My Vietnam War – Part 1

After I graduated from college in 1967, it was pretty clear that I would be drafted if I did not maintain my student deferment.  I decided that law school would be easier than graduate school in mathematics, and I managed to get into law school.  After I finished my first year, however, my draft board said no more student deferment. When I went for my draft physical, one of the doctors encouraged me to apply for an officer candidate program that would only mean a two year commitment, like the draft, if I did not get commissioned.  As a result I sort of volunteered for the draft with the option of going to officer candidate school.  My military career was a bipartisan effort; I was essentially drafted by Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and sent to Vietnam by Richard Nixon in 1969.

I went through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri during the winter of 1968-69.  The majority of trainees in my basic training class were not going to Vietnam; they were in either the National Guard or the Army Reserve and were going back home after their training.  We had a black drill sergeant, and I still had a pretty strong southern accent justifying my college nickname of “Mobes” for saying my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, with such a drawl that nobody could understand it.  Because I had been to college and was going on to OCS (Officer Candidate School), the drill sergeant made me a squad leader.  As the training went on, it turned out that most of the other trainees who were going on into the regular Army and then to Vietnam were black.  The drill sergeant ended up putting all the blacks in my squad, presumably to make us all learn to live with each other.  One man in my squad was from the old Pruitt-Igoe slum housing development in St. Louis.  He periodically threatened to kill me by having an accident at the firing range.  The drill sergeant had us fight each other with pugil sticks, giving him the chance to beat the tar out of me.  But he remained in my squad, and we continued to make it through basic training.  At the end of our training, we made identical scores on our physical training test, and he congratulated me.  I was amazed. It seemed as if we had developed some kind of a bond, thanks largely to our black drill sergeant who was good at his job, and we moved on to the next stage of our Army careers.

I remember flying home to Mobile on leave, probably for Christmas, on the same plane with an old high school classmate who was also in training at Fort Leonard Wood.  He had also finished one year of law school, but was in the National Guard, going back home after training, not to Vietnam.

From Fort Leonard Wood, I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for Advanced Individual Training in artillery.  Compared to basic training, AIT was relatively uneventful.  The main thing I remember is that one of the men in our unit was a professional, minor league baseball pitcher, whose main job seemed to be to pitch for the company baseball team and who seemed destined to stay in AIT forever. I also remember that as we ran between our classes, we often sang “I wanna be an airborne Ranger.  I wanna live a life of danger.” But I did not want to live an airborne life of danger.