For 45 years now, January 10th has been a Day of Infamy for me. I tread lightly on this date because of the gravity of the memories I associate with the day I entered the United State Army. I did not go willingly.
Being the fourth of seven sons, with two younger sisters, I had been comfortably ensconced in life, with three older brothers to provide protection, and three younger brothers, for whom I provided the same. It was a comfortable arrangement, and little had ever occurred in my life to rock my comfort level.
Following my June of 1970 graduation from high school, I had naturally begun attending college at Cal Poly, Pomona, conveniently located only twenty minutes away and user-friendly to the max, as we might have put it back in 1970.
Everything was lined up pretty well for me, what with the well-paying union job at the local grocery store and my relaxed approach to college life. I had a wide circle of friends, both from high school and from my new environment, and this led to a broadening of my social life.
|I played a lot of Hearts at Cal Poly.|
I took up residence in the campus cafeteria, using it as a base of operations, from which I functioned quite happily, even occasionally deigning to actually attend class. I played a lot of Spades and Hearts in those days.
I was so lackadaisical that I even ignored an official notification that I would not be eligible to attend classes in the winter of 1970-71, if I failed to take care of a logistical detail, that of getting a chest X-ray, a routine check for tuberculosis.
All students were required to take care of this detail before starting at Cal Poly, and I had gotten away with attending classes the first semester, before the system caught up with me.
Who knows why I ignored it? I simply did not focus on the repercussions of taking that kind of detail lightly. My draft deferment had been automatic, college giving young men an optional, four-year delay in their lives, before being conscripted by the military complex.
Unfortunately, I “won” number 33 in the draft lottery that year and secondly, I had received my official draft notice in December of 1971, possibly minutes past the time that my chest X-ray was to have taken place. Of course, the Vietnam War was in full swing in 1971, and had been all through my high school years.
The threat of ending up in the Nam was as palpable as it was terrifying. More than 500,000 troops were over there when I entered the service, and there was not one of the forty of us draftees, sitting together in the entry station that morning, January 10th, in downtown Los Angeles, who did not expect to end up in the jungle.
There was no sleep for me on the night of January 9th, perched as I was on the eve of this misadventure. My oldest brother had escaped the army’s net because he had some sort of issue with his back; my second oldest brother had high blood pressure, and my third oldest bro was a conscientious objector, a route that would certainly have been my choice, had there been anything in my background that might have substantiated that philosophy.
As it was, I was army material. Whereas, Canada may have been an option for some, for me it was not. Being caught up in the army’s clutches was infinitely more my style, rather than forging my path to Canada. As terrifying as going into the army was, it was not as daunting a task, as setting out on my own, to dodge matters up north.
I am not an adventurous person by nature, so when I got my notice, I accepted it as the price I paid for not paying attention to the fine print. The irony is that had I been able to avoid the net for only another eight or so months, I would have avoided the whole shit-show.
|This is how I remember Pete Townshend.|
But I could not know then, what I know now. There had always been a draft, so my assumption was that there always would be. Who knew? What I did know was that when I saw The Who in concert, December 11th, 1971, one month prior to going into the army, the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” weighed heavily on my mind.
Hell, there was no fooling going on; it was all deadly serious. When I was asked, in writing, whether I preferred being stationed in Vietnam or in South Korea, I checked the box not named Vietnam. Was this a joke? The last time I checked, they had not been blowing people up in Korea for almost twenty years.
When the weight-challenged sergeant with the Missouri drawl, announced that instead of going right up the coast to good old Fort Ord, in the San Luis Obispo area, the forty of us dudes were going to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, his own home state, I was thunder struck.
Far from assuming I would be home in only a few short weeks, for a weekend at least, I knew there was no way I would be coming back from Missouri, until boot camp was done. Additionally, as far as I knew, Missouri got awfully cold in the winter and all I had on was a light corduroy jacket, SoCal all the way. Little did I know at the time that Fort Leonard Wood was known as “Little Korea.”
My new friends and I took a battery of fill-in-the-bubble examinations, hours and hours of basic skills tests. Some of my unclear-on-the-concept buddies, competed with one another to create cool patterns with their answer sheets, short-sighted at best-tragic at worst.
We took the same set of exams several times in the first two weeks of service, and I took the same approach each time: I worked my backside off. The result was that before I left Fort Leonard Wood, I had been assigned an MOS of chaplain’s assistant, which according to those in the know, was one of the best jobs one could get.
When the dust had settled, I was reassigned to a company clerk (71B MOS) status, and when I stepped off the plane and was bussed to Ascom, Korea, where we were to receive in-country assignments and our orders, I was whisked into the commander’s office, so fast my head was spinning.
When I stepped into the sergeant-major’s office, there were no fewer than six uniforms in there, one with a captain’s bars, and they were all staring at me. Sergeant-Major Kaylor had my 201 File spread out in front of him and he had a question for me.
He got right to the point. “These are some pretty impressive test scores, I’m looking at, Private O’Neill. How would you like to set up camp with us right here, in Ascom, in the 199th?”
I did not realize then that this was not routine for the other hundreds of dudes I had flown into Korea with; they all got their orders and moved out. I had merely transferred my gear from the entry station to permanent quarters, quonset huts that were open bays, maybe sixty by twenty feet, with a central aisle and twenty-four men housed in each.
My thought was that they seemed to want me here, which was better than the alternative, so I was happy to accept the invitation, and spent the next sixteen months with the 199th Personnel Service Company, cutting orders for troops heading home.
So yes, January 10th is a tough date for me but it gets better all the time. The twenty-plus years of recurring nightmares have ended, featuring me as a panic-stricken draftee, wondering how in the hell “I got fooled again.”
After forty years of resentment, with little to show for my two years of service, the cup now runneth over. I receive VA health benefits, which is stellar because my school insurance “ran out” five years after I retired. I tried to find out where it ran to, but was not successful.
I also get more respect from friends and acquaintances each November 11th, than I received in the forty years before I got into social media. Finally, after being in denial as to the value of the experience all these years, I have come to not only accept it, but to embrace that I would not be the person I am today, had I foregone the military experience.
If nothing else, my being a veteran allows me to express an opinion on, say Colin Kaeprenick, without fear of being reamed. Oh, I get reamed all right, but am still allowed my liberal views because I backed my views with two years of my life.
|Except for the finance company, this was the best...|
However, this morning my head is buzzing with memories, and no buzz from cannabis can push them far enough away, to make me forget.
When I march in Sacramento in ten days, my being a vet won’t make any difference. I will be just one of thousands demanding that basic human rights be Acknowledged, Respected and Guaranteed:
But after having taken off, to circle to the other side of the globe for sixteen months, heading over to Sacramento seems fairly mellow, unlike the angry thousands who will be marching for basic human rights.
Back in 1971, both major political parties in this country still had basic human rights as their platforms-not so now. That we have to march at all to guarantee against racism, misogynism, and homophobia is a huge step backwards, but at least some of us have been here before so this is not new.
As always, if we step together in unison, we will make a difference. In numbers there is strength and any army depends on numbers. I’m just happy to be volunteering this time around-no draft required.