“He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.”
Stephen Crane The Red Badge of Courage
He did not belong here, and he was afraid.
He never tired of telling whoever would listen that his being here was a mistake that would soon be corrected; no one needed to be told he was afraid.
Jan. 29, 1969 U.S. Army Basic Training Center, Ft. Bliss, El Paso, Texas
I’ll call him Charlie. One of about two hundred young men, roughly half and half volunteers and draftees shoveled into the Army’s mill in the Texas dessert for two months basic training. All of us had adjustments to make and a new life to assimilate, some seemed to make the move with ease, some with more difficulty, but Charlie stood out among the difficult.
He really did seem out-of-place, there was little of the martial about him; he was maybe five-eight and still carried his baby fat. At twenty-five he was at the upper end of our age spread; most were eighteen and nineteen. He had a Masters in chemical engineering. When the draft board called he had just started a good job in the lab of a major oil company, a good salary and benefits to cover him, his wife and two babys.They had bought a new house in the nicer part of town and he was set to spend the rest of his life raising kids , playing golf, and building up his retirement fund.
Then the draft board had made this terrible mistake; they weren’t supposed to draft people like him. His mother and father, his wife’s mother and father were writing every one they thought might have the power to correct this error. He spent all of his free time talking to every one he could about it ; the platoon sergeant, the company commander, the battalion commander, the chaplain; I think he even made it up to the post commander. But every morning he was still there. It started to irritate some of us. It was beginning to draw extra attention to the platoon we were in, and the one thing you don’t want in basic training is extra attention. And if that wasn’t enough he had asthma.
When we started weapons training on the M-14 rifle they bussed us about a hundred miles north to the rifle range at White Sands New Mexico.El Paso is technically a desert, but White Sands is a desert, technically and every other way. To the east are mountains, to the west are mountains, and in between is you and sand, lots of sand. We attended classes all day, ate lunch in the field, then marched back to our bivouac area. A long-legged drill Sargeant walked on a hard packed road setting the pace. We ; the trainees; marched along on either side of the road in the loose sand. Carrying eight pounds of M-14 rifle at port arms began to wear after the first mile. By the second mile the sand worked its way into your boots. The small pack with the poncho strapped underneath had somehow doubled and tripled its weight when you got to mile four. When the stoutest of us reached our tents at the end of mile five , we collapsed like dead men, sweating like pack mules and gasping like landed fish.
After the first day, the drill Sargeants would put Charlie at the head of the column on one side of the road or the other. At about the first half mile he would be panting hard, and starting to drift back in the column . A half-dozen men would pass around him, and then he would grab someones pack and let them pull him along. Most would drag him for ten or maybe twenty feet, then they would reach back with one hand and knock him off. I managed to pull him for about a hundred yards once; a mis-guided sense of charity I think. By the end of a week of this, I knocked him loose at twenty feet or so.
He would work his way in this fashion down the column, then when the last man had cut him loose, he would just lag farther and farther behind. A drill Sargeant would fall out to keep pace with him and offer an occasional word of encouragement and now and then a boot in the butt. Twenty or thirty minutes after most of us made it to the tents, Charlie and his own personal drill Sargeant would come dragging in; the Sargeant looking worn from all that encouragement, and Charlie the image of misery.
Basic drug on for two months, into March, and every-one grew a little thinner or a little thicker if you hadn’t been eating too well before the Army took up your care and maintenance.
Charlie lost some of his baby-fat and tanned his face and hands nicely. We all wondered at his ability to hang on , but he did. I think he believed that the effort of his family and friends would bear fruit and rescue him from the fate all draftees feared; 11Bravo.
We were all waiting for our A.I.T. [Advanced Individual Training ] to be posted on the barracks bulletin board, to see our next assignment. The posting would tell you what MOS [Military Occupational Specialty ] you were assigned; my buddy and I were volunteers and were promised 67n, which was crew chief for the UH-1, or Huey helicopter.
11B- or as it was commonly refered to-Eleven Bravo, was the mainstay of the Army, the American and every other army. 11B was the “Queen of Battle”, the Infantry.
Most of the company were milling around in the main hall of our barracks where the bulletin boards were, waiting for the promised posting of our assignments. Every-one was in good spirits; joshing, laughing; showing pictures, telling stories, making promises. We were proud to have passed the first test of the service, to have been where our fathers and uncles had been. To have fought the same beast so to speak ,and to have prevailed. We were proud of ourselves, confident, ready to take on whatever came next. I think that’s why what happened blindsided us.
Some-one yelled “Tenhut” and one of the junior drill Sargeants can thru the doors holding a sheaf of papers in one hand, waving them in front ,clearing a lane and grinning ear to ear. It felt like the bi-monthly ceremony it was probably was to the cadre of the post; the end of the training cycle, probably a few days off for the sargeants, a relaxing of the necessary front they had kept up for two months. He strode to the bulletin board shouting ” make a hole, make a hole” to the hall full of young men who were already backed against the wall and at a brace. He pulled push-pins from the top border of the board and pinned up eight sheets of paper; typewritten and divided into blocks by MOS numbers .
The grinning sargeant turned and scanned our faces. His grin faded down to a slight smile, his facade seemed to drop. He looked up and said rather softly; ” Good luck guys”. The he spun on his heel and was out the door.
The men surged forward and packed themselves up against the board, each man scanning for his name, then finding it and groaning or shouting or silently turned from the wall and fought his way out of the crowd; another man instantly taking his place and repeating the drill.
I waited a minute or two then shuffled thru the crowd untill I could see the pages over several heads. My buddy and I were on page three I think, under 67N- Ft. Rucker, Alabama.
I was turning to look for my buddy and saw Charlie moving forward on my left. The crowd was thinning, and the men seemed to ease back to let him thru. He came up and scanned the first page. The second or third listing was 11B. Halfway down the column under that number was his name. His hand came up and one finger traced down the page to the letters of his name.I thought he was going to pull the paper off the board, but he dropped his hand and started to back up. The hall went quiet and people moved left and right to get out his way. He backed up, his eyes still on the paper, untill his back hit the wall, then he slid down the wall untill his butt hit the floor, and he sat there and wept like a lost child.
The hall was like a tomb; every man rooted in place, no sound but Charlie weeping. No-one chided or jeered, no-one mocked or scorned him. No-one moved to offer comfort. We all watched him for a moment then we all, by ones and twos and threes, just turned away and left him sitting there sobbing.
The Army had spent two months teaching us to fight and kill and to survive. Along with that training was the essential belief that you could prevail on the battlefield, and live to tell the tale. Men do not go to war to die; they go to defend something most cannot name; or to prove something to themselves or some-one else; or to see ” The Great Death” that their fathers told them of. They do not go there to die, they expect to live. The Army spent two months telling us we could, Charlie sat on the floor there and told us we might not. All of us ,sooner or later, were bound for the war. Fear is such a contagious thing, and courage is so fragile that none of us could risk catching the one or losing the other. So, we all just left him there, weeping as though his heart had shattered, alone.
The next couple of days saw us graduate Basic Training and scatter to the four winds, each to his next school.
I spent three months at Ft. Rucker learning to keep a Huey helicopter from falling out of the sky. After graduating, I went home on leave, got married, and sixteen days later was in The Republic of South Viet-Nam, assigned as a crew chief on OH-6’s, in an aerial scout unit. Six months later I was hit; shrapnel and third degree burns. After a week or so in a hospital in Long Bihn,I was sent to an Air Force hospital in Camn Rahn Bay to be shipped out to Japan.
After a few days in Camn Rahn, I was beginning to get my legs back and was growing weary of eating whatever was brought to me, so, I decided to hazard the trip to the mess hall. If I took it slow and used a crutch I could move pretty well.
I made the hundred yards to the mess hall, up the steps and to the serving line. Balancing the tray and the crutch was a chore but I managed okay. The seating was on pick-nick like tables and it took some concentration to get my tray to the table and maneuver myself onto the bench. I laid the crutch under the bench,settled onto the seat,adjusted the tray in front of me, and looked up. Across the table sat Charlie.
All the baby fat was gone. He was lean as a whip, brown as a nut, had a hard look to him, which was difficult to discern because he literally radiated joy. It poured off of him like rain from a roof. His mouth must have hurt from the size of his smile. You could not be in his presence and not smile. It was impossible to frown sitting next to him.
He had an infantry unit insignia on his shoulder and a Combat Infantry badge above his shirt pocket. On his left arm was a bandage from his wrist to halfway of his elbow. Shrapnel from a grenade he explained.
We sat there and talked and ate for about thirty minutes or so, then I followed him back to where he was bunked. The room had about a dozen or so other guys; two or three in bad shape; and they all smiled when he came into the room. He was like the sunrise.
I asked if he remembered that night when our MOS’s were posted.
He looked at the floor, chuckled a few times and said; ” That was some night ,wasn’t it”.
” Yes it was “, I said, ” It surely was”.
Dad, thank you for this story…..It makes me think of that song that Grandpa did, “if I could walk around in Charlies’ shoes.