Stops On The Way

Posted on March 5, 2010


In 1961 I enlisted in the United States Army.  It seemed like the thing to do  because, at that time,  to say that my life was going nowhere would be a definite understatement.  I was 17 years old and  no one could tell me anything because I knew it all.  When I arrived at Fort Dix N.J. that attitude was written all over my face and it didn’t take long to gain notice from a man I would soon become very familiar with. His name was Sgt. Turner and he was to be my Platoon Sgt. through  9 weeks of Basic Training.  Sgt. Turner knew how to get the attention of guys like myself and I believe that in my first hour  I did about 500 push ups for him. Sgt Turner liked nick names and he immediately assigned me one.  He referred to me as Maggot (because I was not fit to wear the uniform that better men had fought and died for). He called me that until the day I graduated from Basic Training.  I was very proud on that last day of Basic when he shook my hand and addressed me as Private.  During all those weeks of training Sgt. Turner taught me how to make a bunk (the military way). How to spit shine my shoes and take pride in my appearance. How to stand up straight, how to be respectful, to say Yes Sir! and No Sir! , to respect authority and what Duty, Honor  and Love of Country was about.  He taught me to shoot a rifle, throw a hand grenade,  survive an enemy gas attack, march 25 miles with full field pack (without complaining) and how to survive if  lost in the wilderness or a prisoner of war.  Sgt Turner tried to prepare me for what wartime combat would be like (he had been there).  He related what a kill or be killed situation felt like (he had done that) and what it was like to have bullets or shrapnel pierce your body (he had the scars and Purple Hearts  to attest to it).  What I learned from Sgt. Turner in those weeks and the attitude change that it prompted, was more valuable, in hind sight, than anything I might have learned otherwise. Ironically, I don’t think I was aware enough of what he had done for me to even thank him before I left for my next duty station.

After Basic Training I was assigned to an Artillery Battalion and a 155mm Howitzer Battery.  I learned to break down a breach block and change a firing pin in under two minutes.  We trained endlessly at Camp Drum N.Y. When we went to the field we slept in two-man pup tents and in the winter the cold would go right through you (Camp Drum is very close to the Canadian Border).  I have three very clear memories of my time there. 1. The bone chilling cold.  2. Being on High Alert and expecting to go to war during the Cuban Missal Crisis.  3. One of the Batteries in our Battalion mistakenly hitting a barn in a neighboring farm-yard with a 155mm shell.

I re-enlisted and was promised that I could change my M.O.S. (Military Occupational Specialty ) from Artillery to Heavy Truck Operator.  I went back to Fort Dix and after 8 weeks of the proper training I was assigned to the Heavy Section of the Main Post Motor Pool. Every man in our section was supposed to be familiar with and licensed to drive every piece of equipment there.  I was very eager back then and made sure that I was checked and authorized (license stamp) to drive everything including the 10 Ton Wrecker. Most of the guys in the Heavy Section were much older than I was, were married,  had more rank and were not  nearly as naively eager as I.  So most of them picked and chose what they would qualify themselves to drive. If you stayed clean and didn’t have to bounce around too much, they had it put on their license.  If it was a lot of work and you got dirty doing it (like on the Wrecker) they didn’t bother qualifying.  One very snowy January day a call came in that one of our 42 passenger Buses was  broken down on the Garden State Parkway.  Our Section Chief,  Sgt.Bernie, came into the Drivers Room looking for someone to take the Wrecker out and pull in the Bus. I of course volunteered, but something within the Sgt. seemed to bother him about sending a teenager out on such an assignment. He told one of the older guys to go and soon it came out that the guy had not bothered to get licensed on the Wrecker. To make a long story short, I was the only one in the section that was properly licensed on that piece of equipment.  After a huge tirade in which Hell Fire and Brimstone were promised if everyone was not qualified on everything by the end of the week,  the good Sgt. bowed to inevitability and sent me out.  His parting words were, “Don’t make me regret this”.   I made it to the breakdown site and as the N.J. State Troopers held traffic I dropped the Bus drive shaft and hooked the Bus  up to tow it away.  I remember one of the State Troopers asking me how old I was? When I told him he just shook his head and told the other Trooper something about only in the Military would they send a kid out in expensive, dangerous equipment to retrieve an even more expensive piece of equipment.  I returned to the Motor Pool with the Bus in tow  much to Sgt. Bernie’s relief.  Much of the rest of my time at Ft. Dix was spent driving the Army Band around to various engagements in a 42 Passenger Bus.  We were beginning to hear much more about fighting in Vietnam  and American Troops were beginning to  be sent there about this time. A contingent of MP’s from our Base was sent there in the summer of that year and as things continued to deteriorate, most of us began to suspect that we would be going there before long. However, to my surprise I received orders to go to Germany.  I arrived in Worms, Germany in the early Fall.  My memory of that place and time was an overpowering constant smell of cooking sugar beets. Long train loads of those beets would go by our Kasserne on their way to the factory that processed them. When I think about that, I can still smell them . Shortly after I arrived I was told that there had been a mistake and I had been sent to the wrong place and that I was to be sent instead to the 35th QM Bn. in Ludwigsburg.  I was assigned to A Company as a Tanker Driver. We delivered JP 4 for fueling aircraft and gasoline to the other bases in the Stuttgart, Ludwigsburg area. Before I ever made my first run, I was told to report to Bn. Headquarters Personnel.  They had seen from my Personnel Records that I knew how to type so they reassigned me to the Bn. S-1 office as a Clerk.  That is how I spent the rest of my time in the Army. I typed courts  martial documents and other military legal papers. I also took about 60 days leave where I traveled throughout Germany,  France , The Netherlands, England, Switzerland and Italy. My buddy Frank and I visited all the great art museums, cathedrals, and medieval towns that we could.  This was a wonderful education paid for by the military.  Which leads me to the point of all this. The U.S. Army got a know it all 17-year-old boy who they had to feed, clothe, provide shelter for and reconstruct in order to be of any use to them. That 17-year-old boy got a place to grow up, learn some character and respect, become responsible, learn some skills, get an education, buy a home on the GI Bill, receive Veterans Medical Benefits for a good part of his life and when the time comes, he and his wife will be buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery,  with a headstone provided, free of charge.  Who came out ahead in that deal? The 17-year-old boy without a doubt.  At the time that the 17-year-old boy enlisted, his main impetus to do so was that he would be drafted sooner or later anyway.  Congressman Charles Rangel has for a number of years been advocating a return to the military draft. I agree with this man on absolutely nothing else but this.  He argues that it is too easy for a President to go around Congress to engage in unwise military adventurism,  when we have an all volunteer, mercenary army. If the President has to send an army of conscripts, that may include Congressmen or Senators sons, or even his own son, he is apt to be a bit more circumspect about it. I would also add  that there are today as many young people at loose ends as there were in my day. It would be in our country’s best interest to give these young people the same impetus that caused me to join the military, that they might gain as much as I did from the experience.  But you say, ” What if that boy had been sent to Vietnam,  and he had been killed in combat”?  That could have happened, but statistics indicate that only 6% of all those in the military ever see combat. Also, of those who do see combat, most survive the experience.  When I enlisted in the Army, my best friend decided to take a different path and went to college instead. In his Jr. year he was killed at age 21 as the result of a traffic accident.  How then can we say that being in  the military carries any more inherent risks than life in general? For far too long we have been telling young people that they must delay adulthood and get a college degree. Far too many have done that and gone on to get degrees in useless majors that only allow them opportunities in jobs where the main qualification is the ability to ask, “Do you want that order with fries”?  To be fair, many go on to get useful degrees and make a good living, but not nearly enough.  It may be time to look to the past for some answers. A college education is not a universal panacea. One size does not necessarily fit all. It might just be the time for an open-minded examination of alternatives like a return to the military draft.  At least that’s my opinion.