I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant 50 years ago and looking back I see it as one of the greatest achievements of my life. Also, one of the luckiest ones and I’m so glad to still be around to tell about it.
Yes, by an Act of Congress I was made “An Officer & a Gentleman.” I don’t know where that title came from — Great Britain I guess — but I tried to live up to it’s “ideal” while in the army and when discharged and choosing different career paths in my life.
Like many veterans, I utilized the GI Bill to improve my education having gotten nothing more than a high school diploma, from a trade school at that. I got an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree in four years relishing the training I got at Officer’s Candidate School to “accomplish the mission.”
At age 20, I was the second youngest soldier to graduate from the Fort Benning “School for boys,” aka the US Army’s Officer’s Candidate School. The company commander tried to force me out because of my age. He ordered me to do hundreds of sit-ups in a sleeping bag while in his office but I refused to quit despite having to go on sick call the next day for injuries caused my butt during the process.
My brother, Sergeant George S Contos, gave me my first salute and pinned the yellow bars on my shoulders. He was a “lifer” having served more than 22 years as an Army combat engineer.
He was the one who talked me into going to OCS when I scored high in a leadership test.
A year later I was leading a combat infantry platoon in Vietnam. Thanks a lot Brother George!
No one was killed under my command although five guys were wounded one day, the worst day of my life. I am eternally grateful. And when times were bad in civilian life, I thought back to the war thanking God and saying “At least no one is shooting at me!”
There was an urban legend that may have some truth but I don’t know. “What was the life expectancy of a second lieutenant landing in a hot LZ? (That’s a helicopter coming into a Landing Zone under fire by the Viet Cong.)
I never experienced such a fire fight like that. But the first person killed when I served in Vietnam was a first lieutenant — Lt. Vic Ellinger — shot by an enemy sniper. I’ll never forget you buddy . . .
Many enlisted men disliked their officers. “Don’t call me Sir. I work for a living” some would say with a sneer. Well, I worked. I walked point in Vietnam, once using a machete to cut through the triple canopy jungle. I would never ask a troop to do anything I wouldn’t do. Except carry an M-60 machine gun, maybe. Hey, I am 5-foot-six inches tall and weighed only 140 pounds soaking wet back then!
The date of August 22nd will always be a glorious day for me. I became an officer then and I have tried my best to always live up being a gentleman. I feel blessed to have been given the chance to serve!