On Being a Veteran

Tank Hill ca. 1978, Fort Jackson, S.C.
Tank Hill ca. 1978, Fort Jackson, S.C.

My 1975 enlistment in the U.S. Army had everything to do with how screwed up the military was coming out of Vietnam. I asked myself, if regular people didn’t step up and fix the mess, who will?

I almost didn’t get in.

Enlisting for OCS (Officer Candidate School), the people who interviewed me before signing me up said, “If he washes out of OCS, then he’ll serve six years enlisted.” They said that right in front of me.

Perhaps my shoulder-length hair didn’t indicate “officer material.” I suspected then, and now, the reason they gave me a chance was because I met the qualifications on paper and they had a quota to fill during a time when public sentiment toward soldiers was as low as we consider Washington lobbyists, corrupt politicians, rats and blue green algae today.

I got in and breezed through basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina on the infamous “Tank Hill.” I remember standing at attention in front of our barracks with some of my mates while General Omar Bradley, the “G.I.’s General,” was driven by in the back seat of a car.

Next was Fort Benning, Georgia for OCS where the company commander tried to ditch me, drug testing me almost daily for a while. Even if I was a user, how was I supposed to get illicit substances when locked up on base for the first eight weeks of training without visitors? Regretfully, I brought some No-Doz with me from Iowa, which was discovered and confiscated (I think) during one of the repeated inspections of my personal gear. I made it through OCS and was commissioned a second lieutenant, with Mother coming down to pin on my gold bars. It was a big deal at the time.

From Benning I took leave and drove home in my brand new pickup truck. A half dozen of us newly minted lieutenants went to the car dealership in nearby Columbus to leverage our buying power. It was a brand new yellow Chevy Luv. After a week or so at home, I drove to Charleston, South Carolina, stopping overnight at a high school friend’s home in Terre Haute, Ind. My vehicle was loaded in Charleston to Bremerhaven, Germany, and I flew to Frankfurt am Main, arriving at my unit in Mainz-Gonsenheim just before the Christmas holiday.

I was assigned to a mechanized infantry battalion as a platoon leader and swear every soldier assigned was either on drugs or selling them. One-by-one people were caught and sent home or to the stockade. On Friday nights I remember catching people using heroin and running them down to the Military Police station. The charges almost never stuck, and if they did, when the soldier was released, he was required to see a drug counselor. It turned out the counselor was also a drug dealer.

In Germany we did most of our practice maneuvers in the winter to minimize what was called maneuver damage to the German countryside. Soldiers used every excuse possible to avoid going out for the sub-zero degree training. It turned out a group of them was dealing drugs and pimping prostitutes across the street from the base. The ring leaders needed trusted lieutenants to stay back and tend the business.

I served three years as an officer, becoming a company executive officer and battalion adjutant, and then got out. I liked the military because one always knew where one stood in the social pecking order. We wore that on our sleeves. It was some of the hardest work I ever did. I felt fully engaged in trying to do something positive for our country.

The mess I encountered didn’t get straightened out until later. I could see the beginnings of it from the group of officers coming to Europe from TRADOC. The unstated mission that everyone knew was to transition the Army from it’s post-Vietnam condition into a force with operational tactics designed to fight for oil in the Middle East.

Things were getting tense in Iran toward the end of my tour of duty. Evacuations had already begun through nearby Wiesbaden. When I asked a group of officers for a volunteer to go to Iran, no one raised their hand. As we used to say, “the balloon was about to go up.” Less than a month after I returned to Iowa, 52 hostages were seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

I don’t understand veterans recognition in the 21st Century. Everyone thanks veterans for their service if they know he or she served. At the grocery store there was a sign in the window advertising a free breakfast for veterans on Nov. 11. Do they think we can’t afford to make our own?

I’m sure they mean well, but to me, it is one more thing on a list of grievances with the rampant militarism and imperialism that characterizes the United States today. I didn’t defend my country for a free meal on Veterans Day.

Whether my military service was a success or a failure, I don’t know. I’m glad I served. It’s what somebody who is a nobody, just clay going to clay, can do to serve a greater good.

We can better thank veterans by taking care of their trauma from serving… and by giving peace a chance.