I started college, without much enthusiasm, in the fall of 1967 at the University of Richmond, Virginia. I dropped out in the middle of my sophomore year, in delayed culture shock after having spent most of my childhood in Japan. My academic advisor had talked me into taking ROTC the first year, but I dropped it in order to take a journalism class during my sophomore year. Journalism and German were the only two classes I had any interest in that semester. My German professor called me to ask why I didn’t bother to show up for the exam. (The only exam I showed up for was a required religion class, “The Bible as History,” which I had prepared for half my life, not just half a year.)
Something similar happened to three out of four childhood friends of mine from the Southern Baptist missionary community in Japan. All of us who dropped out ended up in the military, one in the Navy and two in the Army. In Virginia, at least, conscientious objector status was only granted to those who belonged to established religions that espoused pacifism. You couldn’t personally pick and choose which–if any–wars you cared to fight in.
My father was raised a Quaker, but became a Baptist, and spent World War II on a ministerial deferment at the University of Richmond, graduating in 1945. Four of his five brothers–likewise Quaker-raised and Baptist-converted–served in the military, the youngest in the Navy during the Korean War. (He visited us in Japan.) None was an officer, none died, and none really talked about what he’d been through.
The same goes for my mother’s two brothers, raised Presbyterian in the Shenandoah Valley, who enlisted for World War II. One spent his time in B-17s out of Thule, Greenland, protecting convoys in the Atlantic. His plane went down near Bermuda in 1945, losing half the crew, but he managed to survive after several weeks in hospital. The other served in Co. A, 314th Infantry, 79th (Cross of Lorraine) Division through Normandy and the Vosges, then across the Rhine, and finally into Czechoslovakia. He was a very taciturn man, and never talked about the war, not even to his wife, until he attended a D-Day anniversary in Normandy in 1994, when he broke down and wept.
The tradition goes back even further. Two great grandfathers fought in the Civil War, on the wrong side. I’m very glad their side lost–and I’m even gladder that they both survived. In each case their last battles were against Gen. Custer. One, a private in the 45th Virginia Infantry, was taken prisoner after Custer’s flank attack at Waynesboro in February 1865, the last battle of Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. The one in the 11th Virginia Infantry was WIA in April 1865 at Five Forks, where Custer helped turn Lee’s flank and drive him out of Petersburg. I’d love to know how each of them reacted when they heard about Custer’s death at Little Big Horn in 1876.
Among the three of us baby-boomer agemates from Japan who enlisted, only one ever saw combat–the one who joined the Navy, oddly enough. Enlisting in the Navy was one way to minimize direct exposure to hostile fire, although it required four years on active duty, rather than the two-year minimum required by the draft. Unfortunately, the Navy man ended up guarding ammo depots in Cambodia in 1969-70, where he suffered lifelong disabilities after leaping out of a guard tower during a firefight and shattering his ribs and spine. Vietnam has defined the rest of his life.
The two of us who ended up in the Army enlisted specifically for a noncombat military occupational specialty (MOS). The other friend became a radio technician and spent most of his enlistment at Ft. McPherson, Georgia, where he helped record the Calley trial. He went on to become an award-winning TV producer and pioneer in High Definition TV.
After taking a battery of aptitude tests, I enlisted in April 1969 with a contract for language school because there weren’t any openings in journalism. (Army reporter Al Gore enlisted in August 1969.) Of the 8 languages on my list, the Army in its wisdom picked number 7, Romanian. Kurdish was number 8, but that probably required Special Forces or CIA status. I chose languages that would keep me in school for 9-12 months of my 3-year enlistment. I started with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Russian–but avoided Vietnamese and Southeast Asian languages.
Language school helped turn me toward linguistics and away from journalism. Thanks to the GI Bill, work study, grad assistantships, and a variety of part-time and full-time jobs, I was able to finish a doctorate with only $2,000 in student loans, which I paid off early. On balance, I’d have to say the Army did more for me than I did for it.
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