I always feel a little strange and undeserving when someone says “Thank you for your service.”
I went to Vietnam. I was drafted. I wish it was, but it wasn’t my idea. I was swept off the streets in 1966 during the largest draft in American history I’m told. Much to my mother’s horror because the war was in your face every night on the Big 3 channels.
Freddie O’Connor, 18, got on the bus with me at the Somerville draft board on September 16, 1966. He was married with two babies. I came home. He didn’t.
Not that I was doing anything that would contribute to society in those days. I was a fat, out of shape, chain smoking, alcoholic, whose only goal in life was to grope all the girls in Somerville and stay half in the bag for the rest of my life.
I had gold status at the Meadow Glen Drive-In and Martignetti’s liquor store.
Being in the physical condition I was in at the time, I have to say my induction and basic training almost killed me. I would have taken an “unfit for military service” discharge to get out of that hell. But it was not to be. Not for lack of trying, mind you There was a movie out at the time called “The D.I.” starring Jack Webb that turned our stools to water. “It’s just a movie, right?”
This was worse! Way worse. Our Drill Instructors were deranged alcoholics who could run 6 miles backwards while smoking a pack of cigarettes in 100 degree South Carolina heat and humidity. Some of them had huge bellies they could bounce like medicine balls in front of them and still out fight and out fuck any one of us. They were our worst nightmare. They could smell your particular weakness from miles away. God help you if their deadly gaze landed upon you.
There were eight of them and you could hear them drinking and laughing and coughing in the orderly room way past midnight, then they’d be tipping our bunks over at 4:00 am. What kind of evil was this? How do you wake up from this nightmare?
They pushed us, crawled us, mauled us, stuck rifle barrels up our asses, they left us in the rain, or the glaring sun at attention or push up position for hours. We learned to sleep anywhere, standing up, sitting down and even while marching. It was a physical and mental assault the likes I have never experienced. I was truly shaken to my core. You could hear a lot of these kids sobbing after lights out. They accomplished what they set out to do, they broke us.
(Me, beat down and 30 lbs. lighter)
Anything considered by the military to be improper, they could get away with, they did it. They kicked, punched, pushed, belittled and bullied. They drove us to the brink. They trained us on Sundays, they cancelled church, which was the only place we could get a minute’s peace, then out to the woods for more training so the rest of the battalion wouldn’t see us. All considered improper at the time. No one should have to miss church if you were still in the States.
Sgt. MgGhee, (think Neville Brand) once pushed me up against a wall and screamed at me in such a way that he almost swallowed my face. I had teeth marks on my neck and the bridge of my nose. The smell was beyond description. He could chew nails and spit rust.
They also had a cute little concentration camp trick they would use to break you. They would punish 200 guys unmercifully and say you were the reason. Then sometime during the night a blanket would be slipped over your head while you were sleeping and the beating from your comrades would commence. Nothing personal.
These D.I’s had an axe to grind. Seems they had lost sons, brothers, cousins, uncles and best friends over there and they blamed it on lack of real, serious combat training. And they were bitter, extremely bitter. They said, “We’re not gonna send you pieces of shit over there to get killed and have it on our conscience. If you get your dumb ass blown off it won’t be our fault.” Well, thanks, Sarge, kinda.
So what did I get out of it? I became a man. I lost 35 pounds. I got my shit together, learned how to survive and take care of myself and those around me. I grew a pair. I realized that I could push past my perceived limits, present myself in a professional manner and challenge myself in all my endeavors. That experience readied me for life. It’s with me now.
So when someone says, “Thank you for your service” I always say, no, really, thank you.