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By Mark Lloyd
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Mark Lloyd
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The Green Machine
* * *
Standing in that crowd, I felt alone, completely isolated. On a dreary January day in 1968, I found myself at the army induction center in Seattle, Washington. I had arrived with several hundred other young men, and we were going into the army.
They stood waiting and talking, huddled together in small groups for protection from what lay ahead. The conversations spun around guesswork—where would the army send us? I heard comments such as, "I'm a trained mechanic, so I'm set," or "I have almost two years of college and I can type—I'll see you in the office." One guy said, "I had a year of premed college; I'm sure to be a medic."
As for myself, I had neither skills nor aspirations, so I kept my mouth shut and just listened to the nervous chatter around me. The suspense and speculation grew until someone came in and shouted at us to shut up and listen.
A master sergeant, he was lean and wiry, standing before us flagpole straight with head held high. His impressive stance commanded our attention. He looked us in the eye and declared, "I heard your bleatings, and I know you all want to know what the army has in store for you. Some of you think you're qualified for this job or want to train for that job. Let me tell you now so you can stop sniveling and begin getting your minds right. We have a war going on, and this month the army needs infantrymen. Every last one of you is going to the infantry, and four months from today you all will be on your way to Vietnam. Start getting ready."
Complete silence trailed that sobering introduction. Wasting not ten seconds on our stillness, the sergeant followed up by reading out thirty or so names, ordering those people off to the side as they answered up. He directed them to exit out a side door. As they started toward the door, he informed them they would serve their two years of military service in the Marine Corps. Watching them shuffle out, slumping like condemned men, was depressing, since nobody had realized the marines were also drafting. Oddly enough, it had a calming effect on the rest of us, as if we had just dodged a bullet.
Only one and a half years earlier, I had graduated from high school. After working during the summer, I had gone to college, attending Brigham Young University. At the end of my first year, I was married and had a new son. That summer of 1967 I worked in Los Angeles at a large mortuary company. Mortuary work was as morbid as it sounds, being around death. Having to observe families' sadness, the occasional bickering over who in the family received what assets and who had to pay for funeral costs was a depressing business. Working the many funerals for boys coming back dead from Vietnam was the low point for me.
When school started again in September, we didn't return to Utah. Returning to BYU as a full-time student would have required financial support from our parents. I didn't want to live on the dole, so I kept my job at the mortuary, enrolled in one class at a college in Los Angeles, and decided to work my way through school. Of course, in 1967 the military draft was full-blown. I was not carrying a full study load, as was required to keep out of the draft, so I knew my name would come up sooner or later. It came up sooner—I received a November letter in the mail from Uncle Sam, summoning me to report.
I had two options for reaching my first principal goal in life, which was to earn a college diploma. Living on a farm for six years during my earlier childhood had persuaded me that the best way to avoid an occupation that involved physical labor was to acquire a college education. Now, I could have avoided the draft altogether as I was married and had a child. Choosing that route would have meant I remained working full-time at the death house or some other type of mind-numbing work while I labored through taking one or two courses per semester at school. Spending five, six, or however many more years to obtain a bachelor's degree was a discouraging thought. My concern was real, since most students who took that path, determined as they may have seemed, didn't complete their education. They got hooked up into work, which turned into a career, and their college graduation goals faded in the distance as the passing years gathered speed.
My second option—irrational to many and unsavory to most—was to enter the army, survive my term, then return and resume full-time study courtesy of Uncle Sam. The GI Bill, with its provision for tuition payment after service, was what had caught my attention as a way to complete college while I was still young. Nothing comes free, though, and this deal had conditions. I had to enter the army, wear a uniform, and probably go to Vietnam before I could collect. My family did not share my logic and tried to dissuade me. I didn't dwell on the impact of leaving my family behind—my selfishness held sway.
I had no dread of army life. I had a disciplined outlook and was confident I could keep in step. Also, I considered myself patriotic; I had been raised to honor my country, and serving in the military was still considered a way of doing so. Besides, I was nineteen years old and invulnerable.
After separating the army recruits from the marines, they herded us out to buses. We piled on and rode to Ft. Lewis, located about an hour south of Seattle. Rolling onto the base, I noticed old World War II–era wooden barracks, open parade grounds with marching troops, and a general feeling of activity. Many more army posts like Ft. Lewis existed around the country. All were generating soldiers for the war.
Our bus stopped in front of one of the barracks. With tentative steps we made our way out the bus door until one of several drill sergeants present stepped forward and yelled at us to hurry up. That was the opening salvo of the roaring and screaming we were to suffer for the next eight weeks. His name was Sergeant Alexander, and I came to respect him. He courted no favorites and treated us all the same—like dirt.
After receiving curt orders from Alexander, with some personal coaching directed to the slow-steppers, we shaped ourselves into a platoon formation and began our military careers.
The sudden immersion in military life was not without shock and accompanying pain. The army was organized to control large numbers of men, and we converted to that system. We started off with a sheep shearing, inoculations, and changing into green uniforms. We lost our individuality; all now appeared the same and moved everywhere in group formations. We became part of the army's planned process to turn diverse individuals into an obedient herd of automatons. That was the army way: break us down to a common denominator and then build us up in the army manner. Our disoriented state helped us achieve that rapid transformation. Whereas a few days before our families and friends had shielded us, we soon lost that comfort and joined a surrogate family—the platoon. We became a part of the Green Machine.
At the processing center, they made us take the army's general aptitude test, the first of several assessments. The testing staff told us the test was designed to assess one's intelligence and aptitude, supposedly to aid the army in filling its many different roles. That was a sensible story, but nobody bought it since we had already heard the sergeant in Seattle tell us we were all destined to carry a rifle in Vietnam. They separated about forty of us out after the test and informed us we could take the officer candidate test, since we had all scored high on our aptitude tests. Most of us in that group took the test; I found it not difficult. Then, while we were still seated in a room, a young sergeant walked in who would change my life.
He was a recruiter for the army's special forces, the Green Berets. As far as appearance, they could not have picked a better man. He was built like Adonis and his khaki uniform was perfectly tailored. He wore spit-shined black paratrooper boots, and his green beret fit smartly on his head—much nicer than those ridiculous bus driver hats worn by the regular army.
In a calm, no-nonsense manner, he told us we were eligible to take the special forces qualifying test. He went on to say that those who passed could volunteer for special forces training after completing advanced individual training and parachute training. He warned us that most would fail the rigorous training, but if somehow we did make the grade, we would likely end up in Vietnam. He tempered that by adding our training would take at least a year before we earned the beret, and once deployed to a unit, we would serve with professional soldiers.
That was the part that caught my interest. I had already heard I was headed for Vietnam, so training for a year first and then serving with professional soldiers seemed practical. I already knew something about the Green Berets from reading news about the war. I had even read the novel The Green Berets, by Robin Moore. As a result, I was practically recruitment-ready. The army hooked me with no difficulty. At the least, I figured the salary would improve. My starting wage was ninety-six dollars a month. After airborne training, as a parachutist I would earn an extra fifty-five dollars a month. That 50 percent pay raise sounded appealing.
A few weeks prior to reporting for duty, I spoke with my older brother. He was already in the army and was attending helicopter flight school. He gave me some advice on army life, and then told me that whatever I did, not to end up in the infantry. He brought up a story or two about half-trained infantrymen being led into ambush down jungle trails by green lieutenants. I recalled those disquieting stories as I mulled over what to do.
About twenty of us took the special forces test. I found it much more difficult than the officer candidate test. It was a different type of test: no multiple choice or true/false questions. It was subjective, with questions asking what you would do in a certain situation or scenario—a test that called for thinking. To my surprise, I did well. With hardly a look at the risks, I took a leap of faith and signed on the dotted line.
The first step was to complete my basic army training. I spent the next eight weeks learning soldiering fundamentals. The physical training (PT) and discipline was not difficult for me. I was in good condition from a lifetime of active sports and was used to obeying orders.
I did have to make some psychological adjustments to army life, however. I embraced a strict daily schedule. They told me when to wake up and when to go to sleep (that was easy; it was when they turned the lights out every night). I lived in tight, no-privacy quarters with strangers, a few of whom I would just as soon have never met.
There were other challenges that most civilians were not ready to face. For instance, on my first night in the barracks bay, an open room housing about forty of us, I had the top bunk and an eighteen-year-old high school dropout had the bunk below mine. I went in to shower, and returned five minutes later to discover my wallet empty. I had started out in the army with thirty dollars, and it was gone on my first day. I suspected the punk, but he said he knew nothing. Not that it mattered much, because we were restricted and I would have no chance to spend a dime for eight weeks.
To control and direct a mass of soldiers requires a plan. The army introduced us to organization and chain of command. Our training company, numbering almost two hundred men, was divided into four platoons, and each fifty-man platoon contained four squads.
In charge of our platoon was Sergeant Alexander. He had too many people to supervise. But we had trainee leadership too. That was the army's way of developing leadership early by delegating some of the supervisory authority needed to handle such a disparate group of men. Alexander picked a platoon leader and four squad leaders from the trainees soon after the first day. Obviously, no background or suitability checks were made for these assignments.
Alexander named me a squad leader. That appointment was not based on my leadership aptitude or superb military bearing. Rather, it was based on my ability to organize my footlocker according to army standard on the first try and to demonstrate a correct about-face movement. Several of the men had not yet mastered standing at attention, let alone making a precise drill movement.
As a squad leader, I became responsible for the twelve men in my squad. I ensured they were up and ready for morning formations, dressed properly in the uniform of the day, and had neatly made their beds. Dealing with most of my squad members was not difficult since all of us were just trying to get through the training together. But I had two men who could not seem to get it right.
One man, though amiable, was slow-witted. A Canadian, he had failed the test to enter the Canadian army and so had come south to join us. Our army required no testing; the Green Machine took anyone with a pulse. He tried his best, but he had a difficulty getting with the program. I spent an inordinate amount of time spoon-feeding the army way to him.
He sometimes had problems putting on his uniform. Often, he would look at me with his open countenance while I helped correct his dress before morning inspection. Repeated mistakes in buttoning his shirt and putting on his equipment belt became frustrating. I reminded him every day he had to shower and shave—a new requirement for him. The army training manuals, supposedly written for a sixth grader's comprehension, proved difficult for him.
He improved little over the eight-week course, but he made it through the training. He went on to the infantry, of course, as the infantry didn't care how well one could read. I still have our platoon photo, taken just before graduation, and there he is: standing in the last row, wearing that helpless expression on his face and his helmet on backward.
My other concern, Vinnie, was a disciplinary trial and obviously a product of irresponsible breeding. He was likely the punk who emptied my wallet on that first night in the barracks. Emotionally stunted, he was a shifty-eyed little sneak with body odor and a serious acne problem. He was an early life lesson for me: one usually can't pick one's coworkers.
I heard Vinnie had joined the army to avoid a prison term for car theft in Seattle. He hated authority, especially army authority. Although sullen, he followed instructions from the army training cadre (drill sergeants). But he was antagonistic and disagreed with or ignored almost everything I said. I knew the problem—what little authority I had stemmed from the corporal stripes pinned onto my left sleeve. He felt he needn't listen to me, as I was also just a trainee.
His continual screwups were costing me though, as I was made an example when punishment was handed out—made to do extra push-ups or walk around the parade field with my rifle held over my head until I could "get my people squared away." It was classic negative reinforcement, a preferred army tactic to shape us into a group that acted as one. Sometimes our whole squad would be put in the push-up position for one of Vinnie's transgressions—the squad couldn't stand him either.
By the third week of training, I had reached my limit with Vinnie. I tried talking with him, explaining we were just trying to get through the training. I tried threats, saying I would go to Sergeant Alexander about it. I even tried pleading. Nothing worked, so I did go to Alexander one evening after I had again suffered that day for Vinnie screwing up.
Alexander did not have any sympathy for me. He told me discipline was the key to making the army function, and that a breakdown in discipline by one member of the team was costly to all. He concluded his little pep talk with a wink and a nod, telling me Vinnie needed to be taken to the woodshed. What could I do? Violence was out of the question.
Excerpted from Dragon Chaser by Mark Lloyd. Copyright © 2013 Mark Lloyd. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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