Erick W. Miller
“You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States” So began the letter dated 23 May, 1969. I expected it, I was waiting for it, I was as ready for it as a young man can ever be. I shaved off my beard and trimmed my greaser style hair just a little bit. The beard was of the jaw-line, tough guy style. I didn’t have a drop of hippie or protester blood in me.
My father drove me to Waukegan to catch the train to Chicago. I was a twenty year old youngster who thought he was smart, worldly, grown up, and pretty tough for my 5′ 6″ 127 pound frame. I guess that made me as dumb as any twenty year old because I sure was wrong on the first three at least.
Chicago, my hometown, looks a lot different on the streets than it does inside an induction station. The most striking thing is that there are far fewer naked men on the streets. I think the voyeurs in charge liked them young, unless they were weeding out the weak because pneumonia was a definite risk. I am color blind, so following the different colored lines in the floor was difficult and got me lost and of course, yelled at a lot.
When given the color test with the book of dots, I scored three out of fourteen. That didn’t keep me out. I was sent to the room with the traffic light test. It was the old, “red, yellow, green” answer that was drummed into my head since I was old enough to cross a street by myself. Good to go, I was in like Flint. Little did they care that if the colors had been reversed, I would still have said, “Red, yellow, green.” God forbid if I failed, the draft board might have to send their kids.
Everyone was picked on and humiliated, so I didn’t take anything personal. The air was full of excuses and whining. The guys with their mouths shut just looked around at each other. We knew who the punks were that wanted out at any cost. No problem, we didn’t want to serve alongside them anyway.
I was called up for active duty on 26 June 1969. Summer in Chicago is pretty hot. I had also lived in El Paso briefly, so heat wasn’t a problem for me. Wrong! When we wound up at Fort Polk in June, I found out what heat plus humidity was really like. And, it was rough to put it mildly. Men would pass out standing still in formation. More weeding out.
I had an experience at the reception center I’d like to share. We hadn’t yet been issued fatigues and were allowed to roam about the reception area in our civvies. I had worked construction since I was fourteen and was used to going around shirtless. Where and when I grew up, it was a common practice, especially among kids. Probably something to do with the laundry load for Moms.
Walking to a soda machine one evening sans shirt, I was verbally accosted by a middle aged sergeant with all the fat his age and garrison soldier status had built up.
“Who do you think you are, some kind of Adonis?” asked the stateside REMF. Then he backed off telling me that technically I was still a civilian and could get away with such attire a little longer. I didn’t hold it against him. The reason for his jealousy was plainly wrapped around his middle and stored in his chubby cheeks.
Several Drill Sergeants in my Boot Camp made lasting impressions on me. They were tough without being jerks. If you’ve been there, you know the jerks are out there. One in particular stood out. My Senior Drill Instructor, SDS Paul Frederic. At 59 years old, he was in top physical condition. He wore the cool shoulder patch of the Screaming Eagles too. If you ever saw someone you considered tough as nails, I promise you, Paul Frederic was tougher.
The physical part of boot camp, though grueling, wasn’t that hard for me. I was already in excellent shape and blew all the tests out of the water except for the run, dodge, and jump. I always wound up with a 499 out of 500 score. They never give extra credit for shaving time off even the 100 percentile scores.
Here’s where I get all the libbers mad. In 1969, boot camp was so tough, women would not have passed without several years on steroids, period. Now come the challenges. OK, try to run 100 yards carrying a person of your body weight in 34 seconds. Try supporting your weight 80 times on the horizontal ladder. Now do the alligator crawl 30 yards in 21 seconds. Now, this one is easy, run a mile in combat boots under 7 minutes. Remember, many of us blew those out of the water, myself included. My short legs just never got through the run, dodge, and jump fast enough for any better than 99 points. This was summer in Louisiana to boot.
The mental anguish I suffered from not having live ammo available to kill every jerk who got in my face was the toughest part for me. Somehow, I made it without getting arrested or kicked out. I had gotten used to being my own boss. Now, as an E-1, I had more bosses than, well, let’s just say that one was already way too many for my liking. I am very proud of my Good Conduct Medal and the fact that it was never rescinded.
Advanced Infantry School in Tiger Land at Fort Polk was tougher in some aspects. It was made easier for the fact that we were treated much better as long as we displayed proper respect for the chain of command which we were still very close to the bottom of.
To say Escape and Evasion training was a nightmare is like saying the ocean is damp. The night of the actual test is comparable to some of the things I later faced in Vietnam. That means it was very good training. I’d like to thank all those tough Drill Instructors at this point.
Speaking of tough, AIT is where I got a lesson on the varying degrees of toughness. I was now a whopping 137 pounds and damn tough for my size. The trouble was that most of the men I trained with were bigger. A little bigger I could handle. Here is a quick story about one I couldn’t.
I challenged a man who looked like a black version of Foghorn Leghorn. That dude was a solid, muscular, young, athletic, and, (Thank You Lord!!!) kind hearted 240 pound version of myself. The first thing this kind hearted fellow said was, “Let’s just wrestle. I don’t want to throw punches.”
That took away half of my arsenal, but it took away half of his too. No problem, right? Not this time. He taught me the lesson I deserved without killing me easily as I was convinced he could do after the next several seconds. I swear, I was making whooshing noises while flying through the air. No, I wasn’t using the aerial Karate attack. He was literally throwing me around. Very embarrassing, but not fatal. My life was in his hands. I guess you could say he saved my life by not taking it.
Now comes the big day, graduation from ALL training. Most of us had been issued orders for Korea. Most of us were disappointed. I was anyway. We were called to a formation one day rather unexpectedly. The Senior Drill Sergeant of our AIT class was at the podium with his head down, resting his face on his forearms. When he raised up, he was smiling broadly.
“Damn near every swingin dick is going to Vietnam!” he proclaimed happily. “These are the names of the men who will be assigned elsewhere” Then he read a very short list of about seven names. The fat jerk would have been very disappointed to know how few hearts he broke with that announcement. He had been a jerk for 9 weeks and didn’t let us down on our last day with any sudden personality change. What a man, pot belly and all.