It was 1973 and the United States was scurrying out of Vietnam. I was a buck private in the Army, heading for Germany. Morale was low. Our readiness was questionable. But this country’s Armed Forces were moving forward. Preparing to get better. Our leaders knew that was necessary.
Today is Memorial Day and we honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us; so we may enjoy our uniquely American-way of freedom. For those still doing it, our thanks does not seem enough. It is, however, deep in my heart this day. Thank you for your service.
Back to my stint in the Army. I was originally assigned to be a gunner on an anti-aircraft weapon called a “Vulcan,” as part of the 8th Infantry. It was a monster of a weapon, shooting thousands of rounds almost instantly. It was like a Gatling gun on steroids. Funny thing about that weapon is that it wasn’t all that easy to operate and when I went through Advanced Individual Training or AIT, at Fort Bliss Texas, I was never tested as to my proficiency on this massive anti-aircraft gun. I actually did not know how to fire this weapon. As I said, our – or more to the point – my readiness was questionable.
Also, I have to acknowledge that I was drinking heavily at this time. I was 23 and, in fact, I did not join the Army in 1973 to be of service to my country, I joined because I thought the Army would be good for me. It would get me off the streets of Los Angeles where I was randomly roaming; maybe turn my life around.
After a short stint in a line platoon in rural Germany, known as Wackernheim, I was sent to 8th Infantry Headquarters to work as a paralegal/court bailiff/investigator attached to the Judge Advocate General’s Corp. How that happened is still beyond me, but it was the first time in my life that I was given significant responsibility.
I received Army training in the ways of legal briefs, case-law, investigatory techniques and running a courtroom. It was a crammed graduate course in all facets of military justice. And it was free. Can you ask: “How lucky am I?”
As earlier mentioned, I was drinking heavily and so I wasn’t the best I could be, but I was doing better because of those around me were committed. They were the best they could be. I guess it began to rub off on me because I, at times, started to try and rise above my irresponsible foolishness.
As said, these were dark days in the Army. Vietnam was winding down and those coming back were bitter; pissed off, actually. I remember one sergeant drunkenly express his distaste for the way we abandoned Vietnam. “I just want to go back and finish what we started. That’s all I want to do. I want to kill those bastards that killed my friends. It shouldn’t have ended this way. Just damn well shouldn’t have,” I remember him saying that with a guttural scowl. Others would repeat that sentiment to me many times.
Some echoed that sentiment while under investigation for serious crimes committed in Vietnam, from stoned-on-duty or even to fragging an officer. It was a tough time.
It must be noted that our Armed Forces have come a long way back since those dark days. Our country’s military personnel have reclaimed their position as the best in the world; the best in the world.
Yes, it was a tough time. But after two years, I came out a different person. I small pilot light had been lit in my soul. The United States Army had done for me exactly what I’d hoped it would do; it turned my life around and thrust me in the right direction. I had not done too much for the Army or the country, but it gave me back my life. How ’bout that for irony?
Directly after the Army, I was to quit drinking and, by using the GI Bill – what a Godsend the GI Bill is – I went and completed my Bachelor’s Degree from San Diego State University.
I was to move on with my life. Marry, have kids, be employed and over the years, realize how fortunate I was, have been and will be. And it all began to turn on the heels of the United States Army.
That message came to the forefront one Memorial Day years ago when my son, Sean – at the time he was 8 or 9 – asked me to attend his school. They were honoring those who had given their life in the line of duty. They asked the kids to invite their fathers or mothers if they were veterans. I was, frankly, surprised by the invitation.
I knew how much the Army had given me but never thought I had given much back in return. But here was this son of mine, eyes beaming, asking: “Dad, will you? Will you?” “Of course, Sean, I will be there. It will be my honor.”
When I was introduced as a veteran of the Vietnam era, Sean smiled from ear-to-ear. I wiped away a small, I hoped unnoticed tear.
God bless this country and those that have protected us and those that still protect us. You are the heroes of the day, the week, the month, the years. May God be with you and keep you safe this Memorial Day.
Those who are not with us, know you live on in your sacrifice; your honor; your courage. My son, Sean, says so. I say so. We all say so. “Thank you” for our way of life.