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.