Memorial Day: Long Ago In Basic Training

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington, VALong ago in the summer heat of Fort Bliss, TX, I joined the Army’s Third Training Brigade, Third Battalion, Company A. It was a basic training unit and for many of the 200 or so trainees it was the last stop before Vietnam.

Basic Training In The Desert Sun

Getting to Fort Bliss — 1,700 square miles of desert, cactus, rattlesnakes and tarantulas set amid some of the harshest real estate in the country — had not been easy.

Ten or 12 National Guard recruits including me had left Washington, DC in the summer of 1966 for Fort Knox, Kentucky. We were supposed to spend three days at the reception station getting shots, uniforms and haircuts not far from the famous gold bullion depository. Three days became ten and then the Army announced there was no room in a basic training company for us at Fort Knox and we would be sent to Fort Bliss, TX, a desert base largely located in New Mexico.

Reaching Fort Bliss turned out to be a problem because our plane crashed. The Army had hired a four-engined prop plane from maybe Trans-Tragedy Airlines, probably the lowest bidder. After a few minutes in the air you could look out of the left side of the plane and see one of the propellers. That was easy because it wasn’t moving. You couldn’t see anything out of the right side because it was on fire.

It turns out that when a plane is fully loaded with fuel you don’t want to land it. We coasted on the air currents 11,000 feet over Fort Knox, the official dumping zone, spraying fuel to lighten our load. The fuel evaporates in the air and never reaches the ground, but I imagine some on the plane would not have objected to such a result. We actually could see the reception area and the gold depository, though at the moment thoughts of nice touristy photographs were perhaps not first on our minds.

Finally we limped back to the airport. From the sky you could see the fire trucks and ambulances as well as what appeared to be large numbers of priests. We approached the runway, a lit torch in the air, and the front landing gear did not come down, a real worry when trying to make a three-point landing…. The pilot alit on the rear wheels with a huge thud — I thought the wheels might go right through the cabin. We bounced skyward, the jolt of the impact caused the front wheel to come down and then we skidded down the runway to the Army’s private terminal with medics and clergy everywhere.

That night the Army put us up at the best hotel in Louisville, demanding we not to tell anyone what happened on the grounds of national security. To us it just seemed someone had screwed up. Badly.

The next day, on a jet, we flew to Fort Bliss.

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor those who died in the service of their country. But while we’re at it we ought to honor those didn’t die, those who made it home to be with family and friends, to live out their lives.

Part of that recognition should be in the form of promised medical care for those who need it. Today we read about massive delays in the VA system, delays which at best are unfair and at worst have literally cost people their lives.

Twice in the past decade or so we have gone into wars that could not be won and for which there was no justification. We did this on the backs of a volunteer military, the less-than-one-percent of our population in uniform. We asked our people to go to far-away places over and over again — and then we defaulted on the medical care we promised.

It doesn’t matter what political beliefs you might hold there’s a moral obligation to support those who served. If we’re going to send young people to war — and those are the people by-and-large we send — then we must honor our commitments upon their return. If that means we’ll need to spend a lot of money to give the care we promised, that’s fine. If it means we need to end a tax loophole or two to cover such costs that’s okay.

After Basic Training

After my training at Fort Bliss I returned to Washington and was involved with military intelligence (G2) while most others in my training company went to Vietnam. To them and to all who served much is owed.

The active draft ended under Richard Nixon, an act undertaken to derail the protest and civil rights movements. We no longer have an draft (though we do register males as they turn 18), instead we ask good people to volunteer for military service… and then renege on our obligations and promises.

We can do better, much better — and we should.

Today I believe we must bring back the draft, not because that’s a popular choice but because when every household in America has something at stake we won’t to go to war so quickly and therefore there will be fewer service members with war wounds and fewer still who are killed. The draft should include without exception everyone: men and women, the rich and the poor, the lame and the agile. Those who do not want to enter the military can serve in the modern equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps developed under Franklin Roosevelt.

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