Saturday, September 20, 2008


The Dirty Dozen --- Just Thinkin’

So I was laying in bed Sunday morning, awake early as usual, just thinkin'. I'm good at that. Just thinkin'. My mind drifted to a time many years ago that seems so vivid. Maybe because it was one of those 'turning point' moments in one's life that remain embedded in our minds forever.

Don't know what brought me back in time to a place I can barely remember. But it was here, at Fort Jackson, SC, that I had to make probably the most difficult phone call of my young life. I was nineteen.

It was March 1968. A year that history will never forget.

I thought that fessin' up and telling my parents that their only son had dropped out of college and joined the Army was tough. This was tougher.

Only a week or so earlier, I had made a polar opposite call home. "Mom, I'm going to Germany!" Music to the ears of a worried mother with a son in the military at the height of the Vietnam War.

The cycle that I was in during AIT (Advanced Infantry Training - or - Advanced Individual Training --- ours was the latter) had 'lucked out'. Only two 'unlucky' souls were ticketed for Vietnam, thirty-three would be replacing soldiers in South Korea, and ten 'lucky' guys --- myself included --- were bound for Germany. I even learned that my orders would take me to an Army hospital in Stuttgart?

As happenstance would have it, the Tet Offensive --- a turning point in the war in Southeast Asia --- had change everything.

As forty-five young men and teenaged boys waited in formation to receive their 'official' orders, the sadistic platoon sergeant held them up and proclaimed, "Those of you who thought you were going to Germany, think again!" As our orders were passed down to each individual soldier --- veterans of some four months of basic and AIT training --- those of us who received orders to Germany had already been placed 'on hold'. One guess as to where we would be in a little over a month was all that was needed.

I knew one of the guys originally headed to Nam. Blount, I believe? I felt sorry for him. Now, the ten of us who might even have met a sweet German girl (like Marci? :) had we spent a couple years in Germany, were cast out. Ten plus two. We were quickly given the moniker, "The Dirty Dozen" (1967 Hollywood World War II mega-hit staring Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, NFL great Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Salvalas, Donald Sutherland and others....). The ironic twist, the movie version Dirty Dozen were escaping death row to go to Germany to take out Hitler's top officers while we were being rerouted from Germany to go to Vietnam.

My world was tipped upside-down in a split second. Life can be funny like that. I wasn't laughing.

Here is where the vague memories come in. Besides only remembering Blount and Harget, a soul brother from Brooklyn who would be assigned to the same outfit as I in Nam, I remember filling sand bags after sand bags and moving bunk beds needlessly from barracks to barracks repeatedly to help pass the time. Every day. Interesting use of manpower. I had 'escaped' having to go through the dreaded Gas Chamber --- twice! Now, it was mandatory for those going to Vietnam. As luck would have it, the 1968 version of the Dirty Dozen would be left sitting on the sidewalk waiting for a bus that never showed. Obviously, a communication breakdown in trickle-down military bureaucracy. Zero-for-three, the Gas Chamber and me!

The boring routine was interrupted with the arrival of our new 'official' orders. Time to go home to visit and, hopefully only temporarily, say Good Bye to family and friends.

Back home in Pawtucket, RI days before my 20th birthday.

My visit with family and friends is a blur. I don't remember my birthday, hugs, tears, fears, anything. Only one day: I was sitting with another neighborhood friend at the local burger joint, Burger Chef, on Newport Ave in East Providence. Eighteen year old Benny O'Sullivan had also enlisted in the Army and was home on leave before reporting to Fort Benning, GA. The news hit the wire that day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered by an unknown assailant. April 4,1968.

As mentioned above, 1968 would go down as a year history will never forget. Seven weeks into my tour of duty in South Vietnam, a visible distraught Captain Day rushed into the room. "They shot Bobby Kennedy!" June 5, 1968.