I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Who did back in 1968? I was never a gung-ho type of a guy even though I’d go a little berserk when a buddy of mine got attacked by some bully at home or in school.
I had been in the army a little more than a year after being drafted. Had less than ten months left on active duty and I could have quit right then and there and avoided the orders to go to Vietnam.
You see, I was being trained in the US Army’s Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. My entrance into the prestigious school was delayed twice because my father had been born outside of the United States. He came from one of the Greek islands and was too young to serve in World War I and too old during World War II. In addition, he did a short stint in a prison called Sing Sing in New York City after getting arrested for working in a speakeasy. I couldn’t get a secret clearance until researchers could confirm that I wasn’t a communist or something that might one day become something subversive like a Democrat.
Well, there I was in the 25th week of a 26-week rigorous training program about to be commissioned a second lieutenant. I could simply refuse the promotion and remain a Spec 5 (Specialist Five) for my remaining time in the military. You needed at least a year to be sent to the war zone back then. The army would have kept me stateside and out of harm’s way over there.
I actually organized a group meeting with other candidates as we discussed our options. We’d avoid facing combat and possibly getting killed or maimed if we quit our training. It had quite an appeal to me, a 20-year-old from a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia.
But I figured I had put too much of myself into the army. My brother – a sergeant who became a “lifer” with more than 20 years in the Army Corps of Engineers — believed I could become an officer when he recommended I attend the school. I had enough chutzpah to think I could actually help others as a leader and I hated to see the training go to waste. So I opted to be the second youngest candidate to receive a commission and later tour Southeast Asia as an infantry platoon leader.
I survived the war. No one under my command was killed although several brave young men – we called ourselves “grunts” — were wounded. And I learned a lesson I’d like to pass on to my grandson this Veterans Day: Don’t quit to take what looks like an easier path in life. The difficult pathways help you grow up to be more grateful for having served.