A different kind of Veteran

Veterans Day stirs up dusty and dreary memories. I am a veteran after all, though not much of one.  I still see the scar on my right thumb, wounded in battle with a grumpy oil pan at a 4th Infantry Division motor pool.  Still, I too am eligible to go to a VA hospital and be mistreated and ignored.    I have seen the vagaries of military life in a time of peace. I understand why we as a country do not do well at wars anymore.

Here is a brief summary of my military adventure.

Back in the day, the gods of war created the draft.  You had a number.  If it was high, you were “called up.”  That meant a two-year stint in the Army.  Even then, the draft was a farce.  All sorts of deferments laid at your feet.  Stay in college, get married, have children. Most kids my age never saw an M-1, never learned the finer art of dyeing brown army boots black and spit-shining, never had to clear a gas mask or faced the humility of a bolo-ing  on the shooting range.

Any way, I was a low wage-earner with no savings and only a year of college.  Navy ROTC didn’t get me anywhere.  So I “volunteered for the draft,” as they say.  Two years of my time and a nice adventure.  I soon found myself in boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

For recruits it was learning a lot of skills needed later in civilian life.  Long marches, bivouacs, calisthenics and training with rifles and  gas masks, crawling on your belly through mud on an infiltration course with explosives going off at your side and machine gun fire above.  And then there was KP, peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans. And guard duty in the middle of the night, walking around with a rifle on your shoulder knowing nobody would steal anything.  The highlight of your stint was a trip to Lebanon.  Not the country.  The post-town to the west.

I qualified “to go Airborne,” but did not like heights.  I qualified for Officer Candidate School but did not want to “re-up” for more years.  So I stayed with the grunts, the lowest rank of soldier.  The ones who mostly die in wars.

One good thing. Boot camp slammed two different cultures together.  Small-town kids from Kansas like me merged with rough with tumble thugs from Chicago.  We became unified, though, in our hate of arrogant officers and NCOs who routinely lied to us.  If you do this and this, you will get liberty on the weekend, we were told.  We did as ordered, like winning the post athletic competition.  But, alas, no trip to Lebanon.  A lesson in false promises and motivational speeches.

On Saturday mornings a prissy lieutenant would inspect the barracks.  Again, there was the promise of weekend liberty if we “passed.” At first, I thought it was a real inspection.  The officer entered the barracks while we stood at attention and waited his heaven-cast decision.  He checked our beds by flipping a half-dollar coin onto the Army blankets to see if it bounced.  If it did not, the officer was not happy.  He put on a white glove and probed into every nook and cranny until he invariably found his glove soiled.  That distressed him greatly.  No liberty and a weekend of labor and drills.  I reluctantly accepted my station in life.  Slave to the masters.

It was all a game, I suppose, with a purpose.  But, if you had too much pride as I did, you rebelled.   At least privately.

I survived boot camp somehow.  I could strip down an M-1 rifle, clean the parts and reassemble it blind-folded.  I was lean and hard.  But I came away with a life-long distaste for the military life.   Never again would I put myself in a position where others totally controlled my destiny.  I thought of the battlefield more than once and how some officer could “sacrifice” my platoon, my life, for the so-called greater good.

After boot camp and school at Wood, I was sent west to the 4th Infantry Division.  The 4th was then based at Fort Lewis, WA.  For a short time, I served as a supply clerk with the 4th Aviation Company.  The officers flew motorized planes for recon.  No jets.  I typed out forms, or requisition orders.  My daily life came down to airplane parts, mops and brooms, all the little things that make the military function.  I was good at it.  I could type fast and knew all the codes and I worked diligently to escape the tedium.  I kept my spirits up by reading books more I ever had.  I bought a set of barbells from York and worked out in the back of the supply room.

Pay was pitiful.  The figure $76 a month comes to mind.  Of course you got room and board, such as it was.  Near the end of every pay period a sad parade of married soldiers would amble through the barracks begging to borrow money.  They lived off-base and had wives and children to support on the same wages as mine.  I did a couple of loans myself and always got paid back.  I could not bring myself to charge interest as some did.  It was another dim reminder of politicians in Washington wanting to buy an army on the cheap and increasing business for pawn shops.

For a long time I walked everywhere.  Mostly to the PX and back.  Finally, the company clerk and I went together to buy an ancient Plymouth sedan.  It was green and so were we.  We got what we paid for.  The ignition didn’t work and we had to push it so it would start.  We learned strategy from parking that lemon on lonely spots on hills. If the Plymouth was in the mood, we’d head for paradise, a trip into smelly Tacoma where the pulp mills fouled the air.  Compared to the base, it was wonderful.

The highlight of my military career, if you could call it that, was playing ball.  I did little the last year and a half but play baseball, football and basketball.  For a while I thought I had beaten the system.

We jocks lived like kings.  This was particularly true during football season.  We were given “Class A” duty.  We lived in a separate barracks away from the normal, hard-working grunts and slept in till noon if we wanted.  I learned pinochle and backgammon from a running back  from California who also gave me an appreciation for jazz.  The only expectation was to attend practice in mid-afternoon and play the games on weekends.  The games, though, could be hell.  I still remember playing the semipro Seattle Ramblers in a cold, driving rainstorm.  Poor us.

Basketball and baseball got only “Class B” status.  While we lived in the same separate barracks like football, the jocks had to return to their companies in the morning to do this or that.  Mainly I was a driver for the battalion commander, Col. Pete Clainos, one of the few officers I half  way liked.  He was a West Pointer, after all, and seemed secure in his role, so unlike the officers that came up through OCS and college ROTC.

In the summer, though, everyone went on maneuvers in the Rattlesnake Hills above Yakima, on the dry side of the Cascades.  I was a short-timer by then and marked down the days I had left to serve in the underside of my Army cap.  Because I could taste freedom again, I suppose, the slightest of moments filled me with joy.  Like the smell of apple blossoms wafting up from the Yakima Valley at night, and even driving in darkness with a major who couldn’t read a map.

And there was the time, we prepared to go to war in Lebanon, not the town.  Even back then there were tensions in the Middle East.  The 4th was a STRAC unit, ready for combat anywhere in the world within 24 hours, it was said.  We greased our rifles, packed our bags and were on the verge of boarding a train to the docks when everything was called off.  Not that I minded.

So, now, I am, yes, a veteran.  But it is nothing I’m proud of.  I got through the military the best way I knew how.  On the other hand, I was available to fight a war.  But that was about it.  Being “available” is not worth the “shit on a shingle” we had for breakfast.  Not compared to what others have endured.

That does not keep me from wishing the best for all those veterans before and after me who truly served their country in a meaningful way.  Particularly those who actually came into harm’s way.  And extra-particularly those who fought in unpopular and needless wars, like in Vietnam and in George W. Bush’s campaign of empire in Iraq.

Having watched the sons and daughters of our wealthy class avoid wars their parents are so fond of creating, I hope the draft will again return. A real draft with real consequences for everyone.   It is the only fair way to go.  Everybody should be required to do government service of some kind.

If I can get through military life, anyone can.


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