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|Norm's Notebook: "Goodbye Dear, I'll be Home in a Year"
"The recruiter is not your friend. He will tell you of the wonderful army life that you may consider yourself privileged to qualify for. The recruiter gets to stay in his home town as long as he supplies a steady stream of gumbies for the green machine. He will tell you anything he thinks you want to hear to get you to sign up. The only time a recruiter will lie to you is when his mouth is moving. We don't care what the recruiter says. That is not why we serve."
By Norm Maxwell
Posted on Aug 3, 2004
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I read in yesterday's Eugene Register-Guard about the merry military's problem with recruiting and retention in this time of the Iraq War. Of course, there is no danger of a draft in today's modern volunteer army. At least before the upcoming general election I put the paper down and reflected back to April 1971.
My parents were in the throes of an ugly divorce. I had chosen to drop out of school and didn't have a lot going for me. No problem. I had just turned 17 years old and the US Army was looking for warm bodies in a big way. A high school diploma was not an issue.
I went down to the recruiters' office in the courthouse in Portland and filled out paperwork, got my mother's signature, and was given a show time at the Military Entrance Personnel Station(MEPS) down town. There was still a draft in 1971 and it was entertaining to watch the different gambits to beat the system being played out. The word "gay" wasn't in common usage yet, but there were several avowed homosexuals insisting that they were too queer to be in the army. I reflected that if you were truly a homosexual, it seemed like you would want to keep it to yourself so you could hang out with all the young men for a few years. Oh well.
Another man was listing all the different recreational drugs he liked to use to an unimpressed civilian medical orderly. "You're gonna love Viet Nam!" the orderly told him.
Some sort of quack watched me walk into an examining room in my underwear and checked off half a dozen boxes on his clipboard. Walks, breathes, two arms--check, check, check. The quack thrust an icy stethoscope against my bony little chest and ignored the wheezing heart murmer that I had been assured would end my life at an early age. "Yup, Airborne material all right," he said and checked off some more boxes on his clip board and sent me down the hall.
"Fill this bottle" demanded another orderly pointing at the latrine. I walked in amongst the other warm bodies and dipped a hefty yellow specimen out of an overflowing urinal, let the beaker drip dry a moment and placed it in the numbered compartment provided in a wooden crate. Drug testing hadn't been invented yet or at least MEPS wasn't involved with it in 71.
A few months later during the last day of Basic Combat Training at Fort Lewis, Washington, I was clustered around Senior Drill Sergeant Krum with 120 other maggots as he read Echo Company's Advanced Individual Training orders. "Armstrong--11B (Infantry), Barr--11B, Cameron--11B, Clarke--11B Compton, 11B, DeWall--11B..." 90 percent of all the Echo Echidnas I had trained with the past 11 weeks were going to shoulder their duffelbags and march across the parade field to an Infantry AIT battalion. I would take my entire 97 dollar a month pay and bet that from there they would all go en mass to the Republic of Viet Nam.
"Hamar---What is this shit? 16P,16R, 16S---Fort Bliss Texas!" Sgt. Krum looked at me with disgust.
"What is 16Papa, Romeo & Sierra, Senior Drill Sergeant?" I shouted.
"Those are broke-dick air defense artillery MOSs (Military Occupational Specialties)!" Krum informed me suspiciously as if I had somehow stolen something from him.
In the end, myself and half a dozen other maggots were left waiting for transportation arrangements as the vast majority of E-5-2 took the short hike across the parade field for another 11 weeks of fun at scenic Fort Lewis. I looked at Private Zoltan, a Pole from Chicago. He had amazed everybody by his ability to compute polar shift artillery missions mentally while experienced artillery officers raced with protractors and plotting boards to catch up. Azimuths, mils, kilometers and elevations were absolute reality inside his head. He was going to Fort Ben Harrison, Indiana to work in finance. Some 155 battery lost a walking fire control center and never knew it.
In December of 1971, I got my first experience with the National Guard during Jump Week at Fort Benning, Georgia. The survivors of my jump school battalion were blessed with jumping out of Tennessee Air National Guard C-119s--the last ones flying. Some aeronautical engineer had proven on paper that the Flying Boxcar could not fly. It was established fact that they could not fly on one engine.
We were loaded up in two 12 man sticks in the ungainly airplanes. The pilots ran up the mighty piston engines and oil streamed down the booms from the prop wash. The stub exhausts smoked and bellowed and everything flapped and rattled as 4,000 horses spinning two propellers hurtled the big tin dodo birds down the runway and over the river to Friar Field in Alabama. I was glad to exit that airplane while in flight. I did three more 119 jumps and then a fifth and qualifying jump out of a new Air Force four-jet C-141.
In late 1972, the draft went away and President Nixon actually ram-rodded a significant pay raise for military personnel and my $55 per month jump pay was no longer quite such a major portion of my financial situation. No longer did basic trainees sound off with RA! (regular army-volunteer) or US! (drafted) before their serial numbers in boot camp. I was far enough along in my military career that I did not see many FNGs in my unit. Still, I thought that perhaps the draft was a good thing in that it intruded into the lives of people who felt they had better things to do than waste a few years in the merry military.
In early 1974, I was waiting around Fort Bragg, North Carolina for my reintegration into civilian life. A couple of recruiting/retention NCOs gave myself and a roomful of other unsmiling short-timers a lecture about another hitch in the army and how hard life was back on the street. We'd better not throw away our valuable career in the US Army. We'd be sorry. The army was willing to give us up to a ten thousand dollar VRB (Variable Re-enlistment Bonus) if we would sign up for another six years. We had all been around the block enough times to know that "up to ten thousand dollars" undoubtedly meant eight hundred dollars-less taxes, in recruiterspeak.
The recruiters could tell they weren't getting through to us so they shifted their sales pitch to swapping our last 90 days in the Real Army for a year in the local National Guard unit near Home Town, USA. I ran the numbers. One weekend a month, plus two weeks annual training--that was something like 40 days spread over a year. Less than half of ninety days but you were still in the green machine and you could suddenly find yourself activated and out of State control and back in Federal for much longer than a year. No thanks.
The recruiters were unable to save a single soul in that room. We were all determined to pass into the damnation of civilian life. They gathered their propaganda and left in disgust. The next speaker was a civilian there to talk to us about Project Transition. He soon had our rapt attention. Project T was designed to teach short-timers like us a marketable skill to use in the outside world. Combat arms MOSs made little impression on most employers looking to fill well paying jobs. I inquired what the longest course of training available in Project T was. Semi truck driving--8 weeks. I always wanted to be a truck driver, I just never knew it until now. Ten-Four, Good Buddy!
I managed to steer clear of the National Guard until 1980 when I was living in Ashland, Oregon and I met Mike, a drinking and shooting buddy, who was a member of HHC, 1/186th Infantry on Oak Street. I did a "try one" enlistment and soon found myself a "Guard Bum," going to school on the GI Bill at Southern Oregon State College and pedaling firewood on the side. Never did drive a truck although I got several offers from trucking companies that had been informed by Project Transition of my graduation from Transportation Inc.'s truck driving school of Lavonia, Georgia. I got tired of the combat arms thing and managed to find a gig in Northern California as a combat engineer. There were actually civilian applicable activities and job skills in Detachment 1 in Yreka. I helped build bridges and fences for the Forest Service and rode in the back of a 5 ton dumptruck. Ate incredible food at the Yreka Eagles Lodge. One steak or two?
It was here I met an old-timer who thought he was ready to retire on his twenty years of active duty and reserve time. He had been out of the system for more than a decade when he went to draw a pension at age 62. He received a rude surprise when the ARNG chose not to recognize 18 months of his service. At least he was allowed to come back at his advanced age to make up the year and a half. This made a sobering impression on me. I don't recall that I was planning to do a full 20 years in the Reserves then, but I realized that you clearly needed to maintain your own records if you did.
From Southern Oregon, I moved to Eugene in order to squander the last of my GI Bill at the University of Oregon. I switched from the National Guard to the Army Reserve where I signed up as a trainee drill sergeant. After a dozen weekend drills at Webb Hall on Chambers Street and two weeks at Camp Rilea By the Sea, I was issued a Smokey Bear hat and turned loose on Camp Withycombe Recruit School near Portland.
Camp W's recruit school was an excellent program that gave brand new National Guard recruits a two weekend dose of military life before they reported to Real Army basic training. There were highly motivated young men and women who planned to augment their educations and life experiences as well as little losers like I had been who had nothing better going for them.
The merry military was pickier than when I had joined up. The young recruits were expected to have a high school diploma. Many of them were preparing to attend Basic Training during summer vacation before their senior year. MEPS was doing drug testing too.
I availed myself of this wonderful opportunity to warn all the impressionable young minds in my charge of the Lying Recruiter: "The recruiter is not your friend. He will tell you of the wonderful army life that you may consider yourself privileged to qualify for. The recruiter gets to stay in his home town as long as he supplies a steady stream of gumbies for the green machine. He will tell you anything he thinks you want to hear to get you to sign up. The only time a recruiter will lie to you is when his mouth is moving. We don't care what the recruiter says. That is not why we serve."
At the recruit school, we would make the time to screen a black and white film for the maggots entitled "Good Bye Dear, I'll be Home in a Year." It was about the activation of the National Guard for World War II. There were always plenty of stunned little faces when the lights came back on.
The Camp Withycombe Recruit School is no more. Many of the young people who passed through the leaky tin huts of Camp W found themselves eating sand in the first Gulf War. Some of them are now senior NCOs involved in the current conflict.
Once a year as an Army Reserve drill sergeant, I would get a platoon of National Guard Reservists to march around. These were old men and women with prior military experience who volunteered at no pay to show up and staff the armories in the event of activation of the NG units. They wore the phased out olive drab utility uniforms after the rest of the service had converted to camouflage BDUs. Oh yeah. In addition to the old-timers, there was usually a crop of "Baby Hueys" who had apparently read too many Sergeant Rock comic books and wanted to play army without having to lose a hundred pounds.
The first platoon of NGRs I had dealings with was formed up waiting for me when I stepped front and center. As I took my post, the platoon guide came trotting from behind the platoon to salute and hand over command. I had been briefed that this individual had fought Rommel in North Africa a dozen years before I was born.
"Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!" I said making the time out sign with my hands. "If you are older than me, there is NO doubletiming in or near my formation." The guide resumed at a walk and we accomplished the formalities of transferring command.
"Open ranks--March!" The platoon hesitates and then the fourth rank takes two 15 inch steps backwards, the third rank stands fast, the second rank takes one 30 inch step forward and the first rank takes two. It happened raggedly but it happened.
One of the obese youngsters grinned vacantly. "Private Huey, why are you smiling in my formation? Do you like me? I don't like you. It disturbs me to see you straining the poor buttons on the Mr. Green Jeans uniform you are wearing. If you are older than me, stand at ease. If you are younger than me, half right--Face! Front leaning rest position--Move! Do pushups."
I have a ton or so of Baby Hueys gasping and thrashing on the blacktop like a pod of beached whales. I take the opportunity to berate the Hueys for occupying too much of my valuable space while yelling at them to get their knees off the pavement. This isn't church. The senior drill sergeant catches my act from the orderly room doorway and nods.
I let my enlistment in the Reserves lapse in 1989. There was noise about mandatory drug testing for all hands and I didn't feel like falling out for that mickey mouse stuff. My AR colonel just happened to work at the same civilian office I did and I was tired of seeing his face both here and there. I was finally in a position where the time for myself meant more to me than the couple hundred dollars I got for a weekend with the maggots. I actually drilled without pay for a couple weekends on inactive status while I made up my mind about re-enlisting. I walked away.
In '94, my friend Mike came up from Ashland to staff the Cottage Grove armory as a full time training NCO. I decided to see if I could put up with the Guard enough to do a final eight years and get a pension someday. MEPS was no longer in downtown Portland and I liked it even less. I was drug tested and one woman who worked there was determined to make me submit to a prostate exam for over forty male personnel.
I explained that I was 39 years 9 months and some days old, NOT 40. Furthermore, I had completely filled my military obligation to the United States and if she persisted in pushing it, I was more than willing to walk out that door. She stood down finally.
I met some of my former recruits from Camp W in HHC in Cottage Grove and was demoted to a buck sergeant from my previous rank in the Army Reserves. I served in the Tactical Operations Center as a telephone operator and chief bottle washer.
My try one in the NG reminded me why I had quit in the first place. I did get to go to Fort Walton Beach, Florida for my two week annual training at the Air Force's Air Ground Operations School where I learned the basics of calling down the fires of heaven in the form of airstrikes on people. I was the only reservist in a class of a hundred or so Rangers, Special Forces types and Recon Marines.
My year came to an end and I cheerfully turned in my field gear and walked out the door of the old wooden armory on Washington Street. I decided that it just wasn't worth the hassle. Mike was approaching the end of his full time commitment and was looking forward to retirement.
Shortly after 11 SEP 01, I called the local army recruiter and got the number for the local National Guard Reserve. It is now called the Oregon Defense Force. I had pretty much reverted to a full blown civilian with a bushy beard by then. I called the ODF and got a hold of somebody and explained that although I had phased the merry military out of my life, I was willing to help out with local defense if I was needed.
It swiftly became apparent that the ODF was some sort of social club for police officers. I was tacitly discouraged from joining this fraternity even though the voice at the other end of the line grudgingly admitted that perhaps I had enough military experience to qualify for this exclusive organization. The ODF didn't call back and I was more than willing to leave it at that.
And now HHC of Cottage Grove has been activated and sent to Iraq. Activated reservists are being informed that their ETS (Estimated Time of Separation) dates have been extended without their consent. I feel it is only a matter of time before one of these extended tours winds up in some sort of civilian court. When you sign up as a "contractual obligee," one would think that a contract works both ways. I remember being taught in government contracting school refresher that "a contract protects the rights and interests of both parties." This is truly a case of "my recruiter lied to me."
It doesn't feel bad to be 50 years old with one's entire military obligation complete with a few years extra to boot. I'm not even part of the Inactive Ready Reserve any more. I suppose some computer somewhere is aware of an 11B Xray (drill sergeant) at large in Lorane, Oregon should the draft be reinstated and Camp Withycombe Recruit School be dusted off to prepare a huge induction of maggots into the Basic Training centers of Forts Lewis and Ord here on the West Coast.
The National Guard and Army Reserve gives the Real Army a pool of people upon which to draw when the balloon goes up. They may need some further training but at least they have a rolling start. Many reservists have served in the real army or an other branch and it has happened more than once that active duty troops have lost .50 cal competitions to a bunch of No Goods who just happened to have spent a few years in Viet Nam getting some very realistic machine gun practice with live targets. I have experienced the official worm's eye view of the entire system with the exception of having served in the Oregon Defense Force--and that could yet happen.
When I taught the recruits how to march at Camp W Recruit School, I always used the time tested--The Ants Go Marching One By One--as most of the maggots knew it by heart. But I would also introduce them to many marching cadences I had composed myself. One of them went:
When jobs are scare and times are hard
You can join the National Guard!
Though it's more than you deserve
You can join the Army Reserve!
If you think you have the nerve
you can join the Guard's Reserve!
There are many dumb recruiting posters hanging on armory walls throughout the states I have been through. None of them really capture any reason why people re-enlist. One that comes close might be a crude drawing of three soldiers standing close together looking at the viewer. "For the Camaraderie." Soldiers don't see the big picture when they are standing guard duty in the wee hours and peer through night-vision devices for bad people creeping up on them. They are protecting their immediate buddies. Neighboring sentries form overlapping fields of fire and the whole system works like that from the bottom up.
You might think it works from the top down, but it doesn't. The green machine might receive direction from the top but its alliances work upwards from buddy to fire team to squad integrity. The platoon is home and the company is the neighborhood. The battalion might be your city and the division your state. It gets pretty abstract after that.
Political idealism has no meaning. It gets reduced to: "They want to kill US. Therefore, we want to kill THEM--preferably first. If they kill us and run away, then we owe them bigtime payback. And payback is a mother. The next bunch of them that walk into our ambush will receive no slack. They will suffer for what they did to us last time with an advance for next time..." To quote Gustav Hasford, "It's not a war, it's a series of overlapping riots."
Recruiters have a rough row to hoe with the Iraq War continuing with no clear cut end in sight. The type of people the military wants have lives. The money offered is a joke. Even losers would probably rather live under a bridge than join up. Fortunately activated reservists have the Soldiers & Sailors Relief Act of WW II or every thing they owed money on would be repossessed while they were serving on active duty. The Relief Act keeps creditors at bay while the soldier or sailor is part of the regular service. Their spouses and children frequently subsist on food stamps. There is no overtime and they are on duty 24/7/365. Combat pay is nothing to re enlist over.
The Real Army soldiers and the activated reservists find their tours extended. I suspect that most reservists joined their hometown units under the assumption that they would never be activated. Perhaps they believed the recruiters who told them "One weekend a month and two weeks in the summer." This is clearly no longer a given and recruiters are looking under boards for their victims. Will the military lower its standards and recruit little losers? Or will the men and women of our armed services be sentenced to Iraq until the issue is resolved? Time will tell.
Copyright © 2004 by Norm Maxwell
Visit Norm Maxwell's pieces about land use, firefighting and life in the country and more at West By Northwest.org:
A Homey Homage to the Homelite: The Stone Age of Powersawing
Take Two: Jackson Road
Norm's Notebook: Battling Broom
Norm's Notebook: A Last Look from the Big Rabbit
Norm's Notebook: From Forest to McMansion, How It Could Happen Here
Norm's Notebook: A Few Acres, a Few Chickens–Who Is Living on the Land Now
Remembering the 30 Mile Fire
Old Men and Fire
The Fire of South Canyon: Remembering Storm King
Wee-wee for BB
Norm's Notebook: The Story of the Spruce Tree, and Mosby Creek, a New Land Use Lot Adjustment>
Norm's Notebook: Dead Cars and the Six Million Dollar Manx
(Editor's note–Norm's "Dead Cars" story inspired a feature story in the Register Guard, "Heaps of trouble in the woods.")
Mentoring Military Style
Three Dollar Hammer
Song of the Open Road
Remember Fire Road
Home, Home on Fire Road and more.
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