Okay, so here’s a secret…not everyone is cut out to be a soldier. Or, for that matter, a sailor, marine, or…well, you get the picture. That’s why we have an all-volunteer military. But that wasn’t always the case, and when I was twenty-one the young men of our nation enjoyed that very special process called the draft.
Strange choice of words. Sit in a draft, my Peoria grandmother said, you might catch your death. Get called up in a draft, you also might just catch your death. Period. And you didn’t volunteer for the danger.
Now, always more a thinker than a fighter, I wasn’t excited to hear that I had pulled a rather low draft number. The Vietnam War was still actively in progress, and many of my friends were heading over to fight and sometimes die. And those who managed to make it back unscathed often found themselves the objects of public scorn and contempt. Yes, contempt. Few of us draftees were excited at our prospects.
So back then I reported for duty at the Stockton Greyhound station and was bused to the Oakland induction center, where I stood in line with the fellow long-haired young men of my day, waiting to see what we’d gotten ourselves into.
It didn’t take long to find out.
Along came a marine sergeant and two marines, and he started counting down the line I was in, tapping anxious recruits on the shoulder as he went. I held my breath and just as he reached the quivering guy in front of me, he reached his goal, announced that the chosen dozen ahead of us in line were now marines—“not army scum”—and marched them off to Camp Pendleton or Fort Ord or somewhere equally intimidating. Whew! The rest of us breathed a sigh of relief. Our first bullet dodged.
Then they processed us and prodded us and tested us, and after thirty-six hours of transit we ended up in Fort Lewis, Washington. They drove us from the bus like cattle who had somehow offended, ran us through a long line to gather our army wear and gear, and shaved our heads down to stubble. (Sent me back twice to the barber chair for a second and third go-round…mine hadn’t been cut short enough.) And boot camp began.
Now these days fitness fans are proud to boot camp this and boot camp that. But as newly-minted soldiers most of us weren’t used to the hours, the strict regimen of training, and having drill sergeants yelling in your face constantly night and day, spit and feigned anger flying. And some of were independent thinkers, not used to the concept of thinking/acting/reacting as a cog in the wheel.
So we looked for ways to cope.
I smiled. A lot. Much to the consternation of the drill sergeants, whose “wipe that damn smile off your face, O’Bryon” became a mantra. But I just couldn’t help myself. Anymore than those of us who chanted “love, love, love” rather than “kill, kill, kill” as we stabbed bayonets into long-suffering dummies. We just weren’t cut out for war—you know, we were the kids who had played Robin Hood with home-made bows and arrows rather than those others who played soldier with guns and fake helmets. We relived ancient history, not modern warfare.
And those of us who failed to hurl unarmed grenades an adequate distance during the day were forced march off after dinner to practice till the sun set. Now if push came to shove, I imagine I could have thrown those grenades a lot farther and more accurately. But my goal was not to stand out as an impressive future infantryman. (It should be noted that–on the one day we tossed live grenades–that baby left my immediate proximity like a bat out of hell.)
It was bad enough that I was singled out as an expert marksman with the M-16A1 rifle. I had little concept of how it was happening, but those damn targets just kept dropping. I am convinced I was hitting gravel a few feet in front of the targets and the stones were doing the heavy scoring. Earned a nice badge, though.
Eventually my drill sergeants realized they couldn’t wipe that damned smile off my face, so one ordered me to find a smooth stone and carry it in my pocket. Anytime I felt like smiling I was to take out the stone and put it in my mouth.
So I quickly learned to smile around the stone.
After a week or two he would simply ask: “O’Bryon, where’s your rock.”
And I would answer: “In my pocket, drill sergeant.”
And then he’d shake his head in disgust and move on.
Eventually they named me acting platoon sergeant, figuring that trying to control that unruly bunch of military misfits would take the smile off my face. Didn’t work.
Sure, a few types dissatisfied with my “leadership” tried to “accidently” impale me with bayonets during night marches and such (these were the days of “fragging”), but overall, being a leader was more fun than being a follower. I had my own personal bed rather than a bunk, and the night guards were my friends and kept me alive over night.
Once I was supposed to camouflage myself and hide out in the woods to ambush small squads of trainees making their way along the woodland paths. I covered myself with pine boughs and leaves and proceeded to fall asleep, only to be awakened by the sound of troops marching back to the barracks…a situation rather embarrassing to explain as I caught up with the company.
When graduation time came we gathered for a commemorative photo. The drill sergeant shouted out: “O’Bryon, you can smile. The rest of you dirtbags, wipe the grins off your faces.” Here, take a look. That’s me in the middle. The one still smiling.
I got orders a week later to train in Fire Direction Control at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Those few of us so specially selected were held over for a week, waiting for transport and the next training classes to begin. Meanwhile, the drill sergeants told us to kiss our asses good-bye. They said FDC was the second most dangerous artillery specialty, since the FDC guys replaced the lieutenants who were forward observers, telling the gunners where the shells were to fall. Being a lieutenant in the artillery was number one most dangerous job, aka most-likely not to survive the first few weeks. And my new specialty pretty much guaranteed a trip to the jungles of Vietnam.
I threw away the stone. I’d stopped smiling.
(Stay tuned: next installment, Advanced Individual Training [AIT] in Oklahoma)
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon