It’s hard to believe that only forty-nine years ago this month I was in Basic Training in the Army. The Vietnam War had peaked just two years earlier with the Tet Offensive, but the war was far from over. Every one of us in Charlie Company thought of the possibility of going to Southeast Asia with targets on our backs. About a decade ago, I checked The Wall in Washington, D.C. Not one of my fellow draftees in my platoon from that May had his name on the monument. We were fortunate.
I had always thought that I didn’t go to Vietnam because I kept volunteering to go anywhere in the world, including Vietnam, while I was stationed in Virginia. When people asked me if I was stationed overseas, I said, “yes, I am stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia.” Not many people understood what I was saying, or perhaps they did believe like me that Virginia was a foreign county. In my opinion, it is possible to believe Virginia is a foreign sovereignty; it’s called a commonwealth, and many Virginians who I came in contact with thought that Iowa was a place where potatoes grew on trees.
It was many years after I was honorably discharged when I figured out why I was not sent to Vietnam, or any other foreign country besides Virginia. During bivouac (pronounce BIV-wack), I was assigned to guard a traffic barrier with a couple of other privates. We were given a password and told not to let anyone through unless they had the password.
Shortly after we were strategically positioned around the simple barrier, a cadre of staff, known to all of us, walked up the hill to our position. I yelled: “Halt, who is there?” An assistant drill instructor said, “that’s not how you do it. Here, give me your weapon.” I gave it to him. That little incident was most likely the reason why I didn’t get to see the world beyond Hopewell or Petersburg, VA. Hopewell, home to several chemical plants that stained the water black, and Petersburg, where the Civil War continued into the 1970s.
As I look back at my Army career, I notice a couple other incidents that may have led to my exile to Virginia. Physical training is an essential part of Basic Training. The military used to grade a soldier on his ability to perform certain physical accomplishments. The incentive for this scoring is an automatic promotion from the rank of E-1 to E-2 upon leaving Basic Training. I blew my perfect 40 score. No one in my platoon received a perfect 40.
Not an athlete in high school, I shined brightly in physical activity in my nine weeks of hell in Washington. There are four physical activities in which each soldier was measured at that time. A draftee (I refuse to call us recruits) had to make it through the low-crawl pit and back within a certain time period. If the (unwilling) participant could make it down and back without raising his butt to a level ripe for a sniper attack, he received a perfect 10 points. If the time was less than required, a private would have points deducted. The low-crawl pit was also used to punish. I actually had more practice than the other guys. It shouldn’t be surprising that I earned a perfect score of 10.
There was a second test in which the participant had to zig-zag around some wooden structures. I might compare it to orange cones that college football players avoid while participating in the NFL Combine held in Indianapolis every year. But of course, these structures were not orange, they were camo and hard to see (tee-hee). I think the ideal time for a perfect score of 10 was something like 27 seconds. I made it in 23. Are you adding up these scores? So far, I’m at 20.
The third obstacle was a line of bars hung about 10 or 12 feet off the ground. There’s no doubt you’ve seen these things on playgrounds everywhere. We were to move from rung to rung in 60 seconds and accomplish 76 rungs. I slipped off the 60-something rung. Observers help you up when you begin. If you slip off, it’s up to you to get back on. I can’t jump 10 feet off a sand surface and grab a bar. I had to take a score that was something like an 8.
The final event was the mile run. Two tall guys who claimed to be Nebraska track stars were offered a case of beer each if one of them could break the mile run in fewer than 6 minutes – the time for a score of 10. The drill sergeant who made the offer told them he had never had one of his recruits run the mile in fewer than 6 minutes and he saw this as a great opportunity. We were allowed to take off our button-down shirts and run in T-shirts, but running in army boots and fatigues with a belt was a challenge.
The track was a quarter of a mile. Four times around was a mile. I started in the middle of the pack. On the first pass, the two Nebraska guys were way out front. I may have been 5 or 6 guys behind them. On the second pass, both of them were in front of me, but I was gaining. On the third pass, I had left them both behind me and was out front. As I came around the final turn, I could hear the captain yelling at me. “Run, Ryan, Run. You can make it.” Aside from comparing myself to Forest Gump, I thought he meant that I could make it without falling down. I began to sprint, surprising myself. I didn’t know how close I was to the 6:00 minute mark.
5 minutes and 56 seconds. That was my time. I walked up under the lone shade tree, lit a cigarette and asked the drill sergeant if I could have a case of beer. Sgt. Green (I’ll change his name from Greene to protect his identity) did not think I was funny. Now, I believe that these confrontations I had with Drill Sergeant Green may have been recorded for future Army brass to read. That probably didn’t help me in my quest to be stationed in the Bahamas.
I did not make E-2 out of Basic Training. 10 guys in my platoon of Charlie Company were given promotions. None of them scored more than my 38 on the physical agility tests.
There’re so many more interesting things to tell you about my Army life, particularly my problems with Drill Sergeant Green. Perhaps I was his problem because he didn’t intimidate me. However, ever since I can remember, I have not been good at conforming or taking orders. The person who coined “question authority” had a groupie in me.
Again, please don’t thank me for my service. I often claimed that I single-handedly ended the draft. The Army really didn’t want any more men like me. But I’m proud to have been able to fulfill my duty to my country, no matter how hard we both tried to understand each other.
Believe me, there’s more to come.