The turmoil about Bill Clinton’s draft record brought to mind certain memories. He and I are of the same generation. I was born in late 1945 and he in ’46. World War II cast its long shadow over all of us and is only now slipping away with the receding darkness of the Cold War. My father, like countless fathers, uncles and older brothers, was a hero. The “boys” of that war were worshiped by their boys--we all wanted to be just like them someday.
When I turned 18 in December, 1963, my father, then a general in the Marine Corps, lawyer and former governor, used all his power, influence and prestige to deal with my draft problem. Within 30 days of my birthday, he pulled strings, took me down to the old Post Office and signed me up for the Marines. My friend, Mike McBryde, and I took the oath together. “Son, it’s time for you to serve your country,” was the attitude that I found most evident around the house. I assumed that was the right attitude, the only one to have.
I grew up in a house filled with military history, knew men like John Yancey (two Navy Crosses), Gen. Lou Walt (two Navy Crosses) and heard names like “Chesty” Puller (four Navy Crosses) and Gen. A.A. Vandergrift (Medal of Honor) mentioned in the most casual conversation. I had my first uniform, dress blues, when I was 6.
The following summer ('64) Mike and I went through training in the heat of northern Virginia that I will never forget. But practicing football under coach Ray Peters at Hall High had taught me that I could take just about anything. “Two-a-days” in August are a wonderful tuneup for war. Nothing I ever did in Vietnam was any tougher physically.
But there were lots of guys from Arkansas there that summer. Jim Guy Tucker, Charles Buxton and my brother, Sandy. All later served in Vietnam.
The Marines let me finish college and I was commissioned in ’67. But the fall of ’67 was not like what I had imagined the spring of ’42 had been. Somehow, things had all gotten terribly complicated. A lot of people were indeed “conflicted,” including myself. Those were dark days.
I remember reading long lists of names in the “Navy Times.” Basic School buddies killed in places called Quang Nam province or Quang Tri, Khe Sanh, Hue or Con Thien. One class that arrived in-country before Tet took 50% casualties. Later, the honor man in our class was killed, as were several others, and I also learned that a high school classmate and West Pointer, Donny Dietz, had been killed. Dark days, indeed.
In early December of ’69, almost on the very day when Clinton wrote his letter from Oxford to the Army ROTC explaining that he “loathed” the American military but “loved his country,” I picked up my tank platoon on Highway One, just south of the Hi Vanh Pass. Ours was strictly a guerrilla conflict--mines, rockets, booby traps, snipers and small unit clashes. It was a shadow war, with the Viet Cong coming down out of the mountains for supplies, propaganda and recruits while we danced a kind of cat-and-mouse step to a tune we called by day and they by night.
In Vietnam several things were cleared up rather quickly for me. First, that I just might survive. Second, that Vietnam was a very beautiful country filled with lots of good people who did not want to live under communism. And, third, that we were going to lose. In fact, had already lost, and were simply trying to find a way out. This was more or less common knowledge. Yet, people kept doing a tough job day in and day out. I was amazed and impressed. I’ll never forget them.
I was impressed by a staff sergeant named Boswell who taught me a lot about tanks and was later killed by a booby trap; by a Navy corpsman named Balcom who wore peace beads and died trying to rescue a wounded Marine named Gomez when Balcom only had a week left in-country, had been pulled back and told he didn’t have to go out again, but went anyway; by a gunnery sergeant named Crittenden, one of my best friends, who was wounded holding off a VC squad alone while his buddies escaped an ambush. I’ll never forget his face looking up at me in the hospital, bleeding into his sheets, while the kid next to him was dying and no one seemed to notice; Crittenden telling me that two tours were enough.
I was impressed by an Army captain who led me and my two tanks and an ARVN Ranger company on a night sweep down a road through a VC village just to show them we could do it. I’ll never forget watching him through my periscope, walking in front, tall, lanky, with nothing but a radio and a pistol, striding down the middle of this road, fearless it seemed, confident, in control. I was impressed. I never forgot. I thought we were all going to get blown to hell; the steel around me seemed terribly thin. The VC must have been impressed too, because they let us go by.
Where are they now? Names scribbled on the Wall, or living anonymously somewhere, quietly remembering while trying to forget. You won’t find many in history books, not even as footnotes, but without them a nation is finished. A country needs them; people of quiet courage and competence who ask for little more than the satisfaction of being able to serve. They have to be found everywhere--the nurse on the midnight shift, the cop on the beat, the teacher who educates the uneducated.
And, if Clinton has the good fortune, or misfortune, of being elected President, he’s going to need their kind; he’s going to have to find a way to lead them, inspire them, like a captain walking down a lonely road one more night in Vietnam, doing his duty, serving the military Clinton “loathed” for a country he “loved.” And I just hope that they can find within themselves a way and reason to follow.