LESS THAN ILUSTERIOUS
A Military Experience
©2016 Gary Doyle Thomas
In 1970 U.S. draft laws were changed. Each year a set of bingo balls with each date of the year and another set with numbers from 1 to 366 were drawn from separate machines. Dates corresponding to the lowest number would go first.
In 1972 my number came up. I was living near the Canadian border at the time and knew many who were there poised to run if needed. Although I was much against the war, having a dad who was career Air Force, that was not an option. The draft was a two-year active duty where ever they wanted you. The Army had a program offering a guaranteed school and Military Occupational Specialty in exchange for a three-year enlistment. Looking around I found a job title “audio specialist”. That looked good to me because I was one of those audio-visual guys rolling around projectors and such while in junior high. Also, in the job description it said in a combat zone I would be issued only a pistol.
The recruiter lies. You are told that basic training is eight weeks, they don’t tell you that it starts with week zero. Zero week is the worst time. As the new recruits got off the bus at Fort Ord California we were gathered and organized. Everyone is confused and getting yelled at. Hurry up and wait was the order of the day and though out. That first night we started to get to know each other. There was a container in the barracks where we were told we could deposit contraband items no questions asked and some people used it. The next morning was haircuts and we had to start over because no one was recognizable. Uniforms were then issued; they won’t put you in a uniform until your hair is regulation. All your civilian clothing is placed in box and shipped home. Although they don’t say it, like everything else, you pay for it.
A new company is formed with five platoons of forty-four men each in four squads. Your position in the platoon is then defined by height. Right away we began learning Drill and Ceremony; how to form up, the position of attention, parade rest, proper about face, right and left turns, and marching. We did not get much “at ease”. An important position we learned is what is called the “front leaning rest”, the rest of the world calls it the pushup position. It was not long before we started running and ran everywhere for the next eight weeks.
Shots were next. We were lined up in single file and slowly entered the medical building. As it came my turn to enter I saw rows of medics lined up on each side. Each of them had a syringe in both hands and as we passed we got two shots in each arm and some in the butt, about forty shots total. Several people fainted during the process and were revived with smelling salts to continue. After exiting the building, we were given two aspirin and placed in the “front leaning rest” where we did pushups to get the blood circulating.
We did a lot of Physical Training; jumping jacks, squat thrusts, pushups, rock and rolls, and others. We were required to count off each iteration and unless everyone was synchronized the iteration did not count. The order of the day was to when an exercise was completed to shout out “MORE PT DRILL SERGEANT! MORE PT!” If the drill sergeant did not like the sound of enthusiasm you could be sure of more PT. We all had our “wizz quiz” or urine test and about twenty percent of the company was washed out in zero week. There was no means to test for pot then so I was ok.
The food in the mess hall was terrible. I learned that this mess hall was where those that had been washed out and placed in special platoons for extra PT and weight loss were fed. I saw some of the people who had washed out of my company and they looked scared. They were rigid and the drill sergeant was on their case every second.
We finished up zero week and were relocated to our primary training area. The food was better. There was a food truck that came around now and then A.K.A. “roach coach”. In the drill sergeants’ opinion, anything from the roach coach was “blip-blop”. The only food fit to eat was from an Army mess hall. One of the drill sergeants made the comment “you can spot a new trainee from two miles away”. After a few weeks, I saw that to be true. There are about fifty shades of olive drab, the newbies were wearing fatigues right out of the issue bag.
My first run in with the Army came while I was on kitchen patrol at the mess hall. I had been assigned and was doing some duties when I was told to get a case of butter “ASAP”. I was already busy so as soon as possible meant to me when my other assigned duties were completed. In the Army ASAP actually means immediately if not sooner and I learned that the hard way.
It was amazing to learn how much we could do in a single day. Drill and Ceremony, PT, and run, run, run. We had classes in first aid; chemical, radiation, biological protection; marksmanship on the M16, machine gun, grenades, land mines, light anti-tank weapon; night vision, flares; survival, escape, evasion; and hand signals to name a few. Some parts of basic training were fun but most was just plain hard work. We were issued our weapons and other combat gear which we wore while running eight to ten miles each day. A few times we ran with gas masks on. As we ran I saw people actually throwing away their gear including weapons. People would drop out of formation and start walking. The drill sergeants would wait till there were six or eight people falling behind a half mile or so and then turn around the entire company in a big loop to come up behind and pick them up. So, while these people were getting a rest the company was getting an extra mile or more to run.
It did not take too long to wise up and others would pick up and carry discarded gear. If someone tried to drop out they would get dragged along. The Army has a standard PT test that must be passed. On our first try about half the company failed. I was not one of them. I only dropped out of running formation one time and was in hospital the next day. What happened was the sergeants fault. It was raining hard one morning when we formed up and we were all wearing our field jackets and ponchos. The sergeant came out and issued the order to remove field jackets. To do that we had to remove our ponchos and trappings. Then we removed our jackets, put the trappings back on, tuck the jacket into the gear and put the poncho back on. By this time, we were soaked and cold. Usually we started our run pretty quickly after removing field jackets which would warm us up but not this day. The sergeant went back indoors and we stood there cold and wet for another half hour. Finally, we started our run out to the rifle range about four miles away on the beach where it was even colder. We were sat in some bleachers for instruction without the order to put on jackets. Then we were moved to range lanes and told to assume the prone position laying down. Because of the thousands of men that had lay in the lane there was a depression in the ground full of water. I laid off to the side to stay out of the water. The drill sergeant came up behind me, kicked my foot and said “move to the center of the lane”. Everyone had a cold due to the close proximity and reduced immunity caused by the heavy work but this was worse. This was my first experience at sick call. I had to walk the two miles to the hospital and report. After about two hours I was seen by the doctor and then told to wait again, nobody told me anything about my status. After about another hour I was loaded on a bus and taken to a building at the edge of the post. I had no idea where or why. I was admitted for what the Army calls ARD or Acute Respiratory Disease. I was in the hospital ward four days, one more day and I would have been recycled and have to start basic over. The other time I was on sick call was due to deep and painful splits in the skin on my feet caused by long emersion in water.
Because of the time of year, we had a Christmas break during our training. They brought in people to set up flight reservations but I was on some duty at the time, I don’t remember what and I never got a reservation. When I went up to San Francisco I could only get a standby reservation. I was in the airport three days waiting. All I had was about twenty dollars’ cash and a class A uniform. There was a USO desk that served doughnuts and coffee in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon. That’s what I lived on for the three days and is the reason I continue to support the USO.
Finally, my name was called and I got a 1st class seat. I was offered a drink but declined because I had no money. I wish I had known the drinks were free in 1st class. There was another soldier on standby who also had a seat. I had no one to meet me on arrival but he did. We lived not too far from each other and he offered me a ride home which I gratefully accepted. His whole family had come to meet him and the car was full but they were more than willing to help me. I ended up in the back seat with his sixteen-year-old sister in my lap. It had been weeks since I had even seen a girl and I was a healthy young man. She could easily tell I was healthy and enjoyed herself immensely on the trip home. She squirmed and squirmed while I tried to maintain focus and not soil myself. As we approached my home I knew my condition would become obvious. It was only by sheer force of will I was able to get out of the car.
I returned and completed basic rested and ready.
Advanced Individual Training
AIT was fun. The Post commander at Fort Monmouth felt that students should focus on their school so we had no extra duties. As I became more rested I found that I was in the best shape of my life and felt great. I had eight weeks of basic electronics and then thirteen weeks schooling for audio specialist.
This was in New Jersey and there was a jewelry store just outside the Post that preyed on young soldiers. They used high pressure tactics to make sales and claimed “your mother will hate you if you don’t buy her something”.
It’s true that many soldiers are treated badly around military posts. This is because many of these young men come from small towns where everyone knows your name and what you are up to. They are placed somewhere where no one knows them for the first time in their lives and they do things they would not even consider at home.
I got a bad impression of New Jersey. The people were brash and rude. Clerks acted like they were doing you a favor by taking your money when making a purchase. Subsequent trips there in later years only reinforced that impression.
There was a nice bar off post we sometimes went to. One night I was having trouble sleeping so I thought to go. I got out of bed and started getting dressed. I suddenly realized what I was doing and it scared the hell out of me. I never took another drink the whole time I was in the Army.
I was never too thrilled about high school, it seemed boring and not relevant. At AIT however I discovered that I loved to learn. I graduated second in the class due to a single question I failed to answer correctly on our first test that my friend got right. From then on, we were neck and neck to the end. Being first he got E-4 while I remained E-2. I was disappointed about that.
After AIT I was sent to Ft. Belvoir VA and assigned to the television station there. We made training videos for the Corps of Engineers and supported the Pentagons video needs. Although there was no internet at the time the stations call sign was WEB-TV and I like to make the claim that I worked at the world’s first web tv station.
We made videos about generator maintenance, heating-ventilation-air conditioning, rigging, site safety, and others. We also made holiday videos about the danger of drinking and driving that were distributed thru out the services worldwide. It’s interesting that perfectly competent people can fall apart in front of a camera. Lots of people just choke up and can’t perform.
In one instance, we were making a video on how to rig a M-60 tank for lift by a Sky Crain helicopter. The instructor showed what rigging to use and where to connect it for proper balance. He showed the hand signals to use to position the helicopter. I was inside the production truck and the down draft from the chopper was pretty windy. When the instructor gave, the lift signal the pilot throttled up to lift the 60 tons the downdraft increased almost knocking the truck on its side. We had a camera man stationed on top of the truck and he came crashing down destroying the camera and breaking his leg. The instructor was competent but the extra burden of the camera brought his thinking close to saturation as the lift approached. He did get a reprimand for that.
The Army had given me all the training I was going to get although I absorbed much from the training films we made. Video production is no different today, we would put many hours into a film and view it repeatedly. I took to using the library and carried a book with me all the time. No matter the subject I always had something to read. I got some subscriptions to the broadcast trade journals and was constantly sending for literature from equipment manufactures. Often, I would send requests using Department of the Army stationary and letterhead. The difference in response between that and the normal channels was incredible and I got all kinds of neat stuff. I also took a correspondence course in electronics.
I first became interested in Photography while serving with the U.S. Army. I realized that my ear and the microphone didn’t hear things in the same way. To achieve good results, I had to teach my ear to listen like a microphone. I had to hear beyond the sounds I wanted, to the noise that the ear perceives but the brain filters. I soon realized my eye was the same way and that I could teach myself to see using the tools that mimic vision. The military post had a fine darkroom so I was totally vertically intergraded from the start.
Then it happened. We were in midst of a GI party in the barracks and I went to the latrine to fill a mop bucket. A sergeant I did not know followed me back and asked what department I was in. I told him and his next words were “get your fking ass down to the latrine you SOB”! I felt attacked and told him there was no need to insult my mother. He continued his rant. I said “fine, ok but I don’t understand why you are yelling at me, it seems ridiculous”. When I got to the latrine I learned that my department had been assigned to clean the latrine and that this sergeant was the new head of the department. I had not met him nor was I told we were to clean the latrine.
I did my duty and everything seemed fine until the next day when I was called into the captain’s office. I was told I was being charged under Article 15 with in-subornation. The sergeant claimed I had called him ridiculous. I got statements from two people that I had called the situation ridiculous and not the sergeant. It was no help, I looked into what my rights were and discovered I really did not have any. I went to the Agilent Generals office to see a lawyer and was advised not to fight it. The lawyer said he would fight it if I so chose but he did not want to do it. I was told that the most punishment I could get under Article 15 was loss of two week’s pay, two week’s extra duty, and one stripe. If it went to Courts Martial I could get five years. Needless to say, I accepted Article 15. That totally turned me off to the Army.
I had joined a book club and got a book by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull “The Peter Principle” and its follow up “The Peter Prescription”. The Peter Principle states that in any organization there is a tendency to be promoted to your level of incompetence. You do well and are promoted to a level where you become incompetent. Rather than be reduced back to where you were competent you remain at that incompetent level. The Peter Prescription provides suggestions on how to avoid the Peter Principle. These books were very influential to the rest of my military experience and I no longer cared about doing well in the Army.
One of the things I learned way back in basic training was that if you looked busy no one would bother you. I would move fast and carry something while doing nothing. When outdoors I would never put on my hat. I would run or bicycle fast and was never challenged. If I wanted to do something I would do it and then tell what I did rather than ask permission. Along the chain of command anyone could say no but only the top could say yes.
My second Article 15 was for dereliction of duty; I was late coming back from lunch one day. I did not care.
My third was for in-subornation because I ignored the sign and walked across a freshly waxed floor. I told the captain this was my third time. He said had he known that I would have been seeing the colonel with a field grade Article 15. He also said “you are the most unmilitary soldier I have ever met”. Although I was up on charges I said “I consider that a complement”.
My fourth Article 15 was for dereliction of duty, I missed guard duty because my name was penciled in after I checked the roster. I had taken off with a friend to drive over to Harpers Ferry where we had friends. We were driving along a two-lane road on a high berm with tobacco fields below us on both sides. There were two boys riding bicycles on the shoulder. As we approached one of the boys slipped on some gravel and spilled into the lane right in from of us. We had nowhere to go except off the berm and into the field. We had a soft landing because the field was freshly plowed. We sat in shock for a few minutes. When we got out of the car we could see we were well stuck and the boys were nowhere to be seen. We stood there for a while till a farmer on a tractor came up. He was livid. We tried to explain but he was too mad to hear us. A few minutes later a car pulled up on the road and the two boys popped out with a woman and came down the berm. It turned out that the woman was the farmer’s wife and the boys were his children. He would listen to her as she explained what had happened and he calmed down. After learning we were military he used his tractor to yard us out and back on the road. There was no damage to the car and we were invited to a great home cooked dinner. That’s very rare in the Army.
Guard duty was 48 hours, four on eight off and meals were C-rations. The ammunition dump, communications center, hospital, and warehouse all had a guard posted 24-7 with a 12-gauge shotgun. The first time I pulled guard duty I was issued the shotgun but no ammunition. I protested on the grounds that anyone with intent to do harm would assume the shotgun was loaded and would be prepared. Just give me a club is what I asked, again making trouble. The sergeant of the guard insisted and I refused. He called in the officer of the day who then looked up the standard operation procedure. Turns out the guard is to be issued three rounds with instructions not to load unless needed. I could live with that and they had not been following the SOP for who knows how long.
Along with the guard shift there were three drivers, two in 2 ½ ton trucks and one in a sedan for the officer of the day. Drivers in the Army have no other duties (sweet!) and I wised up quick. I got a military driving license and would report early to the motor pool to get the sedan. I would pick up the OD and take him to the guard shack to report in and then back to his quarters. Unless there were a problem such as the one I created, I had nothing to do except eat, sleep, and take joy rides. No standing in the rain and cold.
By the time, I was close to Expiration of Term of Service my rank had gone from E-1 to E-2 to E-3 to E-4 to E-3 to E-4 to E-3 to E-2. I had different insignia on all my uniforms, I just wore what was clean. The company executive officer noticed and looked up my records and saw I was E-2. He stopped me in the hall while I was wearing E-4 and ordered me to put the correct insignia on my uniforms. I told him to start the paperwork to bust me to E-1 which has no insignia and I would remove all the stripes from all my uniforms. He looked at me incredulously like rank is important and never bothered me again. That whole “snap to” and square corners was never my thing.
I had a friend that worked at brigade headquarters with access to the personnel records and 201 files. I asked him to remove all the records of my Article 15’s which he did. For that reason, I received an honorable discharge rather than the general discharge I should have gotten. That was helpful in later years when looking for a job.
Overall I got away with a lot more than I got caught for. I managed to get myself on separate rations which was about an extra 70$ per month on the grounds I was a health nut and wanted to buy my own food. Meanwhile I had meal cards for almost every mess hall on the Post. I took most of my meals at the hospital mess, the food was best there.
One weekend I went there for breakfast and when leaving carried out a few little boxes of cereal for later. Some command sergeant major saw me taking food. You are not supposed to do that. This guy had stripes from shoulder to elbow and hash marks for years of service all the way down his forearm. I saw him get up to follow me so I moved quickly and hid in an alcove. I was in tennis shoes and he was wearing leather souled shoes. I could hear his every footstep on the shiny waxed floor as he entered the alcove. There was a wide pillar in the center of the alcove and as he moved around it looking I kept myself on the opposite side from him. He made two full trips around the pillar and I could hear him as he left the area. Had he caught me I’m sure I would have been in serious trouble.
Another day I was in officer country and entered a crosswalk. A 1st lieutenant entered the crosswalk on the other side at about the same time. I got a bug up my butt and decided not to salute. As I passed him I said “good morning sir” and nodded. I got about three more steps before he stopped me. We stood in the road blocking traffic as I was given a lecture about the meaning of the salute. As I stood there looking at him I could see that he had all the hallmarks of a West Pointer. He never raised his voice or belittled me but by the time he was done I felt about two inches tall.
Another slick thing I did was with the record clubs of the day. I was good friends with the mail clerk. I would join the club with a false name and get my twelve albums for a cent and the approvals where you have to take action to not receive more albums. They would send three sets of albums before demanding payment at which time the mail clerk would send a change of address form stating that I was now in Korea or some other place and out of contact. We would split the albums we got and did these four times total.
They made a change in the barracks to accommodate women. They installed one way doors on one wing that could only be opened from the female side. This was so there was a fire escape if needed. My room was the first one by the door on the male side. The ladies would open the door to go to some one’s room. When finished, the guy would come to my room and I would knock on the window of the girl on the other side. She would come out and unlatch the door so her friends could slip back. Needless to say, I was pretty popular.
Because of my correspondence course in electronics I had the only tool kit in the barracks. I had a two-man room to myself as an E2 while there were E5 and E6 sharing a room. There was a color television, refrigerator, carpet on the floor, and a state of the art sound system. I still have and use the custom speaker set I made. I was pretty popular because my place was where to go with your pot and of course share.
My very favorite Army story was not about me. A friend of mine liked to get paid in cash because he got a half day off on paydays so he could go get paid. One day when he was short, that is close to ETS he reported for pay and was told he needed a haircut. He told the captain he was broke and needed to get paid before he could get a haircut. The captain told him he would give him 20$ now to get a haircut and he could come back later for the rest of his money. “Yes sir” my friend said and went to get a haircut. He was quite angry because he was so close to getting out and did not want a military cut when he got home. When he returned, and reported for pay the captain counted out his money minus what he had given earlier. When you get paid cash, there is a form you have to sign so the funds can be accounted for. My friend told the captain that his pay was 20$ short and refused to sign. The captain had no choice but to make up the 20$ from his own pocket.
I had my own method of dealing with my hair, a military cut is a dead giveaway to your status. I would wash my hair in the evening and soak it in a cream rinse without washing it out. Then I would wrap it tightly in a hair net while I slept. This packed my hair flatly against my head and I went to work that way. After work I would brush it out to its non-military fluffy length. One afternoon after brushing out my hair I went to the post exchange where I ran into the company First Sergeant. He was shocked and that put an end to that.
Over all, my military experience paid off. I can cite several instances where my military experience was a factor in getting employment. When I started college after getting out an opening came up at the school for an assistant in the electronic maintenance department. Several people in my electronics technology class applied. Because the college had a broadcast media program and both a radio and television station and I had two and a half years in television I landed the job.
I made much use of the GI bill in becoming educated. A few years ago, President Obama introduced and got passed the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program. This opened up new money and I found I was eligible. I looked into it and saw that Photography was on the list of approved training. I immediately applied fearing funds would run out. I was approved and actually made money while attending the Photography program at Mount Hood Community College. Funding expired rather than run out.
Army training today is not like my time. During my service the Army had over 400 Military Occupational Specialties. Today there are less than 150 MOS and most of those are combat arms. The military used to be a source of men and women trained and experienced in many trades. Now it is all outsourced. The exception is the Navy which still needs a trained force at sea.
Like most, I hated the Army. I recall a sergeant once telling me that “a soldier is not happy unless he has something to complain about”. That is true. Soldiers are made, not born and misery loves company. Soldiers are extensively trained and drilled. When placed in harm’s way they do not fight for freedom or a way of life. They fight to keep themselves and their buddies alive. I thank God that I was never placed in that situation.
LESS THAN ILUSTERIOUS
A Military Experience
©2016 Gary Doyle Thomas