An Explanation

It seems that currently, there is in this year of our Lord, 2004, a requirement to justify the reasons one either did, or did not participate in the military during the Cold War/Viet Nam era. Of course age could be the first good reason; being a World War I veteran might be a good reason; being a newborn is a great excuse. Being a  women; a quadriplegic; or a Siamese twin, all good reasons for being absent from the Cold War and the Hot War. Well I was none of those. I was in 1965, an 18 year old, reasonably out of shape but healthy; not subject to the draft if I went to college and made a reasonable effort in passing my matriculation. My brother had preceded me to college and I followed three years later in the fall of that year to the same college. He finished in 1966 and enlisted for a two-year hitch that included 18 months or so as a cold war warrior in Germany. Our father was at that moment in Viet Nam completing a 13th month tour of that tropical paradise. As long as I worked at my studies and did reasonably well I could expect to remain safely away from the shooting or other military services until at least 1969. 

I however was not at all happy with my situation. Granted it was a lot better than a mud-marine; face down in a sloppy hole while some pot jacked Cong mortar-man happily lobbed in Red Chinese rounds disrupting his fantastic 1944 World War II Ham and Mother-%^#$s. But I was still unhappy. My father was raised in the Depression. Times were hard on the farm and when my father announced to my grandparents that he wanted to study hard and pass high school and that meant no milking; he was summarily sent off the farm and had to make his own life's way. Of course the fact he only went 8 miles and lived in the back of a cafe; working for room and board; and had two married sisters and his mother to keep him fed and full, well it made him believe that one could live on the same money in 1965 that he had survived on in 1937. War in Viet Nam or war at home. I was expected to survive as my brother had survived. He had worked at odd jobs and eventually got a job that gave him a place to sleep and a whooping 33 cents an hour for a 54 hour night one week or a 72 hour week the next. 

By January 1966 I was ready for even a slave's wage as the $10 a month allotted by our father wouldn't buy nothing at all. I bought a suit on time and went to work at the same funeral/ambulance service with my brother. We went to classes in the morning and were expected to be at work at noon and work every other day 18 hours. While I was luckier than my brother as from the $22.80 we earned he was expected to pay $60.00 a month to his college bill. But that first semester Dad was in 'Nam and I escaped the assessment. I now lived in an air-conditioned room (something the college didn't have at that time) I slept in clean sheets and if life was fair could sleep while earning my night's paycheck. 

But I was soon caught and while my brother joined the Army and was making the exorbitant sum of  $105 dollars a month, free clothes, food and lodging and was allowed to shoot things! However I now had to pay the school as my father cut payment to the school $60.00 and now I was making $7.80 a week or a dollar and a dime a day. My brother and I saved him the price of housing on campus that was $300 a semester or more. So living at the funeral home was a bargain for them really. Like I said dad was not raised in luxurious times. Of course I still got a meal ticket. The problem there was that I lived off campus, missed most breakfasts, got my lunch but then had to run, literally, back across town to work and then if God willing and some major catastrophe didn't occur I could take the flower truck and drive back to campus for my supper. Might I say this was the first of two years when the food service at the college went from pretty damn good to seriously criminal. By the summer of 1967, I was down to 140 pounds or so and still falling. Then came the summer. I had no meal ticket and no more than normal hours. I stilled owed money at the school and I had that dollar and a dime to eat on. Oh yeah and to wash clothes; buy clothes; and nope no entertainment on the days I had off but no income. Sleeping kept the hunger down until afternoon. Getting another job in a college town during the summer was difficult.

 As the summer wore on I ate once a day. I stayed in bed until noon to skip breakfast and then lived on coffee and a hand rolled until six in the evening when I went to a Mexican cafe and got the #2 dinner and a bag of tostados. That was $.90; it was all I got and I was happy to get it. On rare occasions I made an extra buck or two if I had to work vacations for the any of the salaried people. Then I made enough to walk to a little diner where the lady made me a $.25 hamburger that had about a pound of meat and all the condiments a normal bun would hold. That was a real treat. But by the start of the Fall semester I was down to 135 pounds I had had all of this I could handle. I gave in and returned to the campus; moved back into the dorm and returned to the $10 a month that was proffered. Physically and mentally I submitted to discipline.

 Then came a solution. First to be perfectly honest I was not perfectly healthy. I had a "growth" on my right leg. I had many names but as I found out 20 years later none of the names the doctors knew were right. But there it was; a large "growth" on my leg. It provided folks with an amusing glance when I went to the swimming pool. It hurt a little and when it was touched it hurt a lot. But by October of '67 as the war had now had become a seriously nasty affair I determined that I could no longer sit by without participating.  I still held a 2S deferment but a deferment doesn't help the conscience much. I had visited with my parents but dad was sick and not thinking clearly through the "medicine" he was taking. I saw no solutions and lots of continuing problems. Somehow sober I ended up in the Navy recruiters office in Sequin, Texas.

 Now you can imagine that a walk-in with a 2S deferment that wasn't flunking out was a rare catch indeed. The recruiter was openly overjoyed to find a volunteer with a "medical" background that wanted to volunteer to be a navy corpsman. The current employment of those being marine medics in the jungle of a certain hot tropical country. He asked if I would mind taking a test that after being able to spell my own name and generally being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide with out the use of my toes. He stated that I had done very well. I believe he asked me about my general physical condition and I related that I had a "growth" on my leg but that it was not a bother. Not the entire truth but not a complete lie. Generally he stated that I could defer my enlistment until after the end of the current term. He said that I would enter with the pay of an E-4 and graduate basic with that rank. And that in nine months after that I could test out for E-5 the equivalent of a buck sergeant and in two years further E=6. That was indeed a healthy promise. 

I left on top of the world. Sure I was going to quit school. Sure I was joining the Navy; surely it was going to cause a problem at home. On the other hand there was the 100 bucks a month and that was what I had made before quitting to come back to campus. There was Navy chow; and there was the duty thing too. But the chow was the main thing and the pay and advancement and yes I had and have read naval history since John Paul Jones and drowning fat seemed better than spiraling out of control in a plane or having my nuts blown off by a Chinese grenade.

 I don't really remember another thing until my physical. How I even got there is a mystery although I do remember wearing a sport coat and tie. I was put up in a hotel near the receiving center and arrived at the crack of dawn to strip to the skivvies. I made it through all the parts until I got to the real doctor at the end. He had passed everybody. Then he looked at me. "Damn that's a heck of belly scar?" ... "Yessir" ..  "Appendix?"  "Ruptured with peritonitis"  ... " damn lucky to be here"  "Yessir".   "What the hell is that leg"  "I don't know sir."   "Hmmm , I don't either so you aren't going to be sworn today."  Hell fire and damnation.

 So orders were cut for me to report to Wilford Hall, San Antonio for evaluation. I was fried and I knew it. Even some quack Air Force doctor would be able to spot a "growth".  But the prospect of Air Force food was too much to ignore; besides I was ordered. So I went. Again my memory about the day to day is weak. But I am strong when it comes to remembering the layout of the chow hall!

 My bed was in a ward of orthopedic wounds and injuries. Next to me was me. Well let's say that it was me to be. He had a compound fracture of the left tibia. He was running during basic training; he stepped into a snake hole and tripped. His leg was pinned and then it seems a pin ran through the leg's skin and was contrapped to a rope through a pulley and then attached to a weight that hung off his bed over the floor. He was @#$^ uncomfortable. They would dope him a little but he was really whacked a lot and they were slowly trying to keep him from slipping in dope fiendatry. ( Of course there is no such word but that was a word that should have been in common parlance.) The rest of the ward was composed of 8 more beds 5 to a side. A small amount of privacy was afforded by the obsequious curtain. It seemed that it was a mixed rank ward with our senior officer being a pilot-captain who was seriously injured in a seat-ejection incident. 

All being told, I was the only ambulatory on the ward. That means that anything they wanted I had leave to amble off and secure; of course this included stops in the mess hall and BX where I with my dependent ID was a welcome customer with my ward's pay. I remember four things. Let's do the good one first. The food. Being foot-loose I was able to drag myself to the mess hall. That is at 0600 when it opened, I was first in line. It closed at 0900; that's usually when I left. I stopped at the exit and opened the freezer box that was full of ice cream, 24 hours a day, and picked up a box. That's 24. Then I would make my rounds of the wards I could get into, passing out ice cream and then if there was any left I finished off the box. Less than 2 hours later at 1100 hours the doors opened again for lunch and at 1300 hours I would depart the mess hall with a box of ice cream headed for the wards finishing any that remained. Dinner was at 17:00 and I repeated the process. Just before lights out another raid would relinquish another box and in that way my ward and any ward I deemed to enter was well stocked with ice cream., always. And each of the next five days I was there, I repeated the routine. I regained significant weight.

 The second incident was serious and later comical to all but one participant.  Remember my next bed neighbor. How is it that the Air Force can fly all those high performance jets; zillions of miles have few accidents and survive most but can't buy 10 feet of good strong halyard. (That's Navy talk for lifting and lowering rope.) Well remember that rope that attached to the pin that was protruding through this air dale recruit's leg. It went up through the pulley and another pulley so his leg was held down and straight and then down to the weight ...  well it broke; at the weight, and this poor goober's leg shoots straight up in the air. He screamed. Woke half the hospital that was asleep including me. I jumped out of bed; as I was the only one that could and grabbed a hold of the rope with both hands and pulled down with all of my 130 pounds plus four days of good chow and ice cream and held on for his dear life. Some nurse-man arrived and tied the weight back on the rope; doing it right the first time would have saved us a lot grief not to mention the pain the dude was in. We went back to bed. They gave him a lot of dope that night.

  The last two are really about the same thing. Two groups of doctors came to visit. One set included every damn Air Force MD in the hospital and a few from out of town. They held group evaluations for the really strange cases. There I was for an hour, the star of  "show and tell". All questions were asked and answered. That is that they asked and I answered. I, of course, received no answers. The second was when the doctor in charge explained to me that I wasn't fit for duty even if the Russians landed on top of Seguin. I explained, patiently to the man that as every Texan of any sort of quality was well armed and did not need some air doctor to okay his right to shoot Russian parachutists. "But seriously Doc am I out" ...  "Well no way the Air Force will take you. And I doubt the Navy will either." Maybe the Army but even they aren't that hard up.  Well %^$^ me.

 That was a hard blow. Knowing that you weren't even man enough for cannon fodder. Knowing that your country doesn't need you. That's a real blow. No humorous ending. Just rejection. All the platitudes about "you missed a nasty war" they just don't help. When your country says … nope, nada, we'll pass, then you have been rejected by the whole God Damn country. I was upset. I knew that I was physically rejectable. But that surely doesn't help; God may have a future for you but to be rejected by your *&^*&  country and then to have to live every day of your life knowing that you are not fit for duty. Duty, Honor, Country and then to have to spend the rest of your life explaining why. Why I couldn't have served in some capacity I asked the recruiter. Let me do no more than teach the stupid bastards that have enlisted that can't even write their God Damn names. You will take them and not me. They can't spell Navy but can serve. I can and can't. It wasn't fair.

 I went back to school. I survived the next few months and then took another job. I just wasn't stupid enough to tell my dad. I sold knick and knacks in a liquor store. I was under age to sell liquor but I did that too. But I was really a gun-totting bodyguard. I carried a lot guns. I pulled it a few times on a number of people.  Well I must be careful here. Let's say that for the next year and a half I was gainfully employed and had enough spare cash to date and eat. My grades improved with my disposition and I was prepared to continue on to graduate school where I hoped to complete my master's degree and a doctorate.

Then in 1969 as I graduated from college, I was drafted. Holy Shit Batman; I was rejected by the service I wanted and now the Army wants me. Another cruel hoax.  I had gone to Minnesota and driven back my deceased grandfather's $100.00 car. I had severed connections to Oklahoma and home after a bizarre trip to help my parents and now I had a draft notice. What the hell! So the night before I was to report, my brother; recently returned from the arduous duty of German Military life; decided that we would play Texas Horse Collar and we played until I was seriously fucked up. I could change that word to some less odious phrase but changing the word won't change how fucked up I was.  I was drunk and in a pissing bullets mood. 

I reported to exactly the same set of assholes I had reported to 18 months earlier. Except my arrival at 06:00 was unfortunate in that I was seriously hurting from Alcohol poisoning ...  I was drunk ...  still. The good sergeant decided I was too far-gone to reason with and suggested that I flake out at his desk and go through last. "Ok by me, general".

  So for four hours I drank coffee and smirked ...  knowing full well that this charade was a waste of their time and mine. At 1000 hours I was escorted through the line. I was naked except for my thin skivvies and dropped them on cue so they could examine my anus. How would like to be in the army and the whole damn day be required to examine anuses? 

"Drop your shorts; spread your cheeks;  examine anuses!".  

I think I'd rather explain how I was a 4 F then have to explain that my arduous duty included butt hole inspections. Then I got to the piss in the bottle and man did I ever. Beer has always created from me more liquid out then ever went in. Well I filled their bottle and could have filled a few more. I arrived lastly at the desk of the doctor whose job it was to decide who passed on and was sworn and who was rejected as unfit for duty.

 I doubt it was the same doctor. This one pulled out his "accepted" stamp and started to hammer it home, when he hesitate and ask me " Do you know any reason why you are not fit for duty ... under penalty of the law." ...  " nothing … but this leg of mine"  ...  he  looked at it with distant observation and said  ... "what is it?" ..  "I don't know but the Navy didn't want me" … "We aren't the Navy!" ...  "Yes sir"  ...  "I don't see any reason to hold you back except you were drunk when you arrived and your piss as a lot of albumin."  What ever that is. "Yes sir but the Air Force said I wasn't fit to be a target."  ...  "Oh all right ... out to Fort Sam Houston for an x-ray".

 Well there I was in an Army van headed out to Fort Sam with a E-4 driver and three "brothers" who individually and collectively complained about  cotton-picking backs ( I swear it's true.)  They were hoping against hope that these maladies would somehow allow them to escape the Army. I was secretly hoping that my retardation would allow me in. 

We all lined up for x-rays and were promptly shot. We each were escorted to individual cubicle. Not really rooms, they seemed to be cubicles where all could hear what was happening to others. I think I was fourth. I remember that the doctor entered without a word; pulled the x-rays out of the sleeve; examined it briefly and slide them back in without remotely even registering that I was in the tiny room. He headed for the door and was half way out when I asked him

 " Well doctor what do think?"

 "I wouldn't give you a gun if the Russians were marching up Congress Avenue." (Austin)

 "Well Doctor you wouldn't have to issue me a gun I have three of four of my own."

 And with that I was dismissed from the Army too. Another blow; not unexpected; my disease is quoted as one in 2 million; that means there might be 150 people that have some form in the USA and little was known and this dude safely knew squat. 

I caught the bus back to the receiving center and checked in with the head NCO. I asked for a bus ticket home and he dropped the next bomb on me.

 "Well kid you ain't going home."

"Sir, I was regrettably rejected for service."

"But you arrived drunk !"

" True sir."

"I'm not a sir; asshole I’m a sergeant."

"Yes Sir, I was still drunk."

"Yes but your piss was filled with albumin."

"So  and your point is ... ?"

"Well you will stay here and piss for three days until your profile is complete."

"PROFILE? Who cares what my profile is?"

"We do!! Everyday you will piss in the bottle; three days minimum."

"This is bullshit. SIR!"

 But he had my bus ticket and it was a long walk to Seguin.

So I sat in the Reception Center on a hard bench and smoked a Camel.

 Then my E-4 driver came by.

 "Herrick, what the &^%8 are you still doing in the Center?"

"Well Spec I have been told that I will be held here to pee in a bottle by your boss for the next three days."

 "That's bullshit. You are out of here."

"Regrettably true, Spec. But that Sergeant has my bus ticket home."

 The Spec-4 walked over to the cage that held the tickets; money and vouchers.  He scribbled something on a ticket and walked back over.

 "Here Herrick; a bus ticket, now get the fuck out of here."

"Thanks Spec."

 I walked by the cage and looked in; the Sergeant was at his desk and looked up; his mouth was open to say something crappy; I waved a finger in good bye and walked out. I suspected that he would send the MP's but I wanted out. If they didn't want me then I wanted rid of them.

 About a month later I got my 4F draft card. I have no recollection of what happened to it. I must have tossed it in the trash. I was bitter that dumasses could get in but not I.

God left me having to explain; and it seemed that I have been asked a thousand times. At rodeos, vets stand up; at Eagle ceremonies they stand up; when we bury Vets and Law officers they stand with heads covered in honor and yet I am left each time to explain.

 So now finally I decided to volunteer in a hospital full of veterans. Now I have to explain even more often. And it's like a  &^%&* pain each time. But I don't apologize. I didn't give myself a rare and crooked leg. Probably I would have been killed by my drill instructor anyway; or fragged by a pothead; or drowned on a drunken liberty. I was saved for some other duty; still having to explain;  to help those that were taken or enlisted in noble or horrible adventures. I'm trying to pay a debt that is really not owed. I really don't owe anyone an explanation; I don't owe anything in reality; but I want to serve and these guys deserve my service. So I volunteer at the Veteran's Hospital; where there are real heroes and some, well maybe they are not heroes. But they served. Their country said they were good enough. And I wasn't.

And it's still okay. One Veteran's Day ...  a really tough day not to be able to wear the colors and know I'll never be buried under the flag  ... Well that Veteran's Day the volunteers worked all day to put on a good feed and show for the hospitalized veterans; I was tired at the end of the day; and one wheel chair bound Purple Heart Vet called out from his chair. 

" Hey Cowboy!!"

 " Yes Sir"

 " Thanks"

 "No Sir thank you!! "

 " Cowboy, Thanks for being here."

 I knew then that I was saved to be there that day for him.

 "But I couldn't go when my country needed me."

 "But you were here when I needed you.  Thanks"

 So I guess it came out okay ...  And I'll still have to explain  ... But now I know why.


Kent Herrick 2005

Postscript .... this veteran just past away, 2007. He had been very sick for a long time and he rides with the brave into Valhalla. Thanks Larry. 




 Kent M. Herrick, Editor in Chief, 2007 


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