World War I . . . World War II . . . Korea . . . Vietnam . . . Iraq . . . Afghanistan.
Twentieth-century wars and conflicts.
For my generation, it was all about Vietnam.
In the spring of 1968, friend Dave McCormick, then a nineteen-year-old college sophomore from Dobbs Ferry, New York, received his notice to appear for his pre-induction physical.
In those days, the Vietnam conflict and a military draft were very much facts of life and the prospect of being selected to be sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia was terrifying.
“I went down to lower Manhattan,” Dave recalls, “to Whitehall Street. We were given physical exams and all these forms to fill out about our health history and our family and things like that. And one of the questions was: ‘Are you a homosexual?’
“Now at that time I did know, in my heart, that I was. I hadn’t really accepted the fact, but I certainly knew what my preferences were. I was conflicted about admitting it but the sergeant who had distributed the forms repeatedly stressed that all our answers should be honest.
“I didn’t want to lie, so I checked the box admitting that yes, I was a homosexual. It took some courage.
“After a little time, the sergeant called me to the front of the room for a private word.
“‘Is this a mistake?’ he asked and when I said it wasn’t he informed me that I’d have to see the psychiatrist. I did. That psychiatrist asked me again, ‘Is this true? Are you a homosexual?’
“When I answered that I was, the psychiatrist told me that it was my ticket out of military service. ‘We don’t accept homosexuals,’ he said. And then he stood up. ‘You realize you’ll be out of the service but you’ll never get a job in this country again. These records are going to follow you wherever you go. No reputable firm will want you.’
“Then he paused and tapped the papers on the desk. Finally he said ‘I’m going to give you a few moments to think about it. If you have any doubts, you can remove this statement from your form and no one will ever say anything.’ And then he left me alone.
“When the psychiatrist left I was totally bewildered, and indeed intimidated. I was facing my entire future and I certainly didn’t want any hopes of a career ruined.
“So I altered the form, erased the admission and started a US government job on a lie.”
Welcome to the army.
Now sixty-five, Dave smiles and recalls that immediately after this disguising of sexual preference, he was ushered into an auditorium where an enormously fat and physically repulsive sergeant addressed the about-to-be soldiers.
“I remember,” said Dave, “that this grotesquely fat guy with a disgusting pimple on his nose and a front tooth missing was talking to us and going down a list of things that was of concern to the army. ‘Are you heterosexual or homosexual?’ he asked. ‘You all checked heterosexual because you’re here now. What’s a homosexual? Well, a homosexual is someone who’d rather be up here on stage now kissing me than to be kissing Marilyn Monroe.’
“I turned to the guy next to me, a total stranger, and said, ‘I guess I’m straight.’”
Dave went through eight weeks of basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and toward the end of that period, the war’s emphasis shifted to jungle combat. The writing was on the wall. And indeed on October 15, 1968 he was on his way to Vietnam where he was to stay for 366 days and where he was one of the few to serve on the front lines for eleven and a half months.
“Our division, the 25th, saw a lot of combat,” he recalls. “Our company went out on 80% of the missions—the heavy stuff, two to four times a week. No showers, canned food, no clean clothes. It really got nasty out there. And frankly, before all this started to go on I’d asked myself how I could mentally survive. And you know, it was my mother’s sense of humor. She never missed a beat and I tried to look at things from her perspective.”
About the same time, I was living in Washington, DC, and received my own notice to appear for a pre-induction physical. I remember the real panic I felt as I crowded onto a bus that would take me and others similarly chosen out to a military base in Maryland to see if we were physically qualified. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my country or wasn’t willing to serve it. I just didn’t want to end up dead quite yet.
Fortunately for me, because of a long documented history of asthma and allergies, I failed the physical and was classified 1-Y. That meant that I would only serve in the military in case of an out-and-out war and that if so, I would be restricted to a desk job. Vietnam was considered a conflict—not an out-and-out war.
When I asked Dave about the most difficult aspect of his time on the front lines he answered that it was the uncertainty of it all. “Coming to terms with not knowing if your group was going to make it through the night was the biggest issue. That, along with trying to keep yourself mentally stable. You had to understand that you might never get home again and you had to be comfortable with that if possible.
“Of course,” he continued, “the camaraderie was extraordinary. You met up with people you thought you had nothing in common with and discovered that if you allowed yourself, you could really connect with them. You discovered that you had this bond.”
In A Walk on the Sidewalk, the book Dave wrote about his experiences in Vietnam (available from Amazon), the most extraordinary chapter tells the story of one particularly frightening mission.
Smack in the middle of a jungle swarming with enemy troops, his company was ordered on a march in the middle of a particularly dark night. He writes:
That’s just great, I thought! Let’s see, we’re walking in the middle of a known enemy territory. There’s a chance I might be shot by one of our own men. A B-52 strike is about to happen soon, with a likelihood of hot bits and pieces of flying scrap metal landing on me.”
By 2:30 AM my entire body was overcome with exhaustion. I had been up and without rest for nearly twenty-four hours. . . . Using the coverage of darkness, I considered getting rid of some of the supplies I had been carrying. . . .
My exhaustion turned to alarm when I saw well over half the stars were now covered by an enormous bank of clouds. What little light we had remaining from the few stars I could see would soon be covered for sure by a second bank that was rapidly moving in. Sensing my concern and knowing the very valid danger of moving in absolute darkness the captain spoke, “Mac, we’ve got to keep on the move. Stay in touch with all units. Hands on shoulders if necessary. No one fires without my orders. Understand? No one! We can do this. . . .”
Come on Dave, I thought. Keep it together. Don’t lose it now . . . . But it was so very dark and I truly could not see where I was going.
By a curious intervention of fate, however, things were to change rapidly.
“The boots, the boots, check out the boots!” one of the other men cried and indeed all the boots of the company were miraculously glowing with some kind of luminescence. The soldiers were able to follow each other without problems.
“Surprisingly, no one talked about the boots,” Dave wrote. “I couldn’t say for sure what happened to us on this particular mission . . . if you believe in fate, well then perhaps what took place on that night was nothing more and nothing less than what was supposed to have taken place.”
Dave shares many other stories in his book and it’s obvious that there are also many he chooses not to share, stories perhaps too painful to recollect.
“There’s rarely a day that goes by without me thinking about Vietnam and the war. I don’t harp on it, but it comes up again and again.”
On October 15, 1969, Dave was in the process of leaving the army. His military obligation was fulfilled and he was headed home to Dobbs Ferry. And that was the day of the Vietnam War Moratorium, the massive demonstration against the United States involvement in the war when millions of people around the world were singing John Lennon’s new song, “Give Peace a Chance.”
By some quirk of fate, on the following day, October 16, 1969, the underdog New York Mets won the World Series and after all the sorrow italicized by the moratorium, the city responded with abandon.
The “Talk of the Town” in the New Yorker of October 25, 1969 brilliantly contrasted the two days in an essay which concluded emotionally:
In the distance, from the direction of Times Square, we could still hear rhythmic shouts of “Mets! Mets! Mets!” But as we passed in front of the Library, we still heard from behind us those hoarse voices . . . telling over the names of those who, if things had been better managed, might well have been among the shouters and the jubilant litterers—might have been on hand to celebrate the glorious victory.
Gay or not, Dave served his country and came home to a world that often did not appreciate his contribution.
“People didn’t seem to understand,” he said. “Sometimes it seemed as if they didn’t even know there was a war going on. And there were plenty who criticized me for taking part in a conflict they didn’t approve of. Sometimes I even denied I was ever in the service.”
I asked Dave if he thought that there were lessons to be learned from Vietnam and he grew noticeably pensive. “We got involved in Vietnam for the wrong reasons—reasons that not everybody agreed on. Yes, we as a country should certainly stay strong, but that wasn’t the way to go about it.
“Funny,” he added, “we’re not the same country anymore. The lessons from Vietnam are no longer so important.”
Perhaps the most valid comment on that period in history was made by a fellow rejected recruit as he boarded the bus I was on to return to Washington all those years ago.
A heavy-set black guy with a big smile, he stood and looked around him at a sea of all white collegiate faces.
“You know that hearing test they gave us?” he announced in broadcaster tones.
“I didn’t hear shit!”
The bus exploded in applause, laughter, and congratulations as everybody rushed to shake his hand.