Enlisting To Avoid The Draft
Jim Knight-29 Feb 16
I decided to tell “My Story” after reading the first one by John Sacco. I applaud him for a job well done and for being the first! I doubt it was easy.
To use a Yogi Berra-type phrase, there are lot of different similarities between John’s and my story. First of all, we are contemporaries as I enlisted in 1965 and John in 1966. And as with him, I enlisted since I too was slated for the call (not “the call” in a religious sense, but a call to duty nevertheless, by a lesser but scarier authority).
My 1-A draft status was carved in stone in mid-February with about a three-week turnaround at that point. It was both a proud moment to receive that little card in the mail and yet a chilling one as well. My family was entrenched in a dairy farm operation in Michigan, my home state and, while not an ideal setup, I took over as “farmer in charge” at age 17¼, with steady guidance from my father and backup support from my older, smarter brothers, who saw the downside of the operation and wanted no long-term part of it. I had been certain I was destined for a life as a farmer.
The draft notice was a major life change for myself, as well as my family, so I started to look at alternatives. They were limited. Neither brother wanted to commit to two years as the farmer guy (did I mention they were considerably smarter than me?). My father at that time was 62 and very limited physically. Income was an issue as well. My father was employed full time with Chrysler in order to put food on the table, and so if we needed to liquidate and close the operation down (we rented the farm at the time), more time was needed. And third or fourth of all, in the back of my mind I knew it would be very expensive to get back into full-time farming, assuming I survived the big war in the first place.
So, at age 21 I paid a visit to the army recruiter in Ann Arbor. The Navy and Marines were not for me and I could not see myself in the Air Force. No fear of flying but certainly one of falling long distances.
Mr. Sergeant Recruiter told me some interesting things, some of which were probably true, and not the least of which was that both my brothers had visited with him and he remarked that if I was anything like them I could have anything I wanted as a Military Operation Specialty (I think I mentioned my brothers were smart as heck). As I left the recruiting office we agreed the best solution was to enlist in the Inactive Reserve and I would have 120 days to report for active duty. So I did that and on the way out the door I grabbed a brochure about these Army guys who wore funny green hats.
We did indeed liquidate via an auction of all cattle and equipment, my parents retired and moved back to his home state of Kentucky and I spent the next seven weeks with one or the other sister. I reported for active duty with two days to spare and 20 extra pounds of body weight.
So why not just be drafted? Why commit to three years instead of two? Why not ask for a deferment as many other young farmers were doing?
First of all, a draftee usually had no say in what he would be doing in the Army. If I had to go I wanted a say in what I might be doing, though I was not at all sure what that would be. And both brothers had served and while we are not overly patriotic per se, I would not have felt comfortable trying to avoid serving. I even “cheated” on the eye exam by sneaking peeks through the door at the eye chart so I could pass it.
Well, basic training was basic training. The heat of Ft. Knox, Kentucky, in July was nothing for a young farm boy. And Advanced Infantry Training at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, and Jump School at Ft. Benning were equally doable.
Since I had gravitated toward Special Forces, Advanced Infantry Training and parachute training were part of the lead-up to Special Forces training. Certainly Jump School, where we learned how to “safely” exit a perfectly good plane and land in one piece, was a lesson in facing a new and reasonably dangerous challenge. There was a new class every week and most of us got through it by just deciding not to wash out. It was a lesson in self- confidence as well since I saw who had made it to the next level (just a week prior) and I knew I could certainly do what they had done. We learned to depend on each other as well, and having each other’s backs.
As an example, three of us, in Advanced Infantry Training, for some reason decided to escape and evade the Escape and Evasion night course by hiding out in empty lockers until after the bus left for the swamp, convinced we could easily survive a night in the swamp anyway. Seemed like a good idea at the time. All the rest of the platoon knew what we were doing and they covered for us in various ways. There were other examples along the way but I am not sure about the statute of limitations so refrain from revealing them.
We also learned the Mickey Mouse stuff that was the military, and how best to deal with it. Things like KP, Ash and Trash and policing the company area, mundane health lectures, chow lines, pay lines, lost records, stateside guard duty and inspections all became tolerable. And, as it turned out, it was all part of the general scheme and turned out to be very important stuff. There was a method to that madness.
In January 1966, I began 15 months of Special Forces training. I did not test well in two of the five specialties, likely unable to build stuff and blow stuff up, and shoot that good, and was not an NCO and was therefore ineligible to become an Intel man. So I became a medic after 51 weeks of training. I then began other trainings including Vietnamese language and a six-week cold weather mountain training exercise in Utah. That was a hoot but after two weeks I was manifested for Viet Nam.
Following a two-week leave I arrived at the Oakland, California, to be processed for the land of the big PX, along with many others of all branches of service and including several of my classmates. We flew for about 14 hours it seems, and arrived in Cam Rhan Bay at the 5th Special Forces Headquarters. The first question that was asked was had we had dinner yet. What a great place and what a great dinner we were served, best one I ever had in the Army for sure. We were given guns, ammunition, equipment and our assigned team and off we went the next day to our B Team and eventually our A team assignment. I was assigned to A-245, Dak Seang, the next camp north of Dak To.
That was when I started to really get the idea into my head that this was a war zone, as we rode to Dak Seang in the back of a deuce-and-a-half down a rather narrow road with a lot of what I felt were terrific ambush sites. My M-16 was locked and loaded and never left my hand for sure. We arrived without taking any fire though.
Dak Seang was a newer camp, started in the fall of 1966 and as yet not quite complete. Martha Raye had visited around Christmastime. It was, like Bu Prang, near the Laotian border and so a thorn in the side of the Vietcong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
As the junior and — at the time — only medic, I was surprised that they had not yet completed the dispensary. The senior medic was on R and R so I “ramrodded” its completion. The floor was in and a sort of roof in place but no real walls, as I recall. We had an underground bunker that could be used in emergency situations but fortunately had not been really needed at that point. The team room was above ground and contained the mess hall and a communications station. We had two tin-roofed “barracks” with six rooms each and so we were fairly well set up. The underground bunker was fully equipped and available in case we would ever be under siege.
As a medic I was in charge of the public health aspect of the team and all the camp members, as well as the two villages north and south of the camp. We drew water from the Dak Poko River in a real Army water truck, olive drab, one each. I was charged with adding water purification tablets into the tank.
I also had to make sure the two-holer latrine was kept pretty clean and so the first job the Team Sergeant gave me was to burn out some of the waste. I was never taught that so stupidly asked how. With a look of distain at such a dumb question, the sergeant said to pour gasoline down the pit, take the contents of one match, Army, strike same and drop it in. What I forgot was to ask how much gas. If you have ever seen the episode of “M*A*S*H” where Colonel Blake is in the latrine, someone blows it up trying to kill him and he comes out with a toilet seat around his neck and other contents that one finds in a latrine you might have an idea of what the aftermath looked like, except for the partial destruction by fire of what had been a pretty good outdoor toilet. And while I was not given any disciplinary consequences since the rest of the team though it was funny as hell, I did earn the fear and respect of the CIDG strikers.
Around the camp’s four-sided perimeter, we had below-ground fire stations that also doubled as “homes” for our Montagnard strikers and families, so I had 100 men and various civilians as well as a Vietnamese Special Forces team under my care. I also held sick call in the two nearby villages as often as possible.
One of the most common conditions I had to treat, after malaria, was alcohol poisoning. There was a small building in the middle of the camp that was a store for the indigenous personnel. It was run by what is best described as a witch. She was there at the insistence of the Vietnamese Special Forces and their commanding officer was, we were sure, getting kickbacks, as prices were outrageously high. She would leave camp for a few days and come back with a supply of what my dad would call busthead liquor, sell it to the locals and then watch the fun. They would drink too much or the batch was made wrong or both, and so when my two Vietnamese medics would tell me “man no can see,” I knew it was alcohol poisoning.
I had no clue how to treat it but looked it up and discovered that ethyl alcohol is used to treat methyl alcohol overdose, and vice versa. It was too late for a couple of patients as they were too far gone to save with anything, but I managed to reverse all who got to me in time. And after the supply people in Nha Trang realized it was (often) for medicinal purposes we were always able to get really good bonded whiskey whenever we asked.
By the way, try as we might and with the assistance of a very understanding Chinook pilot hovering above it for several minutes, we could not blow that little house down. That resulted in a very loud ass-chewing for the Team Sergeant and me.
As mentioned, it was a new camp and had taken no incoming until May of that year. We did not have any American casualties but our Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) patrols did. Several were killed or wounded, a couple of civilians were beheaded and many working in the fields growing crops were wounded by grenades, so I got a little combat medical training on the job. But in early June the bad guys started lobbing mortar shells at us and on about Day 3 they had a direct hit on my barracks and three of us were wounded. This steadily increased but was more bothersome than dangerous. We were sure we had infiltrators in camp and indeed I did catch one of our strikers pacing off distances inside the perimeter.
In mid-May our next door neighbors at Dak To were involved in a dispute with the NVA. Three of us went with a hundred of our CIDG to relieve them. I earned my Combat Medic Badge that day as soon as I stepped off the chopper. And in mid-June and early July we had much more ground action on our expanded patrols. We knew it was only a matter of time before the NVA and VC would attempt to overrun us. In fact, an attempt was thwarted in mid-August. The following year the camp was really hit hard but not overrun.
My stay in-country was shortened as I evacuated by chopper 5 July, spent 5 1/2 months in recuperating (more details to follow) and was back in Ft. Bragg in late December of 1967. As a combat veteran and a trained medic I was assigned to the motor pool as a driver. I get that the trainee medics needed the experience I never got before I went but it seemed like a real waste of time. I did get to be a jeep driver for a training operation and so saw parts of the North Carolina mountains I had only read about, but the rest of the time was pretty much wasted. I had volunteered to return to Viet Nam and agreed to extend my tour of duty for the additional time needed for a full year’s tour but withdrew it when they said I need to re-up for three years. While I felt I had left a lot of things undone regarding helping the Montagnard people I really did not want to make the Army a career, so finished out my three years and went home.
I met a lot of great people in my time in the Army and especially Special Forces. I entered as a pretty shy and fairly introverted farm/small town boy and left a pretty confidant person who could face a lot of doubt and challenge. I was challenged by the very extensive medical training, but saw the value of a college education and felt I could use my military experience to good use. It was a decision between veterinary school and pharmacy school and because of the great first visit with Michigan State University I chose that pathway and am very glad I did.
So the story ends…but not quite.
As a farmer one simply looks straight ahead and never varies that approach if one wants to be successful. The same holds true in the military as well as intensive as the college degree I chose. I was a veterinarian in less than five years of college, worked a full-time job for a good part of it and also took a summer off. My military experience helped me immensely in college since I was able to work in the campus hospital. My first partner was also a Viet Nam veteran and we worked very hard (but he also tried to take time off and forced me to as well — smarter than me again).
But that lingering feeling of something left undone remained and so when I had an opportunity to spend time in Afghanistan I leapt at it. Thanks to the military I was able to help again and the similarities between the yards and the locals I spent time with in Afghanistan made it all the more satisfying.
The combat experience I had was another matter and so to return to that. I received two Purple Hearts, one not so bad and the other a gunshot wound that healed slowly but surely. I will not dwell except to say that I went on three operations, with the support of Dak To. The first firefight resulted in two American dead and two wounded, while I was spared. On the next two, in July, I was with a teammate who was wounded, and I was hit as well on that second one. I was affected as one might imagine but it was years later that I really figured it out completely, and then the weird feelings I used to have the first five days each July finally went away after 20 years. I had no therapy until after that revelation and that was shortsighted on my part. I have had a couple of flashbacks that were troubling but recognizable for what they were.
I am extremely grateful that I did not experience anything like what many Viet Nam veterans did upon returning home. I went through a mini-version of all the demonstrations that were taking place around the country, as MSU was a low-key university in that regard, but I knew there it would be a bad scene if it ever happened to me personally. I was angry that the veterans were not only not appreciated or understood, but were actually blamed, it seemed, for their service. What a hell they were put through, to come home to that kind of a reception. Very little was known and so much-needed assistance was often not provided. That is why I have become involved with this project. Veterans now face horrific injuries from weapons and explosives much more powerful and destructive and only getting worse. We vets are best able in whatever way we can to help all our fellow veterans face what with each war is potentially more devastating. I am amazed at what I have been hearing about what some many veterans and other citizens are already doing, and regret being late to the effort.
I also believe that veterans now face many different challenges beyond the combat category. One hopes that they are able to benefit by whatever assistance we can possibly provide but can move to becoming part of the solution for future veterans issues. I do not see an end to armed conflict anytime soon.