In the summer of 1967, having lost my student exemption a few months earlier, I was drafted into the army. At age 22, I was older than most of my fellow draftees, with most of a college education. In spite of these things in my favor, I was as uncertain about my prospects in this strange new environment as any of the other young men in my group of inductees. I was, in a word, scared.
We were harried and harassed by barking sergeants from one place to another. “Tighten up that line!” “Attention! Left face! Forward march! Halt!” Strange commands we had never heard outside the movies came in a continuous stream. We were lost and far from home, adrift in a strange new world where we knew no one and any past experiences we had had were useless and forgotten. Looking back, I can see that this was the first step in forging the bond that is the essential part of turning a bunch of individuals into a unit that can perform the impossible task of combat. By picking on us and stripping us of our civilian identities, the sergeants were turning us into US.
At the time, it only seemed that they were bent on maximizing our discomfort and proving that we were unfit for service. They nearly had me convinced that this last part was true, or at least something to worry about. I remember being distinctly doubtful that I could meet the army’s expectations, wondering, “Can I do this? Can I be a soldier.” I don’t think I actually thought about what the consequences of failure might be, I simply dreaded the prospect of failing.
Then, into all this fear and worry, came salvation. It came in the form of another young soldier, a Spec4 (Specialist 4th class) working as a clerk checking the inoculation forms of the line of men I was standing in. He wore glasses, weighed maybe one twenty, and looked like he would be hard put to even pick up an M14 rifle, much less fire one. He took my papers, checked them off against his list and handed them back. As I moved on to the next station I was thinking, “He made it through basic. He has even been promoted. What have I been so worried about? If he can do it so can I.”
That was the last time I worried about “making it” in the army, and when I left the service after completing a tour of duty in South Korea it was with a sergeant’s stripes on my sleeve. I came out of the army with the confidence that comes from a set of experiences I could draw on for the rest of my life; beginning with that one in basic training.