Why am I Still in the Army?

by Jerry Prater

All soldiers who were drafted into the army had to serve a two year period before they could be honorably discharged. However, some exceptions existed for this rule. Some soldiers who were wounded so badly they could no longer serve were given an early out. Also, all soldiers who had less than three months left on their two year commitment when they DEROSed from Vietnam could be honorably discharged without serving their remaining time. Many soldiers considered extending their tour in Vietnam in order to get out of the army three months early, but few took the option because they just didn’t want to press their luck by serving an extra three to four months. I gave a lot of thought to extending my tour but decided to go home while I was still alive and had all my body parts intact.

I left Vietnam on May 21 and had orders to report to Company B, 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry, 2nd Armor Division at Fort Hood, Texas on June 16, 1968. I reported in to the platoon leader of the 1st Platoon, who was a tall, husky, blonde 1st Lieutenant in his mid-20s. He then turned me over to the First Sergeant, who was short, thin, wrinkled and looked old enough to have been retired for about five years. I was given a packet of documents that I had to take to a few locations to get me processed into the unit, and I was also to go to the quartermaster and obtain a new set of fatigues and uniforms. The First Sergeant told me that all of this should be completed within two days. However, when I arrived at my first in-processing location, I began talking to another soldier who was also processing into my platoon, and who had arrived a couple of days before me. I expressed my desire to get all the documents processed quickly so I could avoid any hassles with the First Sergeant or 1st Lieutenant. The other soldier told me that he had been going through his in-processing for the past three days, and he planned to continue the process for three or four more days. He also told me not to be concerned about the First Sergeant because he was a wienie that all the soldiers in the platoon talked back to, and they generally ignored him and his orders. I took him at his word, and he and I would get one stop completed each day, and spend the rest of the day roaming around the fort and staying far away from the company area. I completed my two day in-processing tasks in six days.

We had a formation at 6:00 each morning, and I had to get up prior to 5:00 a.m. to be there on time because I lived with my wife off post in Copperas Cove, a small town just west of the Fort Hood. During and after just about every formation some of the soldiers would heckle and verbally abuse the First Sergeant. I never did, and I felt very bad for the way he was treated because he had put in about 30 years with the army, including serving in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, and he didn’t deserve to be treated that way. About three or four weeks after I arrived, he was replaced with another First Sergeant who was tall, husky, barrel-chested, and looked to be in his mid-30s. He commanded respect, and everyone in the platoon responded immediately when he spoke.

About 95 percent of the soldiers in the company had just returned from their tour as light weapons infantrymen in Vietnam, and they had about six months left before being discharged. As a result, all the officers and NCOs in the Division had a lot of trouble finding things for us to do that would keep us busy, and hold our interest enough to keep us in line.

This was the summer of 1968 and one of the functions we had to perform was riot control training for possible deployment to Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Our platoon would go to an open field across the road from our company area. We would fix our bayonets on our M-14 and line up in a V formation and stand in the ready position, just like the bayonet course in basic training. Our knees would be bent, our left foot slightly ahead of the right foot, and the M-14 in the ready to thrust position. We would take one step with our left foot, then move our right foot back just behind the left foot to keep our balance. Each time our left foot hit the ground, we had to yell “HOW” for Hell On Wheels, the nickname for the 2nd Armor Division. We practiced this technique for about one hour on five or six occasions. Each time we practiced I would think that surely no one is so stupid that they would send a group of soldiers who just returned from combat in Vietnam to control demonstrators and break up riots in Chicago. As the date for the Democratic National Convention neared, we were put on full alert, and we had to leave a contact number with the platoon CQ (Charge of Quarters) anytime we were away from the company area. Thank goodness, we were not ordered to go to Chicago, but a couple of MP companies from the 1st Armor Division were sent.

Another duty we had to perform was to assist in the training of cadets from West Point who spent a couple of months of their summer at Fort Hood. Two of the cadets basically alternated performing some of the duties of the platoon leader. So, we had a lot of formations, and had to march so they could get some practical experience commanding the platoon. We also had to go to the boonies and camp out for two or three nights on a couple of occasions. They led us on practice maneuvers, and we had to fire blanks so they could get some practical experience in combat type action. After we returned to the company area, we had to clean our weapons, wash the APCs, spit shine our boots, layout all our equipment, and prepare for inspection. Oh the joy of being a stateside infantryman!

More than half of the soldiers in my platoon, as well as the company, were buck sergeants. I was a Spec 4, so I got to pull KP or guard duty at least one day every week. If I wasn’t guarding the tanks and APCs in the motor pool, I was guarding the ammo bunker or the finance building. Of course, we were not issued any rounds of ammunition for our weapons while we were on guard duty. Since I lived off post, I was not issued a meal ticket for the mess hall. I would have to pay for the meal, just like the officers, if I ate in the mess hall. Fortunately I was not charged for the three meals I ate when I pulled KP.

I can’t remember how it happened, but Larry Nunn and I were selected to serve on the Battalion Color Guard. Larry was the American flag bearer and I was a rifleman. I looked at this assignment with mixed emotion. It did keep us from having to perform some of the dull, mundane, make work duties because we had to spend a lot of time practicing, but it did put a lot of pressure on us to perform at a very high level. If you are one of the soldiers in the platoon or company formation, you can slough off a little and no one will notice. However, when you are one of four soldiers at the head of the formation, any little mistake would be noticed. We had to march in step and in a straight line, and we also had to stand very erect when we were at attention or parade rest. All the movements with the flags and rifles also had to be very crisp and precise. We had two battalion formations while we served in the color guard, and we did a very good job both times.

The longer I was stationed at Fort Hood, the more frustrated I became because I knew that I was serving no useful purpose, and all I was doing was being a burden on the taxpayers. I just couldn’t understand why the army wouldn’t release us early because all of us had already served the purpose for which we were drafted. The only useful duty I can remember performing while at Fort Hood was sitting through a two hour defensive driving film. I did go on sick call a few times in an attempt to have my ingrown toenail fixed. They cut the toenail out twice, but it grew back ingrown both times. I finally went to a podiatrist after I got out of the army, and I have had no trouble with it for the past 46 years. I also went on sick call two or three times because I felt terrible, but the medics released me back to duty with no mention of any diagnosis. I went to my platoon 1st Lieutenant after the second such occasion and asked for permission to go to a doctor off post so I could find out what was wrong with me. He told me that Fort Hood had the best doctors in the area, so he walked me back over to talk to the medics. They told the Lieutenant that, because I was a smoker, I had chronic bronchitis and they could not treat me. I told them that I would have felt a lot better if they would have told me instead of forcing me to take the matter up the chain of command.

Since I was serving no useful purpose, I was always looking for ways to get some time off. I went to the army dentist and had two wisdom teeth removed, and I got one full day off after that procedure. The army was having a blood drive, and we were told that all soldiers who gave a pint of blood would get a half day off. Naturally, I volunteered, but they refused to take my blood because I had served in Vietnam and I could have some impurities. I told them that if they thought I could have something wrong with my blood I wanted them to do a blood test to make certain that I wasn’t going to have issues after being discharged. They told me that they would not test my blood, and that they would not give me any kind of physical to determine if I may have any other health issues. Naturally, I was very upset with their attitude, but I had no option to do anything but serve the remainder of my two year hitch and get out of the army.

A little side note … I went to the VA hospital in Dallas in 1982 because my new wife wanted to have me checked for Agent Orange contamination before we made a decision on whether or not to start a family. Of course, the doctor said that there was no evidence that Agent Orange was the cause of any health issues with any veterans. However, after taking chest X-rays, they informed me that I had several pieces of shrapnel in my chest, but it posed no problem of working its way to my heart because they were surrounded by scar tissue. That’s just one more thing the army didn’t tell me when they took chest X-rays at Fort Hood.

Jerry on His Last
Day in the Army

Looking back on my experience at Fort Hood, the thing that bothered me then, and still bothers me a lot to this day, is that the army did nothing to make certain that we had no physical or mental health issues that needed to be addressed. Since we had nothing worthwhile or of any importance to do, the army should have given all of us a thorough physical examination, including X-rays from head to toe and every type of blood test available. Instead, we were criticized for going on sick call when we had health issues or concerns.

However, the biggest injustice the army did to returning infantry veterans was to ignore our mental outlook. The drill sergeants spent eight weeks in basic training and nine weeks in infantry training converting us from free thinking and acting civilians to soldiers who obeyed all lawful orders without thinking or questioning the orders. Also, during all of our morning mile runs at Tiger Land we were bombarded with rhetoric such as “Here we go, all the way, gotta kill, VC, gotta kill, VC, gotta kill, gotta kill.” After 17 weeks of preparation and one year of killing VC, I never could understand why the army couldn’t spend an hour or two twice a week for seven or eight weeks to reverse the conversion process and help us to adapt back into society. Some soldiers needed more assistance than others, and some soldiers needed little to no assistance. But, the tremendous problem was that none of us in the 2nd Armor Division at Fort Hood received any assistance at all. I consider myself as one who needed a little assistance to deal with the anger issues I developed while in the army, as well as my inability to fully accept and comprehend that I can never be drafted again. Four or five times every month for the 46 years since I was discharged from the army, I have had dreams that I had been drafted back into the army and sent back to Vietnam. In some of those dreams I’m always telling someone in the army that I am 70 years old and have already served my tour in Vietnam, and, instead of me, they should draft young men who have never been in the army. In other dreams, I’m with the platoon out on a search and destroy mission, or I’m actively involved in a fire fight. Those dreams just will not stop.

Even with all the bad experiences I had while in the army, I take great offense anytime anyone criticizes the army, or our involvement in Vietnam. I take it as a personal attack because I was in the army and I served in Vietnam. In my opinion, only those who served as infantrymen in Vietnam have earned the right to express opinions of our involvement. Also, strange as it seems, I look back on those days as some of the best times of my life. I had a hard time understanding why I felt that way, but the answer came to me when I watched the movie Biloxi Blues. At the end of the movie, as all the recruits were on the train going back home from basic training in Biloxi because the war had ended, Matthew Broderick gave this voice over commentary:

“As I look back now, a lot of years later, I realize my time in the army was the happiest time of my life. God knows not because I liked the army, and there sure was nothing to like about a war. I liked it for the most selfish reason of all: Because I was young.”