While Neil Armstrong was taking a giant leap for all mankind, I had taken a small step toward adulthood one month after the moon landing, and I had no one to thank for it except my brother, who encouraged me to aim for the stars in becoming an officer and a gentleman in the Army of the United States of America.
I had weathered the worst six months of my life – worse even than my later combat duty in Vietnam – as I underwent the rigorous training in Officers’ Candidate School. We ran everywhere we went, and when we couldn’t run anymore, we’d run in place waiting in line for chow outside the mess hall, or to use the latrine. I was the second-youngest in a company of some 200 recruits – carrying a minimum rank of Specialist Five (E-5) – who learned tactics and survival skills and how to endure under the harshest conditions while developing leadership qualities. The youngest ones were targeted for even more physical and psychological drills because of our age.
The company commander once ordered me to do 400 situps in a sleeping bag, relenting only after he got tired of counting, and I tore parts of my butt apart from sliding it back and forth against the ground so much. I’m surprised I didn’t tear a hole through the bag, but instead of forcing me out of the program, it encouraged me not to quit and to take whatever he was willing to dish out. At age 20, with nothing but a high school diploma, I earned the respect of several with college and graduate degrees who might have changed their minds about my leading troops.
Those of us who made it filed out of the auditorium at Ft. Benning, Ga., having been addressed by some old weathered colonel who appeared to be in his 70s and was still jumping out of airplanes – his latest count reaching more than 600 jumps! He looked a little crazy, “gung-ho crazy,” if you know what I mean. His eyes seemed permanently fixed wide open; he was jumpy and alert to the smallest sound or movement nearby. I would compare the hyperawareness and sensitivity I’d get from post-traumatic stress years later to his demeanor and makeup.
But on this day, August 22, 1969, my oldest brother had prepared a ceremony to take place outside the doors of the graduation hall. Dressed in his regular working uniform as an E-6 (Staff Sergeant) he carefully removed two metal bars from a cardboard box. We called them “butter bars,” the yellow metal bars symbolizing the rank of Second Lieutenant, the lowest rank in the Army’s officer’s corps.
So many things went through my mind as I stood at attention, looking straight ahead, hoping my dress-uniform hat was affixed properly. I didn’t want to be out of order in any way, shape or form at this time in my life. What a moment!
My oldest brother, six years my senior, was about to pin the bars on my shoulder, officially welcoming me to a world where I would become an officer and a gentleman. I did not know then what the designation by an act of Congress would actually mean. That would come later in Vietnam, when I’d see mortar fire hit and wound half a squad I was leading; when a Viet Cong sniper would shoot and kill Lt. Vic Ellinger, one of only three lieutenants in our combat infantry company; or as two soldiers under another lieutenant’s command would forget where they had placed their claymore mine trip-wire and walk into it, killing themselves.
That was all in the future, along with the PTS that would raise its ugly head some 25 years after the war. It wouldn’t be all bad, particularly right after being discharged when this young veteran would use a sense of failure to achieve success in academics, getting degrees in journalism and history before finding his other life’s calling years later as a public-defender trial lawyer after obtaining a Juris Doctor degree.
I knew none of this as my brother George fastened the metal bars to my uniform jacket, stepped back, and brought his right hand briskly to his forehead, saluting the superior officer that I had become. Nothing in my life could compare to that shining moment.