Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Army and Me

Fort Riley Soldiers represent various periods in the Army's history during a ceremony commemorating the Army's 232nd birthday June 14
US Army photo by April Blackmon (Source)

While I am still planning on posting about the battle of Kham Duc, a battle in which our very own Virgil Xenophon was involved as an F-4 GIB*, all that reading about Vietnam took me back to those years, my formative years if you will. So that post will be later, I can't say when. But it will happen. Eventually.

The Vietnam War was America's first Long War, a conflict which seemed to last years with no end in sight. It was the war I grew up with, the war it looked like I would eventually be involved with.

In 1971 I was in college, had a draft card and everything, no deferment though, I was classified as "1A" - I was in the pool of potential draftees. But by that date, the number of men being pulled in was lessening with each passing year. So the government had a lottery of sorts, there was an annual (IIRC) drawing by which one received a draft number. The draw was based on one's date of birth. The higher the number received, the better.

My number was 201, mind you that's out of 365 (as I recall). The odds of my being drafted into the Army were slim to none.

At the time I was attending a military school, the "Nation's oldest private military academy," some of you will know exactly which school I'm talking about ([cough] Marcus [cough]).

College however, was not my thing. It's amazing what a detriment to studying a new-found love of getting intoxicated can be. Beer and I were very good friends in college. My books and I were barely speaking.

Another factor which lead me to believe that college wasn't working for me is that I was majoring in Modern Languages. At an engineering school. I may have been the only student in that major. At least my advanced classes were severely underpopulated. As in two students, me and some local high school kid.

Try sitting all the way in the back when there are only two of you. Not gonna happen. Believe me, I tried.

So after a year I notified my father that I would not be returning to college for my sophomore year.

"The Hell you won't," spoke the patriarch.

"Dad, it would be a waste of my time and your money for me to return to school." spoke Your Humble Scribe.

I'm sure there was more to the discussion than that, bottom line was, Yours Truly needed to find more gainful employment than the summer job I had. They were willing to let me stay on but being a handy-man was not what I wanted to do. Also factory work paid more.

One thing I will say about my freshman year experience, Army ROTC more than prepared me for Air Force Basic Training. When your company commander thinks that there is nothing better than to run forever (or so it seemed) for morning PT, then your standard Air Force mile and a half is nothing.

Oh, I also learned how to throw a grenade and how to stab dummies with a bayonet tipped rifle. Loads of fun. Of course, in real life dummies won't hold still long enough to be stabbed with a bayonet tipped rifle. But then again, how many of us carry around a bayonet tipped rifle?

Now in 1972 the Vietnam War was starting to wind down, President Nixon had cut troop levels and we were bombing the crap out of Hanoi and Haiphong with great effect. (Don't believe me, ask anyone who was in the Hanoi Hilton during that time period...)

Peace talks were on going and in 1973 a cease fire was agreed on.

Also in 1973, I had been working in a factory for a while. While I was a member of the proletariat, I did not control the means of production. Not even close. The life of a working man was becoming a bit wearisome. The pay was good, I didn't have a lot of expenses and I was having a pretty good time. But life felt, I dunno, empty and devoid of meaning.

So I resolved that I would join the Army. My Dad, my grandfather and my great-grandfather had all been in the Army. Whereas my two older male cousins had been in the Air Force, I was determined to continue the Army tradition in the family.

Went to the recruiter's office, talked to the nice sergeant and was scheduled to take a battery of tests. They didn't have the ASVAB** back then, each service had it's own set of tests. I took the Army's battery of tests and after an intervening period the recruiter called to tell me that he had my results. He was pretty excited.

At that time in our history, people were not lining up to join. When I got to the recruiter's office he explained that I could have any job in the Army.

"Cool. I want to be the Army Chief of Staff." I said, with a grin, of course.

"Well, you know, you need to start at the bottom son, but with..." he started.

"I know Sergeant, I was kidding."

He looked at me oddly then continued by asking me what I was interested in doing in the Army.

"Tanks, Sergeant. I want to be in armor."

The good fellow was beside himself with delight. Like I said, people were not exactly lining up to join. Those that were, weren't desirous of going into the combat arms. (Infantry, cavalry, armor, artillery - you know guys who actually get to shoot at the enemy. Yes, the enemy shoots back but when you're young you don't think on that much.)

That's when the recruiter started getting a little, shall we say, pushy. Seems he already had me signing up, taking the oath and shipping off to Basic. I told him that I needed to think on all this for a while.

He wasn't thrilled but hey, what could he do?

I did return to the recruiter's office, about two months later. There I discovered that the old sergeant had been replaced by a new sergeant. We sat down to talk.

"I'm ready to sign up Sergeant." I offered.

"Great! What do you want to do in the Army? I see by your test scores that you're qualified for any job you want. So what's it gonna be?"

"Armor," says I, "I want to drive a tank. Maybe someday command one."

"Um, er. Well..."

"What's the problem Sarge?" says I, detecting that something was amiss.

"Son, you're too smart to go into the combat arms."

"Too smart?"

"Yup, too smart. You should be an MGM-51 Shillelagh missile technician. We have a crying need for those right now. You'd be a perfect fit with your scores." The good sergeant was nearly bouncing up and down in his chair he was so excited.

"Hmm, let me think on that for a couple of days."

I did return in a couple of days, to find that the recruiter was out of town. A different sergeant was in the office. I told him that I didn't want to be a missile technician in the Army. I wanted to be a tanker.

"Well, you're awfully smart to be a tanker," he exclaimed, "if you don't want to be a missile technician, how'd you like to be a helicopter pilot?"

"Uh, my eyesight is pretty bad Sarge."

"Not to worry! We can get a waiver for you."

"Let me take a few days to think on that Sarge."

Which I did. I talked to the older brother of a friend of mine, he had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He laughed when I told him the Army's intent.

"Hell yeah they can waiver that. They are desperate for helicopter pilots. They let too many go when the war started to wind down. Best think hard on that one. What happens if you're in the air and something goes wrong with your glasses? Like they fall off, like they fog up? What then?"

Yeah, I might be able to tell the difference between the ground and the air in nice weather. Cloud things up and a bit and I'm lucky if I can see the tips of my fingers!

So back to the recruiter's I went, the old guy was back, there was no mention of flying helicopters. I was, however, regaled with tales of how great it would be to be a Shillelagh missile technician.

"Sarge, if I want to be a technician, I'll join the Air Force."

Which I did, about six months later.

The Army could have had me, all I wanted was tanks.


But things worked out for the best I think.

Two F-15 Eagles from the Massachusetts Air National Guard's 102nd Fighter Wing fly a combat air patrol mission over
 New York City in support of Operation Noble Eagle. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lt. Col. Bill Ramsay)

I have no regrets.

US F-4 Phantom and Norwegian F-5 Freedom Fighter (USAF Photo by SSgt. Marvin Lynchard)

* GIB = Guy In Back, the back seater / RIO /WSO. That is, the guy not flying the aircraft. I have seen the term "200 pound self-loading ballast" used in reference to the GIB. But only by front seaters, aka pilots, aka aviators, aka "stick actuators," aka "Stick-Throttle Interconnects," aka "Nose Gunners," and other colorful terms. (More here.)

** ASVAB  = Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. This set of tests is (from what I understand) what everybody takes these days in order to determine their suitability / aptitude for military service.


  1. Probably a good decision for you. In the Army, unless you are in the field, you break starch every day, blouse your trousers, get haircuts, that sort of thing that the Air Force can't be bothered with.

    In your first picture the fourth man from the right was what we wore circa 1965 but his boots would never make it through any formation I ever stood.

    1. Ah yes, the Army was ever anal about those sorts of things. For a time in the Air Force I worked for a sergeant who looked as if his uniform was made of cardboard it had so much starch in it.

    2. My Guard Mount uniform did have cardboard taped in strategic places. The boots were polished with material found on the economy that made them look chrome while still black. The belt buckle and belt tip were polished with jeweler's rouge then shellacked. Competition for the guard Supernumerary was fierce. Three day passes were on the line along with not walking guard at the Campo Pond (Hanau) ammo dumps in the wind and rain.

    3. To be honest, I never understood that stuff. Spit shined shoes, razor sharp creases and the like. We were far more concerned with getting aircraft up to being mission ready. As a maintainer my peace time job was identical to my war time job.

      It's a cultural thing I guess. We had an LT on Okinawa who wanted to play uniform inspection before every shift. The Chief straightened his ass out in a hurry.

      There was no time for that crap on the flightline. We even had a definition for "clean dirt" - your uniform might be stained from hydraulic fluid and whatnot but if it had been laundered and ironed (NOT starched) you were good to go.

      Later on we had uniforms (BDUs) which were not supposed to be starched. We did blouse our boots with that uniform.

      The Army and the Air Force will ever be different. They both have their roles.

    4. During the late summer months, late July, August, early September you might break starch twice a day. Fortunately, that sort of thing wasn't common, but it did happen. :P And then there are "fins". You must break the arms and legs apart from crease to crease. Failure to separate the material all the way to the crease left a "fin". Fins are for the Navy, we are the Army.

    5. Dang, you Army guys are strack.

  2. A long time ago in a Mediterranean recruiting station:

    “I wanna be a cataphract but I can’t ride.”

    “We can get a waiver for you.”

    “Gee, thanks Evocati!”

    ROFLMAO!!! It’s good to start the day with a smile, thanks Sarge!

  3. Good choice. What a horrible war, glad you could skip it.

    1. I have mixed feelings about missing that one. Of course, I'm still alive to have feelings!

    2. We think you made the right choice. :) Not that I am biased. I was in '71-74 but was never sent to SEA. Would have went of course, but do not regret not having to do so. In my latter years I cry at many a memorial for the 50,000+ that we lost in a war we had no business being in. I had many a friend that went there and did not come back. Or came back missing a limb or two.

    3. That's right Ron. Too many lost, far too many.

  4. Sarge, I always enjoy your remarks. I was just a bit ahead of you on the timeline, with a 2S deferment and looking at a May '72 college graduation and a draft number of five. Never bothered with anyone but the USAF recruiter and stopped in over Easter vacation to see my options. Took the tests and I also qualified for every job. The recruiter kind of pointed me to working on F-4 electronics, so I agreed with that and got the guaranteed job. Later that year at Lackland my TI sent me to see some people and take some more tests. Couple of days later I was called down again. Would I be interested in training for a different AFSC? Maybe. Upon being offered my choice of learning Russian, Mandarin, or Vietnamese and hearing that the school was in Monterey, California, (and only Vietnamese was taught at Ft. Bliss, TX) I knew Russian would be for me. Very well then, Airman. But first we'll have to give you an Honorable Discharge, then reenlist you because of the legal guaranteed F-4 technician job.

    So that's how it happened that it wasn't until nearly two years later that I found myself on my first RC-135 mission out of Kadena. Home to all of those F-4s, right Sarge? I always thought the F-4s were great but when they got back from the range around 1530 or so, if I was crew resting after a long mission I never needed an alarm clock to wake up for the night shift.

    1. We took the same tests at Lackland. I was offered Mandarin but I didn't have to get out and back in, just sign a paper saying that I would give up my guaranteed job. I said "Sure, as long as I get a piece of paper for the go to Monterey and learn Mandarin job first." They explained how they couldn't do that, blah, blah, blah. So I kept the guaranteed job and worked F-4s.

      Hell, if things had gone a little different we might have known each other back in the day!

      And yes, those twin J79s on the Phantom tend to be LOUD!

    2. Fact of the matter was that Monterey sounded so much better than Keesler. In those (barely) post-Haight Ashbury days, California was still the promised land.

    3. My tech school was in Denver. Had it been Keesler, I'd probably speak Mandarin now.

      (I did attend one AF school at Keesler. Appalling how badly they treated the airmen. Denver was a paradise in '75.)

    4. Denver was a paradise in 1972.

    5. I wonder what it would be like now, if Lowry was still open.

    6. Aurora has become ghetto central as has East Denver from Colorado Blvd to Yosemite. Lots of nice looking but poorly built houses and condos have been built at Lowry with all the problems of sub prime mortgages. Further North the same thing has happened on what was Stapleton airport. East Colfax remains what it has always been, a human sewer.

    7. Damn but I hate hearing that, WSF. I'm sure someone made a huge profit on that deal...

    8. One "problem" with Monterey was that the place was so blasted gorgeous that it was a bit of a distraction when trying to apply yourself to the intense and demanding language program. I was one of the last AF troops to be quartered with the Army at Company C instead of the AF barracks. Living with the Army was pretty good and we AF types with our perma prest Class A's tended to frustrate the Army First Sergeant at the Friday inspections. With our 1505's and pin on insignias we passed relatively easily, while the Army troops had to worry about starching their khakis and shining their brass.

      I have to admit that the first time you dream in a language that isn't your "mother tongue" it gets your attention.

    9. Yup, had that happen with German.

      Of course, it goes away if you don't exercise it. Nicht wahr?

      Man, I missed those 1505s when they went away!

  5. Nothing shakes up a clerk at the draft board like someone showing up to register on their 21st birthday.
    The folks in the basement at the courthouse were ready to call the FBI on me until I showed them my DD214.
    It never occurred to anyone in that office that someone could volunteer before they were "eligible" for the draft.

    I, too, was told I qualified for any field.
    What they didn't say was I would have to go to school.
    They also didn't tell me about "critical" rates that really only had seagoing or instructor billets.

    At least we had comfortable uniforms with inside out creases.
    Spit shine was for the drum and stumble corps.
    One of the first things the LPOs did when a personnel inspection was announce was tell everyone to match the shoe shine to the man next to him.
    The Skipper was always impressed with how OI Division looked totally prepared.
    He never once singled out any one individual as an example and was pleased to tell us so.

    1. My Dad had the same experience regarding the draft board. When he reported in well after the age of 18, they asked him why he hadn't registered at 18. He told them he was out of the country. They said he should have gone to a consulate, he told them that he told his sergeant and the sergeant said not to worry about it. Yeah, he joined the Army at 17.

      Spit and polish is for parades. I didn't join the Air Force to march in parades.

      Neat and clean and everyone is wearing the same kit. That's the ticket.

  6. I went into the Army in 1972 - and I can tell you I knew more than a few helicopter flight school washouts - they were doing everything they could to wash them out.

    Did someone mention heavy starch?

    A friend gave me a German Army (80s) tunic and I like wearing it. Have taken it to the cleaners (instead of just throwing it in the washer/dryer) because I want it to look good. Tell the cleaner "heavy starch".

    Have learned that they don't know what heavy starch is.

    It's about right when you can set the garment up against a corner.

    You post has reminded me of something.

    "What is your most memorable experience in the military?" - one that taught you something.

    Think I'll stir up the Lexicans site.

    1. I hate heavy starch. Always have. That sergeant I mentioned in an earlier comment, if he died while on duty we'd never have noticed, the starch in his uniform would have kept him upright for days,

      I look forward to your post over at "The Home for us All."

    2. Where is this "Lexicans" site you speak of? I still get " is almost here!"

      Thanks in advance.

    3. That would be here. Also check out The Wayback Machine which has a number of Lex's old posts (unfortunately not all of them, but a lot).

  7. Never investigated the USAF . . . or the Navy. Did have a chat (and a beer) with the USMC recruiters. Ended up taking the Army qualification tests. Scored a 133 on my GT section. That opened anything in the US Army catalog to me. (OCS required a 110 GT) I opted for the Army Security Agency and 98C school (Radio Traffic Analysis). That kept my mom happy, as ASA was NOT in Vietnam (doncha know?). However "Radio Research units WERE in country and when I'd completed my training, I actually volunteered for duty there. Got my wish and was assigned to the 8th Radio Research Field Station, Phu Bai, RVN. The rest is history.
    Having said all that . . . I did work for the USAF at Tempelhof Central Airport as a civilian, with both the 7350 ABG and the 1946 Comm Squdn., back in the late '70s to late '80s. Loved my time there.

    1. Back in the day the Air Force was fun. These days it seems a bit PC for my tastes.

    2. Heh, I guess I'm being polite, Ron.

    3. Snuff - Define "late 80s". I too was in the city during the mid-80s (84-87), though with the folks over on Roosevelt. My brother-in-law was there working on the radar systems. Worked out well, I could go out drinking beer before my family arrived as I was with my brother-in-law, so it was a good thing I was doing. :-) I have also spent a tour or two at Ft. Devens, home of the Army's Secret Assholes, or so it was described to me. ;-) Lots of friends that spent time there. It breaks my heart to drive on post now. Such is life I suppose.

    4. Man, Ft Devens has been around forever. I remember driving by there as a kid. Dad always pointed it out. Still remembering his days in the Big Green Machine no doubt.

    5. Marcus, I ETS'd in JAN 1978, went to work at TCA in FEB of the same year. I left TCA, and Berlin, in NOV 1987.

    6. Heck Marcus and Snuffy, you guys may have crossed paths without knowing.

      Of course, the military is a small world.

  8. Well, a year as a Rook at Norwich would prepare you for any service initial training. Especially back in those days. Rookdom is not for the timid, starting with right after they march you out of the hall on to the upper parade field. While we resided up there we lived literally across the street from the university. The canon muzzle was pointed in the direction of our abode. The first time we were there for the Rooks first week, we had the window open when the canon went off at 0530. Every morning thereafter for the rest of the week we slept with all windows on that side of the house closed for some lessening of the blast. Thereafter, I learned to inquire as to when that week would start so that we could keep that side of the house closed at night. Normally, at that time of the year, sleeping in the Green Mountains with the windows open was one of the perks of being up there.

    When I came in in '77, the Army was changing over to the permanent press pickle suit. I was issued cotton, so I was not cheated of breaking starch. Plus, in SF, we were issued camouflage jungle fatigues. Whenever we went anywhere, it kinda made us stand out a bit.

    Except in the woods.

    The non-standard, Presidentially authorized head gear was another give away.

    Um, and attitude.

    We didn't march much, mostly just at the change of command ceremonies for our commanders. But we could when we needed to and look sharp doing it.

    When we had to.

    As for joining? All I wanted was to join the Army, repel out of helicopters, jump out of planes, and run around in the woods. When I joined they were desperate for 05C, radio teletype operators. So I listened to the recruiter who told me that I could still be on a team as one, took a bonus, and ended up spending 4 years as an 05C. Did Basic, AIT (Ft Gordon), Jump School, and showed up at SF Company at Bragg. I had a contract that said 10th SFGA, but I was an 05C and could not go through SF training (only 11B, 12B, 91B, and 05B), so they thought that they'd have to let me out. Nope. There were open 05C positions in Signal Company, 10thSFGA, which is where I immediately received orders for. So, I got to Group, as a support guy. That's what re-enlistments are for. Second time was the charm. Along with some SGMs that pulled some strings. ;-)

    1. Heh, those super-grade noncoms knew which string to pull and how the system works. Doesn't matter which service.

      I still remember (with some pride) the day we Rooks were recognized. Switched from white to black name tags and were actually allowed on the sidewalk.

      Heady stuff after 8 months of walking in the gutter!

  9. I was a "GIB" before they took pilots out and inserted (wisely) Navigators as WSO types. Most front-seaters, i.e., Aircraft Commanders (ACs) were all old Sr Majors and above long-time former single-seat fighter types who ABSOLUTELY did not believe that they needed any "help" in flying the bird. My first AC at DaNang said to me as we got off the bread-truck and walked over to the aircraft for pre-flight: "Don't touch anything in the cockpit and stay off the intercom unless I ask a question--which won't be happening " "I'm joking, of course, " he followed, "sort of." LOL!

    1. I never could figure out how they could put a qualified pilot in the backseat and expect him (or her) to be content.

  10. LOL. I took the ASVAB back in hjigh school in the early 80's just to cut a couple of classes and I scored high enough that recruiters practically stalked me for the next couple of years with offers of nuclear technician and other boring-sounding jobs. But I wanted Combat Arms too, Helicopters (sadly, no vision waivers in the 80s), tanks, cav scouts, airborne, ect. and I wanted to go to Europe. But back then, we were at peace, Reagan was winning the Cold War, and we were withdrawing units from Europe. Recruiters and I never could seem to agree on a life filled with action and adventure that would also give me some cutting-edge skills for the civilian job market when I got out. So off to college I went instead. Sigh.

    BTW, is that Old NFO in that pic, second from the left?

    1. You would've been good at it Murph.

      (Hhmm, that could be him...)