The Duality of War: A Story of Friendship and Hardship
Profilers: Mariah Burdette, Sean Sugrue, Elan Weider
Prior to the War
Q: How did you end up joining the Armed Forces?
A: I’m gonna go back a long way. I wrote this in the interview page, they asked for a story. I’ll answer the question first. I enlisted, but because my draft number was 67 and they were drafting to up to 142 that year. So I figured, I was gonna go anyway and Nixon had done away with student deferments. And I didn’t see an option of getting out. Now, I’m going to go to a backstory. Somewhere around 1967, we were outside in the street playing football. Down the street from us lived Mrs. Hollinshead, who was on the local draft board, and her and her husband didn’t like kids. You know, we played football in the street, you know run down … go past the station wagon take a left and I’ll hit you. And the ball went in their yard once. Mr. Hollinshead was out in the yard at the time and grabbed the football and said we couldn’t have it back. And he got into an altercation with a friend of mine, Mike Ward. Now Mike was three years older than me and he was set to graduate in 1968. Well Mrs. Hollinshead came out and the argument escalated and she basically looked at all of us and said “You’re all going to get drafted.” We didn’t pay any attention to that at all. But the next year, Michael graduated from Garland High School in ‘68. The day he came back from commencement he got his letter inducting him into the service. Then solely, two whose names I don’t remember, Jimmy somebody, who were older than me both got draft notices. My brother who was a year and a half older than me didn’t get a draft notice. He wasn’t playing football with us at the time so she didn’t hold that against him. Because of that, and because of what my number was I knew I was going to go anyway. So I enlisted.
Q: Why did you join the anti-war movement?
A: Well, yeah I think the first thing that came … the first time I remember where the war viscerally affected me was I picked up a live magazine about the Tet Offensive. I guess for the Tet Offensive, I was in the ninth grade. I was fourteen and it shocked me … you know growing up kids think war is so cool, you always play army, and things like that. But, seeing the pictures of what was going on in the Tet Offensive and then starting to read about what was happening kind of opened my eyes to what was going on. But what really did it for me was my friend I talked about, Mike Ward, that got drafted. I will now be referring to him as Gomer, that’s what we called him. Gomer gets drafted in May of ‘68, by September/October of ‘68 he’s serving in Nam. He’s up country in a fire base outside of a place called Wei. And he wrote to me, we were pretty good friends. My dad had told me you need to write to him because my dad being ex-military explained to me that when you’re overseas, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a war zone or not, overseas you’re always looking for letters. So Mike and I started writing. We started out weekly, but it’s going to end up being monthly. But I slowly saw in his writings, in his letters, the change in his attitude. I remember he’d been there about three months and he sent me a letter and then he sent me a picture and in the picture he’s standing next to a stack of sandbags and there’s a skull there. A bright white human skull. And no mention of it, he’s just standing there with the skull next to him. And then every month when he sent me a picture, there was another skull there. I finally asked him what was going on. He and his friends were collecting skulls. Now, we called him Gomer, because he reminded everybody of Gomer Pyle. He was just this happy-go-lucky country boy. He moved to Garland from Palestine, Texas back in like ‘65/’66. He was just this, again, country boy. And I saw this change in him, even at the age of fourteen and fifteen, that he was changing and his letters got darker and his comments got darker. He talked about what they would do while they were on … You know, he was a grunt, which means he was an infantryman, and he talked about going out on the patrols and he did have a friend that truly collected fingers. Every time he finished a firefight he would go cut off a finger of anyone that he thought he’d shot. So what I started seeing was how this war was affecting a close friend of mine and that’s when I really started getting involved in the anti-war movement.
Q: What did your friends and family think about you enlisting?
A: My friends were shocked because I had been a pretty adamant anti-war protestor. Matter of fact, I got suspended for three days in 1969 for wearing black armbands to school protesting the Vietnam War. The principal came by and said “Take your armband off or I’m gonna have to suspend you.” I looked at him and said “Let me get my books!” So I got suspended for three days. I was pretty active in the local anti-war movement here [in Texas]. My family … my dad was sixteen years in the service. He was career military. Matter of fact, he met my mom. My mom was a post-war bride in England in the late 40s. He was a little bit shocked because I was his damn hippie son. Because I had to get his permission, I was only seventeen when I enlisted. I did what was called early enlistment. He was pretty shocked, but he signed the papers.
Life During the War
Q: Which branch were you in? What rank? Where were you stationed?
A: U.S. Army. So, I was actually in the army. The highest rank I ever got to was E-5, which was what they call a buck-sergeant. Where’d I serve? I was in for three years. So I served stateside at Ft. Hood, I was six and a half months in country in Vietnam, and I served eighteen months in Germany.
Q: Where were you stationed in Vietnam?
A: I was stationed outside of a place called Cam Rahn Bay. I was there on TDY, which means temporary duty. I was actually at Ft. Hood, Texas and the war was winding down, so they sent some of us over to help with the out processing of the combat troops. The last combat troops got out in March of ‘72 and I got over there in December of ‘71 and was back by June of ‘72. There was no combat, I don’t have a CIB, which stands for combat infantry badge. I’ve got nothing like that because I was a clerk sitting in a base and when we were pulling out troops so quickly they were trying to get them back to the states quicker. My first job, when I was at Ft. Hood, I worked as a 502nd admin and my job there mostly was soldiers would come in and we would assign them to different units of Ft. Hood. Then we started getting an influx of guys coming from Viet Nam and we weren’t really putting them in units because they were only gonna be there two to three weeks just to be out processed. They decided what they wanted to do. That was unfair to these guys. You got these guys that had been over there and all of a sudden they’re home, but they’re not home. So, what they wanted to do was try to get it to where we could process them out in country and then send them back over here right away.
Q: What was your typical day like?
A: Actually we worked by the way, six to seven days a week. I’d get up in the morning. I’d put on my class A’s, not my class A’s my khakis and I’d go into work. I sat at a desk. These guys would come through. I would look at their records. Well what we were doing is we wanted to make sure all the records were in place. To get out you had to have a drug test. We’d ask them questions. You know, if someone had something medically wrong, we’d fill that out. I’d spend about thirty minutes sometimes less looking at a record, talking to the guy. Then I’d process his travel orders and he’d go over to the barracks and wait for his plane, his order to come out to get on the plane. I’d start to work – We’d go to work at eight-o-clock in the morning, sometimes 8:30 pm and we’d work until there weren’t any more soldiers. Sometimes, there would be a large influx, but usually they tried to do it smaller in numbers. We just sat in the base and would do that. We did go to the occasional bar off base, but most of the time we just stayed on base.
Q: Was it hard working for a cause that you didn’t support?
A: Not at all! Well because you know to a point part of what I was doing when I was in country was getting guys out so there’s a justification there. And then the rest of the time in the military, I really never even thought about it.
After the Return Home
Q: How was it readjusting to civilian life?
A: Fairly easily I think. I came back and lived at home for a bit, then I started college. Let me rephrase that, at the time I think I thought I was adjusting easily to civilian life. In hindsight, I was drinking a lot more. I ran into a small bit of a drug problem for a while. You know, one of my favorite stories is, I don’t know if I told you guys this in class or not. I was at UT (University of Texas) for one day. Actually, I was there for longer, but I say one day. I had gotten out of the military and while I was stationed in Germany I applied for UT and I got in. That’s back when you could apply for college in March and/or April and still get in. I went down to Austin and set up an apartment and did everything I needed to. Paid my tuition, which was $60 for 15 hours and then in August I went back down for orientation and my advisor called me in and said “You haven’t signed up for a dorm.” And I went “I don’t want to be in a dorm.” I thought in my mind he said “Well we want all freshmen to be in dorms.” Well that’s what he said, meaning I have to be in a dorm. I was a point one, I didn’t want to live in a dorm. I’d had dorm life now for three years. But also, I was kind of anti-authority. So I just said “I’m not gonna do it”, I got up and walked out and came home. In hindsight, I think that had to do with my reaction to authority from being in the service. Instead of going – If I’d listen to him all I had to do was say “I’m just going to stay in my room, I’ve already got an apartment” , but I was a little more confrontational at that time getting out of the military. That was in ‘74. I’d said from ‘70 – I don’t remember very much of my life from 1975 to 1980 and during that time by the way I was in school. Due to my proclivity to alcohol and other substances. I thought I adjusted well, but in hindsight through therapy I realized that I really hadn’t.
Q: Did your views of the war change after you served?
A: Well I’m extremely anti-war, more so now than I think I ever was and I think it’s because -. Well let me rephrase that, I’m anti unnecessary wars. My views and also working with veterans now, that’s what I do when I can, is that fighting wars just for the sake of fighting wars or saving oil or doing stuff that doesn’t really affect our national safety, I’m against. I’ve seen what it does to young men. It started then and now us having fought since 2003, 17 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, watching these guys come home and going through the same stuff I went through and other people went through for no reason. I’ve become much more adamant on anti-war. Not a pacifist. There’s times when countries need to fight, but I haven’t seen one since 1941.
Q: Do you still keep in touch with the people you served with?
A: Well, I had a small group of friends. It was me, Joe, Bondo, and Ken. We’ve kinda kept in touch the whole time. We now try to get together yearly, because we’re getting all old and we’re gonna die soon. Facebook has been very helpful on this. Because through Facebook I actually manage a Facebook page for 1.33rd armored which is one of the groups I was with. I belong to the 3rd armored division Facebook page. I belong to the 1st calv[ary] Facebook page. I belong to the 2nd armored division Facebook page. These are all units that I served with. So, I kinda keep in contact. I went to my very first reunion two years ago with the 3rd armored division and then COVID happened so we haven’t had another one. But me, Bondo, Joe, and Ken have kept in contact since we all got out in ‘73 and ‘74.
Q: If you could do it all over again, would you?
A: Yes, and this is true adage for me. I went in a boy, I came out a man. But more than that some of the benefits I got out of the military. The military paid for my college out of the GI Bill, helped me buy my first couple of houses. This is going to sound real bad. I did not realize how stupid people were until I got out of the military. Honestly. And I know that sounds very uppity, for a lack of a better term, but it helps me understand why some people think and do what they do . Again I grew up middle class, by the time I was in high school probably upper middle class family. Both my parents read, both my parents were fairly intelligent. Neither one of them went to college. I was always provided books and everything else. I didn’t realize until I got in the military that not everybody had the same things I did. So I would say thats a benefit, knowing that there’s alot of stupid people in the world, and probably stupid is the wrong word, but I’m going to keep with it, helped me to navigate alot of my life since then. Again, I know that sounds very egalitarian. Just the benefits I got, going to college and stuff, was worth it. It helped me become a better adult. It forced me to be an adult early. That kind of helped. I don’t think it’s right for everybody. I went in with a guy that couldn’t even make it through basic training. It was just that bad, he ended up getting a medical discharge. We went in what was called a buddy plan and he left. So for him, it wasn’t the right thing. For me the good from it outweighed the bad.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: Honestly no. Not that I can think of. I made great friends. I guess my regret is, if I had to pick. I’d rather not be 100% disabled. You know a lot of my disability is from getting hurt in the military, but hell I could’ve gotten hurt playing football. So, it is what it is. I look back on it fondly. Some of my regrets are I wish I would’ve traveled more when I was in the service.