The Boomer Files
WHERE WERE YOU DURING VIETNAM?
I'll tell you something.
"The Vietnam War," the 2017 Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part, 18-hour documentary series, which "tells the epic story of one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history" made me reflect on where I was and what I did during that still-emotional event.
Technically, I was a draft dodger.
I attended the University of Colorado 1959-1963, and so I had an educational deferment until I was graduated. When I received a "Greetings" notice to take a military physical, I met with a local Army recruiting sergeant and discussed my options, because I did not want to get drafted, be sent to fight in Vietnam, and perhaps get killed in a war I didn't support.
The sergeant said only volunteers were going to Vietnam at that time, but who knew what might happen in the future. So, he told me that if I enlisted in the Army for three years instead of being drafted for two, the Army would guarantee what school I attended after Basic Training, which would give me a military occupational specialty (MOS) code of something other than infantryman and thereby probably avoid being sent to Vietnam.
Because I was a journalist and writer, I chose to attend the U.S. Army Information School (USARIS), located at Fort Slocum, NY, on Davids Island in Long Island Sound just off New Rochelle, and I signed the papers that guaranteed me that assignment.
The day for taking my physical came, and because I had bad eyesight and wore glasses, I cheated on the eye exam by claiming that I could read only as far down as the line above the line that I could actually see, hoping that would prevent me from having to serve in any capacity at all. It didn't work.
However, I was kept overnight at the hospital in Denver, where the physicals were being given, and I assumed that the examiners had found something that might make me ineligible, anyway. That night I made friends with another boy from western Colorado, and he said that he sure hoped he passed the physical, because this was his third time of trying. The next day we were all standing in our underwear in a large circle in one room, and a sergeant came up to me and told me to walk to the door and back. Because I thought that I had flat feet, and I believed that flat feet could keep you out of the Army, I walked to the door and returned, trying to walk as flat-footed as I could. When I got back to the sergeant, he said, "Did you know that your right shoulder is lower than your left shoulder?" I didn't know that, and I passed the physical.
I was ordered to take basic training in November 1963 at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A week after I left home for Missouri, a draft notice arrived at my parents' house. As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by THAT much!"
Basic training was Hell in Uniform. "Yes, Sergeant!" "No, Sergeant!" "Here, Sergeant!" I took three books with me, THE NATURAL HISTORY OF NONSENSE, FOLK SONGS OF PROTEST, and HOW TO WIN AT POKER, but they were confiscated from me, and I was told that if I had time to read, I should read the ARMY MANUAL, but that my three books would be returned to me after Basic. (I got only two of them back; for some reason, HOW TO WIN AT POKER had gotten lost.) However, the most notable aspect happened after the first week on November 22. I was standing in formation on the parade ground, and I heard someone say, "Did you hear about Kennedy? He got shot." I thought the speaker was talking about some soldier in our company named Kennedy and that he had accidentally shot himself with his own weapon.
After we were sent back to our barracks, we learned that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, but because we were Army recruits in the first month of basic training and it was a weekend, we didn't have newspapers, we didn't have radios, and our only access to news was the one television set in the company office, from which all the information we received of the events was second and third hand. We missed the shooting, we missed the capture and killing of Oswald, we missed the swearing in of LBJ, and we missed Kennedy's funeral and the iconic image of John-John saluting as his father's body passed by.
Basic training taught us to be able to kill, with our weapons, with our bayonets, and even with our hands, abilities that I still have today, although I have never used them. During Basic, we heard about one soldier who had accidentally been killed during the night-time infiltration course, in which we crawled on our backs underneath barbed wire with machine-gun fire shooting live rounds and tracer bullets to give us an idea of how high above ground the bullets were flying. It was raining, and crawling on our backs just scooped the mud up into our shirts. We never learned if the story about one soldier being killed was true or just a rumor, perhaps spread by the drill sergeants to keep us on our toes, stomachs, and fingertips.
After basic training, I was sent to electronics school at Fort Bliss, TX, outside El Paso, where I was learning what the colors on transistors meant, and after a week I was taken out of class and sent to Personnel, where a PFC handed me a piece of paper and said, "Sign this." I read it, and it was a waiver of all promises the Army had made me when I enlisted. I told the soldier that I wasn't going to sign it, he passed me on to a sergeant, who read my records and said, "You're not supposed to be here." I said, "I know that."
The sergeant said, "Don't worry. We'll send you to Fort Slocum," and I asked how soon, because I had sent my laundry out for cleaning that morning, and it took a week for it to come back. The sergeant said not to worry about that, but don't send any in the next week, and I was put on daily detail, which meant that each morning I was assigned to different duties each day, sometimes Kitchen Patrol (KP), Quartermaster detail to stack and hand out uniforms, and policing the parade ground, or walking around and picking up trash.
Three weeks later, now with a month's worth of dirty laundry, I went back to that Personnel sergeant, he recognized me and said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "That's what I'd like to know," and that afternoon I was on a commercial flight to NYC.
I attended both journalism and radio-broadcasting classes for a double MOS, and after graduation, I was retained to be an instructor in the Applied Journalism department and began teaching new students, but I had connected experiences with Vietnam. The commanding officer of the department, Lt. Col. Lane Carlson, always greeted new students with, "Vietnam isn't much of a war, but it's the only one we've got," I was part of a mock press conference in which we interviewed the first Medal of Honor recipient from Vietnam to give him practice answering questions, and I learned that