J. David Markham
Can it really have been that long? Half a century? It was then that I was drafted into the US Army and eventually sent to Vietnam. Paul Simon says there must be 50 ways to leave your lover but I can think of no way to forget the summer of 1968 and the year or so that followed. Remember, this was the year we lost MLK Jr. and RFK. There were riots in the streets as the war escalated. There was Tet.
Young and Stupid
There is an ironclad rule that when people not in school are being drafted, you stay in school. So of course for a number of reasons, including a certain lack of success at the University of Iowa, I ended up driving a cab for a while. I applied for the National Guard, hoping to avoid the worst. Not gonna happen. Uncle Sam sent me his invitation to engage in some Fun, Travel and Adventure, aka FTA.
In college I had been very much against the war, and once drafted I really had a tough decision to make. Many of my fellow young people in a similar situation were moving to Canada to avoid the draft. Some people called them cowards and even traitors, but I never bought into that. They were going to a very different place (at least it seemed so then) with a very uncertain future. Their ties to their home country might never be restored. While I took a different path, I have always admired their courage.
I could also have burned my draft card, but that always struck me as a futile gesture.
I finally decided that I would answer the call to serve the nation, even though I thought the war was a distinct disservice to the nation. I had ideas of a political future. I also believed that somehow, some way, I would come through it fine. In that I was certainly proved correct.
A Blissful Experience – Or Not
I was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, outside of El Paso, in January of 1968. Never was there a more misnamed fort! Basic training took me an extra couple of weeks, due to hospital time with double pneumonia. But hey, I got to tell a nurse, a lieutenant, to please move so I could mop where she was. Yes, sick as a dog but they had me mopping the floor!
Basic training was interesting. Lots of PT (physical training, i.e. running with full gear), marksmanship, crawling under barriers, etc. Up really early. Because our sex drives seemed to be missing in action the general feeling was that they were putting saltpeter in our food. The drill sergeants said it was just because we were not used to such exercise. I suspect he was correct. Our main drill sergeant was Sgt. Seabrease, a short thick man with whom you did not want to tangle. We often heard that he would always win fights at the enlisted men’s club or the local pubs. We had no trouble believing that. But I really respected the work he did. He was up before dawn and with us off and on all day until bedtime. If I recall he was an E-6 staff sergeant, though he might have been an E-7.
During my time there we had two excursions. One was into Mexico to see a bull fight. The other was an evening at someone’s home. I drew a very nice couple whose rec room was full of guns. I have no use for bullfights or rooms full of guns unless it is the local arsenal.
There was one time that a colonel was retiring and they wanted some drummers to bring in the colors. I volunteered to be one of them. There were four of us, and the other three were almost certainly better than I was. But I did know how to do a simple cadence well and managed to go first. The captain liked my style and the other better drummers had to follow my lead. An important lesson: if you do something well, make sure it becomes the standard over something you don’t do as well. We got to wear white belts and chrome helmets. Fun.
I could tell you more interesting stories, but I can already see the editor of this project tearing out her hair. Over 700 words and you are just leaving basic training. Arrrgh!
Go (Further!) West, Young Man
After basic training, I was shipped to Ft Huachuca, Arizona, for Advanced Individual Training (AIT). My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was 05B20, which was signal corps. That meant that there was a very real chance that my job would be to carry a PRC 25 (commonly known as a prick 25) on my back in the jungle. Not good. But I made the best of it. A friend and I worked a scam for a while that got us out of some duties. We claimed to be processing for OCS (Officer’s Candidate School), but would spend most of the time shooting pool or wandering around. Another time they wanted someone to teach Morse Code. I learned just enough to make them think I knew what I was doing, so I got to be the teacher using a manual rather than actually having to learn the stuff. I also got a long weekend in Phoenix with the Sergeant Major to play in a bridge tournament.
I did learn some things there, though, and generally made a good impression on the staff. One thing I learned was that if you didn’t want your fate decided elsewhere, take the initiative. I moved up in rank from a private (E-1, or Enlisted-1) to a Private-E2 with one stripe and then to a Private First Class (PFC, E-3). I was then sent to a holding company for a few weeks, and soon received orders to go to Vietnam.
Way Up North
Well, not that far, actually. Before going to ‘Nam I had 30 days leave. So first to Iowa City and Peoria, where I married my first wife, Nancy. We took a short honeymoon in Chicago. We stayed a few nights in a hotel on Lake Shore Drive and then stayed with our friends Chris and Karen Ely further north. Do you remember what was happening in Chicago in the summer of 1968? Yep, we were there just in time for the Democratic National Convention! We saw the demonstrations, the flag pole climbing, and numerous politicians. One night when it got really bad, Chris and I drove to help people who had been beat up by the cops. It was a unique political experience. The next DNC I would attend was in New York City in 1976 as an Honored Guest (and local candidate for office in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin). It was quite a different experience, to say the least!
Good morning, Vietnam
In August, I went to Vietnam. We flew commercial (TWA I think) with a stopover in Hawaii. They actually let us go into the airport where we –wait for it—got lei’d by some young lovelies! Hey, I never promised I would have no bad puns in this piece!
I was assigned to the 9th Signal Battalion in the 9th Infantry Division, located in Dong Tam, way south in the Mekong River Delta. I was to be a radio operator, and my biggest fear was being assigned to carry a PRC-25 (prick 25), which was on your back with a long antenna that served as a target while you sloshed through the jungle. I could also be assigned to a base radio (ANGRC 95, “Angry 95”), which would have been much better.
When we lined up for assignment, I remembered the early lesson: take the initiative! So when I got to the Specialist 5 (E-5), I pointed out that I was married, had three years of university and could type. Glory be, he made me the Company Clerk for B Company! There would be, at least for now, no jungle duty! After some time I was assigned as a clerk for S-2 (military intelligence, and no jokes about that being an oxymoron) where I received the security clearance of ‘Secret,’ which was actually not that high. In due course I moved into the battalion HQ, but more on that later.
We lived in two story wood buildings called ‘hooches.’ The ground floor was protected by sandbags piled outside, the top floor by the wood walls. You will be shocked to learn that the higher ranks were assigned the ground floor. A few steps outside, toward the river, were the latrine and the shower. We usually had hot water, for there were only two seasons there: hot and dry, hot and wet. We could see lots of boat traffic on the river, including the famous swift boats and also the ones you saw in Apocalypse Now. I still think that is the best movie on the war, though Platoon is excellent as well.
Young and Stupid, Part Two
Because we were on a base camp of some 50,000 men (and some women, most notably the nurses in the hospital next to us), we were generally not worried about being attacked on the ground. Luckily, I arrived long after the Tet Offensive of 30 January 1968. Our only real fear was the rocket and mortar attacks that we had to deal with routinely. When I was first there, we had some sandbag bunkers to which we ran when the siren went off. In due course, however, we built a very sturdy wooden bunker with four feet or so of dirt in the walls and roof. It even had electricity. It was built right next to my hooch, so was very convenient for me. Out on the river was a small island that we called VC Island for the obvious reason. VC was short for Viet Cong, who along with the NVA (North Vietnamese Army, or their regular army) were the enemy.
Although we generally assumed that the VC went underground immediately after firing a few rounds in our direction, spotter helicopters were sent up to see if they could find anyone. Flares were fired into the air, and they would slowly descend with the help of small silk parachutes. These parachutes became collector’s items, and we would often try to track them down if they came our way. I never got one, but not for lack of trying. We would also leave the bunker to see the sound and light show. That would be the tracer bullets fired from the Cobras if there was something to be fired at. The Huey Cobra helicopter was the best fighting machine we had, and I think was the main reason we could reasonably expect to defeat the VC or NVA in the field.
By the way, there was at least some fear that we would be targeted by the VC. We had two really tall radio antennas in our area, just like two goal posts, to use as a target. We did get hit, but I don’t recall ever losing anyone.
Let Me Entertain You
The top brass understood the importance of morale and provided a variety of entertainment opportunities. We had our enlisted men’s club, a miniature golf course and a library. There was a PX to buy things. They also brought in live entertainment, usually musical, and we had movies all the time. At first they were outside, but later moved into the more secure bunker mentioned above. Two special examples of entertainment do come to mind.
One night I had decided to turn in a little early and pass on whatever movie was being shown. Sure enough, the sirens sounded, and I quickly got dressed and grabbed my M16. When I went into the bunker I discovered, much to my amusement, that they were showing The Green Berets, starring John Wayne. We didn’t need to fight at all, for he would win the war for us!
The other entertainment example that comes to mind was when Bob Hope came to town. That was quite the spectacle, to say the least. He had others with him, including (of course) some Playboy Bunnies. It was great fun, and I can assure you it did not end like the similar event in Apocalypse Now.
ET Call Home!
Communicating with loved ones back home is very important to morale. I am often amused when I talk with veterans of American actions going back even to the Iraq War or Kuwait, to say nothing of more recent actions. When the conversation comes to keeping in touch back home, they can only complain if the Wi-Fi is down, hurting their ability to video talk on Skype. In ‘Nam, we had two ways to communicate in person. We could sign up for the one phone they had that provided free calls back home, sort of a WATTS line. You could wait weeks for that opportunity.
The other way was to record audiotapes. At the PX you could get a small recorder that took a totally enclosed in plastic tape. After making your recording you could then mail it home. In a week or two it would arrive. They could then record a message over it (or in the case of my parents, use a new tape) and send one back.
While it may not seem so, the war did sometimes come to our base camp. One night I had to pull perimeter guard duty. A couple of other guys and me were in a bunker with our M16 rifles, an M-60 machine gun and an M-79 grenade launcher. There was a very large clear ‘killing field’ in front of us. We were to fire on anything that moved.
Another time we were actually attacked on land. We had to scramble rather quickly to get to our assigned posts, prepared to blast away if necessary. In some parts of the base it was necessary, but our area was relatively uneventful.
On a side note, I think it was that night that I stepped on some broken glass while getting dressed, drawing some blood. Someone later told me that I would probably qualify for a Purple Heart (wounded while under combat conditions). I figured it would be an outrage for me to get the same medal that some guy who got his nuts blown off (or worse) got, so I didn’t pursue it. It would have helped on civil service exams and looked good on the uniform, but I have never regretted that decision.
Another time the VC managed to hit our main ammo dump. We heard explosions all night. I was recording a tape to my parents or my wife and you could hear them on the tape.
The ‘Travel’ in FTA
By now I am certain that you are all waiting with baited breath to learn just what was it that I did when not engaged in these other activities. In due course I was transferred to the HQ detachment where I became the R&R NCO (non-commissioned officer). Ironically, I replaced the fellow who made me a company clerk in the first place! Now, R&R stands for Rest and Relaxation. There were two kinds of R&R’s that you could get. The most important one was out of country for one week, all expenses paid. Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Hawaii were among the favorites.
The other kind was in-country at the former French resort city of Vung Tau on the South China Sea. There you could relax for a long weekend at a very secure location. I ended up with two to three of these, though not out of my allocation for the unit. I was able to combine them with visits to our field unit near Vung Tau.
My job was to determine who would go. Each month I had a certain allotment for Vung Tau, which I filled on a first come first served basis. The out of country situation was more complicated. Each month I would get a certain number of seats for different locations. Let’s say if I got 10 seats one month, I might get three for Bangkok, three for Hawaii, and four for assorted other destinations. But often I would have requests for that month that simply did not match what I was given. My predecessor would simply leave those seats unfilled if they didn’t match the requests he had in hand. I had a better idea.
I managed to get a jeep assigned to me for a once a month excursion to my fellow R&R NCO’s around the base (each battalion had one). Whenever possible I would trade seats, giving one that I didn’t need in exchange for one I could use. This brought my fill ratio from somewhere between 50 to 60% to well over 90%, which made everyone, including the command Lt. Colonel, quite happy. My Staff Sergeant, Sgt. Jenkins (how do I still remember that name?) was also quite pleased, and when he was happy, we were all happy.
But wait, there’s more! Sometimes I had tickets to give, but nobody had tickets I could use. So I would trade for X number of SP Packs, or Sundry Packs. These were large boxes filled with pens, paper, cigarettes and other necessities of life, which I then made available to the men in my unit. I was a pretty popular guy.
Speaking of cigarettes, I actually quite smoking (I had been a fairly heavy smoker) while I was over there, the reverse of what you might expect. I stayed off for 5.5 years until my divorce from Nancy got me started again. But in 1982, before I married my second wife, Barbara, I quit again and have been off ever since. I also never smoked any weed while over there, something that quite a few could not say.
I did end up going to Bangkok and really loved it. I went with a friend of mine. Upon arrival, he rented a car and a woman for the week. Due to the second, he seldom needed the first and offered it to me. I went all over town, seeing the zoo, the capital building, countless shops and temples. I went to TIM Land (Thailand in Miniature), where I saw elephants at work and other interesting things. I also saw a young woman who I thought was the most beautiful I had ever seen. She was an employee and I never even got her name. Oh, well.
All of my work must have impressed those above me, even at the highest levels. In April of 1969 I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for my work. The Lt. Colonel pinned it on me. In June I was awarded the Bronze Star, this time given by the commanding general. I was also given the Good Conduct Medal, much to the amazement of many! During this time I was also promoted to Specialist Four and then to Specialist Five, the administrative equivalent of a Sergeant E-5 (three stripes). I know that some folks have talked about award and rank inflation in Vietnam, and perhaps there was some of that. But I feel I richly deserved the honors and am very proud to have them, as I am very proud of the work I did to help improve the morale of my fellow soldiers.
I had other jobs to do, of course. I did the daily bulletin on our mimeograph machine (!). During my days in university before and after ‘Nam, people who were organizing demonstrations or rallies considered it the most revolutionary invention ever, as you could almost immediately post or pass out information all over campus!
It was not all work and no play, of course. We had parties and some played cards. We had a non-denominational church. On some Sundays I played the organ. One Sunday the commanding general and his senior staff sat in the pew right beside the organ. To say I was nervous was an understatement! I adopted a stray puppy, whom I named Troop. He was the cutest thing you ever saw. I often wondered what happened to him after I left.
My most interesting activity, and the one that gave the most satisfaction, took place on some Sundays. There was a Catholic orphanage in the nearby village. As I am adopted, it was a natural to get involved. A group of us would take a two and a half ton truck (deuce and a half) and maybe a jeep or two, and bring important supplies like food, toys and clothing to the kids. We would stay a few hours to keep them company. I have some heartwarming photos of me with some of the cute little kids and the stoic old ladies who took care of them. Of all of my memories of my time there, this is my favorite. But war reminders were never far away. The metal gate was pock-marked from machine gun fire during Tet, and I was fired on once when driving my jeep.
We Gotta Get Out Of This Place
Those words by the Animals (1965) were the basic theme for all of us who were there. The song was played in every concert, and the GIs like me lustily sang along. Career soldiers also were glad to go home, even if they knew they would be back. We all took the attitude expressed in the movie Platoon: All you have to do is make it out of here. For most of the war leading up to mid 1969, going home generally meant a 30-day leave and then some assignment stateside to finish out your two-year obligation (the normal tour in ‘Nam was 12 months).
Then President Nixon instituted what was called an ‘early out’ program, meaning if when you left ‘Nam with 150 days or fewer to go for your two year obligation you were simply released from the Army while still being given full credit for serving two years (important for such things as the GI Bill, for example). He then began to draw down American forces. I guess they didn’t want a bunch of bored short-timers hanging around bases getting into trouble. My unit was soon ordered to stand down and prepare to leave.
But there was a problem.
We were scheduled to leave two weeks before I would hit the magic number of 150 days left! I took quick initiative and arranged to be transferred to another unit that was leaving two weeks later. Whew! This meant I would arrive home in time to return to the university in the fall! When the day came, we all lined up to be carried by Chinook choppers to the Saigon airport and then home via military transport. There was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ but in the end, off we went. We refueled in Tokyo and then landed in Alaska. After a long delay there due to mechanical problems, we flew to Seattle. When we got off the plane around 3:00 in the morning, they had a military band playing to welcome us on the tarmac. Even today it brings tears to the eyes.
I am often asked what, if any, effect the war had on me. I think of the comment by Chris Taylor, the character played by Charlie Sheen in Platoon. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days… Am I glad I served? Yes, I think so. It certainly gave me new insights into life and a new determination to do well in life.
The Rest of the Story
That determination seems to have worked, though there were lots of ups and downs along the way. I did go back to school and graduated with high grades, then on to the University of Northern Iowa for a straight-A Master of Arts degree. We went to Southern Illinois University to work on a PhD. Nancy fell for an Iranian who was a friend of mine. He gave me a beautiful Persian rug. Turned out it was a trade for my wife. I ended up going to Wisconsin to teach, followed by a number of government administrative jobs. While working in the Wisconsin Department of Veterans affairs I fell in love with a staff lawyer, Barbara Munson, and we married. I accepted a job with a union in Phoenix, eventually ended up getting a Master of Education degree, and began a long career teaching high school. Her job took us to West Palm Beach, Florida, and Olympia, Washington. We traveled the world and I got very involved in writing books on Napoleonic history and organizing international history congresses. Eventually I became president of the International Napoleonic Society. I’ve written a number of books, been on TV shows and received many awards, including France’s highest civilian-only award.
As you can tell, we are nearing the end of the story, much to the relief of the editor! One of those conferences that I organized was in Montreal in 2009. There I met a woman with whom I had been in some contact with through email. Edna Mueller was a geophysicist but also had a serious Napoleonic hobby. I encouraged her to present a paper, and I and others encouraged her to attend another upcoming conference in Charleston, SC. One thing led to another and we soon decided to be together. Leaving Barbara was extremely hard, but happily we decided to remain the best of friends, a bit like a sister/brother relationship, a situation that delighted Edna. We bought a condo in downtown Toronto and married on 2 December 2011 (a very important date in Napoleonic history. Coincidence? I don’t think so!). On March 15, 2018, I became a Canadian citizen, so now have two passports. While I cannot stand the cold winters and am not much of a hockey or poutine fan, I do love living in Toronto.
A Final Thought
I am on the board of directors for the Toronto chapter of Democrats Abroad (I can still vote in Olympia and do so at every opportunity), and it is the Toronto chapter that asked me to write this essay (though they asked for a far shorter version. Be careful what you ask for!). The original project was to get stories of guys who came to Canada to avoid the draft. That got me to thinking. I have met quite a few American expat guys around my age (I’m also involved in an expat meet-up group), and I have never once found myself wondering if they were one of those so-called draft dodgers. Finding they were a fellow Yankee fan would be far more important! And with a further thought, it occurred to me that I don’t really care and would certainly not even think of holding it against them. But this project does remind me once again that, as Chris Taylor said, the war is still with me. Those who know me know I cannot resist this quote from Hotel California -- to say it a different way: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!
And I guess that thought is a good way to close.