With Memorial Day soon arriving, my thoughts go back many years now to the time when I volunteered to go into the Army out of high school. I was raised in a family that encouraged patriotism to our country, and it seemed a good thing to do, to fight for our country that is. My father and uncle fought in World War II and they felt that it was important to support our country in a time of need. The year was 1970 and I was heading into the Army, away from my little sleepy town of Jackson, Minnesota.
With the advent of TV and radio, small towns such as Jackson were not immune to the news from the outside world. Vietnam was now raging on for about 5 years and people were being touched in our small community by the loss of individual lives in the war. We could feel the tension in our school as former upper classmates were being listed as “Killed in Action” over in Vietnam. We as young students didn’t really understand all the politics of the war, and we couldn’t have understood what it meant for the families that lost a son in this faraway land.
When I got to basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, I was put in a unit of all volunteers like myself, which is with one exception, a young man who was going back into the National Guard in his hometown. Many of us were happy to serve in the military, but as reports of more deaths were coming back to us, the thoughts lingered in our minds if we would soon be one of them.
Our drill sergeant was a man who had three tours of duty in Vietnam, and he had convinced each of us that we were heading overseas to Vietnam, and that we had “better learn our “stuff” or we would become another casualty. Reality of what was going on was hitting each of us, and we took our training seriously. Given little sleep each day, and sloshing through rain and snow, we were as a unit wearing down very quickly. I remember our D.I. (Drill Instructor) telling us that he was going to make it so tough on us that Vietnam would seem easy. In retrospect, he was trying to save our lives in the event of being sent to war. Each day we got back to our barracks wet and cold. Spinal meningitis was traveling very rapidly through the units, so we had to have our barrack’s windows open every night, so the time that we got any sleep was slim at best. Many of us were getting sick and having to be shipped to the hospital, some having pneumonia.
Moral was getting lower each day while the demands for completing our tasks seemed to increase. Some were reaching the breaking point and I could see it by the looks on their faces. One man from Chicago who grew up on the South side, was one such individual. He was talking about ending it all by taking his life. I was concerned, so I requested to see the First Sergeant. Unfortunately nothing was done and my friend got a hold of a bottle of pills, and he took them. I ran to the sergeant in charge and my friend was rushed to the hospital. A couple of days later he was sent back and was talking again about ending his life once more. I snuck out of our battalion area that night, knowing that it was forbidden to do so, but I was desperate and I was looking for the unit chaplain in a desperate attempt to find help for my friend. I found the chapel, but it was empty and closed down for the night. I then pleaded with the First Sergeant again, and again nothing was done. My friend attempted another suicide and this time he almost completed his task. He just made it, and again was later sent back to our unit with nothing being done. To make matters worse, we were told that in the battalion close to ours that a man emptied his weapon into his drill sergeant. This only drew our unit further down. For myself, I was getting sick with a bad cough and my arches had finally collapsed one evening. I took my wet boots off one night and found that I couldn’t walk. I tried to go down a set of steps, but found myself falling down the flight with no support in my feet. Something was torn loose in my ankles and I knew that I needed to see a doctor. I went the next day and he told me to wear my dress shoes instead of my wet boots. That obviously would not work since the rain made the ground a wet goo of mud and ice that would go over my socks. The problem started when we had to polish our boots each night so that didn’t give the leather time to dry. This in the end, it left our boots useless to support our weight, and so consequently, my arches collapsed, offering no support for my feet. I was determined not to get behind by going to sick calls so I grinned and bore it. I found it harder though to carry my 40-pound pack and rifle since my feet were struggling to support the extra weight. It is strange what a person can do though when confronted with unusual challenges.
A few days later, we had our force march into the mountains towards the end of our training, that was the most difficult time of basic. We transitioned from rain to snow in a matter of hours, and that change made it difficult since the paths were full of round rocks covered in snow, which made it very slippery to navigate. The medics followed us and picked up those that could not make it. I was determined that this would not be my day to collapse. I compelled myself to climb, stumble and forced myself each step until we reached our destination. When finally stopping, it was so dark that none of us could see our hand in front of our faces; we had to feel our tent halves to snap them up. We undressed in the sleeping bag all the while leaving our clothes in the bag with us to keep them warm. If we left our clothes on, we would have frozen due to the fact that our own clothes would have insulated our body heat and kept it from reaching the sleeping bag. After we got into our bags, our D.I. told us to pack up, we heading another 8 miles up the mountain. We ended up reaching the site in the middle of the night, each of us pounding tent stakes into the snow and ice, since we couldn’t find any earth beneath us.
Many things happened to each of us in basic that would change our lives forever. My friend for instance, who attempted in taking his life, I was told that he became a door gunner in Vietnam. I do not know if he survived or not. Others were sent to other bases for further training like myself. I will write more about that later.
After all that, was I as patriotic as before? Well, I had many questions to answer for myself. For example, was this war a just one? Why were we not winning the war since we had a better army and we had a better equipped military? Would I be one of those men that never came home? I just turned 19, would I live to see 20? I was only one of many of thousands of men that were facing these same challenges. For myself, I was not alone in my questions, but I knew one thing, each of us supported one another and looked out for the other guy. I knew too that men were in Vietnam and they had it much worse than myself. I wondered if anyone back home really understood what was going on, and why this war was being fought. For myself, I knew at that point that I did not. One thing I did know though, I loved my country and I would be willing to die for it, but was this cause a just one?