30. January 2007 · Comments Off on How I Became a Veteran · Categories: General, Memoir, Pajama Game

I didn’t grow up in a military family, at least not active-duty military. But we were replete with veterans. Dad fought in Korea with the Marines, his dad was with the Army in WWI. Dad’s older brother was in the Merchant Marines. Both of Dad’s younger brothers served at least one tour with the Marines, and Mom’s great-grandpa served with the Ohio Infantry in the 1860s. Come to think of it, Mom’s baby sister joined the Air Force after she graduated high school, in the early 1950s. My brother joined the Marines in 1973 to avoid being drafted, but got a medical discharge before ever completing boot camp. The military was seen as a valid career option, a respectable choice, as well as a place to grow up. We saw it as a rung on the ladder of success, a starting point from which one could reach the moon, if one so desired.

I enlisted in the military twice – the Army National Guard while I was in college, and the Air Force after I graduated. Total time in service was just shy of 12 years, I think. Both times I joined for basically the same reasons – I didn’t see any other clear options for my life, and I wanted to serve my country. And both times, I would say the former reason carried more weight than the latter, but that doesn’t negate the desire to serve. And my time in the military, and the experiences I had there, crystallized and solidified my love of country, and strengthened my belief that while the U.S. isn’t perfect, it’s a damn good country.

The National Guard Armory was directly across a US Highway from my university, and provided extra money each month, as well as the enlistment bonus they were offering at the time. Since I was putting myself through a private college, extra money with minimal time requirements sounded good to me.

I was two months past 18 when I first talked to my National Guard recruiter, a brusque former Marine who had served two voluntary tours in VietNam, leaving on a stretcher both times. You should have seen his face when we were working our way through the questions on one of the fifty million forms — the question was: “are you a pacifist,” and I replied “yes.” He frowned at me, and moved on to the next question: “are you a conscientious objector,” and I answered “no.”

With a very confused look, he asked how I could be one without being the other. To which I explained that while I don’t think war should be a first choice, I do think that it is sometimes necessary, and that I am also a very practical person. In other words, if someone is pointing a gun at me, I’m going to do my dead-level best to make sure that I’m not the one that dies. Interestingly enough, my test scores and personality profiles qualified me for Officer Candidate School, if I was interested. I didn’t have the self-confidence (or physical strength) for that choice, and opted for enlistment rather than commission.

This was in March 1979, and to most people my age, or on a college campus, “National Guard” equaled “Kent State Shootings.” And yes, that was on my mind when I was making my decision. But the US had also just experienced a series of severe blizzards – the Buffalo Blizzard of ’77, the Ohio Blizzard of ’78, and the Chicago Blizzard of ’79, and in each case it was the National Guard that was called out to help the stranded populace. The Blizzard of ’78 killed the power in our all-electric home for 2 days, and we were lucky – others were without power for far longer. When we had power again, we watched news reports of the Guardsmen delivering supplies or rescuing people trapped in their homes. And everyone I spoke to that was in the Guard told me they did more humanitarian missions than anything else. The unit I was joining, a Combat Engineer Battalion, was routinely activated in the spring to help folks cope with the annual flooding in southern Indiana. So I spent a day at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Indianapolis taking more exams, including they physical, and signed a Deferred Enlistment contract (Delayed Entry Program, I think they called it), which said that I would go to Basic Training after my spring semester ended.

The Indiana Guard had started a familiarization program to help elminate wash-outs in Basic Training. This meant that on one chilly Saturday morning in early spring, I got to ride an Army helicopter to Camp Shelby and experience a weekend of “faux boot camp.” We learned how to make a bed the way the Drill Sergeants would want, how to stand in formation, a little bit about marching, and a lot about what to expect when we arrived at Basic Training. The theory was that it wouldn’t be so alien to us when we got there, and therefore we’d stand a better chance of completing it. All I remember of that first helicopter ride is closing my eyes and repeating the Lord’s Prayer under my breath a couple million times. Of course, it might have been the 23d Psalm – all I remember is I was terrified. I’d never been off the ground before, except in a ferris wheel, and I have a heights phobia. Once I got used to it, it was pretty cool, but very noisy. I think I slept all the way home on the next day’s chopper ride.

My folks were in favor of my joining (although Dad thought I should become a Marine, like he had been), so in late May 1979 they drove me back to the Indianapolis MEPS and left me there. The next day I took my first-ever airplane ride, to Columbia, SC, and Fort Jackson. I was a Yankee in the sultry south, at the beginning of a hot summer, where it could routinely hit 100+ degrees in the shade.

But that’s a story for another day.

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