Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S02 EP20: Thank You for Your Service
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The Federal Government reinstated its draft lottery during my senior year in college. It was based on the birth dates of young men born before 1950. And since the ping pong ball with my birthday was number 15 out of 366, that meant I could expect to be inducted into the military shortly after I graduated from college. That is exactly what happened.
I finished college in June and was sworn into the US Army in September. This, of course, was during the Vietnam War, a military conflict which greatly divided the nation. I didn’t want to go into the army. I wanted to pursue my career as a teacher, but when I was ordered to report for induction I did.
I was truly a citizen soldier. A reluctant warrior who didn’t want to serve in military, but who when called, stepped forward and served, nonetheless. With a few deft strokes, a barber on base buzzed off my hair into a crew cut. Then I was issued fresh new G.I. uniforms; Belts, shoes, socks, boots, hats, and all my civilian clothes were packed up and mailed home. Now I was a G.I. through and through. G.I. which meant government issue. G.I. which meant I was as expendable as a Jeep or any other machine in this man’s army.
That can be a difficult mental adjustment if you have always looked upon yourself as being more than a physical entity. That maybe, perhaps, you possess a soul. Does a jeep, a piece of scrap metal, possess a soul? But the army is not in the business of psychotherapy. If you had problems with becoming a G.I. your drill sergeant quickly straighten you out. He would shout it in your face, “Suck it up troop. You’re a soldier now. A fighting machine. A killing machine.”
In basic training I went through eight, actually nine, weeks of rigorous physical training that was supposed to turn me into that machine. Long forced marches with my rifle and full backpack running, climbing, crawling, jumping in all sorts of weather daytime and night.
Eventually, I became a competent killing machine. For instance, I who had never fired a gun, qualified as an expert marksman with an M16 machine gun. I also did well throwing a grenade. I fully expected my advanced training to be as an infantryman, but the Army tagged me for a different M.O.S.; military occupational specialty.
I was to be trained as a clerk typist. Instead of firing a machine gun three rounds at a time I would be typing Army documents at 60 words per minute. Maybe I should have felt relieved that I wasn’t going to be an infantry man, but that’s not how I felt. I felt guilty because the young men I had been training with, my brothers with whom I had slogged through the mud and crawled through the muck with machine gun fire overhead, would be moving on to advanced infantry training. And after that, to the killing fields in Southeast Asia. They had been drafted to fight and maybe die in Vietnam. And me, I had been drafted to…type?
After I finished my training as a clerk typist I was sent to Germany where I worked as an Army postal clerk. I could imagine what my Uncle Norman would ask me when I returned home after my discharge.
“David what did you do in the army?”
“Well Uncle Norman I cancelled stamps, sold money orders, and distributed incoming mail for the soldiers in Germany.”
It didn’t feel like I was real army. Real Army, I felt, was what my brothers in basic training were going through shouldering their M16 rifles trying to survive day by day in the jungles of Vietnam.
There was one thing though that always reminded me I was indeed a U.S. soldier, my uniform. We were housed in an old Nazi barracks, Gütlich Kasern, near the financial center of Germany in Frankfurt. And so we came into a lot of contact with the German citizenry and truth be told we were treated almost as badly as G.I’s in the States.
I said almost as badly.
During the Vietnam War everyone in uniform was subjected to unending abuse in the States. Anti-war protesters spat on, shouted at, and accused everyone in uniform of being baby killers. It was not quite that bad in Germany, but we were looked upon as an unwelcome occupying force. As for me, yes, I was spat on. Yes, I heard their insults though I pretended I didn’t understand what they were telling me in German.
I remember one time in particular when I ran to catch a bus and the driver tried to drive away before I got on. I blocked the door as he tried to close it on me, and as my boot hit bottom step and I grabbed the handrail, I heard a chorus of expletives from all the passengers on board. Sheist! I didn’t need to know German to translate that.
Anyway, I soldiered on and completed my tour of duty. Then I was sent back to Fort Dix where I was formally discharged. I had heard about how soldiers were treated after World War II. They would walk proudly around town in their uniforms for several days after they returned home. And in some places like diners, the owner would come out and tell the man in uniform, “Put your money away soldier, it’s no good here. You order anything we have on the menu and we’ll get it for you. That’s the least we can do for you.” But that was World War II.
When I was discharged the country was still embroiled in the Vietnam War, so I unable to catch a flight home until the next day, checked into a motel and promptly changed it to my civilian clothes. No parading around town from me in my uniform. That afternoon my first day back in the States I got on a city bus to go to a movie. I sat up front and across from me sat a middle-aged woman who eyed me up and down.
Then she asked. “You’re in the military, aren’t you?”
“No,” I told her, I was not in the military.
“Surely, you’re in the Army.” she said. “You’re a soldier, aren’t you?”
I shot a glance to the back at the other passengers on the bus. Did they hear what this woman was asking me?
“No,” I answered in a low voice, I was not in the Army.
She tried a third time.
“I can tell you’re in the Army.”
And a third time I told her she was wrong. Then almost in a whisper I asked her, what made her think I was in the Army? She smiled at me.
“Son, you have a military haircut, and military sideburns. You’re wearing military glasses. Your belt is an army belt and your shoes are class A Army shoes”.
Shamed that I had been exposed, I explained to her that I was a soldier but that I had been discharged that very morning. I got off a couple of stops later and ducked into a movie theater where I could lose myself in the darkness. When I got home I was much the same. I just wanted to blend in as a regular citizen. It took a couple of months from my hair to grow back. In the interim I wore a baseball cap when I went outside.
I’ve heard it said that someone who has been in the thick of battle, someone who had to kill in order not to be killed, won’t talk about what it was like in the war. And that makes sense. They don’t want to relive the horror. In my case I was an Army postal clerk at a noncombat zone, but I also did not talk about my days in the army. I felt shame and guilt. Anti-war protesters had succeeded in blowing me shaming me for wearing my country’s uniform. The guilt came because I felt deep down that my brothers went into combat without me and I ended up with a cushy job canceling stamps on letters.
The war finally ended and almost 10 years later, nine to be exact, the US invaded Grenada and public opinion turned in favor of the troops. Three words I had not heard during the Vietnam War years suddenly came into favor; “Support Our Troops.”
I was glad to hear that, though it was a little late for me. My kids got older and I would take them out to see the Fourth of July fireworks or to a football game around Veterans Day and someone would come on the loudspeaker and ask all the veterans and active military personnel to stand and be recognized. But I didn’t stand. The crowd would applaud the vets, but I would remain seated. My wife would get into whispering arguments with me when I didn’t stand. But like I said I still felt shame and a lot of guilt.
I can’t stand with these men I would tell her they fought in the war. Me, I was just the postal clerk. Rene would continue to argue quietly to me it doesn’t matter where you served or how you served. She would say all that matters is that you served. Your country called you and you stepped forward. This continued for years at more and more events when someone would ask for current former service men to stand and be recognized by the public, and still I sat until a few years after 9/11. Rene’s constant goading finally got me to stand.
But it was a pathetic stand. I stood in the crouch with my head almost below my shoulders, and just as quickly as I stood up, I sat down again. In my heart I still felt I wasn’t worthy to stand with the “real veterans,” the ones who had fought for our country. It was easier for me the next time, and time after that, and the time after that. As I stood, I grew less self-conscious and looked around at my brothers in the military and I saw how few of us there were. Nearly everyone was seated.
Then came the day that five years ago. The high school where I teach decided to sponsor a Veterans Day luncheon for its alumni who had served in the military. My principal came to inform me that since I was a veteran, she had arranged for someone to take my classes and I was to join the other veterans for the luncheon. I was ushered to the school lobby where about 20 alumni who were veterans were gathered. As it turned out I was the only veteran on the faculty.
I found a man about my age and he told me he had served in Vietnam. Immediately I went into my self-denigrating mode.
“I didn’t volunteer.” I told him. “I was drafted, and I wasn’t sent to Vietnam. I was sent to Germany where I served as an Army postal clerk. In all honesty.” I said, “I’m not worthy of standing here with all of you. You’re the real vets.”
Then he said something that was almost word for word what my wife had told me many, many times.
“No. You’re just as deserving as any of the rest of us. You stepped forward when your country called. You were a draftee. You had no control over where you would be sent or what you would do when you got there.”
This from a man who had served in Vietnam.
Then we were led outside, in a line two by two, to go to our luncheon. And this was when I saw something I had not expected. The entire student body about 500 boys and girls from 8th through 12th grades were standing on either side of the walkway. And each was waving a small American flag and cheering as we came out. Like I said, I was the only teacher in the line and of course, every single student recognized me. And it was I they cheered even more so than the other vets.
“Look it’s Mr. Pierson.”
“Mr. Pierson, I didn’t know you were in the army.”
I felt embarrassed because I was being singled out above all the others. Then someone said something that almost brought tears to my eyes.
She said, “Thank you for your service, Mr. Pierson.”
And others after her echoed the same thing,
“Thank you for your service, Mr. Pierson.”
“Thank you for your service, Mr. Pierson.”
“Thank you for your service, Mr. Pierson.”
That was the first time I’d ever been thanked for serving my country. Until that moment my two years in the army were like a black hole in my life. I didn’t talk about it and no one who knew I had served had a damn thing to say to me about it. I made it, dried eyed through the cordon and I started up the stairs to our luncheon. And that was when I remembered something that started my tears to flow. I suppose it was apropos that I was an English teacher, but I remembered something the great poet John Milton once wrote.
“They also serve, who only stand and wait.”