I was in the Army less than a week when the news hit me. I had my head shaven; my civilian clothes exchanged for fatigue pants and a shirt, not to mention boots and head-gear, something I had never worn before in my life.
Got drafted on the third of June the day that Billie Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. I was 19 years old — knew no one — and was away from my Philadelphia, PA, home for first time.
I quickly learned to fall into formation and step off with the left foot when hearing the command to march. I fell into step with the fellow in front, as well as those to the left and right of me.
Some guys began talking, violating the sergeant’s order not to speak while “in formation” and while marching. I had to pay attention to the pace being set by the cadence caller announcing in a loud, clear voice, to march “to you left . . . to your left . . . to your left, right, left,” and then answering that same cadence crier who philosophized about loved ones we had just bidden goodbye:
“Ain’t no use in going home;”
Jody’s got your girl and gone.”
“Sound off! [One, Two . . .];
Sound off! [Three, Four . . .]”
Never met anyone named Jody (heard of Jody Powell with President Carter nearly a decade later), but I’d probably not hit it off on meeting someone with that name.
The noise around me continued. More marchers were talking. Louder! I couldn’t grasp what was being said at first, but I detected the word “dead“ being used over and over. Somebody had died. Somebody we all knew. This was June 6th, 1968, at Fort Bragg, NC, only a few days after being sworn in as a buck private. And then I experienced one of those moments like when you first heard the Twin Towers were struck, or of the assassination of a president decades earlier.
Bobby Kennedy is dead.”
I couldn’t grasp the words at first. I really didn’t want to. There I was, a soldier, one who just swore to uphold the Constitution and do all in his power to protect the country. I couldn’t vote. The leadership of the country at the time was something I never thought about. Learning the Army’s business was the only thought I had back then.
“Bobby Kennedy is dead,” the words came out again. It was voiced by someone different this time. One with a Southern accent. The first had a Bronx accent or maybe one from New Orleans. They sounded like to someone exposed to them for the first time. Mostly teenagers, hardly any of us near the age of 21.
“Bobby Kennedy is dead,” this time, I was saying it to myself, as I stumbled and wanted desperately to stop playing soldier. I reverted to a one-year out-of-high-school-graduate who just tasted politics when LBJ bailed out, and Bobby entered the presidential race. I liked him. He offered hope to people like me, just off the block, away from the village square, out from the farmland. For the first time.
“Stop,” I wanted to shout. Stop the marching. Stop the life around me, the pounding, the moving, the confining. Stop all of you. Let me be still. Let me pause in the moment. Reflect. Digest.
For God’s sake, please let me grieve.
I needed time to take this in. Someone had shot and silenced perhaps the strongest voice against the Vietnam War and definitely, the most influential. Had he been elected, my life may have been different. No memories of fire-fights, lost comrades, death and destruction and . . . no PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Grief, however, eluded me. I was forced to put it off for another day, another place, another life. It was but a foreshadow of more grief I would encounter before my career ended with the military. It’s a grief I am only now dealing with through the practice of meditation and the Omega Institute Retreat on the “Cost of War.”
But, that’s another story. To be continued.
The following comments were made on Facebook after publishing this article some seven years after first writing it in the year 2010.
Michael I was in the same situation Basic Training in my sixth week when this happened….
· June 5 at 10:01am
I guess you know how I felt. I couldn’t mourn him properly and only wished that I could have stopped the world for one minute for a silent prayer….See More
· June 6 at 8:39am
Deborah Vacanti Hutchison
Thank you both for your service!
· June 5 at 10:35am
“Les we forget” is a quote about our veterans but I think it can also apply to our political heroes that have been taken away from us through violence and ignorance. It helps us deal with some chaotic situations we have to face later in our lives . . .
It sounds to me as if you won’t forget what Bobby Kennedy meant to so many people!
Well written and thank you for your service. 🇺🇸 ☮️
· June 5 at 12:15pm
All you got to do is write from the heart after opening one of veins to let what is inside of you bleed out
Holy shit. I didn’t mean that. I enjoy writing and am simply quoting Hemmingway who said that writing was easy after opening yourself in such a colorful yet painful way!
June 6 at 8:45am
Thank you all for your service ❤️ 🇺🇸 💙
· June 5 at 12:39pm
We didn’t get many thanks when we returned from the Vietnam War. Not that we were looking for any. It’s nice to hear people say that nowadays. It helps heal some old wounds.
· June 6 at 8:43am
Bravo! Dear God, I can’t imagine… Thank you for posting this and sharing your heart and for your service to try to help to keep us safe in the land that I love. I’m not sure if you are the actual writer Michael and again thank you for bringing this to my eyes and now it is in my heart.
· June 5 at 12:40pm
Yeah, I’m the writer. I started a spiritual journey in 2008 after going out on disability with PTSD from the Vietnam War, and reflections like this provide a soothing help for me….See More
· June 6 at 8:42am
You remind me of basic & AIT Ft Campbell KY & Ft Sill OK
June 5 at 8:23pm
I’ve been to Ft. Bragg, NC, Ft Dix, NJ, Ft. Benning, Ga, and Fort Benjamin Harrison, Panama, but never had the pleasure of serving at Ft. Campbell or Ft. Sill, both places I have heard spoken of with deep respect!
Deborah Joyce Windisch
You write beautifully about your emotions and experiences. Thank you for your service, and my sincere regrets for the traumatic effects that you have suffered.
June 10 at 2:45am
Thanks so much and I really appreciate your kind thoughts and words!
Ah. This made me so sad. I have been watching the HBO show called the Pacific about WWII each week. I am so deeply moved by the sacrifices made, but even more disturbed as a mother to see ‘boys’ shot down before they get a chance to become men. I don’t imagine you watch this show and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone with PTSD, but for those of us who have never been in a war, it’s good to watch– to know and to learn. My sons might have fought in WWII or Vietnam if they had been born at that time. They had the choice not to fight in Iraq. I have the deepest respect for those who are there, especially after going to Ground Zero a couple weeks ago. And I pray for their mothers.
I think VietNam was a turning point in the history of war b/c it was the first war ever recorded in living color with up to date reports each night. No more could those at home pretend it was anything but what it really is– killing to avoid being killed.
I do not know the answer. We must be strong when attacked, stronger than our attackers. God help us all.
Wish I could give you a hug and take a long sigh as i hold you in my arms and pray that all sons stay out of harm’s way while in the military.
Ok. Now I squeeze you real tight and let you go with a big smile!
Wasn’t that nice?
Thanks for your understanding.