It wasn’t long ago I was flying out of Oklahoma City, which serves the U.S. Army artillery school at Ft. Sill, when the captain announced, “Thank you for your service,” and the civilians applauded. Every civilian except me, of course. I still get caught out by that. Back when I wore the uniform of this country, to wear it off post was risking confrontation. As if we were… what? All baby killers, as Sen. Kerry put it?
But we weren’t exactly a mature-audiences version of the Boy Scouts. More than a couple of guys in my platoon had been given a choice by a judge: “Join the Army or go to jail.”
The post in West Germany where I was stationed was an old Reichswehr kaserne (barracks) that had seen some racial unrest, typical of the early ’70s. My outfit was intelligence, and we shared the kaserne with an armored unit. We didn’t have much contact with them except in the mess hall. The Black soldiers kept to their own tables, greeting each other with a display of “dapping,” something like a riff on the Masonic handshake. The rest of us would look on, bemused.
Our unit had few Black soldiers. I knew only two, both soft-spoken guys with none of the bristling attitude of the tankers. One put me in mind of a young Martin Luther King for his measured way of speaking. He clearly had more than a bit of Bible study in him. We hung out some; he felt more comfortable going off post with a white guy. The previous unit, which had been rotated out, was notable for some race… not riots, exactly… more like rumbles. The sight of this salt’n’pepper pair strolling about town raised eyebrows among the Germans. They referred to us as the “New Troops.”
I learned a thing or two from him. Once, we were on a hike out in the woods, the Autumn light was fading, and we were a bit crossed up on which tractor trail to take back to the post. I could see the path I thought we needed to be on, but it was across a large field. It had been plowed up, but even though we couldn’t damage any crop by cutting across it, he would not. He was raised in the South and wouldn’t cross another man’s land without permission. I used to argue with him and the other fellow about “re-upping” versus leaving the service at the end of your hitch. Weighing my rhetoric against the number of Black NCO’s they saw, both of them opted to re-enlist.
The tanks would form up to sortie to their firing range in the pre-dawn gloom, their engines hammering and tracks screeching. When the armor woke up, everyone in the kaserne woke up. We worked our shifts in air-conditioned rooms listening for enemy signals, waiting for the day the balloon went up. So, there were no combat casualties in my outfit, just the usual… involving alcohol, motorcycles, suicide attempts, or some combination thereof.
One man in my training cycle met his Maker in the Land of Bad Things. He happened to be on the wrong side of the Mekong River when a Chicom 122mm rocket landed among him and a bunch of Green Berets. He’d been sent to provide signals intelligence support for the Special Forces operating there. The inter-branch trash talk was that the snake eaters hadn’t anyone who could operate a radio.
The tankers lost one man during my tour that I know of. A mechanic was working on a tank’s engine platform when another tank collided with it, cutting him in half. He was, they said, killed instantly.
Featured Image: Photo by Suzy Brooks showing a 2010 reenactment on Otis Air National Guard Base.