Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Once a Soldier Always

Me by my locker in boot camp

I’d forgotten about that period in my life for such a long time. It was two years juxtaposed between stumbles in education and prying open the door on my lost years. Now it’s back in flavor whether the conflict in question is justified or not.

Back in early 1964 I had dropped out of the University of Minnesota before they asked me to take a hike. Two weeks later I got my draft notice but fooled them all by volunteering for the Army instead of having to wait around for several months before the inevitable.

It was two years away from home and my girlfriend, learning new skills and traveling the country. To be honest, I couldn’t wait to return to civilian life. Back then I looked on that period not necessarily with fondness but rather with an abject acceptance of it being a minor detour out of my life. Now with creeping age and reluctant maturity, I realize I answered the call from my country and did my duty…and I’m damn proud of it.

So much of that period of my life was re-captured and/or imagined in ‘Love in the A Shau’ in the persona of Daniel and his adventures in life and the military.

Me on the steps of the barracks

Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri offered up my first taste of ‘hurry up and wait,’ screaming drill sergeants, diverse interests and goals and a yearning for life back home.

Showing off my PFC stripe

The Presidio of San Francisco back then was considered the ‘country club’ of the Army. I grabbed every opportunity it offered me. College classes at night. A great part time job in an art theater in a sketchy part of town. A motor scooter to challenge the hills of the city. Tip-toeing through Haight-Ashbury and the wonders there. Wandering down the coast to Half Moon Bay, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and other coastal communities. No serviceman had ever had better duty.

Life was so good there; I volunteered for duty in Vietnam because it was in a foreign land and included hazardous duty pay. The Army was getting 500 applications a month, but mine wasn’t accepted. Of course, they weren’t shooting GIs back then.

Fort Polk, Louisiana

Fort Polk, Louisiana was the flip side of that city by the bay. It had to be some of the worst duty on earth. Summers in Louisiana are and were a modern day version of hell on earth.

Reading in a snow storm

Listening to the Beatles

Fort Lee, Virginia was good duty for a sergeant who was a short-timer and ready for a new chapter in his life. It was all coming to a close and I had no regrets. Then two weeks before my discharge the captain called me into his office and presented me with his best offer.

It seems he had been watching me and liked what he saw. Putting on his most father-like appearance, he confided in me. “As sergeant in just two years, I can see that you could have a great future in ‘this man’s army.” He threw out a few more platitudes then gave me his punchline. “Re-enlist now, son, and I guarantee we’ll send you to Vietnam.”

Mustering up my most sincere look, I politely declined, citing my enrollment back in college and classes starting in just several weeks. To be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered what my life might have been like if I had taken him up on his wonderful offer to tour South Vietnam between mortar rounds and sniper’s bullets.

After that, my life moved on and I forgot about those twenty-four months, 1964 through 1966. The bitter aftertaste of Vietnam lasted a long time for my generation. For me it was time spent out of the loop and living another kind of life.

Then eventually, some president found a reason to go to war again. We were off to the killing grounds for the next generation. Now the media and government PR machine embrace the military. “Thank you for your service to our country.” Sad but true, men and women go off to war and we’re back in the game again.

Spec 5 (Sergeant)

Politics aside, I’m proud of my time spent in the service. I wasn’t a ground-pounder or in Recon or Special Ops. Daniel got that out of my system and safely ensconced in my imagination. It was time spent in the service to my country and an opportunity to pay back my country for past generations.

My father holding me as an infant

This is the country of some long forgotten itinerant peasant who came over from France generations ago. An immigrant who brought his love of life and passion for work first to Canada, then Quebec and finally down through the generations to the Twin Cities. It was a grandfather, a father and finally the father of my children who now have children of their own.

In retrospect, my time spent in khaki was a small price to pay for what my country has given to me and my offspring. For all those generations and for me, it truly is the land of the free and a cauldron of opportunities for the taking.

45 Days to go

I did my job in the United States Army and I did it to the best of my ability. Two years is a long time out of a young man’s life. But it was time spent in service to my country.

I owed my country that much.

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