News & Politics » Feature

A Military Memoir: I Lost the Vietnam War

It was a dirty little job, but somebody had to do it.



Military Intelligence? Isn't that a contradiction of terms? --Bullwinkle

A decade after the war, the wretched, fragging draftees have become the army of martyrs, greasing the cogs for the Pentagon's lust for Central America. The dead have been accorded a wall that in its blackness recalls the race of a disproportionate number of the victims. The Wills and Buckleys pontificate that the sins of the victors have expiated those of the vanquished Yankees. The swill machine has announced that Vietnam was okay.

Say it ain't so, Bullwinkle. Tell them that in the 60s we didn't need Polish jokes, light bulb jokes, or Mr. Bill; we had the war, all the humor we'd ever need. Remind them that the war began when Eisenhower cancelled a free and open election in Indochina that would have elected Ho Chi Minh to the presidency. Tell them how the sergeants said that you could tell the Vietcong by their black pajamas, when everybody in Indochina wore black pajamas. Tell them that the only people who went to Vietnam as grunts--combat troops--were black, stupid, fatalistic, naively patriotic, or all four, except for the pukes--the lifers, the career people, the "beggars"--who needed Vietnam like a prospective corporate lawyer needs law review.

I lost the Vietnam war; it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. I lost it by not going over--and because every soldier knew I was right. When I announced at the induction center that I was going to avoid going to Vietnam because it was a dirty, unconscionable war, the recruiting sergeant knew in his heart that I wouldn't have to go. When I stood up in an Army political indoctrination class (yes, our side does have them) and said that the war began as a politically expedient move for the Eisenhower administration, I wasn't censured; that was common knowledge among the pukes, who loved old Ike for it. Their attitude was to grab stripes while they could, for they knew that eventually the politicians would move in, and, like the guy said, create desolation and call it peace.

In August of 1966, a right-wing graduate student, after waiting for DePaul University's administrators to take their vacations, had gone through the student files and turned in to his draft board every man who had dropped a course, including me. By the time the administrators returned, the ten-day period for appealing reclassification had expired. By mid-September I was in the Army.

Looking back, I see things that I could have done. I could have taken my physical after snorting heroin. I could have had my girlfriend swear out a warrant for rape. But I was 19, naive, under pressure from my family, and so angry at my fate that I accepted it orientally. The committees that might have saved me, the American Friends Service Committee and other draft counseling groups, hadn't yet risen to prominence. I kissed my girl good-bye and took a troop train to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division, the "Screaming Eagles."

Life in the Army, predictably, was stupid. Our drill instructor, a near midget from a small Wisconsin town, had taken an instant dislike to the three of us who had "Jewish" on our dog tags, and mercilessly bothered the other two during drill sessions, inspections, and after classroom exams. I soon became his most hated soldier because I knew all the drill moves. At least once a week, the DI would stick his little face up to mine and yap, "Rand, you sure you didn't have any college ROTC?" I would always reply negatively; I had taken ROTC in high school, information I did not volunteer. Don't volunteer--that's the first thing you learn in the Army. There's also "Privates aren't paid to think." And "Rumor Control is wrong 99 percent of the time." The sergeants' catechism.

I wasn't avoiding Vietnam on a wing and a prayer. My Army test scores had qualified me for Officer Candidate School, and the Army was desperate for second lieutenants, which both sides were destroying in droves. If I received orders to report to Asia, any recruiter would cancel them in favor of OCS.

"The field," as bivouac was called, was supposed to be the most excruciating experience in basic training. By the time our bivouac week arrived, bronchitis had my weight down to 126 from my usual, skinny 146. With my shaved head and protruding ribs, I looked like an Auschwitz inmate (and felt a bit like one). But the field was wonderful. The woods were full of subtle, late fall colors, and the company hiked by moonlight. Standing guard, you could get a big cup of fresh coffee and watch a parachuting Screaming Eagles training brigade blossom across the sky at sunset, only to melt into camouflaged invisibility a few hundred meters away. Sleeping in a bag on an air mattress was better rest than the barracks bunks provided.

By day, we ran an assault course on which two men covered each other with live ammo as they assaulted pop-up targets, moving toward the objective at the end of a hundred meter course. And we threw hand grenades. It was hard on the ears, but so nice to watch the fear plastered across the DI's face as you pulled the pin. There was a pit behind you in case you dropped your grenade and the DI had to kick it in; there were plenty of rumors about DIs following the grenades into the pit.

One thing I remember vividly: We were crawling on our bellies through mud as a DI fired a machine gun over our heads. I stopped and lay on my back and watched the tracers fly past against the starry night sky.

Fort Gordon, Georgia, where I was assigned to signal school, had new brick barracks with some minor concessions to privacy. The radio-teletype students, however, lived in tents, each big enough to house a squad of a dozen men in ingenious discomfort. To protect the occupants from the 20-degree winter nights, each tent had an oil-burning field stove that often ran out of fuel, broke down, or filled the tent with smoke. The tent floors were made of wooden skids, the kind that are used to keep forklift loads off the ground. Bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling in this grim, cramped fire hazard, the meanest place I've ever lived in.

Our squad was the usual Army potpourri--four obnoxious, stupid rich kids from Long Island, three of us from the Chicago area, and the rest from small-town America. There was the mandatory puke, a pimply twit from a small town in southern California. Puke was tall and chubby, a white center if he played basketball; he was determined to be a hero in Vietnam (no doubt a victim of a failed romance--recruiters specialized in love's losers).

Our platoon sergeant was the most ludicrous specimen of noncom that I was to meet. I don't remember his name because everyone called him Elmer Fudd. His speech was identical to the cartoon character's, and he was hirsute, jut-browed, and grotesquely twisted. Elmer had been wounded twice in Vietnam through great stupidity and no valor; each wound brought the mandatory Purple Heart and a recuperative stay in a cushy hotel in Saigon, Elmer's favorite city (he loved the decadence, and the fact that most Asian bar girls didn't realize how ridiculous he sounded). His wounds made him walk like a crab, so the Army wouldn't let Elmer rejoin his infantry unit in the central highlands to try for another Purple Heart. Another reason for their refusal may have been Elmer's extraordinary combination of no brains with no common sense--he was stupid even for a grunt.

Marching anywhere with him was mass hysteria--"Yew weft, yew weft, yew weft, white, weft," he called cadence. Other units within earshot were immediately convulsed. If he produced a gem like "Wand, guide to da white of da woad," all Fort Gordon business seemed to stop for several minutes, as when the flag was raised or lowered. The total effect was not diminished by his marching lurch; he walked like a three-year-old trying gallantly to ignore a big load in his briefs.

Like any right-thinking American patriot, Elmer hated New York City with a cold fury. Our rich Long Island idiots became his primary objective in the tent. Even better, the tent next door had decided to begin the revolution; it was--couldn't you tell?--the beginning of the Summer of Love, 1967.

Every magazine photo, every album cover, every news report on youth was a flash from a far-distant paradise. Women displayed themselves with abandon. Men grew mustaches, beards, and long hair to protest the arrogance of corporations and governments. All of the talk in the spring of 1967 was of freedom, because most young people no longer had any. Quitting school meant the Army for a man, a boring clerical job for a woman. Continuing your education was no guarantee of employment. The safest course of action was to acquire more graduate degrees and stay stoned. California became the retirement village where "Ecotopia" would bloom. In 1967, Berkeley was a hipper school than Harvard. In Marin County, the wretched refuse of the liberal arts would try to learn communalism.

The tent next to ours, which became Elmer Fudd's obsession, was populated by two or three members of the California revolution. Puke had recognized them instantly, even though we all had shaved heads and identical uniforms, and he had headed for our tent to escape. In California, the lines had been drawn--the Doors or the Dodgers, Haight-Ashbury or Orange County, Granola or Big Mac, blotter acid or Coors.

The ringleader of the revolution next door was Steve Carson, whose father was a character actor on television. (All the surnames in this story have been changed.) Steve looked like Howdy Doody's older brother--reddish-brown hair, wide open blue eyes, and freckles. He felt sorry for everybody who wasn't from California, and patiently explained the right answer to all questions to anybody who would listen. Quite a few did.

His answers had a leitmotiv: drugs. Only after one smoked marijuana could one begin to live. Only after a hallucinogenic experience could one ascend the ladder of consciousness. Carson delivered his Steppenwolf-style (like, the book, not the group, man) diatribes with religious fervor.

And like the preacher who reads you the story of Lazarus and then asks for money, Carson was willing to sell you what he glorified. At first, the drugs arrived from Los Angeles by regular mail--most notably, a peyote bud birthday cake that his "old lady" (which suddenly meant live-in girlfriend instead of wife or mother) had sent packed in marijuana instead of popcorn or shredded paper. Later, he developed supply lines within the Army that included everything from horse tranquilizers to heroin.

Steve's tent also had a puke, a chubby teenager from Brooklyn named Ralph. At first, Ralph wanted to be a hero in Vietnam. Later, he wanted to go there for a different reason--Steve had him addicted to heroin.

Steve believed in heroin--"a beautiful experience, man--I've been there. Unless you've been there, you shouldn't put it down." Steve giggled when talking like that, a true creep.

Ralph ran out of money a few weeks into his habit, and tried to drown himself in a rain barrel. He survived the attempt, but was never seen again. More than likely, he was given a general discharge "unfit for military service"--and went home to his conservative, working-class Catholic family in disgrace. The Army's cure for drug addiction was to throw you out into the street.

Steve didn't know the meaning of organized resistance; the revolution that he loudly proclaimed went on in the brain. Elmer Fudd took it all in, and pulled a shake-down inspection one night. He lurched into Steve's tent and found Willie, a former Motown session man if you could swallow his jive, smoking a disgracefully large bomber.

"Is dat mawijuana, twoop?" Elmer asked accusingly.

"I dunno, man, whattaya think?" Willie gave the bomber to Elmer. Raoul, a former east LA street gang member, stepped from behind a locker with a Polaroid, snapped Elmer with the bomber, and ran away. Steve then announced that if Elmer kept harassing them, the incriminating photo would be shown to the new battalion commander, a combat veteran with a tough reputation.

"Watch out, Elmer Fudd," Steve said. "Or you'll never see Vietnam again."

I got orders to join an infantry battalion forming at Fort Hood, Texas, with Vietnam as its destination. It was the assignment that I had tried hardest to avoid. To make things more ironic, almost everyone before me alphabetically, and even a man after me (his name, I'll never forget, was Rossiter) were sent to Germany, where I had wanted to go.

Being from Chicago had done me in. My section of the infantry unit was a Radio Research Unit, a euphemism used for members of the Army Security Agency, which was part of the National Security Agency. The NSA wasn't supposed to be in Vietnam, but there were NSA Radio Research units anyway. Since the FBI had to clear every member of NSA for security purposes, NSA chose soldiers from big cities where the FBI had field stations.

The Army role of the ASA was to monitor radio traffic, to pass classified radio traffic, and to engage in electronic warfare--jamming and attempted penetration of enemy radio or radar networks. Vietnam had forced ASA, considered an elite career branch of the Army, into using draftees in the communications section and in various menial capacities like cook, mechanic, and truck driver.

You'd think it would be illegal to draft a man as a soldier, make him an illegal spy, and then send him against his will to Vietnam. And you'd be right--18 of us had been sent to fill 3 communications slots in the hope that 3 out of the 18 could be pressured into volunteering. All 18 men refused.

At the Administration company where we stayed while waiting to be shipped out from Fort Gordon, everyone was assigned a daily detail. Under a mattress, I had found a field jacket with, "Beasley" on the name tag, and had put it on. When the first sergeant came through to assign KP detail, "Beasley" allowed himself to be caught. KP was a 16-hour day, and pure harassment. At bedtime, the field jacket was rolled up and thrown into a bush.

The next morning, Rand--who was not on any detail--got up a bit early, grabbed his records, and bugged out of Admin company. After a morning at the PX with coffee, danish, and the Atlanta morning paper, including crossword puzzle, it was time to return to Admin company for lunch and the roster check that went before it.

"Beasley, front and center!" roared the first sergeant, a typically lush-looking lifer. "Beasley! Beasley!"

After an extremely close check of the men in ranks, a young buck sergeant pointed out in an unfortunately loud, surprised voice that there was no Beasley listed on the official roster. General laughter in the ranks put the first sergeant into a snarling rage that could only be soothed by pushups and chin-ups.

Rand left after lunch for perhaps the safest spot on post, the library. The library was full of everything that the average sergeant could not understand--books, classical music albums, women, officers, children, and enlisted-grade intellectuals. For a sergeant, the quiet, beerless library was worse than church. No sergeant would bother looking for a bugout in a dreary, dull place run not by good ol' sergeants, but by smart civilian women.

I had plenty of free time that summer, because I took three months to check into the ASA company I'd been assigned to--a process that normally took no more than three days. Nobody bothered to check on me, and through some lapse, the company commander and the first sergeant hadn't explained to me that I was to report to the Communications Section every day, to suffer under the sun in the motor pool washing trucks and armored personnel carriers. And since I had never been in a permanent duty station before, I couldn't be expected to know what to do--"You're a private; you're not paid to think." My peers in the barracks couldn't tell me what to do; they didn't outrank me. Anything that they said would be considered a rumor, and "Rumor Control is wrong 99 percent of the time." Besides, I filled in for more guys who wanted to get out of KP than any other five men in the company.

For the first two weeks, I visited a check-in site a day before settling in at the PX. In three days, my 17 fellow ASA candidates were safely in the motor pool, and in the busy everyday existence of the large company, I was soon completely forgotten by everyone except the duty and pay roster clerk--I had to sign up for duties like KP to get on the pay roster. Had I been wealthy, I could have gone home until my discharge; in fact, I later met two men who had slipped through the huge cracks in the brain of the Army and spent their two years working construction in southern California. When they returned to exit the Army, their red-faced company commander attempted a court martial; the case was laughed out of court. The upshot of the court martial was that the Army had to pay the men for their two years of service, give them the good conduct medal and an honorable discharge, and make them eligible for veterans' benefits. In the hundred-degree heat of Texas, I branched out from the library and added the post swimming pool to my rounds. I could ogle girls in swimsuits, guzzle soda, and acquire the only decent tan of my life. Military police regularly checked the pool, but I merely had to show them my company pass.

The "ASA" on my pass struck fear into all GIs, who referred to us as "buddyfuckers" for our ability to put anyone, even a general, on report to Washington. The MPs wouldn't question me because of my top-secret-plus national security clearance. The clearance had cost me a trip to Europe; now it was getting the Army off my back. It was Old Testament justice.

One week, they announced that the ASA company would be split into two companies--one for each armor division at Fort Hood. I was on the list of soldiers assigned to the new company on the other side of the fort. I was in the Army again.

The only thing to do was to volunteer immediately--not for Vietnam or officer's school, of course, but for the detail that would ready the old frame barracks across the fort for the 202nd Army Security Agency Company, attached to the 1st Armor Division. In the tiny company of about 100 men, there would be no hiding.

Campbell, a six-foot-six specialist fifth class with a New England accent and a degree in mining engineering, was in charge of the detail. He knew what to do.

"Stick around the area, but fuck around," he said. "We should be able to stretch this into a week's work, and get a three-day pass out of the deal."

The entire detail was drunk the entire week, and sure enough, it earned us a three-day weekend. I put in a call to my girlfriend, stuck out my thumb, and met her in Memphis less than 11 hours later. We went straight to a drive-in, where Blowup was playing, and ignored the invisible tennis ball.

I made it back to the fort in two rides and got the bad news. I'd been discovered when the new company's commander had told my platoon sergeant not to worry, "because Rand has a three-day pass."

"Great," the sergeant had said. "Who's Rand?"

The charge was Absent Without Leave, abbreviated AWOL for some perverse reason, and called "Awall." Maximum sentence in wartime was death, but since Vietnam was an undeclared war, I could sneak by with just ten years of hard labor. Since I had been AWOL for three months, a maximum sentence was not unlikely.

I strode into the CO's office and saluted; the first lieutenant was a blond, slender Scandinavian type in his late twenties. "Sir, Private First Class Rand reporting as ordered." Somewhere along the line, I had been promoted.

The CO had to read a Miranda-like card before beginning the proceedings: "You have the right to remain silent; you have the right to consult an attorney, you--"

"Sir, could you stop, sir?"


"I'd like to consult an attorney, sir."

"Rand," snapped Lieutenant Knebel, blushing with anger and surprise, "Now listen . . ."

"Request permission to consult an attorney, sir!"

"Sign out in the orderly room," he sighed glumly. A former Marine drill sergeant who had changed branches to become an officer, Lieutenant Knebel had hoped that swift, merciless justice would make an example of me.

By stopping at the library and PX coffee shop, I took all day to see an attorney, a captain at Judge Advocate's. Feldstein had been drafted just like me, and saw me each Saturday at Jewish services (the 60,000-man fort had one Jewish chapel).

"So whaddaya want me to do?" shrugged Feldstein after he heard my story.

"You're a captain; he's only a first lieutenant," I replied. "Call him and tell him he doesn't have a case, and to drop charges."

"But I'm not the judge," Feldstein said.

"This is the Army, Feldstein," I reminded him. "If a captain tells a first lieutenant he doesn't have a case, he doesn't have a case!"

"Sure, it's just like New York politics," said Feldstein. He called, and I was off the hook.

Back at the company, however, the CO still wanted to see me.

"How could we not have a case, Rand?" he pestered. "You bugged out for 12 weeks!"

"I was here the entire time, sir."

"But not in your section working, Rand."

"What's a section, sir?"

He almost jumped across the desk at me as he shouted, "Rand, if you think . . ."

"No, sir!" I cut him off.


"I'm a PFC, sir; I'm not paid to think."

Every intelligent American taxpayer knows that the military budget is an outrageous gouge, but only the most overt rip-offs have been pointed out by the press: the science-fiction weaponry that is too complex for the average GI to operate or maintain in the field, the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers that wouldn't last a week even in a conventional war, the huge public relations organization at the Pentagon, or the cushy military pension deal. These pale beside what we used to call the tactical organization and equipment chart--the TO&E, the most insidious invention of the military. Basically, the TO&E was an elaborate game of make-believe--if total war broke out tomorrow, how many men would be in this unit once it reached maximum strength? The answers were marvelously inflated. The 202nd ASA, attached to the First Armor Division during the biggest military buildup since Korea, had roughly 100 men assigned to it. The unit's TO&E called for 365 soldiers!

Why was this insidious? Because the Pentagon had convinced Congress (not that it needed much urging after the munitions lobby pushed) to furnish every military unit with all the equipment called for by its TO&E. Thus, every unit was so extraordinarily overstocked with vehicles, field equipment, and weapons that the enlisted men would have to spend all their time maintaining it instead of keeping proficient in the tasks for which they were trained. After lavishly expensive testing and training, the job of almost every stateside GI was to clean trucks and guns.

In 13 months of permanent duty, I did not hear or send one group of the Morse code the Army had trained me in for six months. The 18-man commo section did not have a single man who remembered Morse code by the summer of 1968. The section was simply too busy cleaning vehicles in the motor pool to bother with code. For our 100-man unit, we had a dozen jeeps with trailers, 22 "deuce-and-a-halfs" (2 1/2-ton trucks), 8 quarter-ton trucks, 2 electronic-warfare armored personnel carriers, and 6 regular armored personnel carriers--a fleet that could have moved 700 combat-ready troops and their gear!

There was a vehicle for every two men, which was how they were assigned. Once you deducted the officers and sergeants, cooks and kp's who weren't supposed to be driving, we actually didn't have enough drivers to evacuate all our vehicles in an emergency.

Our little unit, nowhere near the size of a normal Army company, was furnished with millions of dollars worth of vehicles and equipment. Figure in depreciation, salaries and benefits (subsidized housing, recreation, and health care), utilities, heat, gasoline, and food, and the 202nd ASA cost millions each year. Aside from an extremely marginal listening post, more a training exercise than a real collection of intelligence, the 202nd contributed absolutely nothing to the nation's security or defense. In every respect, it was a microcosm of the distant Indochinese war--illegal, silly, unproductive, and more than anything, a project run by government bureaucrats to give every department of government something that it needed.

Most obviously, Vietnam gave Defense the chance to fight. Field grade commissions (major or above in the Army) were rarely handed out to soldiers without combat experience, and noncoms could rise five times as quickly in a war zone. There would be extra pay in a combat zone, and more interesting perquisites. Munitions could be devoured with abandon. By not declaring the war, Defense kept itself from closer public scrutiny and an infusion of civilian executive talent that might have taken top posts away from career soldiers--a lesson from World War II. For the real beggar, 'Nam was the best of all possible wars.

The State Department career people got to negotiate, going through elaborate diplomatic machinations--the "search for a diplomatic solution" that guaranteed a prolonging of the agony. A war-heated economy took pressure off of Commerce, Agriculture, and Labor, and even opened up funds for housing, education, and health care until we started losing and the house of cards collapsed.

The kingpin of the whole system was that charming little chart called the TO&E. I would tell you that the man who created the TO&E is probably retired with four stars, but I know better; the military has no trust in men with ideas.

Army life might have proceeded at the level of bugging out and lying low if it hadn't been for Robinson. A quiet, bashful mechanic, Robinson had but one topic on which he could speak at length--motorcycling, his great love. He drove his Kawasaki every day, sometimes cruising the highways of Texas, other times using the fort's tank trail for some off-road excitement. He was a small, wiry man with a thin mustache grown in Vietnam, dark brown, glaring eyes, and close-cropped brown hair that was receding on either side of a widow's peak.

He walked in on a Sunday afternoon, caked with the usual riding dust, and flopped onto his bunk. No one thought anything of it until he refused to go to dinner, have a beer, or even to talk with anybody. The next morning, he refused to get out of his bunk for breakfast or formation. Still dressed in dusty civilian clothes, he lay there staring at the ceiling or with eyes closed. The section chief tried to harass him out of bed, as did the first sergeant, but Robinson ignored them. The sergeants nervously conferred among themselves and with the CO.

If Robinson's mind had gone AWOL, there would be a devilish security problem. Like the rest of us, Robinson had a top secret national security clearance. Someone in Washington might want someone in Texas to explain why crazy people were being given access to classified information. What if a congressman found out, or even worse, Jack Anderson? Beset by a tricky situation, the Army did what it does best--nothing. Robinson stayed in his bunk.

That night, I was approached by Leon Brock, the company's most popular soldier. A former lumberjack from Oregon, he was at the end of a four-year enlistment. Leon had pale skin, black hair, fine brown eyes, and a body that looked slimmer and weaker than it actually was--Leon was the toughest man in the unit.

"Robinson used to talk to you, right?" he said to me.

"Yeah, I owned a Honda 50 once, and he liked to kid me about it."

"I had a bike down in Panama," Brock said. "We talked about cycles, too. Look, maybe Robinson will talk to us now."

We sat ourselves on the edge of his bunk.

"You look hassled, Robinson, what's the matter?" Brock started, but our initial questions got no reply.

"Have we done something, Robinson?" I asked him with a tinge of anger. "I thought we were buddies--how come you're not talking to Leon and me?"

With great effort, Robinson said, "My bike, man. My bike is gone."

"Was it stolen?"

"No. It's just gone."

"If you lost it gambling, the guys will lend you the money to buy it back," Brock told him.

"No. My bike is just gone."

We finally wheedled where he had last seen the bike. Leon took two of our biggest boys out to a local gas station, and there it was. The operator of the station said that Robinson had ridden in, locked up the bike, and walked away down the road.

"I didn't know if he was out of gas and money, or what," the man at the station said.

What happened next would probably not faze a psychologist, but it threw the 202nd out of whack. Brock loaded the bike into the truck, and brought it back to the company. Robinson took a look at it, hopped on, drove it back out to the same gas station, walked back to the company, flopped down on his bunk, and started mumbling about his bike being gone all over again.

The CO took Robinson to the post psychologist, who administered the Army's standardized test for sanity. Robinson tested out perfectly normal. According to regulations, the post shrink couldn't treat him until he had the decency to flunk the Army test. Robinson passed it three times that week, and the shrink refused to see him again.

During the week, Robinson ate nothing and refused to shower or shave. His bike was retrieved a second time, driven back to the gas station, retrieved a third time, and locked to the outside stair railing of the barracks. Robinson was furious that we had locked up his bike.

"If we unlock it," I asked him, "will you drive it back out to that gas station?"

"Yes," Robinson said.

Word came down that Lieutenant Knebel had decided that there was nothing else he could do. We were supposed to go about our business while a crazy man starved to death in his bunk.

Not for us. Robinson began to stink, and must have lost 15 pounds from an already slight body. He hadn't shaved, his hair was tousled, and he had always glared at people a bit disconcertingly. He began to have violent dreams at night; men near him became afraid to go to sleep. We finally took turns staying up to watch him.

A visit by Lieutenant Knebel's battalion commander (from another fort) offered us an opportunity to do something. Without holding a meeting, which might have been a crime under the code of military justice, we told every enlisted man to show up when the battalion commander flew down to Texas to bless the new little company. We'd approach him when he held an "open door" session, during which lower-ranking men could go over their bosses' heads with problems that they felt couldn't be solved at the company level.

Anyone who went to an open-door session was singling himself out for retribution, naturally, so no one ever went. The battalion commander had scheduled 15 minutes at the end of the day for open door as an excuse to leave early for a big fish dinner at the CO's house.

It was a bit disconcerting, then, for the two officers to find 92 enlisted men outside their door at the prescribed time.

Leon went first, to show everyone that it was painless, and to be free to ride herd on a few recalcitrant married men who didn't have to live with Robinson. I would be in the middle, coaching everyone on what they were supposed to say, and Robinson would be last. Leon and I had convinced him that the battalion commander wanted to hear about his bike. Robinson's appearance would move the BC to action--gaunt, and with a stubble of beard, Robinson looked more like Charles Manson than GI Joe.

Even Brock needed a bit of coaching, because I wanted to use my golden opportunity to work on a few other problems. While Robinson was the main point, we were also out after a new sergeant first class who had been brought in to look over our sergeant's shoulder at his troublesome draftees. The sergeant was fat, mean, and pretty cunning. His first move had been to take men out on a field problem, where he learned which could be bullied and which responded to positive strokes.

Those he had bullied, however, said that he had pilfered a significant amount of Army equipment to use in his home and had reported as lost a large camouflage net that he had given as a gift to a headquarters first sergeant, who really had lost one. The new sergeant had not planned on his men telling anyone, since his beggar mind could not envision anyone whom they could tell.

The remaining complaint was about the day room, the company's recreation room, where there was a TV and a ping-pong table. Most first sergeants, ours included, didn't want to bother with a concept as irrelevant as the men enjoying themselves, and put the day room off-limits so that it wouldn't have to be cleaned daily. This final complaint was our negotiating-throw-in that the BC could reject to save face for the CO.

Leon spent a good 20 minutes talking with the BC, insouciantly flipping the high sign as he walked out of the office. The first ten men spent similar lengths, then the parade picked up speed until it got to me.

"So you're Rand," the BC muttered almost to himself. He had half the pages of a yellow legal pad filled with notes, and he looked shaken, not to mention hungry. "Tell me about Robinson."

My account took a long time. He sat and nodded, smoking a pipe and offering an occasional grunt.

"Is Robinson in line?" he asked, and the danger sign lit up in my mind. Organizing the men was a felony.

"Gee, sir, I don't know."

"Ummmmm," he said (meaning "you got past that one"). "Why don't you see if you can round him up."

The nonchalance evaporated upon delivery--the old chicken colonel almost fell out of his chair when he saw Robinson. He took his turn at "But your bike is chained to the barracks"--"No, my bike is gone." It was close to midnight, the fish having turned into mush and the CO's wife into a furious voice on the phone.

The BC promised Robinson that his bike would be taken care of, and that the BC would see that nothing would happen to it. Robinson would come to work in the BCs office until his enlistment was over, and the Robinsons would be urged to get their son some help, since the Army refused. In return, Robinson had to promise to eat his meals and to stay clean.

We won big. We even got back the day room, where the CO scheduled a "heart to heart" talk for the next night (which irritated everyone, of course). Long before that talk, Brock and I paid separate visits to the CO.

Brock, laughing as he exited the CO's office and we passed in the orderly room, told me, "You'll love it."

"At ease!" bellowed the first sergeant, who hated to have his daily routine upset.

The CO's first, subtle question was, "Rand, how long have you and Spec Five Brock been organizing the men?"

"We haven't been doing that, sir," I assured him, and when I leaned forward conspiratorially, he perked up. "You could go to jail for that, sir; it's against the law."

He pushed his chair away from his desk. "You know, Rand, I'd read you your rights, but you'd just go see that captain in Judge Advocate's, and he would tell me to drop the case." When that got no response, he sighed and looked at me. "That's all, Rand."

At the beginning of 1968, I had begun my most important task--getting out of the Army early. I applied to several universities, but interviewed only at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. Northwestern had a summer session that started exactly 90 days before my discharge date, the maximum allowable.

I mailed my applications and prayed, smiling every time I passed a post bulletin board where an official memo from LBJ urged men to attend college and promised an early discharge if they did so.

For most soldiers, the memo was a joke. The armor divisions at Fort Hood routinely turned down all early-out requests, and few GI's knew enough to write their congressmen for help. In ASA, however, our requests went all the way up to NSA headquarters, where politically sensitive agency types were more likely to respond favorably.

Northwestern accepted me, but the CO refused to forward my application for early-out. He wrote a letter stating that Northwestern's acceptance letter was "not in compliance with Army regulations," and cited various regulation numbers. It was pure harassment. I called the dean of admissions, who laughed at my suggestion, but quickly sent me what I wanted: a one-sentence letter stating that Northwestern had accepted me for summer session "in accordance with all applicable Army regulations." The CO sent my request to battalion with a seven-page typed letter requesting that my early-out be denied.

When my early-out came down approved, it was the final indignity for newly promoted Captain Knebel. He went berserk in his office when he first found my orders, and had to crawl around on his knees most of the morning to pick up papers. He sat on the orders all week, refusing to admit that I had won.

I had scheduled five days of leave, Monday through Friday, for the following week. I was planning on leaving early on Friday afternoon and returning late the following Sunday night, turning the five days into nine. On the Friday morning scheduled for my departure, however, I was told to see the CO after dinner that night--a truly bizarre appointment time.

The CO's staying late had forced the first sergeant into staying in his office on the one evening that the first sergeant's wife let him bend more than a few at the NCO club. The first sergeant was in an ugly mood. He had a 12-pack of Lone Star Draft in his station wagon, and it was calling out like a siren.

After letting me sit in the first sergeant's orderly room more than an hour, the CO told me to enter his office, and let the first sergeant leave. Instead of making me stand in place at parade rest, as one usually did in front of one's commander, Captain Knebel asked me to have a seat.

He was in the throes of a midlife crisis. He had the dazed look that you find at a funeral on the faces of the immediate family. Knebel either stared at me or avoided looking at me during our chat, which was certainly the strangest talk that I would have in the Army.

"You'll be happy to see this," he said morosely, handing me my early-out.

I fingered the orders with the greatest love and amusement, and said nothing. My pulse beat like a drum, and the orchestra in my soul played Beethoven's Ninth. Fifty-eight days and a wakeup. I hadn't gone to Vietnam, and had saved some of my buddies from the same absurd fate. At least one sergeant from every unit I'd served in had left the Army, usually because of me. Most important, I hadn't "gotten with the program," the Army term for someone's will being broken. I had not wound up like Steve Carson, who--according to Rumor Control, which was almost never wrong--became an airborne Green Beret, married a Vietnamese woman instead of his LA cutie, and came home a pro-Army combat veteran: a grunt puke.

After a silence of several minutes, Knebel said, "You're that sure you're gonna make it on the outside? You're just gonna change into your civvies and fit right in!?" He looked wild-eyed.

I told him that I didn't care if I fit in or not, and that I only wanted to make it on my own terms.

"You know," he stammered, "you seem so sure of yourself. Now when I tried it . . ."

Dread filled me, I knew that I was to be the recipient of his entire life story. Elmer Fudd had done it, my midget DI had done it. When these clods felt themselves outsmarted, they wanted you to hear their pathetic confessions.

Knebel told me his bleak story of failure on the outside at a school for radio announcers, of all places. In a way, he was a cut above the average Army loser. His story, a resume of failure, was restricted to profession and surprisingly stoical. His family was rarely mentioned. Blame was not scattered. He had no illusions of bad luck; he accepted responsibility for his inability to be a civilian.

Close to midnight, the conversation flagged. Captain Knebel was beaming; I'm certain that he felt that some kind of breakthrough had been made, that we understood each other as never before. He shook my hand, hopped in his car, and drove off the post to a well-stocked refrigerator and the charms of his spouse.

Instead of being in Chicago, I was alone in the middle of Fort Hood, Texas. The PX, bars, and local liquor stores had closed. My comrades were in Austin, Waco, Killeen, or dreamland. I undressed slowly in the dimly lit barracks, kissed my orders, and hit the sack.

But my military career was not quite finished. A few days later Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Fort Hood's units were put on alert and targeted for cities where rioting might go beyond police control. The 202nd was targeted for New Orleans, a long shot, but Knebel eagerly loaded up jeeps and trucks. I was part of the skeleton crew left behind to guard the barracks.

On the third day of the alert, the CO called for me and a guy we called the Hawk. The Chicago-targeted troops were moving out to an airfield in Austin, and Military Intelligence had no drivers who knew Chicago. As the captain turned green with envy, and the Hawk and I just turned green, we reported to MI and soon found ourselves in a massive convoy bound for Austin.

The Air Force base at Austin was spooky. Combat conditions had been ordered, so the base was dark. The eerie exception was the floodlit area where the spy planes were kept. Each plane was wrapped up as if by Christo, and had its personal gas-masked guard with M-16, bayonet, and attack-trained German shepherd.

Before long, we drove our jeeps up the loading ramps of C-141 Starlifters--big-bellied jet transports with thin, flexible wings--and whooshed into the sky. The jets maintained a convoy speed so that none of us could figure how fast they could really go, but we still made terrific time to the military section of O'Hare. "I'm surprised that we had to wait two hours for you," I told the master loader of our plane, "the way these things move out--where'd you have to come in from?"

"We're not s'posed to tell," he replied, then leaned over and murmured, "Wales." To this day, I'm not so sure that he was kidding.

Combat landings are unnerving. The descent is steep, and as the wheels hit the ground, the big rear loading door is opened to reveal runway moving under the plane at 80 or 100 miles per hour.

Even more unnerving was Chicago. Traffic was light to nonexistent. Rush Street was filled with helmeted police tactical squad men instead of the pretty people. Standing at North and Wells in Old Town, one could hear sporadic gunfire to the south and west.

Headquarters troops like the intelligence unit were stationed at the Chicago Avenue armory. Most of MI's information came in by teletype, but certain types of sensitive information had to be hand-carried. The Hawk and I were the couriers.

The MI captain chatted freely about Army surveillance of black gang leaders and other civilians (a postwar scandal). The largest south-side gang, the P Stone Nation, had 1,800 paid government informants in its 5,000 members; only 600 were thought to be reliable. The gang's leader, Jeff Fort, was so scrutinized that his bathroom was bugged.

It soon became evident that one courier was enough. Since the Hawk's hometown girlfriend was at work that day, he let me off. I worked the next day, picking up information at a military intelligence unit hidden in a Park District complex on the south side, and returning north to the armory.

The Outer Drive was deserted. It was a cold, clear April afternoon, a day that normally would have had sun-starved Chicagoans walking their dogs through the lakefront parks. It was Chicago after the neutron bomb, I told myself.

Deep in gloomy thought as I was, the blue Cadillac still caught my eye. It was a big, soulful four-door parked on the right-hand shoulder, and just to the right of it were prostrate forms--two prone dudes hugging their heads.

The scene made no sense to me until I heard a hiss and a tiny puff of grass exploded near one of the men. A second later came the crack of a rifle.

I was in combat. After successfully evading it during the largest military buildup of my lifetime, I saw combat in my hometown.

Since a sheet-metal jeep body offered no protection from a rifle slug, I chose not to stop. I wove across the lanes of the Outer Drive, shifting from gear to gear and varying my speed. The sniper rose to the challenge and shot at me instead of the civilians; some of his shots passed within 15 yards of me.

The rifle bullets made a strange hissing noise as they traveled through the air. We'd always used a machine gun during our basic training infiltration course, and I had never before had the privilege of hearing the full music of a single round.

I listened very carefully to it, and I remember it well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

Add a comment