Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Veterans Day Thank You to "The Real Army"

I appreciate everyone who has expressed gratitude towards veterans today, but as a somewhat veteran, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the army.

My active duty time in the army was a two-year tour at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1966-68. I had first been introduced to the army in ROTC starting as a freshman at Clemson in 1960, and I had 4 years of ROTC "Military Science" studies at Clemson before getting my commission as a new 2LT in 1964. After a year of graduate school and a year working, I reported to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. in June, 1968. After a couple of months of army schooling at APG (where they tried to teach me to be a motor pool commander), I was assigned there for a year (I thought) before being re-assigned to a motor pool in Vietnam.

At Aberdeen I worked at what was essentially a civilian job in the Development and Proof Services of the Army Material Command. There were several other 2LTs and a couple of enlisted soldiers there doing basically the same thing as the various civilian engineers were doing, except we wore uniforms. I was in the artillery ammunition section and spent two years managing various test programs for new and improved ammunition components. Some projects were quite interesting: a test of the then-new "beehive" round for close-in artillery battery defense; tests to determine the cause of recent "in-bore prematures" (shells exploding in the gun barrel) in 175mm guns in Vietnam; and reliability tests on WW2 proximity fuses that had been in storage for 20 years and were being withdrawn for use in Southeast Asia. Other projects were more routine: testing new batches of artillery propellant for actual strength so propellant charges could be produced with consistent performance; and firing new types of shells to gather data so the army could generate "firing tables" at the Ballistic Research Labs at APG, one of the first uses of computers begun back in the 1940's.

But the real benefit of my army service wasn't the day-to-day work I did. It was the numerous "extra duties" the army assigned junior officers. Some seemed routine, but all were very educational.

While in school, I served as "duty officer" in one of the companies of enlisted soldiers being trained at Aberdeen for the Ordnance Corps. I served overnight and week-end duties when the regular officers were off duty. One memorable evening included one trooper returning from the enlisted men's club with serious wounds after a fight with broken beer bottles, and another young soldier half-heartedly trying to commit suicide by cutting his wrists (sort-of scratching them actually, but there was still a lot of blood).

Later, I was assigned duty as the Central Post Fund Custodian and supervised two civilian employees who administered all the funds for the non-appropriated recreation activities on post (swimming pool, golf course, bowling alley, movie theater, etc) with a budget of several hundred thousand dollars.

I served as host officer for several days for a group of Mexican Army senior officers visiting the post. That was a fun duty. (I may still have some of the bottle of tequila they gave me--I'm not much of a tequila drinker.).

I served as Survivor's Assistance Officer for a young pregnant widow in southeastern Pennsylvania whose husband had been killed in Vietnam. I attended the funeral with a bugler from the APG post band and then spent a day taking her to the various government offices to make sure she got signed up for all the benefit she was entitled and to ensure there were no problems with any the agencies (VA, SSA, etc.) It was very heartening to see the respect the folks in those various civil services paid to her and to my uniform.

The Army expects its junior officers to perform these extra duties with a minimum of supervision, but there was always someone available to make sure you didn't screw up too much. It was a level of challenge and responsibility that most 24-yr-olds don't get.

I don't know how I could ever have gotten that kind of experience anywhere else. For that I thank the army.

The Real Army

I never got those orders to Vietnam. I spent my entire two years at Aberdeen. I say I was defending Baltimore harbor from the Viet Cong and did a damn fine job. They didn't get within 8,000 miles of the place.

At the end of my army tour there were some two dozen of us Ordnance Corps lieutenants who had entered the army at the same time and had spent our full two-year-tours at APG. We decided to have a farewell party for our civilian co-workers and military chain of command, including the post commander. We arranged a nice cocktail party and dinner at the Officer's Club, and I think a great time was had by all. (There were some adult beverages served.) At the close of the evening, one of my cohorts, 1LT Tom Watson, (an engineer from Oshkosh, not the golfer from Kansas City) stood up and said he wanted to say something about the real army.

Tom said he'd been introduced to the army as a college freshman in junior ROTC. In one of his early classes a sergeant had told his class of cadets to enjoy their junior ROTC, because when they enrolled in senior ROTC and went to Summer Camp, they'd see what the real army was like.

Tom said he had enjoyed junior ROTC. He had enrolled in senior ROTC and gone to Summer Camp. There, on maybe the first night, a captain had gotten all the cadets together in one of the barracks to explain just what was going happen at camp. He told them to enjoy their six weeks there because when they got their commissions and permanent duty assignments, they'd see what the real army was like.

Tom said he did enjoy his summer camp experience, and when he was commissioned he reported to the Basic Ordnance Officer's School at Aberdeen. There, on the first class day, a Captain had told the new lieutenants to enjoy their basic and advanced training because when that was over, they'd get permanent assignments and see what the real army was like.

Tom said he did enjoy his schooling at APG and then got a permanent assignment there as well. Early in his Aberdeen tour he had made his requisite courtesy call on the post commander, as all officers do, and after some polite chit-chat the colonel told him to enjoy his year at Aberdeen because he was going to Vietnam in his second year, and he'd see what the real army is like.

Tom said he hadn't gotten those orders to Vietnam but had spent his entire time at Aberdeen. Now he was going home to Wisconsin, and he could just see it: In a couple of weeks he'd report to his new army reserve assignment. There, on the first night, the commanding officer would call him into his office, sit him down, and say, " I'm glad you're here lieutenant. We've got some work to do. It's just you, me, and 120 new guys out there, and you and I are the only ones who know what the real army is like!"


German Magnolia said...

thank you Preston for this piece.
My son Chris opted for a military career instead of University and about broke my heart. However, he is now a CW5 pilot and earned his degree as well. I am so very proud of him and his committment. Maybe he knows what the "real Army" is but I doubt it!
I am sometimes put off by the seeming lack of support for the military family in the US, and the sacrifice they give to stay in for the long run.

Preston said...

CW5 is a lot of rank--you should be proud. When my ex-wife's son joined the army in 1991 she wasn't at all thrilled, but she was undeniably proud of him after he became an Apache pilot nine years later (and is now an instructor-pilot at Ft. Rucker.)

I think the military has come a long way to become a professional fighting force in which service is seen as an opportunity and not a sacrifice.