My War


by Terry Hogan


It seems like nearly every generation has its own war to deal with.  Perhaps that's a reflection of  the length of a human memory for communal pain.  I don't know.  For my generation, it was Vietnam. I remember reading somewhere that a Nam veteran wrote, to the effect, when he fought there it was two words.  I served from 1969-1971 on active duty, but in one of those rare lucky moments, I never went to Vietnam.  But I still have my story; just one recollection of millions that were touched in some manner by the war. My story is a small one. It all occurs within the confines of the United States.  I shot no one. And no one shot me.


It's a funny thing about my war.  Maybe it is the same with everybody's own personal war.  It is  35 years behind me, but it doesn't seem to be history yet. Our oldest daughter was born on an army base while I was serving on active duty in Virginia. About 17 years later,  she came home from high school and asked for some clarification on her history class.  They touched briefly on the Vietnam War.  It was near the end of the school year, and time was short.  She asked me if the U.S. had supported North Vietnam or South Vietnam.  I guess that was my first hint that it was history. 


Some years later, I had a grand niece call me.  She lives in Galesburg. She was doing a project on the traveling "Wall" when it came to Galesburg.  She was researching one of Knox College's graduates who went through Army ROTC and was commissioned as an officer.  He was assigned to, and died in, Vietnam. She went to the Knox College library and found a year book with his photo in the ROTC class.  She recognized another name in the class. It was mine.  So there she was, on the other end of the phone line, asking me about him, and about the times.  That clearly should have made it history. But it remains too vivid in my mind to be history.


Our Knox ROTC class was small. I don't recall that any of us were particularly "gung ho" for the army or for the war. For me, the ROTC program offered two advantages.  During the junior and senior years at Knox, it paid me $50/month. To put this paltry figure in today's inflation, our rent was $70/month and that included heat and water. When I worked at Butler's at nights while attending college during the day, my "take home" pay from Butler's was $84/week.  The second advantage is that I knew I'd be drafted after graduation from Knox.  With Army ROTC, I'd go on duty as an officer instead of a private - better pay; better living conditions; and when state-side I'd be able to have my wife with me.  No super-patriot here.  I was just pragmatic and trying to make the best of a bad time.


I took my ROTC summer camp in the summer of 1968, after graduating from Knox.  Normally it was taken between the junior and senior year of college, but I put it off a year and got married instead.  ROTC Summer Camp training was at Ft. Riley, Kansas.  When you are a ROTC cadet and at summer camp, there isn't a rank low enough to describe your position in the pecking order. 


It was hot and dry that summer. Most of the days topped out in the upper 90's or low 100's.   Many of the instructors for combat training were noncommissioned officers who were Nam veterans.  They had good advice for us future officers during the formal training when they were overseened by commissioned officers. They often had better advice for us when the commissioned officers were out of hearing distance.  Some noncommissioned officers simply had stories to tell.  Some stories sounded false and were probably being told by former clerk typists or other staffers, but others rang with clarity.


I recall one dark night during a calm period for a night training exercise. A buck sergeant (E-5) got to telling about the erotic feeling associated with sticking a knife in the guts of a dying "gook" and twisting it about. The look on his face when he described doing this left no doubt in my mind that he was reliving real experiences in telling the tale. He was a bit spooky. 


But, at the end of summer camp, I was commissioned as a 2d. Lt. and was instantly transformed from something less than dirt to "an officer and a gentleman".  Congress did away with the "gentleman" part while I was on active duty, if I remember correctly.  I was a member of the Army Chemical Corps.  We were probably best known for napalm and Agent Orange (the latter being a jungle defoliant that had a manufacturing byproduct, latter attributed to causing numerous health effect problems.)  After Chemical Corps branch school in Ft. McClellan, Alabama, I was assigned to Ft. Eustis, Va.  After Alabama (George Wallace was Governor then), Virginia felt like the North.  While at Ft. McClellan, the rumor was going around that missiles containing the nerve agent, VX, were leaking.  It was first noticed because of the abundance of dead birds around the secure outdoor storage area. 


At Ft. Eustis (near Newport News, Virginia,) my normal job was a "mild mannered" S-4 officer for the brigade headquarters. The S-4 is the supply side of the units.  But, my other job was the staff Chemical Officer for a re-enforced riot control battalion. This battalion had the responsibility to deploy on short notice to Washington, D. C.  to keep our nation's capitol safe from anti-war demonstrators.  We deployed several times during my nearly two years at Ft. Eustis.  We had the responsibility to defend the Department of Justice Building and the Treasury Building, if the Washington police lost control of the crowds.  


There was an old photo, perhaps a poster that was common about that time.  It showed, as I recall, a pretty young coed placing a flower (rose?) into the barrel of a rifle held by a rifleman during one of the peace demonstrations.  Having been on the rifle-carrying side of the setting, I can assure you that no young pretty coed offered me a flower.  Instead, these well-intended college students, many a year or two younger than me, were calling us about every possible obscene name and making unkind comments about our mothers.


It was a difficult time for me.  As an officer, I had the responsibility to implement certain commands, but my subordinates fell generally in one of two groups, neither of whom felt particularly inclined to follow the orders.  Generalizing, of course, many (probably most) of the young draftees were very sympathetic to the antiwar position advocated by the demonstrators. I don't recall meeting a draftee that wanted to be sent to fight in Vietnam.  On the other hand, the career noncommissioned officers (NCO's) (think sergeants and specialists), felt personally attacked by the demonstrators, and not without some justification.  These NCO's wanted to wade into the demonstrators and "break heads".  Thus, you had the draftees who might not act if ordered to, and the NCO's who might act even in the absence of orders. 


The Vietnam war protestors,  unlike those who oppose the current Iraq war, did not make a  distinction between opposing the war and the soldiers who fought the war..  Vietnam antiwar folks, for reasons that I still don't understand, generally held the soldiers accountable for the war. They hated the war and the troops.  No distinction was made. To this day, some 30 years later, I will not stay at a Ramada Inn because of the treatment my wife and I received by the hotel staff at an Inn in Missouri.  Although I wasn't in uniform, the military haircut made it obvious, and  we were about as warmly received as a inter-racial couple at a KKK meeting.


But on to my minor claim to historical fame.  While on riot control duty in Washington, D.C. (fondly known as the Military District of Washington by the military), I was assigned as a liaison officer at the Military District headquarters.  While there, attending a Dr. Stranglove-like briefing, the commander wanted advice on the best use of water from fire trucks and tear gas to prevent the anticipated rush on the White House by the demonstrators. I slunk in my seat, but a major next to me saw my Chemical Corps insignia and offered me up as an expert. I thought back to my 3 months of Chemical Corps training and didn't recall any training about the defense of the White House.  Instead, I had learned how to make Napalm and to make and set booby traps in the field and in the cities. So, I recommended using water first, as I recalled that tear gas (actually a very fine powder) was hydrophilic, so I offered up that if the demonstrators were wet first, the tear gas would stay with them longer. True? I don't know.  The demonstrators never attacked the White House and neither water nor tear gas was used there.  But tear gas was commonly used during the demonstrations.     


In fact, one of my own enlisted men, violating strict orders that I issued, started messing around with a backpack tear gas dispersion unit (looks very much like a WWII vintage flame thrower), and he pressurized a tank containing tear gas.  That was his first mistake.  The second mistake was that he had cross threaded the lid to the tank where the newly pressurized tear gas was located.  The third mistake was he did all this while the battalion commander (a Lt. Colonel) walked by. Instantly, the commander disappeared in a localized "snow storm" of tear gas powder.  Once the commander recovered and changed uniforms, he made it REALLY CLEAR to me what would happen to me if that ever occurred again.  Needless to say, the message was carried down to the enlisted man.  He didn't have spare time to mess around with his equipment for quite some time after that.


Back in the peak of Vietnam, mortality rates were so high for "company-grade" officers (lieutenants and captains), that a second lieutenant would generally be promoted to first lieutenant in one year and a first lieutenant would be promoted to captain after one year.  For the ROTC officer who "only" had a two year active duty commitment, there was a saying when asked how long he was in the army:  "I got out the day before I 'made captain'."


To this day, I believe the country still has open wounds concerning the Vietnam War. Neither the antiwar nor the so-called "citizen soldiers" (non-career) have come to terms.


I suppose that is why I am still surprised that the US finds itself in another war, bogged down, with no clear statement of mission or a clear definition of victory.  It smells too much like Vietnam, only at least we're not blaming the troops this time.