a heavy equipment operator.
Once in camp, I was assigned to one of the many barracks being occupied by people just like me, in different stages of advanced training. There were also companies of basic training grunts, but they were below our status… so we did not much mingle with them. I do remember there were many miles of sandy trails in this area of NJ, and we double-timed most of them, loaded down with a full pack of some 45 pounds. Lucky me I did not have to haul a ten wheeler on a long rope, since these would become my staple during my time in the army.
I did get to visit my cousin in Secaucus for a week-end and this would be the next to last time I would see him… No he is not dead, we just never communicated again after he agreed to be my youngest daughter’s godfather some years later. That is the last image I have of him: hanging on to her for dear life, so as not to drop her head first into the baptismal fount. Well, I’m digressing again…
During my advanced training time in Ft. Dix I was informed that despite having had the highest overall scores in the entry test taken that month, I would not be accepted into the OCS (Officer Candidate School) because I was a “security risk”. I know that over the years the Divine presence has been with me in many situations when all I could see all around was black. Apparently, also when I could not see beyond my nose to ramifications of decisions I was about to make. I wanted to make a career out of the Army, don’t ask me why now. Maybe it was the uniform. The thing is that when access to this school was denied, my interest was totally deflated and I became a two year man.
Considering that all young officers coming out of that training center in those days went straight to Viet Nam and stayed there until better or worse, I do believe it was that Divine intervention that kept me out. So, with my swimming background, I became a water safety instructor instead. There are hundreds of ABs (army brats) of that time who had my signature on their middle and high school advanced water training programs. Having finished advanced training and being in Special Duty as a WSI while awaiting my marching orders, I had the chance to go to some local motels and hire myself out as a lifeguard on weekend afternoons. It wasn’t the money (not much…) but the chance to get off base for a while with access to the pool and the bikini clad ladies. At one of these pools I met Carol.
Pretty, long blonde hair, blue eyes and the fiancée of one of the base Captains. Yep, you guessed it… she became my first wife. We were married in Chappaqua, NY a couple of weeks before I was to be shipped overseas. When the time came to go, I found out my eventual destination would be Okinawa, not VN. I cannot say I was disappointed; VN was not the destination of choice for most guys, although close to 70% of the personnel being trained in those days did end up there.
This tour of duty brought me very close to the reality of that “undeclared” war. I was charged with going to the retrieval docks and bring back to the base’s junkyard those trucks and vehicles which came back from the jungle, pretty well mangled and destroyed. Often still with dried blood and some left behind personal belongings. Many of those foot soldiers who came back from ‘Nam ended up in our barracks as a sort of mid-way house and their reentry into a battle free environment was at times, extremely difficult. With some I became friends; a number of them came back to the States where I truly hope they were able to establish a normal life; some chose to go back to the front. These guys had become used to having death around and it was better to get back to the environment where this was acceptable, and not to remain in a place where violence was not a desirable option. I do not know how many of these made it back. Someone said once: “war is hell” and indeed, it is.
While in Okinawa, a group of us decided to take the off week ends and travel around the islands. I got to visit several of the atolls where our guys fought and died in WWII. In Iwo-Jima I visited the site which has been immortalized as the hill where the US Flag was raised by a group of grunts, after a very bloody fight. There were still old, rusty shell casings to be found in some of the more far away corners of the area. I can honestly say I am not a violent person; except in the course of self defense or in the defense of someone in my family. Mindless violence only brings humans to the level of a very basic animal. Even this is questionable, since most animals will only become violent in self defense, the defense of their pups (and here, usually the mothers) or when there is need to kill in order to eat. Never for the sake of violence, as humans often act. Anyway, in visiting these sites which are part of the American folklore, it comes to mind just how many young lives have been lost in this past century alone, all over the world, by all sides involved.
These were times in turmoil everywhere and Okinawa was not any different. A then occupied island since the end of WWII, it was an important military spec; it was close to the war and close to the Japanese mainland as in: “don’t do anything dumb, we are watching you…” Within the island, we were often told not to go out alone into the countryside or into the city, that there were too many groups claiming for our being thrown off the island. In all honesty, I never encountered this type of problem; then, whenever I went off into the countryside, I did so as part of a group of at least 3-4 guys. Did not go much into the “watering holes” in the city either, where these “close encounters of the 4th kind”, were more likely to take place.
While I was there, Carol had placed a request to have me transferred back to the States. She had a daughter from her previous marriage and Carol claimed I was a needed male presence in her house and sole support. Through the efforts of the then congressman from the area (can’t remember his name…) my tour overseas was shortened by some 2 months and I came back to Fort Dix, to wait out my time in the armed forces.
This discharge finally came through in October, 1968 and I went out into the world, a world that was very much upset –whether rightly or wrongly so- with all that was going on overseas. Most guys who came back in those times, especially those who had been on the front lines (a manner of speech, for in this war there were no real fronts, but a theater of war where there were no real “safe” areas) came back to a hostile environment, which almost blamed them for whatever those who created the environment felt was wrong with the world. This added much pain and burden to the already overextended emotional state of many returning soldiers, and too many of these kids literally lost it. Many families were dissolved, many kids were lost to the world immersed in easily available drugs and, at best, most of us simply wanted to throw these years into a sealed bin and forget about them. That is the part which created the rift, even more than the actual fighting. It simply hurt like hell to come back to your country and to your home to find insulting messages, attacks, and a general back turned to us.
And so ended my Army TOD; I was discharged honorably as an SP4, since my SP5 stripe had, at the time of discharge, not been on my sleeves long enough to qualify as a permanent promotion.
Be Well… back soon!

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