In 1965, I remember talking to a classmate when I was 14 yrs. old about the Vietnam war. Even then we were speculating about the likelihood of us being drafted into what was then called a police action. I told him by the time we turn eighteen that war will be over—so not to worry. Well, the years went by and the next thing I knew I was about to graduate from high school and that damn war was still going strong. I was turning eighteen a few days before my graduation and at that time every eighteen year old, by law, was required to register with his local selective service board. So, If memory serves me right, I fulfilled that obligation by signing up at my local post office.
< p>< p> Basic Training 1970 Ft. Jackson
The war was being fought unfairly by the poor while the rich and upper middle-class kids were seeking and getting student deferments, medical deferments, or fleeing to Canada. I can’t emphasize strongly enough as to how important this war had become to the eighteen year old. From the ever increasing body count dished out on the nightly news, to the student protests, to the wounded soldiers returning home in wheel chairs–it was inescapable. My oldest sister had brought a returning vet to our home once who was missing both legs and consigned to a wheel chair. I had never seen a person in such condition. There had become such a hue and cry about the unfairness of the draft that a lottery system was devised based on every eighteen year old’s birthday.
The first drawing of numbers, which I was not eligible, was for those born between 1944 and 1950. The results of that drawing, had I been eligible, would have given my birth date of June 8th the number 366 which represented leap year. So, I certainly would have never been drafted that year. The following year of 1970, however, which I was eligible, was for those born in 1951. I received the number 7 for that drawing which meant I was guaranteed to be drafted.
Tank Hill, Fort Jackson, South Carolina
Not being one to wait for the Sword of Damocles to befall me, I approached my neighbor who had earlier joined the Army National Guard and asked him to take me with him on his next drill date where I would join forthwith. Yes, I had successfully dodged the draft by choosing the lesser of the two evils. I would do a four month active duty stint called Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and an Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I received the same training as the regular army draftees with the only difference being I knew I was coming home while the majority of the people I trained with would be going to Vietnam.
The last day of our training, we all stood in formation as the Sergeant barked out the orders for our next duty station. Private So-and-So, Republic of Vietnam, Private Such-and-Such, Republic of Vietnam went the refrain as we stood at attention. One after another ordered to Vietnam while a lucky few heard names like the Presidio in San Francisco, Korea, or a base in Germany. For the minority of National Guardsmen in the company our orders were preordained, we knew where we were going. Some would jokingly say, “Fort Home.”
Although I was only obligated to serve six years in the National Guard, I would stick around for the next nine years. In hindsight, I’ve often wondered if I made the right decision. A combination of guilt I suppose and a sense that I missed out on something akin to a rite of passage. I find myself asking, how many of the friends I had made during my training are now names etched on a black granite wall in Washington, D.C.? I look at the faces in many photographs of the guys I lived with for four months wondering if this one is alive or if that one is alive. We were all so young and dumb. The oldest guy in our company was a prior service 26 year old–and we called him grandpa.
Ft. Gordon, Georgia
So, here it is 2013 and I am considerably older and much more reflective. I have traveled and experienced many things in the world. I have few regrets and continue to enjoy life with the zest and zeal of an eighteen year old. I will be returning to America soon after spending a year in China and Taiwan. Upon my return to Asia, I will be embarking on my next quest—called Vietnam. Not for the beaches or the Pagodas, not for the culture or the food, not for the landscape or the language, but for the War. My war, ironically. I will visit as many of the historical locations that I remember about that war from the iconic photo of the execution by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan of the Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street, to the Son My Village massacre better known as the My Lai Massacre, to the Hanoi Hilton where American pilots were imprisoned, to Dien Bien Phu where the French suffered a humiliating defeat, to the ancient imperial city of Hue virtually demolished during the Tet offensive, to Khe Sanh where the U.S. Marines were under siege and Hamburger Hill. Hopefully, I will visit many sites of battlefield lore and take in the ghosts of Vietnam.
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